Balancing Act—How The ACC Squandered This Year’s 18-Game Schedule
Today is February 13th, the eve of Valentines Day and a day away from the middle of the shortest month of the year.
It's also marks the first time UNC will face Duke this ACC season. It will be the 11th conference game for both teams, nearly two-thirds of the way through the league's first 18-game conference slate.
While the first Duke/UNC matchup's delay until mid-February is irksome, it's not the worst offense this year's conference schedule commits against those of us like myself who remember the pre-expansion, round-robin days. No, a look at how the schedule breaks down for all 12 teams highlights some pretty glaring examples of scheduling imbalance. A situation the ACC offices, in my opinion, need to address for future seasons.
But first, a couple of caveats:
- I've never attempted to schedule a 12-team league schedule crammed into two months. If my math is right, that's 108 games that need homes on the calendar. I acknowledge that it's a supremely difficult task, and don't purport that I could snap my fingers and instantly make it completely fair, only that this issue needs examining and improving if possible.
- I understand that television plays a very large role in how the schedules are created. Television (and by TV I mean ESPN, essentially) pays a tremendous amount of money to the league for "product," and as such, they naturally prefer to slot prime matchups to fit their pre-existing events (such as Rivalry Week this week. Aside: We play only one game during Rivalry Week this year—Saturday, against Virginia Tech. Yep…)
With that said, here's what needs a-fixin':
In an 18-game schedule, Game 10 is the midway point. The ideal scenario would involve all 12 schools playing the first game of their home-and-away matchups prior to Game 10, the second in games 10-18. Each school plays seven teams twice (14 games) and single games against the remaining four teams, so two of the single game meetings would fall in the first half, two in the second.
Among all 12 teams in the ACC, not a single team achieved the ideal, playing the first game of all seven home-and-aways prior to Game 10. There were three teams—Georgia Tech, NC State and UNC—that got close: GT played only one team twice in the first nine games; State and Carolina each only played one team twice in games 10-18. These three teams played the closest to what would be considered a "balanced" schedule.
More commonplace were teams that played one of their home-and-aways in both the first half and the second half of the season. A total of seven teams—BC, Clemson, Maryland, Miami, UVA, Virginia Tech and Wake all fell into that boat.
Then there are the real egregious offenders: the schedules of Duke and FSU. Florida State played two teams twice in games 1-9 and two in games 10-18, a total of four imbalanced home-and-aways. In fact, both of the home-and-aways in the first part of the Seminoles' season were played within a timespan of 25 days, all in the month of January. And Duke played an incredible five imbalanced home-and-aways—5/7ths of their entire H/A schedule either fell before game 10 (Wake, State) or after (BC, UNC, VT). The Blue Devils will meet the Hokies for the first time on Feb 21st, then again 12 (!!!) days later on March 5th.
This kind of imbalance in the scheduling presents a problem for the league concerning the natural ebb-and-flow of teams over the course of a season. Teams that hit the court the first weekend of January rarely look or perform that same way come March, due to injuries, player growth, player regression, lineup adjustments, etc.
Imagine if James Johnson, coach of the Virginia Tech Hokies, were to find out that Ryan Kelly—out for the bulk of the conference season—was slated to return to the Duke lineup following the Devil's game against Maryland…just in time for your first meeting.
Or let's say Brad Brownell somehow gets Clemson to find itself in the back half of the year after struggling early—only to see two games against undefeated Miami looming down the homestretch.
These kinds of scheduling anomalies, while seemingly minor, have the potential to have a real impact in the ultimate conference standings and fates of some of the league teams, particularly those like Maryland and Virginia trying to keep or earn their way into the NCAA Tournament discussion.
The shame of it is the 18-game league schedule held real potential to achieve the kind of balance in the schedules we haven't seen since the league began expanding. Instead of having fewer home-and-aways (5) than single-game meetings (6) as it was previously, the H/As this year outnumber the single meetings seven to four. And in terms of allowing more of the league to play itself twice instead of only once, those extra games do add some more balance to the equation.
But the league office had a real opportunity to capitalize on this moment and get the closest to a round-robin schedule the ACC has seen since the old nine-member league. By not striving for that, it seems they're content with the additional home-and-aways simply being "good enough." The fact that a team like Duke plays two schools twice before the midway point and three teams twice after is seemingly of little concern.
Then again, perhaps I'm heaping too much of this scheduling blame at their feet. Perhaps I'm naive believing what I'm told, that the ACC offices are ultimately in charge of scheduling when in fact it's ESPN pulling all the strings to fit the league schedule to meet their needs, "balance" be damned. That the first Duke/UNC game comes the week of February 13th and not the first week of the month makes it pretty clear that—at least with respect to their two games—ESPN wants to maximize every ounce of buzz they can from this first meeting.
It just stinks any way you slice it. In a perfect world, I would've liked to have seen Virginia Tech face a Ryan Kelly-less Duke the last week of January, when Erick Green was averaging 30 points per game and Duke was still adjusting to Kelly's absence. Perhaps the outcome would've been the same, but as it is now—with Duke surging even without Kelly and VT on a seven-game skid as Erick Green is showing signs of the fatigue that comes with carrying a team all season—an upset bid by the Hokies seems all but impossible.
I guess "them's the breaks" as an old-school fan of the ACC. And with Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame on the verge of joining the league, I guess fretting over what could've been in a 12-team league with an 18-game schedule is rather useless at this point. Instead, we can expect even more scheduling inequity in the future when the number of home-and-aways drops from seven to four, where the ebb and flow of the league's 15 teams will play an even larger role in the final conference standings.
If you'd like to see a spreadsheet of this year's ACC schedule with the imbalanced home-and-aways denoted, click the spreadsheet image below.