The Big Ten NEEDS Protected Rivalry Games

Big Ten fans can expect to see a lot less of this. - Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last few years, some of the best Big Ten rivalries have only been played once due to scheduling issues. With Maryland and Rutgers soon joining the conference, things could get much worse.

This July, the Big Ten will be adding Maryland and Rutgers to the conference. Depending on your view, this is either going to be a positive or a negative. However, regardless of the opinions, the one thing that is certain is that these two schools will soon be in the Big Ten. This means a lot of changes to not only things like branding, recruiting and TV rights, but also major implications for the major sports. The media has been projecting how the two schools would fit into the conference since they decided to join, but one thing that has been largely swept under the rug is the impact the additions will have on scheduling.

This is something that is going to impact all Big Ten sports, but since this is a basketball site, we are going to stay dedicated to basketball. With two more teams, that means at least two games are going to have to be dropped to add these two additions to the schedule. If you're excited about seeing the Terps or the Scarlet Knights in action, maybe you view this as a positive. If you value the "traditional" Big Ten games, maybe you view this as a negative. The fact once again is that the two schools are joining for better or worse and fans are going to have to be prepared for the coming changes.

With this in mind, let's go through a few quick basics. First, Big Ten basketball currently plays 18 conference games and then are seeded into the Big Ten Tournament (BTT). The BTT is going to be pretty simple to change. The conference has already stated they are simply going to add two more games. Essentially, instead of the #3 and #4 seeds getting byes, they will now have to play #13 and #14 in the conference. Honestly, I don't think anybody will have a problem with this. It adds more games at the end of the season. Plus, it's not like the conference tournament means all that much for the top seeded teams anyway.

However, the regular season scheduling is going to undergo some major changes. Right now, Big Ten teams face all 11 opponents. They face 7 of these opponents twice (double-plays) and 4 of these opponents once (single-plays). This will be undergoing changes into next season. Instead of playing 7 teams twice, the Big Ten teams will now be playing just 5 opponents twice and playing 8 opponents once. That is literally doubling the number of teams that qualify as single-plays.

This may not seem all that significant, but the Big Ten has already been impacted by some of the effects of this scheduling. The legendary Indiana-Purdue rivalry was only played once this season, the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry featured just one game, and the interesting games of Ohio State-Wisconsin and MSU-Wisconsin were both only played once. If there was a poll ranking the most watchable games in the Big Ten every season, it's hard to imagine any of these games missing the list. Instead of seeing each of these games played twice, fans only got the luxury of seeing these games once.

However, perhaps the people most impacted are the ones who actually buy tickets and attend games. Maybe this isn't the majority of Big Ten fans, but it is certainly a sizable amount. Just look at Indiana, who missed out on hosting arch-rival Purdue at home. Michigan got the same short end of the stick when they missed out on playing their arch-rival Ohio State at home. Those are not only entertaining games to watch, but they are big tickets for anyone that is a fan of that respective school. Even in down years, fans will show up for these games. Look at Purdue's crowd for the Indiana game. It would certainly be a big hit to Purdue's fanbase not to have that game at home.

These of course are still just general statements. Let's take a team example and play out how the scheduling changes could impact them. Let's take the Wolverines. Michigan has had some recent success and though they may not be as hot of a ticket as someone like Duke, they can certainly pack an arena on a given night. Let's look at their schedule this season:

Michigan 2013-2014 B1G Schedule:

Double-Plays

Single Plays

Indiana

Illinois

Iowa

Northwestern

Michigan State

Ohio State

Minnesota

Penn State

Nebraska

---

Purdue

---

Wisconsin

---

Overall, this schedule is not too bad. The only thing that jumps out at you is losing that second Michigan-Ohio State game. There's no doubt that most people would rather see that game over Michigan playing Nebraska or Purdue and probably Minnesota as well. This was also particularly bad for Michigan fans this year considering that the game was not in Ann Arbor. However, let's look at what a projected schedule for next season could look like for Michigan.

Michigan 2014-2015 Projected B1G Schedule:

Double-Plays

Single Plays

Iowa

Illinois

Minnesota

Indiana

Nebraska

Maryland

Rutgers

Michigan State

Wisconsin

Northwestern

---

Ohio State

---

Penn State

---

Purdue

In making this schedule, I looked back at recent double and single plays for Michigan. This is not a baseless projection. In fact, it is probably going to look pretty similar to this next season. The only big question marks were Maryland and Rutgers. I just split them between single and double play to make it fair. All the double plays are teams that Michigan has recently played in a single-play. All the teams in the double-play actually had a double play with Michigan this year (excluding Rutgers), but it was the first one in awhile, so it seems unlikely they will lose that rotation next year.

Once you realize this schedule is pretty realistic, you can appreciate how terrible the scheduling could be for Big Ten teams next year. It's pretty hard to project where teams will be next season, so let's just use this year as a gauge. In this projection, Michigan would get 2 double-plays against tourney "locks," two double-plays against bubble teams, and a double-play against a horrid Rutgers squad. The rest would all be single-plays. Michigan would also have no double-plays against any rivals. It seems unlikely both MSU and OSU would be on the road or at home in the same year, but there's a solid chance you're only looking at a couple home Big Ten games that are really high level games.

Sure, maybe this problem is a little bigger for Michigan than others. That could absolutely be true, but I think as fans start to see those schedules next year, they are going to realize that this is a much bigger problem than most expected. Whatever your opinions of the regular season, it's tough to argue that the Big Ten's regular season is not great. There are exciting games constantly and marquee matchups all the time. Starting next year, these types of games are probably going to become a lot less common.

So what's the answer? There are a lot of different theories out there, but one that seems to be the most logical is creating some protected rivalries in the conference. This could guarantee that teams at least get those double-plays against one or two teams they consider rivals. The one issue that has arisen out of this is that it could create lopsided scheduling. For instance, being slated against a top end program like Indiana or Michigan State is going to be a lot tougher on a yearly basis than facing a team like Penn State. However, there are two answers for this. First, you're talking about 1-2 more difficult games a year with protected rivals than without. In fact, it's impossible to predict whether it would be tougher or not if the schedules are indeed randomly created. Next, teams are going to want to play their rivals twice. It will create marquee games, tickets that can sell, and will keep the fanbases engaged. Nobody wants to see Michigan-Nebraska over Michigan-MSU.

Another option that has been proposed is to schedule rivals as non-conference games. This could certainly work, but what does that say about the Big Ten if conference opponents have to schedule each other as non-conference games? Frankly, I think it would be a pretty strong statement against the conference's scheduling system. Maybe others view this differently, but part of the non-conference season is supposed to be about facing unusual opponents. Teams that use odd systems whether uptempo, zone, or slow. Teams that you don't see in the conference season. Are we going to get rid of this just because we need a "balanced" schedule?

This is a problem that may not be receiving a ton of attention, but it is coming. Maybe over time fans will get used to this proposal, but I wonder why fans should be forced to get used to a policy that creates uninspiring matchups for the concept of "balanced" scheduling that in reality will be anything but balanced. If the Big Ten really believes teams would sacrifice rivalries for balanced scheduling let the schools decide.

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