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Big Ten *Finally* Appears to be Heading Toward Protected Rivalries

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The ESPN report should make fans happy.

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Purdue Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last few years, BTPowerhouse has vocally and continuously complained about the Big Ten’s regular season conference scheduling. And, in particular, the league’s refusal to protect rivalry games. It’s been a recurring theme on this site.

As fans will recall, every Big Ten team currently plays 18 regular season games. With 14 teams in the conference, that means five double-play opponents (twice during a season) and eight single-play opponents. It’s far from a balanced schedule, but with conference expansion, playing every conference opponent twice is simply impossible.

However, as stated above, I have one significant problem with the Big Ten’s scheduling: The Big Ten’s refusal to protect rivalry games. That’s because, instead of ensuring that matchups like Indiana-Purdue and Michigan-Michigan State are played twice every season, the league has opted to schedule games randomly between league opponents. It’s a policy that has taken much of the sizzle out of Big Ten conference play.

For some, this issue may not be a significant one. After all, if you’re a fan of a school like Maryland and Rutgers, you probably don’t even have a league rival yet. Some sparks may have started to fly between Maryland and Penn State, but calling that series a rivalry at this point is probably a bit premature. Either way, it’s just not something that’s high on the priority list for some fans.

But, for many fans around the league, the rivalries are a crucial part of every season. They’re premier games that get fans and teams excited, attract local media attention, and, most importantly, sell tickets and get people watching on TV. It also creates great environments for when key recruits visit campus.

For perspective, just ask any basketball fan from the state of Indiana or Michigan about rivalry games. Things “feel different” when the calendar turns to rivalry week. In those states (and many others), college basketball suddenly goes from a side-topic to a major area of discussion when the rivalry games approach.

However, instead of tapping into that energy and passion, the Big Ten has opted to go with the “fair” method of a random schedule generator. In theory, it should even things out, but it also means that teams don’t get two guaranteed games against a rival.

This creates situations like the ones fans saw two seasons ago, when Indiana and Purdue both played Nebraska twice, but only faced each other once. And where Michigan faced Penn State twice and Michigan State faced Rutgers twice, but the two in-state foes only played once.

Yeah, not exactly a schedule that will get fans excited.

And perhaps the most excruciating part of this scheduling arrangement is that it doesn’t even lead to balanced schedules. For example, Maryland got gifted with an insanely easy conference slate last season, despite this random scheduling policy. Here’s what I wrote about it in my Maryland season preview:

In other words, the Big Ten has been punishing its fans for years in the name of “fairness” without even achieving its intended goal. It’s also cost itself a lot of publicity and attention as well, considering that these rivalry games would have easily drawn more attention than matchups like Nebraska-Purdue and Michigan-Rutgers.

But fret no longer.

Because it looks like the Big Ten is finally learning its lesson.

According to a report from ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg, it appears that the Big Ten will finally be moving to protect rivalries in the near future. It may not effect next season, but it looks like it will start by the 2018-’19 season.

For all the reasons stated above, this is outstanding news for fans. It’s going to give some teams will have tougher schedules, but it also means that the Big Ten is going to put its best foot forward to fans and the media. The Big Ten has been watering down its product for some time and this should help alleviate that problem.

Of course, the biggest questions regarding this news will be regarding the extent of these protected rivalries. Is the Big Ten going to give each team a protected series, or will it just be for a smaller group of teams? Do teams have to opt into this program? There are a lot of questions yet to be answered.

As I have previously written, my proposal would be a simple one. Create a “Rivalry Committee” at the Big Ten level to evaluate and monitor rivalries. Make it a group of media members, former players, and former coaches and give them a power to create a running list of the Big Ten’s basketball rivalries. They can then determine which rivalries are protected and update it on a two or three-year basis.

There are a few advantages to this method. First, it means the Big Ten doesn’t have to go through the painful process of creating rivalries for teams that don’t need them. Look, whether Maryland and Rutgers fans want to hear it or not, they don’t need protected rivalries. Maybe something develops down the road, but manufacturing rivalries for teams like that makes no sense.

Additionally, by avoiding the “rivalry manufacturing”, the Big Ten will also be ensuring that the protected rivalry count stays as small as possible. Instead of one or two rivalries for every team in the league, maybe this means one protected rivalry for half the teams, or maybe even less. Either way, it helps to keep the schedule moving and a regular rotation of conference opponents.

Finally, the thing that I like most about this approach is that it will adjust to new rivalries and those that fade. For instance, maybe Maryland and Penn State do evolve into legitimate rivals down the road. The committee can then add that to the list. There’s no reason the protected rivalries should be locked into their 2017 status.

Guaranteeing rivalry games won’t solve all of the Big Ten’s scheduling problems, but it’s a great start. And, if this report is accurate, fans should start getting excited about what should be coming for the league in short order.