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UMass deal with MAC not good for basketball

UMass redshirt sophomore forward Maxie Esho, left, and redshirt junior guard Chaz Williams talk following a time out against East Carolina in the first half of the Minutemen's 88-81 win over the Pirates at the Mullins Center on Saturday.
KEVIN GUTTING

UMass redshirt sophomore forward Maxie Esho, left, and redshirt junior guard Chaz Williams talk following a time out against East Carolina in the first half of the Minutemen's 88-81 win over the Pirates at the Mullins Center on Saturday. KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

To upgrade the football program to the Bowl Subdivision, the University of Massachusetts had to make the deal it did with the Mid-American Conference.

While the jury is still out on how the football marriage between the Minutemen and MAC, the basketball clause in the deal isn’t good for the basketball programs.

UMass is required to annually play four nonconference men’s and women’s basketball games against MAC teams for the duration of the football program’s time in the conference. Every program wants to avoid scheduling games people expect you to win that are very possible to lose. Playing four MAC games a year means almost a third of the nonconference schedule will be against teams that fit that description.

When Temple was in the MAC for football, the Owls had the same scheduling deal, one they were pleased to get out of by joining the Big East.

“It’s a lose-lose. The travel is bad. The schools are difficult to get to and they’re hard to play against,” said a member of the Temple athletic department, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “If you beat them, nobody gives you credit and if you lose, people think it’s a bad loss.”

From the 2006-07 season until last year, the Owls averaged one loss a year to a MAC team. Even though Temple was better on paper than most of its MAC opponents during that stretch, the Owls went 4-0 in only two of those seasons.

The Minutemen caught a break this year. Ohio, which is one of the best teams in the MAC, came to the Mullins Center. But even though the Bobcats reached the Sweet 16 last year, they didn’t exactly light up the ticket window as the Mullins Center was over half empty.

Northern Illinois, which the Minutemen barely beat 64-59 on Saturday, entered the week ranked No. 322 in the ratings percentage index according to ESPN’s RPI simulation. UMass never would have scheduled that game. A home win against schools UMass has played in recent years — like Central Connecticut (No. 190), St. Francis (143) and Quinnipiac (214) — would have done less damage to UMass’ computer resume than NIU. Wednesday’s game against a 5-6 Miami (Ohio) team should be a win on paper for the Minutemen, but the RedHawks are 4-0 at home and always play well there. UMass never would have scheduled a game there given the choice.

It’s one thing to play a bad conference team. The NCAA tournament selection committee will cut teams some slack because you can’t control the strength of conference opponents and you can’t avoid playing them. But even though UMass has to play these MAC teams, just playing Northern Illinois will be held against it because the game is treated like any other nonconference game.

The travel is tough too. It’s comparable to playing St. Bonaventure. Direct flights from Hartford to airports closest to MAC schools are unusual and in many cases, the school isn’t close to the airport. Longer trips means more money spent, less time in a classroom, less time in the gym and more fatigue once you arrive.

It makes sense for the MAC to insist on the agreement because there’s no real drawback for its members. For teams lined up to play UMass, it’s just one game out of their schedule. Many of the schools have a hard time getting home games against decent opponents. Getting one against Temple was a banner event and getting one against UMass is still pretty good.

UMass coach Derek Kellogg has been a team player and toes the company line. When the deal was announced, he praised the MAC as a strong conference and said that nonleague scheduling is often difficult and this makes it easier to get games.

But while he can’t say it, he has to know that it hurts his ability to create a schedule that suits the needs of the team he has from year to year. While the veteran Minutemen are good enough to be competitive in almost any situation this year, what happens down the road when they have a young team trying to learn on the fly? The ability to schedule a lot of early home games last year helped that team come together. That wouldn’t have been as easy if they’d been flying to Ypsilanti, Mich. and Munice, Ind.

It could get worse. The Atlantic 10 has talked about the possibility of going to 18 conference games in the future, which would eliminate two nonleague games.

Once all the dust settles from conference realignment, it would make sense for UMass to approach the MAC about an adjustment in the deal. Two games against MAC teams would still be tough but more reasonable.

Four is simply too many.

GAMES OF THE WEEK: Ohio State at Illinois, Saturday, 2:15 p.m. — The Big Ten race figures to be a dogfight from now until March. Despite being early, this game could have a big impact on conference tournament seeding.

Oklahoma State at Kansas State, Saturday, 1:30 — If any team can dethrone Kansas as the Big 12 champs, it’s probably one of these two.

Temple at Kansas, Sunday, 4:30 — The Owls already boast a win over Syracuse. Could the Jayhawks be next?

New Nickname Please: Hofstra — The Long Island school went from having one of the more unique nicknames — The Flying Dutchmen— to one of the more forgettable ones — the Pride.

If returning to the Flying Dutchmen, a move favored by many alumni, can’t happen, there’s plenty of history on Long Island that would lead to better nicknames. The Anglers, the Express (both for the highway and the legendary storm in the 1930s), the Swordfish and the Blue Claws would be a good start.

Christopher Walken attended Hofstra, as did Francis Ford Coppola. The Cowbells? The Corleones? Fun, but not likely.

MY TOP 10 — 1. Duke, 2. Michigan, 3. Louisville, 4. Arizona, 5. Indiana, 6. Kansas, 7. Syracuse, 8. Minnesota, 9. Illinois, 10. Gonzaga

For the rest of my Top 25, visit the College Hoop Week Guide at gazettenet.com/Blogs/UMassSports.

ODD — On Wednesday, UMass will play a Miami (Ohio) for the second time this season. The Minutemen played Miami (Fla.) on Dec. 1. Both schools have a player named Reggie Johnson.

ON THE ROAD TO — A Big East final between two schools that won’t be in the conference in 2014.

Information from personal interviews, newspaper articles and sports information releases was used in this report.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Follow UMass coverage on Twitter at twitter.com/GazetteUMass. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.

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