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The A10-MW Challenge

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It’s official: The MW embarks on a new challenge with the same goal.

Earlier this month, I took a look at some of the scheduling issues that the MW was struggling with and how to address them.

Now, it’s official, there will be an A10-MW Challenge beginning in the 2020-21 season.

There are some obvious benefits to the challenge, both as a scheduling move and a basketball move. For scheduling, it’s a definite win for the MW. Since the 2013-14 season, each conference has had its share of success in getting teams in:

A10/MW NCAA Tournament Bids By Season

BIDS BY SEASON A-10 MW
BIDS BY SEASON A-10 MW
2013-14 6 2
2014-15 3 3
2015-16 3 1
2016-17 3 1
2017-18 3 2
TOTAL 3.6 1.8

The challenge is a win for the conference as a whole, but not everyone sees it that way. There has been some internal insurrection against the challenge, most notably from Aztec head coach Brian Dutcher, per the San Diego Union Tribune.

“I can get a Pac-12 team instead of playing an A-10 team, and I don’t have to travel three time zones to play them. Some teams in the conference that are in tough locations have a hard time getting someone to play them. For the conference, I can understand their point of view, that it’s good for some teams.”

The Aztec coach has a point, because teams like Nevada and San Diego State have been able to schedule tougher games, getting into non-exempt events like the Maui Invitational, the Basketball Hall of Fame Classic, or the Wooden Invitational without the conference. Just this season, Nevada backed out of a game with Rhode Island, because they felt like their schedule was tough enough already.

The flip side is that everyone in the conference already schedules everyone it can out West. For instance, multiple West Coast Conference teams have played anywhere from three to five MW teams already. In order to earn some national currency and boost their metrics, they have to go back East. True road games are what separates strong mid-major leagues and teams from mid-majors with gaudy, but deceiving records. Both of the leagues need each other, just not every team in their respective league needs this challenge.

In that vein, the A-10 is the conference with flexibility for scheduling, due to the fact that the A-10 is three teams larger than the MW, 14 to 11. There is still no concrete schedule or rotation of games yet, but the rumor mill and official statements suggest it will be a myriad of factors including conference ranking, NET ranking, and preseason projections. Unless something drastic happens, the top tier in the MW is going to back to the East Coast at least once. Optimistically, this adds incentives and help teams to double-dip or find multiple games for a road trip, because the travel for these games will be steep.

For MW basketball followers that thought travel for Missouri Valley games was rough, get ready for a more of the same, if not worse, for the A-10 games. Just a sampling if we were to match the top three teams in each conference for travel:

  1. Reno, NV (UNR) to Providence, RI (URI): 2,842 miles
  2. Boise, ID (BSU) to St. Bonaventure, NY (SBU): 2,214 miles
  3. Albuquerque, NM (UNM) to Davidson, NC (DC): 1,634 miles

Traveling to play these games is a big deal, because the NET rankings weight any victories that road teams collect as “extra”. According to KenPom advanced metrics, ten of the top fifty “home court advantages” are either in the MW or the A-10. Additionally, between the two conferences, home teams win over 60% of their games. Basically, the numbers and the eye test will reward these conferences for playing these games. It’s a long way to go for one game, so hopefully athletic departments are able to find extra teams and games that make the travel worth it.

As a basketball fan, it presents an incredibly interesting stylistic match-ups and similarities. On average, A-10 teams played a slower game, tempo-wise, than most of the Mountain West did last year. Both VCU and New Mexico play a faster tempo game with full-court pressing action. Air Force and Davidson both have methodical, well-executed offenses that slow the game down and wait for opposing weaknesses to expose themselves.

On the basketball fan note, both leagues have television contracts with CBS College Sports and ESPN. In fact, the A-10 announced earlier this year an expansion of rights to their ESPN deal. For the MW, some of these challenge games will stay on CBS College Sports, the flagship for the conference, but it will push some of their games into desirable East Coast-friendly time slots. The MW is sorely in need of games with favorable tip-offs for national exposure, long a complaint of programs all around the conference.

Overall, the challenge puts the conference in a good position going forward and allows for some flexibility if it doesn’t work out. The league is doing its part to build a tougher schedule, and this challenge only helps.