Rooney: New Pac-12 scheduling standards will challenge CU men’s basketball

Tad Boyle’s Buffaloes required to improve nonconference slate

Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Tad Boyle and the Buffs could be playing local rivals less in the future.

Farewell, Illinois-Chicago. Sayonara South Dakota. Fare thee well, Portland.

And, yes, the time has come for Colorado basketball fans to bid adieu to such intrastate matchups as Denver, Northern Colorado, and Air Force. That list could very well include Colorado State as well.

This past week, the Pac-12 Conference CEO Group of presidents and chancellors approved stern nonconference scheduling regulations for men’s basketball, a reaction to two consecutive seasons in which the Pac-12 sent only three teams to the 68-team NCAA Tournament. Four of those six entrants failed to win a game while 2019 regular season champ Washington was eliminated in the second round.

For a so-called power conference, it has been an embarrassing shortcoming. By instilling new nonconference scheduling regulations, on top of the move to a 20-game conference schedule beginning in 2020-21, the league hopes to bolster its all-around strength of schedule and NET rankings to be better equipped to send larger contingents to the Big Dance.

For Colorado, the challenge is as much necessary as it is daunting. Prior to last season, head coach Tad Boyle said his program had reached out to most of the other programs in power basketball conferences — the Big Ten, Big 12, Big East, SEC, and ACC — in hopes of beginning a home-and-home series. According to Boyle, all of them declined.

There were mitigating factors in that failure. Due to previous scheduling commitments, the Buffs needed the first game of those potential home-and-homes to occur in Boulder. And coaches aren’t stupid. They know CU generally has been formidable at home under Boyle, and the young team Boyle has been putting together was likely to be an even tougher foe in 2019-20, when the Buffs would have returned the visit for those potential home-and-homes.

Still, given the bulk of potential solid mid-major opponents skewers towards the east, and the Buffs’ struggles in bringing quality competition to Boulder, the new Pac-12 regulations present a sizeable hurdle. One of the major stipulations is that each Pac-12 program must put together a nonconference schedule in which the five-year trailing average of the opponents’ NET rankings is at least 175.

As reported previously, last year’s nonconference schedule would not have made the cut with the likes of UIC (211 NET), South Dakota (230), and Portland (326) highlighting the early home slate. Only two CU opponents ended on the positive side of that 175 threshold—San Diego (98) and Drake (132) — with Omaha (178), New Mexico (191), and CSU (193) languishing just on the other side of that standard.

The new Pac-12 regulations all but ensure the Buffs’ matchups against local rivals like Rodney Billups’ Denver Pioneers (324 NET), Northern Colorado (167), and Air Force (244) will be few and far between. The same could be said of Colorado State. The Buffs visit CSU next season, but only one other matchup is guaranteed in the rivalry. Unless the Rams’ power ratings improve, the annual CU-CSU showdown will be shelved. Given the matchup hasn’t exactly strained the turnstiles in recent season — last year’s game at the CU Events Center drew just 7,887, which turned out to be just the fifth-highest crowd of the season at CU — Boyle and his staff will be more focused on padding the Buffs’ power rankings than appeasing local hoops fans.

Going forward, expect the Buffs to sign up for more showcase events in the quest to keep the squad’s nonconference schedule up to league standards. That practice already will be put into play next season, as CU has dates set against Arizona State in the Pac-12’s annual game in China (which will be played as a nonconference contest) and against Dayton in the annual Chicago Legends doubleheader. The Buffs also will play four games as part of the MGM Resorts Main Event, two of which will be in Las Vegas.

The collective NET average of CU’s nonconference foes last year was 205.4. Among the four confirmed opponents for next season, the average NET from last season is 105.8. That tally doesn’t include the two games in Vegas, which likely will be against a pool of teams that include Clemson (45 NET), TCU (47), and Wyoming (323).

Of course, meeting the new scheduling standards will be much easier for programs like Arizona, UCLA, and Oregon than it will be for Oregon State, Washington State, and even the Buffs. But for the Pac-12 to continue to compete nationally with college basketball’s big boys, it’s a necessary challenge.

Here’s hoping it leads to a few more raucous matchups at the Events Center instead of a steady stream of South Dakotas and Portlands.