It is August 12, 2015. Basketball season begins (at least unofficially) in approximately 76 days, and we have yet to see a non-conference schedule for the BYU Cougars.
This kind of lengthy delay is a little strange. After all, many teams have already released their non-conference schedules — including several of BYU's opponents. Some even released them as early as June. However, the wait is by no means unprecedented in Provo. In fact, the Cougars' 2013-14 schedule wasn't unveiled until August 15 of that year.
So while anxious Cougar fans probably won't have to wait much longer — the full slate of games should be announced any day now, according to KSL's Greg Wrubell — it's worth taking a deeper look at why such a delay can sometimes occur. The answer is wrapped up in the idiosyncrasies of modern schedule-building — a complex and delicate dance that had BYU still searching for one final game to complete their calendar as recently as one week ago.
The sausage that is a college basketball team's schedule is made in a varied and rather fascinating way. Coaches have a difficult job of piecing together the right games against the right teams at the right times in a process that's not unlike a massive jigsaw puzzle. You can't play too many top teams, because you still need to actually win games and don't want to risk crushing a team's confidence. But you also can't play too many creampuffs, especially when you're a BYU team that has relied heavily on a strong RPI and difficult schedule to punch an at-large ticket to the NCAA tournament in recent years. You also need to get enough games at home for financial reasons.
The pieces need to fit together just right, making the crafting of a properly balanced schedule much more an art than a science — and while much has been made about the difficulty of scheduling football games, with 30-plus games a year to book, coach Dave Rose and (especially) his staff deserve a medal for figuring out how to walk that fine line year after year.
Of course, just over half of those 30 or so games will be assigned by the team's conference, so there's not much work to be done on that front. And obviously every team has their perennial opponents that they can count on playing virtually every year without fail (for BYU, that's Utah, Utah State and Weber State), which provides a fairly dependable foundation upon which to build. But the rest of the non-conference slots (approximately eight to ten games) often have to be filled in by assistant coaches — in BYU's case, associate head coach Tim LaComb — scraping together the best schedule they can.
Oftentimes, this process relies on a mixture of "guarantee games" (where you pay a small school a nice sum of money to come to your gym and let your team beat the tar out of them) and more traditional home-and-home scheduling series (where teams agree to play one game on each school's home floor, usually in successive years). We've seen plenty of both in Provo recently — think Eastern Kentucky and Prairie View A&M for the former, and Stanford and UMass for the latter.
But how do these arrangements between seemingly random schools actually come to fruition?
The answer is, frequently, a little website called Basketball Travelers. The company bills itself as "America’s leader in organizing exciting, memorable, and unique tours and tournaments for college and high school teams and their fans," but it also hosts a scheduling board where Division 1 coaches can post about dates where their team needs games and what types of opponents they're looking to play. Then, through the boundless beneficence of Basketball Travelers and the magical power of the Internet, they can connect with some coach from a small D-III school in Backwater, Wherever USA who's willing to trot his team out for a beatdown on just that date in exchange for a nice check.
Sounds pretty simple, right? It's kind of like that giant "ride board" that (I believe) still hangs in the basement of the Wilkinson Center to this day — only, you know, it's been successfully used by non-weirdos more recently than 1994.
But alas, even with the aid of the Basketball Travelers board, scheduling is not always so easy — especially when you're looking for a high-quality opponent. And BYU's recent struggle to finalize their 2015-16 slate provides the perfect example.
On March 26, immediately following the conclusion of the Cougars' season, LaComb began posting on Basketball Travelers in search of two new home-and-home series for 2015-16 — one to start in Provo and one on the road.
It seems the road-first series may have been locked in rather quickly, because LaComb posted about it only once more on May 4, specifying that the Cougars were looking to play the away game on December 12. He never posted about a need for road games again, indicating either the program changed direction or (more likely) a deal was struck.
But the home-first series proved more problematic. After his initial post on March 26, LaComb posted to Basketball Travelers seven more times over the summer looking for a home-and-home to start in Provo with a game from November 19-24, with the exact date fluctuating slightly with each successive post.
By June, LaComb began expressing more urgency to secure an opponent. "[BYU] Needs to start a Series at Home on Nov 20 or Nov 25," he wrote in a June 2 post. "Motivated to get this done."
But as motivated as LaComb was to find that last piece to the Cougars' non-conference puzzle, they weren't willing to settle for just any old dog — at least not yet. They wanted a quality, RPI-boosting opponent. On June 25, LaComb posted again. "BYU is looking to start a H/H with a Top 100 RPI in Provo. Will return the game in 16-17. Nov 19 or Nov 21. Please contact with interest." In another post five days later, on June 30, the bar was raised even higher. "Seeking a top 75 RPI," LaComb clarified.
And yet, no dice. Finally, on August 4, just one week ago, LaComb posted one last time — and this time, the standard of opponent had been lowered considerably. Not only was BYU no longer specifically seeking a Top 100 RPI team, but they were now open to either starting a home-and-home series as mentioned in the previous posts or, in a new development likely driven by difficulty finding a top-level team willing to travel to the unfriendly confines of the Marriott Center, paying for a "guarantee game" to be played on November 21.
LaComb never posted again, suggesting that he found what he was looking for — likely a guarantee game against a lesser opponent to occupy the Cougars' last remaining hole, and thus finalizing the 2015-16 schedule.
Further corroborating this theory is the fact that LaComb's Basketball Travelers posts were deleted from the site on August 11, providing a very strong indication that his work is finished. That indication was confirmed by a source close to the program, who told Vanquish The Foe that the schedule is indeed complete and set to be released this week.
Unable to screenshot any of LaComb's now-deleted posts, here's a look at the site's board in general, with coaches' phone numbers and email addresses redacted:
So what should we take away from LaComb's epic scheduling odyssey? What should we learn from this message board-fueled saga?
Most importantly, fans should understand that scheduling college basketball games is really, really hard. In this case, BYU's staff worked for nearly five months just to secure a game that will most likely be scoffed at as "early season filler" and "a waste of time" by many. To be sure, it's unlikely that every game requires that kind of long-term attention, but it's certainly worth keeping in mind that even the unexciting contests — the Eastern Kentuckys and Prairie View A&Ms of the world — can require a great deal of hard work and persistence to become a reality. That effort deserves more of our collective respect that it has received previously.
And secondly, the BYU faithful should have an even more healthy appreciation for the outstanding work being done by Rose, LaComb and company. After seeing the difficulties that coaches will endure to schedule one (likely) creampuff game in November, after getting a tiny glimpse of how the scheduling sausage is made, it should put everything else in perspective.
The fact that the Cougars have consistently assembled challenging schedules with loads of high-caliber opponents over the past several years — again, schedules without which the team almost certainly would not have qualified for the tournament in multiple seasons — is a testament to the quality of their work, not only on the court and the recruiting trail, but also back in the office.
Recruiting top athletes to play at BYU and willingly live the Honor Code is hard. Managing a roster where you constantly lose a third of your players for two years at a time is hard. And yes, getting quality programs to schedule a "dangerous mid-major" like the Cougars (and maybe even visit Provo) is hard too. But Rose and his staff have proven time and again that they can do these hard things — and do them well.
That kind of track record deserves and demands our respect and admiration.