June 6, 2012
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – It’s like solving a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, scheduling these days in major college basketball.
Marshall’s just-announced four-season series with Morehead State – renewing a neighborly rivalry after a five-year break – is welcome because the one-hour trip between campuses on I-64 is about as team travel-accomodating and fan-friendly as you can get.
It also ranks third in most-played Herd series (94th game this season), behind only those with Morris Harvey/University of Charleston (117 meetings) and Ohio University (98 games). And those involved in the scheduling from the Kelly green-and-white side said it was a nice surprise getting the deal done.
For Coach Tom Herrion’s third Marshall season in 2012-13, however, there could be more surprises when what will be a 30- or 31-game schedule is eventually finalized.
“Let’s face it,” said Jeff O’Malley, Marshall’s associated athletic director and chief of staff who works with Heriron and assistant coach Mark Cline on scheduling. “The overall goal is to schedule yourself so you can get an (NCAA Tournament) at-large bid.”
The Herd came close in 2011-12. It had the highest number in the Ratings Percentage Index (43) for any team that didn’t make the NCAA’s 68-team bracket. Marshall’s schedule was its best in history – with an overall RPI strength of schedule of 16, and an impressive No. 4 in non-conference difficulty, behind only Long Beach State, Duke and College of Charleston.
All of that only landed Herrion’s hoopsters an NIT No. 5 seed and tough road trip (and a loss) to Middle Tennessee. But that’s history, and as Herd men’s basketball rebuilds toward national relevance – it’s been a quarter-century since an NCAA berth – crafting the kind of schedule that helps is a goal.
Last season, Marshall played 16 games against teams ranked in the top 58 of the final RPI. Half of those were non-conference dates.
O’Malley also said a “soft” goal is again 18 home games at the Cam Henderson Center. MU had 17 last season, when it played one game short of the NCAA maximum overall because the Herd couldn’t wrangle a home-and-home from a comparable mid-major.
Morehead State is a welcome addition, for so many reasons, but there’s a lot of schedule negotiating still to be done.
O’Malley said he had gone back-and-forth with Eagles AD Brian Hutchinson for a few years on continuing the I-64 series, but it didn’t work out.
That all changed when Morehead hired former Kentucky guard Sean Woods away from Mississippi Valley State as the Eagles’ coach, replacing Donnie Tyndall – who left for the Herd’s Conference USA foe, Southern Mississippi.
O’Malley renewed contact after Woods was hired, saying that “opened the window.
“I have to admit I was surprised how easily it came together,” said O’Malley of the renewed series, which will resume with a Nov. 28 game at the Henderson Center. “I was very excited about it, as was Tom. I think fans on both sides are excited, because they can back-and-forth easily to see the game at either school. It’s a win-win for both schools.”
The Morehead State deal gives Marshall six non-conference dates so far.
The Herd will play Cincinnati (Nov. 15) and West Virginia (Dec. 5) at the Charleston Civic Center. Marshall faces UNC Wilmington (Dec. 1) in a return game from last season, and also goes to Akron (Dec. 29) and Ohio (Jan. 5) after the two Mid-American Conference teams visited Huntington last season.
O’Malley said Marshall is still hopeful of landing one of those early season NCAA exempt events that will produce four home games. The Herd also is talking to “high-profile opponents for a road game,” similar to the so-called “buy” that brought Marshall a $100,000 guarantee for going to Syracuse last season.
Marshall is “trying to bring in a quality opponent that will help our RPI and balance out the schedule,” O’Malley said.
Think an Iona-type foe. The Herd paid $70,000 to get the Gaels (No. 40 in the RPI) in a no-return date last season.
“That could change depending on who is in the exempt event, if we get that done,” O’Malley said. “We’re looking for home games to finish it out. We’d really like to try and start a home-and-home series with a quality opponent who would be competitive to help our RPI. You’d like to bring in somebody that would help sell season tickets. That’s another goal.”
With 16 conference games, six non-league games to date and the potential for four exempt games, that leaves a maximum of five openings for the Herd – ideally for a high-profile road game, the start of a home-and-home series with a competitive mid-major (think Atlantic 10, Missouri Valley, Horizon League or Colonial Athletic Association level), and three buy games at home.
“If we had the chance to go home-and-home (over two seasons) with a good Atlantic 10 team, we’d do that,” the Marshall associate AD said. “We want a high quality opponent like Belmont was last year (for a one-season home-and-home in December). It wasn’t a name a lot of people knew, but it was a really quality team (No. 58 RPI) and those were two good games for us.”
After the coming season, Marshall has contracts with two teams – the three remaining games with Morehead State (at MSU in 2013-14 and 2015-16 sandwiching a game at Marshall in 2014-15), and two games left in a four-year deal with Akron (there in 2013-14 and back in Huntington the following season).
O’Malley also said there is “nothing right now” when asked if it was possible the Herd might be playing a non-league date this season with one of the pending C-USA entrants, like Old Dominion, Charlotte or FIU.
“It’s hard,” O’Malley said when asked how much more difficult scheduling has become. “It’s always been hard. Tommy and Mark do most of it. Tommy has done a great job building our schedule. We all talk just about every day on who’s doing what, where we are. We each have our own contacts … but you get a lot of “no’s.”