The travel schedule for the men’s basketball team has started to wear on the players, said coach Chris Lowery.
“It’s not always about the game,” Lowery said. “It’s about being able to come back that night and the next day being able to practice and being able to be in your own bed.”
The Missouri Valley Conference picks the conference schedule, so SIU had almost no say in how its schedule looked from Dec. 27 to the end of the regular season, said athletic director Mario Moccia.
The problems with the conference schedule started immediately for SIU. Lowery said when the Salukis came back from the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii Dec. 26, they had one day of practice before they went to Evansville Dec. 29 and subsequently lost 78-60.
Moccia said the conference schedules are drawn up by the MVC with help from each of its member schools. The dates for conference play to start were Dec. 28 to 29, and Moccia said he let the MVC know SIU wanted a home game at the later date due to its trip back from the Diamond Head Classic.
Moccia said the MVC helped SIU as much as possible by putting the Salukis on the later game, but the only one available was an away game at their nearest conference rival.
“We would love to get a home game on (Dec. 29), but I don’t control that, the league controls that,” Moccia said. “That was one of the rare times where we would have input on the games, but we sure didn’t get what we want. I guess we got half of what we wanted.”
Lowery said the schedule really piled on during a week-long stretch Jan. 15 to 21 when the team lost on the road to the Missouri Valley Conference’s top two opponents, Creighton and Wichita State, with an overtime loss at home against Drake sandwiched between the two.
“It’s hard to practice. We’ve had two three-day trips in a week,” Lowery said Jan. 23, two days after the 85-42 loss to Wichita State. “It was pretty clear that we were tired from the beginning (against Wichita State).”
The MVC sends out suggestion forms to each of its member schools in August, Moccia said, so the conference knows what each school is doing during the basketball season and how it would prefer its schedule to pan out.
The Valley has to deal with those suggestions from all ten member schools with men’s basketball, so Moccia said it is almost impossible to make a schedule that works for everybody.
Sports information director Tom Weber said the conference has a locked-in 18-game schedule for basketball with start and end dates, Dec. 28 to Feb. 25 this season.
Moccia said the assistant coaches do most of the work to organize non-conference games with area teams and non-conference rivals. Moccia was involved in the scheduling of a few, such as the Nov. 15 contest against Saint Louis University.
Moccia said he focused on SIU’s presence in national tournaments, such as the Diamond Head Classic, this season.
“For our long history of making the tournament, playing on ESPN, we got to be a known commodity,” Moccia said. “Certainly, we have dipped from a performance standpoint since the days we were making regular appearances on (ESPN), but we’ve maintained our network with them.”
SIU is locked into a two-year contract to appear in tournaments hosted by ESPN such as the Diamond Head Classic this season and the Charleston Classic next season.
Moccia said networking with schedulers and promoters such as ESPN and other organizations helps land the Salukis in tournaments or other televised special events, such as when SIU held its first game in the new SIU Arena against Northeastern Nov. 16, 2010, as part of ESPN’s 24-hour basketball marathon to start the season. Moccia said he called Ann O’Conner, a former events scheduler for ESPN, and pitched her the idea of opening the new SIU Arena on national television.
“She said they only had the 9 a.m. game, but on the main network,” Moccia said. “I took it to campus, and said here’s the opportunity, but they said students were in class. We kind of weighed that stuff for a two-hour commercial on national TV, and the institution thought it was a good deal.”
Moccia said the national TV appearances don’t always have a significant payout for the university, but SIU usually has its travel and food expenses paid for, along with the added promotion of playing for millions on TV.
The school almost lost money when it entered the 2K Classic in 2008. Four teams, SIU, Duke, UCLA and Michigan, played in the nationally televised tournament in Madison Square Garden, but there was a preliminary round when the four teams played two other teams to decide who played in New York.
SIU hosted the University of Massachusetts and Division II California University of Pennsylvania. Moccia said the university worked out a deal with the tournament promoter to give the promoter a portion of the season ticket and regular ticket sales for the two games in return for the chance to play on ESPN.
With SIU down 15 to UMass in the first half of its Nov. 12, 2008 matchup, the chance to go to New York was slipping away.
“That cost us about $90,000. You know how bad I was sweating it when we were losing to UMass by 15?” Moccia said. “Once we advanced, they paid for our travel and hotels, which is expensive in New York, and we were guaranteed two nationally televised games. It was worth the risk.”
The tournaments help add games to the NCAA limit of 29 games per season. Tournaments are considered “multi-team events,” which means they count as just one game on the schedule, even though a school can play several games in a tournament.
Moccia said even though the school has some control with its non-conference schedule, scheduling, as a whole, is a headache.