The Bottoms Line: Why Aren’t More College Basketball Teams Playing Non-Conference Road Games?

Maybe it was the sheer volume of annoying “Road Test Saturday” promos I saw a couple weekends ago, but I started to wonder why the notion existed that playing non-conference road games was worthy of such special billing.  After doing some research this weekend, I no longer need to wonder.

What I found is a staggering lack of road games for college basketball teams from major conferences.

College Basketball’s Dearth of Non-Conference Road Games

Through Sunday’s games, teams in the six “BCS” conferences have a combined record of 552-212.  However, just 122 of those 764 games (16 percent) have been true road games.  In fact, major conferences teams are an ugly 57-65 in games held on their opponents’ home floor.

indiana-kentucky-victor-oladipoImage credit: AP Photo/Darron Cummings via Crimson Quarry

Given that there are 74 teams within those six leagues, that averages out to 0.77 road wins per team and just 1.65 road games per squad.  Thirty-four of those 74 teams have played one or fewer road games, and eight of them have played none.  To look at it in a slightly different way, just 14 squads have taken more than two road trips through more than a month of the season.

As if these numbers didn’t seem bad enough, factor in that 24 of these road games were part of the Big Ten/ACC and Big East/SEC Challenges where the teams essentially had no choice in the matter.

In addition to the lack of quantity, there is also a lack of quality road victories for these teams, which shows that many of the road games being scheduled aren’t actually that challenging in the first place.

Here’s a quick rundown for each conference:

Overall Record Road Record Road Winning Pct. % of Road Games % of Wins from Road Games Best Road Wins (Pomeroy)
ACC 83-40 9-14 39.1% 18.7% 10.8% #86 Nebraska, #96 Oregon
Big 12 78-19 7-3 70.0% 10.3% 9.0% #19 BYU, #45 Virginia Tech
Big East 129-39 11-12 47.8% 13.7% 8.5% #1 Wisconsin, #29 Alabama
Big Ten 108-26 11-9 55.0% 14.9% 10.2% #30 Gonzaga, #67 Georgia Tech
Pac-12 72-51 11-12 47.8% 18.7% 15.3% #80 New Mexico State, #86 Nebraska
SEC 82-37 8-15 34.8% 19.3% 9.8% #61 Clemson, #103 Davidson
TOTAL 552-212 57-65 46.7% 16.0% 10.3%

———-

ACC:

  • The league is 9-14 in road games, with the “best” wins coming against Nebraska and Oregon, who ranked 86th and 96th in Sunday’s Pomeroy Ratings.
  • Four of the nine wins have come against teams ranked 235th or lower.

Big 12:

  • Teams from this conference have played just 10 road games so far this season, with three squads (Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma) yet to play any.
  • In the league’s defense, the Big 12 is 7-3 in road games with five of the wins coming over Top 100 teams.
  • Baylor’s exciting win over 19th-rated BYU is the conference’s best, but given that the 10 teams are a combined 60-1 at home, I guess I can understand their reluctance to leave.

Big East:

  • Over half of the 16-team conference’s teams have played one or fewer road games.  Overall, they are just under .500 at 11-12, but only three of the victories have come against Top 100 teams.
  • That said, Marquette’s win over Wisconsin at the Kohl Center is one of the most impressive road performances of the early season.
  • UConn and Seton Hall both have just one loss but have yet to play a road game.

Big Ten:

  • Six of the league’s 20 road games came during the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, but the conference’s 11-9 record in those 20 contests is good for second best among the six leagues.
  • The best of those 11 victories was Michigan State’s win at Gonzaga, but none of the others came against teams considered to be tournament-worthy.
  • Minnesota has yet to play a true road game and won’t until Big Ten play begins.

Pac-12:

  • Despite the fact this is easily the worst of the BCS leagues, the Pac-12’s 11-12 road record is tied for third best.
  • However, the best wins were against 80th-ranked New Mexico State and the aforementioned Cornhuskers, with five of the victories comings against teams outside of the Top 200.
  • For as bad as UCLA has been, they haven’t even played a road game yet, although with Pauley Pavilion being renovated, you could argue they haven’t played a true home game either.

SEC:

  • Their 8-15 mark is the worst of any of the six major conferences, and only one of the wins (South Carolina’s triumph at Clemson) came against a Top 100 team.
  • It is the only league where each team has played at least one true road game, and it also has the smallest percentage of total wins (65.7) coming from home games.

I also looked at teams ranked in the Top 25 that just came out today.  The 20 major conference teams in the rankings are a combined 17-9 in true road games.  Four of the Top 10 have no road wins at all, and three of the Top 11 haven’t even played a true road game.  In addition, eight of the 26 road games played were a result of one of the aforementioned conference challenges.  Of the 17 wins, seven are against Pomeroy’s Top 100.

The other five teams in the rankings (Xavier, Creighton, Murray State, UNLV, and Harvard) are a combined 14-4 on the road.  To be fair, two of those games came in the Missouri Valley/Mountain West event and nine of the wins have come against teams outside of the Top 150.  Still, they have four Top 100 wins to their credit, but just one of them came against a major conference team since scheduling is such a challenge.

What Are Coaches Thinking?

So what is the conclusion here?  I’m sure it’s not earth-shattering to know that major college coaches are reluctant to challenge their teams with road tests early in the season for fear of losing.  In fact, the Top 25 would actually indicate it’s in their best interest to just rack up wins at home or on neutral floors in the early going.

But if a coach’s job is to prepare their team for the rigors of the conference season and eventually the tournament, how exactly does playing nearly every game at home accomplish that goal?  The traditional argument is that there is nothing to gain from playing on the road since the best case scenario is winning a game most people think you should win anyway, and the worst case scenario is losing and having it held against you later.

I would argue just the opposite.

First off, the only way to even come close to preparing a team to play in front of a hostile crowd is to actually do it.  Too often teams panic at the first sign of adversity on the road and things snowball, turning a 4-0 run into a 12-0 run before you know it.  Even if Hollis Thompson had missed his last-second shot against Alabama, are you telling me the experience gained in that game wouldn’t serve them well later in the season?  I’m quite certain they will recognize more future benefit from that game than they did by blowing out NJIT by 40 at home.

In addition, every year we watch teams get skewered by the selection committee for not challenging themselves in the non-conference, and if the current schedules are any indication, that message isn’t getting through.  You obviously don’t want to schedule five road games and lose them all, but I would also argue that if you do that, you probably aren’t a great team to begin with.

I understand we are dealing with the delicate psyches of 19- and 20-year old kids here, and the balance between building confidence and challenging the team is a delicate one.  Still, the scale seems to have tipped too far in the other direction, and as a result, we have little idea how some of these teams might react to tough situations as conference play opens up over the next couple weeks.

What might be even more frightening is that a number of coaches are in the same boat and don’t know how their teams will fare once they hit the road for some of their most important games of the season.  The difference is they could have actually done something about it.

**********

Follow me on Twitter (@andybottoms) for more thoughts on college hoops, and check out the latest edition of the Bottoms Line podcast.



About Andy Bottoms

While Andy was born and raised in Indiana, he would like to point out that he grew up shooting hoops in his driveway and not against the side of a barn like you see in all the March Madness promos or in the middle of a field like Jimmy Chitwood. Andy ranks among the top bracketologists according to the Bracket Matrix and has provided his projections to Fox Sports for the past three seasons. When not compiling excuses for missing work during the NCAA Tournament, Andy enjoys spending time with his wife and two daughters. He is a proud IU graduate and co-hosts The Assembly Call postgame show following every IU game. Twitter: @AndyBottoms

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