The men’s basketball team did not spend New Year’s Eve more than 1,000 miles away from New Haven without purpose. On Dec. 31, the team traveled to Gainesville, Fla., to take on No. 7 Florida in a nonconference game. Although the Elis expectedly fell, 90–70, the final score was of little importance. The Bulldogs scheduled the game knowing full well they were the underdogs.
This year, Ivy League teams took the court against opponents from five of the six major conferences. Yale matched up with Seton Hall of the Big East, the ACC’s Wake Forest and SEC powerhouse Florida. Penn faced Duke of the ACC and Pitt of the Big East. Harvard took part in an ESPN2-televised game with the Big East’s UConn. The Crimson and the Princeton Tigers even defeated the No. 17 Florida State Seminoles. There are reasons why these Ancient Eight hoopsters end up on the court with some of the best basketball teams in the country.
Mid-major coaches try to assemble a balanced schedule to prepare their teams for conference play. Put simply, playing good teams can only improve a program.
“The first thing is that we want to challenge ourselves,” Yale head coach James Jones said. “We want to play some people outside the box that are going to try to expose weaknesses … so we can see the kind of issues we have that we can’t see in practice.”
Nonconference games are not all marquee matchups, however. Ivy League teams also play Division III minnows. Yale demolished Lyndon State 101–37 and downed St. Joseph’s of Long Island 101–86. Cornell head coach William Courtney said that he schedules Division III schools because it adds a home game to the nonconference schedule.
Nonconference schedules are not only filled with extremes. Courtney and Jones said they also play against opposition closer to their level.
“We try to schedule comparable teams, teams we think will be successful in their conferences,” Courtney said. “We try not to schedule teams that are not so good so that we don’t get a false sense of ourselves.”
Coaches schedule with the another factor in mind as well: money. In order to raise funding for the program, teams play in “guarantee” games against major teams on the road. In exchange for playing away, mid-major teams are compensated by their adversaries.
Guarantee games differ from “series” games where teams agree to play at both locations. Yale Assistant Athletic Director Tim Bennett said that in order to get prominent schools to play series games, the Elis have often had to agree to play the opposing team twice on its home turf.
Often, coaches of teams from smaller conferences reach out to former colleagues at bigger schools to help secure nonconference games.
“I think the coaching world is a big fraternity,” Bennett said. “They see each other out on the recruiting trail. Coaches build relationships, and that certainly helps with scheduling.”
But when two friends play, one has to lose.
“You really don’t want to play your friends too often,” Jones said. “There’s no winner there. My brother [Joe Jones, head coach of Boston University] and I will never play each other. I rely more on assistant coaches at other places like at Wake Forest [to schedule games].”
Nonconference games also serve as a recruiting tool. Cornell basketball head coach William Courtney said that since he and other Ivies recruit nationally, the opportunity for a recruit to play close to home at least once is an incentive. Jones agreed with his Cornell counterpart, adding that it is part of his “recruiting spiel.” He said he tells every recruit that Yale will play in his hometown at least once over his four-year career.
“Next year we’re going to Nevada for [Austin] Morgan ’13, St. Mary’s for Jeremiah [Kreisberg] ’14, and this year we went down to Wake Forest for Mike Grace ’13,” Jones said.
Bennett added that a game is also being scheduled against Iowa State in the future for guard Jesse Pritchard ’14, a native of Ames, Iowa. Next year, Courtney said, Cornell will play Vanderbilt for guard Miles Asafo-Adjei of Antioch, Tenn.
Scheduling games against mammoth college basketball teams itself serves a recruiting purpose, Courtney said. Playing every year on a big court in front of tens of thousands of fans is alluring to an Ivy League basketball recruit.
“Absolutely all of the [Ivy League] schools will use those attractive games against big-name opponents to show recruits,” Courtney explained.
Even better than an attractive game against a big-name opponent, though, is a famous win. Although rare for an Ivy League team, a triumph over a squad in the national spotlight sends a powerful statement, perhaps more powerful than an Ivy League title. Such a victory is possible only by taking a chance and scheduling big-name teams.