Travel Now, Win Later: For Smaller Programs, a Tough Road Schedule Has Benefits
“Scheduling like this, I think, has helped us do that,” the coach said.
Through Monday, Long Beach State had the nation’s most difficult schedule, according to the advanced analytics site kenpom.com. After an opening night win over Cal State-Los Angeles, the 49ers lost five consecutive road games, to Wichita State, North Carolina, Louisville, U.C.L.A and Washington, by an average of 27.6 points. A 30-point loss at No. 3 Kansas on Nov. 29 dropped them to 1-8, and they now stand at 1-9, but Monson said that he did not regret choosing to play tougher, bigger teams, even if others — including his wife — have different opinions.
“She thinks I’m crazy,” Monson said. “I come home from these games and she lectures me and says, ‘What did you expect? You’re crazy scheduling these games.’ But it’s how I feel like I can get my team better.”
Jamion Christian, the coach at Mount St. Mary’s of Maryland, sees the strategy as a marketing boon. He said the Mountaineers had appeared on television 56 times in the last four years, the most by any team from the Northeast Conference. He said the exposure had helped in recruiting — and even in simply making more people aware that his university exists.
Mount St. Mary’s (1-8) recently completed an eight-game, 19-day road trip that featured opponents from the Big Ten (Minnesota and Michigan), Big 12 (West Virginia and Iowa State) and Southeastern Conference (Arkansas). Christian said the Mountaineers had breakfast together each morning, spent the next three hours in study hall, and then had the afternoons off to study, hang out or fly to their next destination. Each night, they played games or held practice. Before the trip, each player was given a tablet to keep up with his homework assignments and to read and write papers.
To ensure that no one fell behind academically, the university’s provost and assistant provost joined the Mountaineers on the road.
“Our university was just unbelievably supportive with this trip and why they felt like it was important for us to do it, for the experience of our players and to really spread the goodness of the Mount,” Christian said. He added, “I don’t know if most places can get that many people on board for a project like this, but we found a way to be able to do that.”
When Texas Southern’s athletic director, Charles McClelland, hired Davis, he was initially skeptical about Davis’s plan to play so many road games, arguing that, for budget and other reasons, it was better to limit travel. He changed his mind early in the 2014-15 season, after Texas Southern upset Michigan State and Kansas State and lost by a point at Auburn.
“I kind of stepped back and said: ‘Hey, you are the architect of this process. I’ll stand back and I’ll just enjoy,’ ” McClelland said.
Still, McClelland demanded that the Tigers prioritize staying on track academically. Despite their road-heavy schedule, the Texas Southern players are scheduled to miss only five days of classes this season.
“I have this saying as the athletics director, ‘I would not do anything to anyone else’s children that I would not do to my child,’ ” said McClelland, whose son, Cainan, is a freshman guard on Davis’s team. “I’m not going to let anyone else be mistreated or mismanaged or taken out of classes and be negatively impacted.”
McClelland also said he did not put pressure on Davis to raise money through the guarantees that major programs pay low- and mid-major programs to visit their gyms. Davis said Texas Southern typically loses $2,000 to $3,000 for each of its home games, because, on average, only a few hundred fans show up. This season, the Tigers will collect more than $800,000 for their 13 nonconference road games. That money is reinvested in the program to pay for coaches’ salaries, players’ summer school classes, facility improvements and hotels and meals on the road.
“I’m trying to get to a million if I can,” said Davis, the former Indiana University coach who led the Hoosiers to the 2002 N.C.A.A. tournament championship game. “If I can get to a million, then we can really travel really good and eat really good.”
So far, Davis’s strategy is paying off. The Tigers made the N.C.A.A. tournament in 2014 and 2015, and they won the Southwestern Athletic Conference regular-season title last season even after starting 1-11 against their nonconference opponents. (They went 16-2 in the league, but lost in the conference tournament to miss out on the league’s automatic bid to the N.C.A.A.s.)
The Tigers, led by the reigning SWAC player of the year, Derrick Griffin, and the transfer guards Zach Lofton (Minnesota) and Robinson (Pacific), are favored to win the league again this season. And they are counting on the early season experience to help make that happen.
“We travel like this to get ready for the March Madness,” said Robinson, who hit the winning shot at LaSalle. “We want to make a run through that. That’s what we’re building for.”
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