Take a look at the GW men’s basketball roster this season, and you’ll see the most talented team the school’s had in years. Take a look at their schedule, and you may wonder if they’ll ever have a chance to prove it.
After a breakout season last year that featured back-to-back wins over two ranked teams, GW will this year face a significantly weaker non-conference schedule scant on big-name opponents. The team’s first game against Kennesaw State later this month will seem a far cry from last year’s opener against Wake Forest, a team picked by many at the time as favorites to win a national championship.
Used to being the underdog, GW will be in the unusual position this season of being favored in all but a few games. Karl Hobbs’ squad will face just one team currently ranked in the ESPN/USA Today Top 25, when it plays Maryland in early December. The team’s other marquee game will be on New Year’s Eve against North Carolina State.
Moreover, this year’s annual BB&T Tournament – which historically used to lure big-name teams from outside the region – has been scaled back to a tripleheader featuring six schools from the Washington area. Absent are names such as Gonzaga, Texas and Michigan State, all NCAA powerhouses that played in the event in recent years.
The schedule creates a paradox for GW in which the team best-equipped in years to take on the NCAA’s finest will be the one with the least opportunity to do so before March. That irony has been the source of persistent grumbling among many fans hoping for a more challenging set of opponents.
“I know a lot of fans are disappointed with the fact that we really haven’t gotten any big names to play,” said JuDonn DeShields, co-president of Colonial Army, a student fan organization. “For the most part people I talked to are content with it, but I think people would definitely like to see some more top teams in there.”
Yet while students bemoan the lack of prime opponents, Athletics officials explain there’s more to the equation than the average fan may realize. Behind each year’s schedule is a complex web of considerations involving calendar issues, strategy and money that limits what teams GW can realistically play.
“Scheduling is the number one thing we do,” said Athletics Director Jack Kvancz. “When you sit down, there’s a lot of things that play into this thing. It’s not quite so easy to just say, ‘Sure, I’d play them.'”
To hear Kvancz tell it, GW faces a dilemma confronted by many smaller schools on the cusp of NCAA stardom. When scheduling games, schools must either agree to play an opponent two years in a row on alternating home courts or pay an opponent up to $80,000 to travel to their arena. The former is typically done between teams of equal caliber, while the latter is a tactic used by bigger schools to lure weaker opponents.
As a team hovering just below college basketball’s upper echelon, GW doesn’t fit easily into either position. A home-and-home match-up against a top-10 team is out of the question, yet opposing coaches are loath to pay for a game that could very well end in an upset.
“The dilemma is, when you’re good, the other coaches know you’re good too,” Kvancz said. “If you’ve got $40,000 you’re paying, and you’ve got a chance to get us or you’ve got a chance to get someone who’s ranked 150, it’s the same $40,000.”
This offseason, sports officials approached a number of larger schools such as UCLA and Georgia about possible road games, but were ultimately turned down. Other possible match-ups fell through due to calendar conflicts. Kvancz said the game against N.C. State was only possible because GW was willing to play on New Year’s Eve, a date most teams would just take off.
To boot, attracting teams to play GW at home is difficult given the small size of the Smith Center. Kvancz said most larger basketball schools refuse to play in any arena that holds less than 10,000 people when they could draw crowds near when they could draw crowds nearly twice that size at their own facilities and keep the profits.
Kvancz said schools with larger arenas can often make between $300,000 and $600,000 per game, far more than GW could offer them to come to D.C. Add to that a lack of exposure gleaned from facing a team still relatively unknown to a national audience and landing a big-name team at the home becomes all but impossible.
“If you think Duke is coming to the Smith Center, you’re crazy. It just won’t happen,” Kvancz said. “You think North Carolina State’s men are going to come here and play? No. I’ve talked to them. They’re not coming.”
With the Smith Center off the table, GW’s only choices are to play heavily handicapped games on the road or schedule higher caliber schools to play at a neutral location, something usually accomplished with the BB&T. However, with both GW and Maryland projected as top-25 teams, officials said it was harder to persuade teams to give up two road games to travel to Washington and possibly end up on the losing end both times.
“Both teams that they’re coming into play are very good teams now,” said Bob Zurfluh, assistant Athletics director for marketing and promotions. “In the past when GW was down a bit, then you have an opportunity maybe to win one. Now they could come in here and face two losses, so that’s a consideration for a lot of teams.”
Zurfluh said schedulers were forced to change the format of the BB&T to a primarily local event last January when two big-name schools declined invitations after making informal assurances they would come. Officials are hoping to lobby the NCAA to make the tournament exempt from teams’ regular season schedules to make it more attractive in the coming years.
With the myriad of problems surrounding this year’s schedule, sports directors decided this offseason to take a different approach to planning their season. Rather than focusing on strength of schedule, Kvancz said he worked to make a schedule that would give GW the best chance to win the most games against whatever opponents were available in order to secure a postseason bid.
Kvancz points out that with two games versus Atlantic 10 newcomer Charlotte, this year’s conference schedule looks to be tougher than in previous years, making it less necessary for GW to play strong teams out of league. It’s a risky strategy.