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Scheduling Conflict

Coaches want fewer conference games, more teams in tournament, but administrators like the status quo

March 11, 2004|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

The matchup, one must admit, has reality-show potential: Coaches versus Athletic Directors.

If it were a round of golf, it would be a side-splitting spectacle.

If it were a game of ping-pong, at least it wouldn't last long.

But this clash promises to be neither funny nor fast.

It involves the future of Pacific 10 Conference basketball. The number of games teams play. The format of the conference tournament. And the struggle to place teams in the NCAA tournament.

The battle began several years ago and promises to continue at least until the current contract with Staples Center and Fox Sports Net expires in 2007.

Who will prevail?

The coaches' strength is solidarity. All 10 want the conference schedule reduced from 18 to 16 games. And all 10 want to expand the conference tournament from eight to 10 teams.

They note that every other major conference plays a maximum of 16 games so that minimal damage is inflicted to RPI. Subtracting two games from the schedule would open dates for nonconference games, theoretically against quality opponents. Perhaps the conference tournament could be pushed back a week to provide rest before the NCAA tournament.

And while on the topic of the conference tournament, the coaches say that if every women's team gets to go, so should every men's team.

"We have to have some A.D.'s wake up to the facts, I think," Arizona Coach Lute Olson said this week.

But the smart money is on the athletic directors. Even though a few have broken ranks and aligned themselves with the coaches -- most notably Arizona's Jim Livengood --enough suit-and-tie guys prefer the status quo for the sweat-pants-and-whistle guys to remain frustrated.

Their reasons range from the simplistic to the academic to the provincial.

Administrators like the symmetry of the 18-game schedule, with each team playing every other team twice, ensuring that marquee teams Stanford, Arizona and (until recently) UCLA visit the schools in the boondocks, the Oregon States and Washington States, every season.

Sure, athletic directors say, Stanford, Arizona and UCLA have no trouble filling their nonconference dates with top-20 opponents, ensuring big crowds, television revenue and a boost in RPI. The other schools have no such guarantees.

Oregon, for example, has attracted only one top nonconference opponent to McArthur Court since 1992 -- Minnesota made the trip in 2002-03 and lost.

Reducing the conference schedule by two games also means that each year some lucky team doesn't have to travel to Arizona or Stanford.

"Watch Washington State or Oregon State miss Arizona and Stanford in the same season and win the Pac-10 championship," Oregon Athletic Director Bill Moos said. "I wonder how the coaches would feel then."

There is less resistance among athletic directors to expanding the conference tournament. But that isn't likely to happen soon, because presidents and chancellors don't want players missing too much class time. A 10-team tournament would take four days, and the Fox contract stipulates a Saturday championship game.

The women's tournament takes place Friday to Monday, so players don't miss much school. But there is far less TV revenue at stake.

Coaches view the concern over class time with skepticism, especially considering the regular-season games take place Thursdays and Saturdays, meaning visiting players often miss school from Wednesday to Friday.

"Saying we aren't going to add two teams because it's going to cost them another day of school is, to me, amusing," Washington State Coach Dick Bennett said.

Bennett and UCLA's Ben Howland may be newcomers to the Pac-10, but they are vocal in their desire for change. Howland is especially critical of the 18 conference games.

"It should be all about the Pac-10 getting as many teams into the NCAA tournament as possible and having them do well," he said. "There is mathematical proof that there is a diminishing return in RPI when you beat up on each other that often."

Change won't come easily. A vote to overturn either rule must be by eight out of 10 schools. Furthermore, votes are made by school presidents and chancellors whose recommendations come from athletic directors. All the coaches can do is make their wishes known.

Pac-10 Commissioner Tom Hansen appears aligned with the athletic directors. He said the argument that teams could improve their RPI by having more opportunities to play quality nonconference opponents only applies to a few teams.

"Your RPI will get worse if a team can't attract quality opponents," he said.

Olson countered that the Pac-10 could explore a series between the Pac-10 and either the Big Ten or Big 12. That would ensure that every team gets quality nonconference opponents.

"Since the start of league season, nobody could have improved their RPI except with a win over Arizona or Stanford," he said. "It's ridiculous. Arrange something with another conference and get a challenge series."

As for expanding the conference tournament, Hansen says that anybody who thinks a team can win four games in four days is kidding himself or herself.

"What's the chance of a team that doesn't get a bye winning the tournament?" he said.

About equal to the coaches' chances of persuading eight athletic directors to go with their wishes --slim and none.

The issues are bound to be raised again at the Pac-10 meeting in June. The coaches plan to be persistent, to a point. They know the athletic directors hired -- and can fire -- them.

"Frankly, I'd like to see all 10 teams get a chance in the tournament because it makes a coach's job more secure," Bennett said. "And anything that makes a coach's job more secure, I'm in favor of."


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First Round

Today at Staples Center, FSN

* No. 1 Stanford vs. No. 8 Washington State, 12:20 p.m.

* No. 4 California vs. No. 5 Oregon, 2:50 p.m.

* No. 2 Washington vs. No. 7 UCLA, 6:15 p.m.

* No. 3 Arizona vs. No. 6 USC, 8:45 p.m.

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