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July 08, 2009
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By Wendell Barnhouse | wendell@big12sports.com
Big12Sports.com Correspondent

Constructing the Big 12 men's basketball conference schedule should be easy. What's so difficult? The teams in the two divisions play each other twice, home and away - 10 games. The divisions cross over, with teams playing three home and three road games against teams in the opposite division - six more games, a total of 16. There, all done.

Hold on there, turnover breath. If it was that easy, everybody could do it. The challenges of arranging the conference schedule each summer include following the scheduling rules put in place for competitive fairness, dates when a school's arena might not be available for basketball, plus arranging play dates requested by the Big 12's television partners - ESPN, CBS and FSN.  

Starting in early-June, Big 12 Senior Associate Commissioner Tim Allen, aka Mr. Datebook, starts working on the basketball schedule Rubik's Cube.

"Scheduling is probably the most complicated thing that we do," Allen said. "While I have primary responsibility for the development process of the men's schedule, the basketball staffs put a lot of time into the process."

There is method to what could be madness. The Big 12 has the following scheduling rules:

* Each team has two home games among the first four and last four games.

* Each team gets at least four home weekend dates.

* No team can play three consecutive Conference road games.

* No team will be scheduled to play on a Saturday-Monday-Wednesday scenario.

* Every effort is made to assure that a team that is scheduled for a Big Monday road game is at home the previous Saturday.

In addition, there are scheduling guidelines that the Conference tries to follow if at all possible: starting or ending the season with two consecutive road games; no stretches with four of five games on the road; no circumstances where a team plays three times against teams coming off of byes.

And, there is a computer program that helps sort out the schedules that don't follow the rules. Dr. Tim Van Voorhis wrote the Big 12 basketball scheduling program when he was on the staff at Iowa State. In past years, the computer has generated between 600 and 6,000 schedules for initial review.

"We would spend a significant amount of time narrowing the schedules done in an attempt to avoid those situations that were not hard-and-fast parameters but are the avoid-if-you-can scenarios," Allen said. "Dr. Van Voorhis was able to fine tune the program to eliminate those issues we would throw out anyway.

The addition of the guidelines to the computer program reduced the number of computer-generated schedules to approximately 70 for 2009-10.

OK, so there's a computer program that spits out the schedules. After the hard drive has finished humming and goes to sleep mode, it's time to distribute the schedules, right?

Wrong again.

Computers and their programs are wonderful but the human element is always needed. Especially when television has its eyes on certain juicy matchups that figures to draw big ratings.

ESPN, CBS and FSN provide the Big 12 with their wish lists for games they would like to televise.

The Big 12 has two high profile non-conference games in January 2010 for the Big 12. Kansas will be open in Big 12 play on January 10 in order to play at Tennessee on CBS while Texas will play on January 23 on CBS. That means no Big Monday for Kansas on January 11 or Texas on January 25. The Big 12 will also have Conference games on the last two weekends on CBS.

ESPN's Big Monday telecasts provide great exposure for the Conference and the eight Monday telecasts must be factored in when making the schedule.

ESPN presented to the Big 12 four "must have" games for Big Monday and a list of two games/sites for potential College GameDay opportunities (with Saturday night ESPN prime-time telecasts).

From there ESPN and the Big 12 staff debated the merits of nine other games for consideration on four Big Monday slots before agreeing on eight games for Big Monday and the College Game Day site and matchup. The other games under consideration for Big Monday will be a priority on the ESPN/Big 12 package of games on Wednesday and Saturday.

Eight different "execution" files run on four different computers; each "execution" file is slightly different - for example the order of a Big Monday game or two might be different on each schedule; or (for example) each might have a school ending at home against a different opponent (to balance out an inequity if a school has finished on the road numerous times in recent years); or other slight tweaks to produce different looking schedules.

This year's scheduling process started in early-June and about 70 schedules were computer-generated and fit the scheduling rules. The winnowing process then started.

Big 12 staff starts reviewing the schedules, considering "tiebreakers" like: order of games, rival games when students aren't on campus, four-of-six on the road, three sets of back-to-back road games and a few other issues that schools ask the Conference to avoid if possible.

This year, as in most previous summers, Allen had 10 schedule "semifinalists." Those were reviewed by Big 12 staff to review. After that review, three to four "finalists" are presented to the staff to rate. The final schedule is then selected.

"It is so difficult to battle the human element at that point," Allen said. "We look at the schedules from a television standpoint, a (on-campus) marketing standpoint and a competitive standpoint. We've never produced the perfect schedule and never will, but we try to make sure we have one that is fair and balanced."

And the process is still not complete.

From there, the final schedule is presented to the basketball programming staff at ESPN and the women's basketball scheduling staff.

ESPN will then put together an initial list of games for telecast on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ABC and the Big 12 Network. The women's basketball scheduling staff will then begin producing schedules and attempt to minimize dates when men and women's teams are at home on the same dates.

Once the Big 12 men's schedule is final, all that remains is for the Big 12 staff to work out any arena conflicts so that the women's schedule can be finished.

What could be easier, right?

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