One glorious attribute that our Bruins have always had is that we play competitive non-conference schedules. Just look at this past football season - @ Kansas St., Houston, @ Texas. You don't see that type of scheduling out of Alabama, Ohio St. or LSU. Boise St. would but everyone's too scared to play them. The same used to be true of basketball. I used to mercilessly tease a friend who was a Georgetown grad about their non-conference schedule, but not anymore thanks to Ben Howland. I've loved most things that Coach Howland has brought to our school, but this isn't one of them. Not only does it hurt us fans, but I think it hurts recruiting and even the level of play by our team.
More after the jump.
First, there's the obvious - raise your hand if you can't wait for December to watch: Montana, Cal Poly SLO, UC Davis, Montana St. and UC Irvine. The only saving grace is that we are now playing more local schools like we did in the past. Three or four smaller California colleges should be given the chance to play in Pauley and take on UCLA every year. But what happened to the great home-and-home series that used to take place in December (before the additional two during the weeks we played USC)? They've been traded in for the Wooden Classic (no problem with this as it give the OC base a chance to see our bruins) and neutral site tournaments. It seems like we only got Texas and Kansas because of this made up conference challenge, and that appears to be going away. Plus, that game took away any other series that would have been scheduled. I already have a hard enough time paying for all these lower tier games, but it will really come into question when the new price structure comes into play with the renovated arena.
But this shouldn't be about us, the fans, but the players. So...do you think they get excited about this schedule? Look at Duke and Kansas and Michigan St. They're on the television constantly with exciting non-conference match-ups, and not just neutral site tournaments. Kids want to be on tv and play against the best. No offense to the teams listed above, but they're not the same. And it brings the level of play down. I've heard in the past that Coach Howland schedules certain types of teams so that they can prepare to face different schemes. That makes sense to a point, but what ends up happening is that the players look at the schedule, figure they have some easy wins pencilled in and will save up their energy for the "big games."
This couldn't have been more clear than what happened this week. UCLA plays Kansas even for 40 minutes, then gets a decent Montana team who, regardless of their size and veteran presence, they should have beaten soundly. These are kids. Kids get excited going to Disneyland. Kids do not get excited going to the dry cleaners. And that's what this was. Montana felt like an obligation that they had to show up. Sure, Coach Howland could talk until he's blue in the face about what they have to work on, but all these kids can see is a month full of Montanas.
Why does Coach Howland do it? To be assured of 20 wins - most likely. But do we want to be Syracuse, playing on one non-Pac 10 home court, like we're doing this year?
Let's get back to the tradition of a non-conference schedule. Sprinkle the Montana's and Pepperdine's in their with schools from bigger conferences. That will not only light a fire under our players behinds but also give more importance to the games with smaller schools, as they would be fewer and far between. I'd rather be talking about our 18 win bruins facing the selection committee with our strong schedule rather than a 24 win team with few marquee match-ups. And if there's a December Death March like the one in the '80's that I remember because our team isn't good, then that's our fault for not putting a good enough team together.