In the next seven days, Bill Self will do something he hasn’t done in his previous 10 years at Kansas. On Saturday, Self will take his sixth-ranked Jayhawks to Colorado for a nonconference game at Boulder. Then, after quick flight home to Lawrence on Sunday, KU will head back on the road on Monday for a showdown at No. 15 Florida on Tuesday night.
Five days. Three flights. Two nonconference road games.
In college basketball’s modern times, where most elite programs only play one or two true nonconference road games a year (and some, like Duke this year, play none), it’s a nearly unheard of stretch.
“It is rare,” said Larry Keating, an assistant athletic director and Kansas’ chief schedule-maker. “If you look back the last eight or nine years, I don’t think it’s ever happened to us. Because, to be quite honest, we intentionally make sure it doesn’t happen.”
So how did Kansas end up playing consecutive road games against two teams receiving votes in this week’s top 25 poll? The easy answer: The advent of the Big 12/SEC Challenge, which is going through its initial run this season and features seven games this week.
Last spring, Keating says, the Jayhawks’ schedule was basically done. KU was already slated to play Duke, Georgetown, San Diego State, New Mexico and in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. They had room for one more game, and Keating expected to schedule a home game at Allen Fieldhouse.
But then the Big 12 and SEC agreed to a yearly challenge, and the leagues asked Kansas to play on the road during the first year to help balance out the home and away games between the conferences.
Keating went to Self, and “we agreed to it,” he says.
As a result, Kansas will play as many true nonconference road games in the next week than Kentucky, Duke and Michigan State will play this season combined. Kentucky’s only true road game comes at North Carolina, while Michigan State plays at Texas.
The tough back-to-back is not the only wrinkle, either. When you factor in Kansas’ trip to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis and the upcoming game against New Mexico at the Sprint Center, the Jayhawks will essentially go a full month between home games at Allen Fieldhouse. Kansas’ next game there is Dec. 21 against Georgetown.
For a Kansas team with five new starters and seven freshmen and sophomores in a nine-man rotation, it’s not the most ideal string of games. And if Kansas had known about the Big 12/SEC Challenge a little earlier, Keating says, they probably would have tried to avoid the gap between home games.
“It’s a big puzzle and you have to sort it,” Keating said.
For years, KU has used a pretty simple template for building the nonconference schedule. Schedule two power teams at home, two away from home, and play in a neutral-site tournament during the week of Thanksgiving. But the addition of the Champions Classic has altered things a little bit, and the continuation of the Big 12/SEC Challenge will as well.
But while many schools have gone to playing their most marquee games at neutral-site venues, Keating says KU will continue to schedule at least two marquee home games each season.
Next season, Kansas will play host to UNLV and an SEC opponent to be named later. (Spoiler: It won’t be Missouri). The Jayhawks will also play Kentucky in the Champions Classic in Indianapolis and travel to play at Georgetown. Last week, KU also announced it would play in the Old Spice Classic in the Orlando area during the week of Thanksgiving.
“With conference expansion and 18-game conference schedules and all these neutral site games, a lot of teams are not playing true big home games,” Keating said. “We just have not (stopped playing them), because I think we owe it to our fans who are buying season tickets.”