Pitt basketball: Building a schedule is tricky

Pitt will play host to Savannah State tonight at the Petersen Center, the first of 13 non-conference games the Panthers will before the ACC schedule begins in January.

In what has become an annual ritual, many fans will look at the schedule and say “Savannah who?” and wonder why Pitt isn’t playing Kentucky or Kansas or UCLA.

Coach Jamie Dixon laughs when he hears that because he knows how difficult it is to make a schedule. More important, he knows the misconceptions people have about how the non-conference schedule is done.

That’s why he often asks his scheduling critics to do a simple exercise: Take a look at the schedules of most NCAA-level power conference teams. They usually are similar to Pitt’s, he said, and few play their non-conference games on the road.

“I think by far, the thing we work the longest and hardest on is our schedule, really,” Dixon said. “And the thing is we spend about 80, maybe 90 percent, of our time working on are games that never actually happen for a variety of reasons. It is a long process, and there are some things that make it far less flexible for us than people think.”

Dixon said there’s more to it than just scheduling a game between two teams. Often, there are other motives behind scheduled games that limit the flexibility to play big-name opponents all over the country.

In Pitt’s case, a home game is worth about $500,000 in revenue, not including donations to the Panther Club attached to each ticket. For budgeting reasons, the Panthers must play 18 home games per year.

NCAA rules state a team can play 29 total games, unless they are in an exempted preseason tournament — which Pitt usually is — and then they can play 31. That means a schedule of 13 non-conference games per year plus 18 league games.

Nine of those non-conference games must be at home for revenue reasons, and Pitt will play nine ACC games at Petersen Events Center for its 18 home games. Most non-conference games are on a one-year contract with no return trip, which almost guarantees the opponent will be a mid- or low-major team.

That leaves four non-conference games to work with. One is against Duquesne — “It is a game everyone wants us to play annually and we want to play annually,” Dixon said — and one is the ACC-Big Ten challenge and two are in exempted tournaments.

That leaves few opportunities to schedule high-profile games.

“We are working to set up a home-and-home with someone, but it isn’t like my voice mail has any messages on it, and we’ve reached out to pretty much everyone,” Dixon said. “Teams don’t want to come here and play. I know people don’t believe that; it isn’t just fans, either. I talked to [athletic director] Steve [Pederson] the other day, and he was asking about scheduling teams, and I said to him, ‘Do you have any messages on your machine, because I know we don’t’.

“Games are scheduled largely for two reasons — either a coach needs wins or a team is looking to help their RPI. That’s really it. And, if you are looking for wins, why would you agree to come here where we’ve won like 95 percent of the games or something?”

RPI is the Rating Percentage Index, which is a measurement of strength of schedule used in college basketball.

When Dixon’s predecessor Ben Howland came to Pitt in 1999, the schedules were designed to get 12 to 13 non-conference wins, because the first step in rebuilding is to establish a winning tradition and get to the NCAA tournament.

But as the program became more established, the schedules have been built with the Panthers’ RPI in mind, and they have had to be selective in who they play.

Dixon said Pitt tries to play small conference teams that are projected to be at or near the top of their league. Those teams likely would have a higher RPI number, which would help the Panthers’ strength of schedule.

Those teams also come with a lesser payout than teams at the bottom of the low- and mid-major conferences due to supply and demand. Fewer teams want to play them because of the risk of losing to a top-tier, small-conference team.

That’s why Dixon isn’t exaggerating when he says the non-conference teams on Pitt’s schedule are picked to win their conference or among the favorites. It’s also why Pitt can generally get them for $60,000 to $90,000.

“Some teams are paying as much as $125,000, even a little more, and the going rate for those guarantee games is around $100,000 now,” Dixon said.

“But we have done it a little cheaper because we are willing to play the better teams from those conferences. Like I said, teams looking for games are divided into two categories — teams that want wins and teams that need RPI.”

One of the main misconceptions about scheduling, Dixon said, is that a national TV game against a big-time school on the road or at a neutral site is better financially than a home game.

In reality, the payout is about $100,000, and “You have to pay to get there so a big chunk of that money is gone right off the top,” Dixon said.

Critics say Dixon is a master of fooling the RPI by scheduling teams with a good rating that are easy wins. That combined with Pitt’s strength of schedule because of conference play — the Big East in the past, now the ACC — artificially bloats its RPI.

“If fooling the RPI means winning games, well, then, yes,” Dixon said, laughing. “The reality is, nobody plays road games, and, when they do, it isn’t usually in a home-and-home, it is in some sort of event or tournament.”

Dixon paused, then said the criticism amazes him because a key component of RPI is strength of schedule, and Pitt usually is at or near the top of the rankings.

Another component is that Pitt has played in a conference with an 18-game format for several years, as opposed to a more common 16-game league format, and in a league (Big East, ACC) considered one of the strongest in the country. Those two extra conference games make a big difference.

“The bottom line is this — we play in the best exempt tournaments we can possibly play in every year, without exception,” Dixon said.

“We are willing to do a home-and-home, but it hasn’t always worked out. We have played neutral-site games as well. But we are in the best league in the country, that has to be a part of the equation as well.”

Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com, and Twitter @paulzeise.

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