Let me preface this column by saying that Duke plays one of the toughest schedules in all of college basketball year in and year out.
That notion holds true again this season as one of college basketball’s blue bloods—the programs expected to compete nationally every year. Last week, the Blue Devils’ schedule was released and it features exciting non-conference tilts against Kentucky, Minnesota, Temple, Ohio State and potentially Memphis and Louisville in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas.
The only problem with Duke’s scheduling over the past several years is that Cameron Indoor Stadium rarely gets the opportunity to play host to these high-profile matchups against out-of-conference foes. The only time Duke does is when it gets to host the ACC-Big Ten Challenge every other year.
During my four years at Duke, only two non-conference home games had considerable hype—Michigan State in 2010 and Ohio State this November, both of which are ACC-Big Ten Challenge games. Needless to say, I feel a bit shorted, especially with the ACC being underwhelming as a whole these past few years.
Last season, when Duke did not get to host the ACC-Big Ten challenge, the Blue Devil’s non-conference-home schedule left a lot to be desired. With a non-conference home slate consisting of Belmont, Presbyterian, Davidson, Colorado State, UNC Greensboro, Western Michigan and Penn before ACC play, it’s no wonder that there were fewer Cameron Crazies and they were a little less crazy.
Give the fans at least one non-conference opponent to get crazy about before conference play. Other Blue Blood programs like Kentucky and North Carolina sure do while football season is still going on.
Kentucky treated Big Blue Nation to non-conference home games against both North Carolina and Louisville in Rupp Arena before SEC play last season. Baylor—last year’s Big 12 tournament champion—will be the feature non-conference home game for the Wildcats this year.
Similarly, the Tar Heel faithful had the luxury of seeing Wisconsin in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and Texas in Chapel Hill last season, two NCAA tournament teams. This year, North Carolina plays UNLV—a legitimate top-10 caliber team—at the Dean Dome in December.
The program’s reluctance—whether it begins with other teams or Duke basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski—to schedule true nonconference, home-and-home series with other perennial top-25 programs largely stems from the fact that NCAA tournament games are played on neutral courts. So why damage Duke’s NCAA tournament resume when you can play those same teams at pro-Duke, yet technincally neutral, settings like Madison Square Garden and the Izod Center?
To combat that line of thought, playing true road games in non-conference play helps prepare you for the hostile environments that await in the ACC, which the Blue Devils see in virtually every conference road game. This will become more crucial as the ACC becomes tougher in the future—will Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Notre Dame provide friendly environments for Duke to play in?
Avoiding road games outside the ACC altogether is likely not a wise approach. In 2010-11, the Blue Devils did not play a true non-conference road game against an NCAA tournament team, which one could argue partially led to Duke’s demise in its first ACC road game against Florida State that season.
Furthermore, experiencing the rigors of the road is pivotal because neutral-site NCAA tournament games can end up being very unfavorable atmospheres. Case and point—the last two seasons. In the 2011 Big Dance, Duke fell to a red-hot Arizona team in Anaheim, Calif.
Last season the Greensboro Coliseum hosted North Carolina and Duke in the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament. The venue instantly became the Dean Dome West, which undoubtedly helped propel Lehigh to an upset win over Duke.
Ensuring that there is one juicy non-conference home game in the first half of every season would also give the Blue Devil coaching staff one more prime-time slot to host the top recruits.
I acknowledge that neutral site games draw more money, better TV deals, increased attendance and boosts the school’s brand in larger media markets. But the preferences of the Cameron Crazies and season ticket holders as well as adequately preparing the team cannot be ignored.
In the future, bringing top-flight programs like Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville, UCLA, Arizona, Texas or Baylor to Cameron Indoor Stadium each season that does not feature a home ACC/Big 10 challenge game should be a scheduling staple for Duke.
Virtually every other big-time college basketball program does it for their fan bases.
It’s not asking too much.