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Yes, Big Ten basketball needs protected rivalry games

The current Big Ten basketball schedule doesn't protect any rivalries, and that's a mistake.

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Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

The aren't many more rivalries more heated in college athletics than Ohio State and Michigan, but next season, the squads will only face each other once in Big Ten basketball play. And in future seasons, rivals like Michigan and Michigan State, or Iowa and Wisconsin, or Indiana and Purdue, will only face each other once, so each team's home crowd won't have a chance to see a major rival.

It's tough to squeeze everybody in a home-and-home when you have a big conference, and the Big Ten recently got bigger with the additions of Maryland and Rutgers. With the league going to divisional play in football, most of the geographically-focused rivalries were placed in the same division, and the major exception, Indiana-Purdue, was specifically protected in the league schedule, so it will still happen every year.

That isn't the case with the basketball slate. Right now, each team faces five teams twice and the other eight just once a season. The next season, a school will face five different teams twice and the other eight once, and the final year of a three-year cycle, they'll have three new teams twice and two previous years. So hypothetically, Indiana could go three years and only play Purdue four times over that span.

Some of the folks in the Hoosier state aren't happy about this, and I agree. There may not be a perfect solution here, but the Big Ten needs to make sure some games are protected.

BT Powerhouse explained exactly what's a stake with a switch to a 14-team conference last season. Not only does it move rivalry games a little out of the rotation, it adds dilutes Big Ten play and adds additional uncertainty to scheduling. If you're losing two Big Ten league games so you can play Rutgers, your schedule is going to be worse off, and it is  probably going to be worse off over the next several seasons.

This year is a good example for Ohio State. The Buckeyes missed an extra game against Michigan State, Wisconsin and Maryland. Next season, they'll only play Indiana, Michigan, Iowa and Purdue once (along with Penn State). Ohio State's non-conference slate should be tougher next season, but if you're only playing a small number of teams twice, you're exposing your schedule strength a little more to randomness in Big Ten play. If Michigan and Indiana are among the two best teams in the Big Ten next season (which hey, is possible), and if Ohio State gets double draws against more teams that will likely struggle, like Rutgers, Ohio State's RPI could be in a bind. And that isn't just an Ohio State problem. That's a potential concern for everybody.

This system also stinks for the subset of fans that are actually buying tickets to games. Most early season matchups, with few exceptions, are going to be awful bodybag games. The incentive to keep buying those tickets, of course, is the allure of Big Ten play. Without protected rivalries or the current scheduling system, a season ticket holder is going to be exposed to the risk of their slate sucking, and not getting a rivalry game. Technically, an Ohio State fan could buy a season ticket next season and run the risk of not seeing Wisconsin, Maryland, Michigan or Indiana next season, if the Buckeyes were particularly unlucky in their schedule draw. That's tough.

Finding a possible solution here isn't easy. Moving to full scale divisional play for basketball is a non-starter, and would make competitive balance concerns even worse. Giving every team a protected game is possible, but also a bit of a stretch, given that not everybody has a rivalry worth protecting. If you did decide to go down that road, you might end up with something like:




Michigan-Michigan State


Illinois-Ohio State

Penn State-Maryland

Or maybe you pair Northwestern and Illinois, Ohio State and Maryland, and Rutgers and Penn State. A few ideas there.

You do that and extend the scheduling window from three to four years or something. It may not be a perfect solution for everybody, but it may appease more fanbases.

You could also just protect a very limited number of rivalries. Perhaps the only two biggest would be Purdue-Indiana and Michigan-Michigan State. Protecting Ohio State and Michigan would also make sense, but giving Michigan two protected rivals would probably make the scheduling arithmetic even more problematic. Maybe you add a protected rivalry for Wisconsin, call it a day, and try to juggle the math that way.

I would just add this in the quest for making a more compelling Big Ten slate: Not playing every single team every single year might not be the worst thing in the world, even if it makes the coaches balk at first. If, in order to make sure fans got more of the big matchups, a team missed one Big Ten team once every 4-5 years, it would probably be fine. If that risk is spread out over years, it likely wouldn't be a dealbreaker in a tourney profile, and fans wouldn't be likely to throw too big a fit if they missed a chance to play Penn State every season. As long as a team would play a single school at least three times in four years, maybe that's okay too.

It's not an easy problem to solve. But cutting down on the Indiana-Purdues, the Michigan-Michigan States, or the Ohio State-Michigans isn't a good solution either. Hopefully the Big Ten can figure something out in the future that works for everybody.