College Basketball: New Pac-12 Schedule Hurts Top Teams on the Road

Brian PedersenFeatured ColumnistFebruary 28, 2014

Feb 1, 2014; Berkeley, CA, USA; California Golden Bears guard Justin Cobbs (1) shoots the game winning shot against Arizona Wildcats center Kaleb Tarczewski (35) during the second half at Haas Pavilion. The California Golden Bears defeated the Arizona Wildcats 60-58. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona coach Sean Miller had just seen his team survive one of its toughest tests to date, rallying late to win 60-57 at Stanford on Jan. 29.

There wasn't much time to celebrate, though, because there were more pressing issues to attend to. And not just the upcoming game at California.

The matter of how to fill two off days on the road with meaningful, focus-holding activities was far more of a concern to Miller, he told reporters during the break between visits to the Pac-12 Conference's Bay Area schools:

"These trips are long, so there’s only so much you can do. It’s a different deal. It’s almost like we’re leaving for an NCAA Tournament first and second round, or a conference tournament and we’re doing it five or six times (in a season)."

Arizona ended up spending an afternoon at Alcatraz in between squeaking past Stanford and then facing Cal, a game it would lose on a last-second shot to end a 21-game win streak. And while the injury to starting forward Brandon Ashley contributed heavily to the result, the Wildcats' failure to win the back end of a Pac-12 road swing fits in with a growing trend among the league's top teams over the past three years as new TV deals have scattered what once was a very tidy and regimented conference schedule.

Pac-12's Top Teams on Second Half of Road Trips
YearTop Four TeamsCombined Record
2013-14 ARIZ, UCLA, ASU, COLO3-9 (through Feb. 27)
2012-13UCLA, CAL, ORE, ARIZ 11-5
2011-12WASH, CAL, ORE, ARIZ 9-7
B/R Research

Arizona, UCLA, Arizona State and Colorado, who enter the weekend holding the top four spots in the standings, are a collective 3-9 in games that make up the second half of a road trip. Compare that to 11-5 for the Pac-12's four best teams in 2012-13, and 9-7 for the upper four squads in 2011-12.

Even with all of the recent conference expansion and realignment in collegiate sports, the Pac-12 remains one of the largest and most widespread leagues in the country. It's why teams have been traditionally paired up as travel partners and scheduled to play consecutive road games against opponents with close proximity to each other.

For example, UCLA and USC will face Washington and Washington State next weekend, respectively. The visitors will then flip-flop opponents.

It's a formula the Pac-12 has used for decades, but with the creation of its own television network, not to mention more lucrative TV deals from ESPN and Fox, the league has increasingly moved away from the tried-and-true Thursday-Saturday road trip format.

As recently as 2011-12, only seven of 48 two-game trips had more than one off day built in, with those seven finals being played on Sunday instead of Saturday. In 2012-13, though, after new TV contracts kicked in, 31 of the 48 trips had multiple off days between games, with 17 of those starting with Wednesday games.

This season's schedule includes 36 of 48 trips with the expanded break, including seven with three days between games. That includes Stanford's visit to the Arizona schools, which began with a loss Wednesday at ASU and will culminate Sunday night at Arizona.

Rather than sit around in the desert, though, San Jose Mercury News' Jon Wilner reported the Cardinal adjusted their travel plans to avoid road complacency:

The three-day hiatus has been particularly unfriendly to Pac-12 teams this year, with the road schools going a collective 2-9 so far with Stanford's game at Arizona and ASU's first-of-its-kind Tuesday/Saturday swing through Oregon next week still pending.

ASU men's basketball spokesman Doug Tammaro told Bleacher Report on Friday that the Sun Devils will fly back to Tempe after the opening game March 4 at Oregon, then fly back on March 7 before wrapping up the regular season March 8 at Oregon State.

UCLA has started all three of its road trips with a win, only to fall in the finales. Last week, the Bruins cruised to an 86-66 win at California on a Wednesday, and then after sitting around for two days they lost 83-74 against a Stanford team they'd beat by 17 at home a few weeks earlier.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

The Bruins' final road trip, to the Washington schools next week, only has one day in between games. Otherwise, UCLA might want to invest in an extra set of flights so players can attend classes and sleep in their own beds rather than study while shuffling between hotels.

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott told reporters during last season's conference tournament that further tweaks could come to the schedule, possibly to include playing more Tuesday or Friday games but also tightening the gap between contests for teams on a road swing.

For now, though, coaches and players have just had to get used to the lack of consistency on road trips, planning for one, two or three days off between games.

The added losses could lead to some Pac-12 teams getting lowered seeds in the NCAA tournament this season, though. Bleacher Report's Kerry Miller has the league getting six teams into the field, but only Arizona (1) and UCLA (4) would have favorable seeds.