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Oakland, Detroit Mercy, mid-majors scramble to salvage big-money nonconference hoops games

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

College basketball has its start date. But it doesn't have much else.

And that's leaving mid-major programs across the country in limbo, awaiting word on how much flexibility there will be as they try to salvage as many of their big nonconference games, or "guarantee" games, that help subsidize their program's budgets.

Oakland and Michigan State have an agreement to play every year through the 2024-25 season.

"We know that there's gonna be a season, and we know there's gonna be an NCAA Tournament, so that's good and we're all happy about that," said Greg Kampe, head coach at Oakland. "But we don't know anything about our league schedule or our nonconference schedule."

The NCAA announced last week that the season would start Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving. Men's teams are allowed to play 24 or 25 games, plus a multi-team event, or a tournament. Women's teams are allowed to play 23 games with a multi-team event, or 25 games without one. That's a drop of about four regular-season games from previous seasons.

Now, conferences across the country are in the process of piecing together their conference schedules.

The Big Ten last season played a 20-game conference schedule, which would leave little room for a significant nonconference schedule — given its Champions Classic, Big Ten-ACC Challenge and Gavitt Games (Big Ten-Big East) commitments. The ACC played 20, while the Big 12, SEC and Pac-12 played 18.

It's not just the big conference schedules that have an impact here, either. Kampe's conference, the Horizon League, plays a role. The league played an 18-game conference schedule last season, but adds Robert Morris and Purdue Fort Wayne to the mix this season.

Oakland pieced together a monster nonconference schedule, both pre-COVID-19 and even during the pandemic, with games against Michigan State, Ohio State (Nov. 11), Xavier (Dec. 2), Oklahoma State (Dec. 6) and Michigan (Dec. 21). Now, all those games are in flux, with Michigan State the likeliest to stay on the schedule — that's a popular state rivalry series that's been going on most of Tom Izzo's tenure at MSU — and Ohio State likeliest to fall off. But for now, who knows.

Oakland and Michigan State have played 14 of the last 15 seasons and 18 times overall during Izzo and Kampe's tenures, and have an agreement to play every year through the 2024-25 season. The schools have discussed rescheduling this year's game, set for the Nov. 13-15 weekend, but nothing can be set in stone.

"It's not Michigan State, it's the Big Ten," Kampe said. "They're waiting on what they're going to do."

At the other four mid-major programs in Michigan, there are several other marquee games in limbo, even though they haven't yet released nonconference schedules.

Western Michigan has deals to play Indiana and Marquette, Central Michigan is committed to playing Pittsburgh, and Eastern Michigan had Syracuse on its schedule, among other games.

Meanwhile, Detroit Mercy was scheduled to visit Kentucky on Nov. 13, as part of a multi-team event played at multiple sites. Also in that field are Richmond and Hartford. Detroit Mercy coach Mike Davis said talks are under way to play all the games in Lexington, Kentucky, forming a mini-bubble, of sorts.

But again, there are no done deals yet.

"That's important for us, financially," Davis said. "We definitely want to play those games."

Detroit Mercy also has a deal to play Northwestern.

While many of the Football Bowl Subdivision conferences are playing truncated schedules — with the Big Ten going conference games only — for health and safety measures, that would be tougher for hoops, as those buy games are important on many levels.

For starters, they are NCAA Tournament resume builders. And, yes, the NCAA plans an NCAA Tournament, to be played on schedule this season, after having to cancel the 2020 NCAA Tournament during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Also, financially, those buy games can be worth in the high five figures or even low six figures for mid-majors.

That money always is huge, but this year is even more important, given there likely will be no fans, so each home game is going to be a significant expense without ticket sales. At Oakland, it costs about $20,000 to host a game. If Oakland plays nine or 10 conference home games, that's a loss of $180,000 to $200,000.

"You've got $9,000 for the refs, you've got the scorer's table — they don't get $25 like they do in high school," Kampe said. "And that's all covered in the cost of selling tickets.

"All of a sudden, home games become expensive."

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984