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Stephen F. Austin’s Scheduling Problems Are The Price of Mid-Major Success

With three consecutive regular-season Southland Conference championships, two NCAA Tournament appearances and a Big Dance win in 2014, Stephen F. Austin was one of the more successful mid-major programs of the last three years.

And the Lumberjacks can’t find a game because of it, as CBSSports.com’s Jon Rothstein tweeted Thursday.

Seven nonconference games still to fill on June 11? Considering the Lumberjacks are just about five months away from tipping off the 2015-’16 campaign, athletic director Robert Hill is going to have to spend the coming weeks bringing up the phone lines like a Premier Properties salesman. No coffee until the slate’s completed, however — coffee is for closers.

Why wouldn’t a team want to add Stephen F. Austin, a two-time NCAA Tournament participant under Brad Underwood, to its schedule? It’s not as if the Jacks are resume-killers — on the contrary, they finished the 2014-’15 regular season with the nation’s No. 32 RPI.

Actually, Underwood can probably blame SFA having the nation’s No. 32 RPI and 29 wins last season is exactly why the Jacks have so many empty dates on the docket.

The Jacks’ home state is rife with potential opponents, though I wouldn’t anticipate new Texas head coach Shaka Smart adding SFA to the Longhorns’ schedule, even if they had any availability: Stephen F. Austin stunned Smart’s VCU Rams in the Round of 64 in the 2014 NCAA Tournament in the win that really put Underwood and his Nacogdoches-based program on the map.

It’s no secret premier mid-majors struggle to secure high-profile nonconference games. Such issue is what made last March’s Round of 32 matchup between Wichita State and Kansas so compelling as, despite regularly reaching the tournament in the last decade, the Shockers can’t get the Jayhawks on their dance card otherwise.

Gonzaga is a rare exception. The Bulldogs draw a strong opponent to Spokane every year — in 2015-’16, it’s Arizona — but it took them almost a decade of neutral site and road games, plus continued NCAA Tournament appearances, to broker such contests.

To wit, here are the marquee dates from Gonzaga’s 2001-’02 schedule, a campaign in which Zags head coach Mark Few publicly lamented his team’s No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament:

– at Illinois

– vs. St. John’s (neutral court)

– vs. Texas (neutral court)

– vs. Marquette (neutral court)

– at Washington, which was the second half of a home-and-home — but the Huskies were hardly resume-builders then, languishing in the Pac-10 basement before a resurgent 2003-’04 campaign.

With just a few weeks left to fill out its slate, Stephen F. Austin doesn’t exactly have time to invest a decade of success to establish the scheduling cachet Gonzaga has now.

Barring the neutral-site, early-season tournaments, scheduling road games with no return date is the obvious road to securing quality games that are necessary to a team’s schedule. The alternative is feasting on cupcakes that may fatten up the W column, but leave little to be desired come Selection Sunday.

However, there’s a fine line between taking on a challenging schedule and basketball-masochism. Long Beach State head coach Dan Monson, the man who thrust Gonzaga into the spotlight in 1999, crafts a nonconference schedule that puts his 49ers through their paces. They faced six NCAA Tournament teams on the road last season, giving them a higher strength-of-schedule rating at season’s end than teams like San Diego State, LSU or Gonzaga.

Another solution is investment in games with other strong mid-majors. Coincidentally, of Long Beach State’s six road, nonconference games against 2015 NCAA Tournament participants, one was at Stephen F. Austin. It was one of two higher profile, mid-major games SFA hosted last season, the other an overtime contest against Northern Iowa.

Such games serve as reminders of just how sorely the college basketball landscape misses BracketBuster Weekend. The ESPN-concocted mid-major showcase was a February highlight for college hoops junkies, but more importantly, a guaranteed, high-profile game for mid-majors in need of one.

Beating Wichita State in 2006 certainly helped eventual Final Four participant George Mason’s resume, for example.

But the flip-side of top mid-majors banding together to guarantee each other opportunities at quality wins is the inherent risk of quality losses. There are much fewer spots come tournament time for programs like SFA, thus the threat of cannibalization is real.

There is no easy solution for these programs. The long-term solution is the Gonzaga path of continued success over the course of many years — difficult as that may be in an area of transfers and regular coaching changes.

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