CARBONDALE -- "Where do you want to play?"
Lacking the money or TV contracts of high-major conferences like the Big 10, SEC and Big 12, Missouri Valley Conference men's basketball teams hand potential big-name opponents that open-ended question every year.
More and more, playing at home is not part of the equation. Take Wichita State as an example.
The Shockers, who reached the Final Four in 2013 and lost all of one game last season, recently approached teams like Kansas and Kansas State about playing a three-game series that did not involve cozy Koch Arena.
"Our offers to those people are at their place, then at somewhere like Kansas City, which is much closer to their place, and then our place, so it's basically a 1-1-1," Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. "But the neutral would be closer to them, and then we'd be open to playing in the downtown arena (Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita), as opposed to Koch Arena. But those games probably aren't going to happen. I don't know why, but they're not, and that's their choice. We're not gonna go on the road for checks."
Next to winning the actual games, scheduling them is one of the most difficult job Valley coaches have. Win too many games, and nobody wants to play you, especially at home. The Shockers won 34 games last season partly by going 18-1 away from Koch Arena. Wichita State beat Tulsa, Alabama and Saint Louis on the road and topped DePaul and BYU in Kansas City, Missouri, to win the CBE Classic, its multi-team event (MTE).
Every team in the Valley is required by the league to participate in an MTE because it almost always provides at least one game against a mid or high-major program on a neutral site, something they might never get otherwise.
Losing the Missouri Valley-Mountain West Challenge, which pitted nine teams from both leagues against one another from 2009-12, made securing those types of teams that were similar to the Valley in RPI even tougher. Losing the Bracketbuster series in 2013 was an even bigger hit, but not everyone in the Valley has struck out with BCS league or high-major teams.
Missouri State played Oklahoma State on the road in a buy game in 2012-13, and completed a three-game, two-for-one home-and-home series with Tulsa last season. Bears coach Paul Lusk is open to using a neutral site like St. Louis in a series with a big-name opponent, he said, but it is only half the battle.
"We're open to all options, but it really doesn't matter what we think. It matters what those BCS schools think, and most of them are not gonna be willing to do a true home-and-home, although it does happen, occasionally," Lusk said. "Scheduling is very, very difficult. We're still looking for games, but we're really open to all options. We're playing in the Great Alaska Shootout, and will get three games on a neutral floor. We're going to Texas Tech for a guarantee. We would be open to the neutral deal with BCS schools. We're even open to the two-for-ones. It's just tough to put the pieces of the puzzle together when you're dealing with dates and facilities."
Bradley coach Geno Ford, who has Memphis and Kansas State on the schedule, said he'd even consider going to Chicago for the right team.
"If there was a game on our campus, or where there was a neutral game that belonged to them, and then one at our place and then one at their place, that's something that we would definitely entertain with the right opponent," he said. "We've entertained strategic opponents with 2-for-1s, where we go to their place twice and they come to our place once. For us, we'd have to go to Chicago, which is good for our alumni base, but in terms of our season tickets and things like that, it's not as appealing, and then you run into issues like can you even get the facility in place?"
Scheduling also has to match a team's talent pool, in the right season. Former coach Chris Lowery played one of the toughest non-conference schedules in Saluki history in 2008-09 after signing Illinois' Mr. Basketball, Kevin Dillard, along with state champ Ryan Hare out of Chicago Marshall and two players off McCluer North's state championship team in Missouri. SIU began 4-6 and finished the season 13-18 as the first of six consecutive non-winning seasons.
With 19 new players since coach Barry Hinson came on board, SIU is clearly in rebuilding mode. The Salukis haven't released their upcoming schedule, but, with only one senior (walk-on Dawson Verhines), are expected to have Saint Louis as its only high-major opponent outside of the Valley schedule.
Indiana State coach Greg Lansing snared home-and-home series with Saint Louis and Butler beginning this season, but said even when you're willing to play anywhere the first two months of the season, and have similar type of talent, those games don't come easily.
"We will do anything," he said. "You want to get a home-and-home. We have a Butler. We have a Saint Louis, that we have home-and-homes with, and that's great. That's what we need, to play the high-major level. They're not that hip to doing two-for-ones, even a three-for-one here and there."