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Big East schedule a burden for teams seeking NCAA glory

Did Fox Sports fail the Big East when adding input to the basketball schedule?

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

When we revealed Villanova's men's basketball schedule for this season, one of the things that hit most of us immediately, was the inconsistent spacing of games. For Villanova, a seven day layoff between games is about to end with DePaul visiting the Pavilion tomorrow afternoon. They will follow that up with another game on Monday, 51 hours later.

This isn't an unusual arrangement in the new Big East. For number-six ranked Villanova, these scheduling oddities are an inconvenience that needs to be overcome. For much of the rest of the conference, however, these scheduling quirks could cost them a chance at postseason glory.

While Villanova has had seven days to recover from it's New York area road trip and prepare for DePaul, the Blue Demons will have just four days to get set for the Wildcats. Oliver Purnell's team also has to turn around and play Xavier back in Chicago just two days after their trip to Philadelphia.

Providence head coach Ed Cooley expressed his concern about the imbalance to the Providence Journal.

"You're asking an awful lot out of some teams when one team is rested and the other has to make very quick turn-arounds."

"This next week is different for us because we have three games in a row (vs. Creighton, Butler and Xavier) and it's the first time we've ever played them. That's very tough to handle in a short period of time."

The schedule, as you may imagine, was constructed with input from Fox Sports 1, the league's primary television partner. The quick turnarounds and long layoffs are designed to fit into the programming gaps in the brand new network's schedule.

Gone is "Big Monday," coming in is "Big Money," and the value that the Big East offers FS1, is the flexibility to fill their airwaves (or cable signals anyway) with live programming -- whenever they need it. Fox doesn't have a chip in the NCAA Tournament game, so little care need be given to what happens in March.

It is nothing new for a television partner to influence a league. Certainly not on scheduling. Leagues want to ensure that games are televised and that schools receive the maximum benefit of exposure, so input from broadcasters is important to achieving those goals.

One of the great strengths of the original Big East, however, was its experience and and ability to create a schedule with 16 teams that maximized each school's chances of an NCAA tournament bid. That usually meant that about 50% of the league would earn a bid -- even if some of those schools disappointed once they arrived at the tournament. The success of the old league at scheduling reached it's height when 11 schools were invited in 2011.

Games in the old Big East weren't necessarily evenly-spaced, but a full-seven days off in the middle of January would have been very unlikely. A 48-hour turnaround was also a rarity. This season, the new Big East did not shy away from either of those in making its schedule.

The goal was to keep Fox Sports 1 and their big pay check happy.

In the future, however, things may change. The almighty dollar has a ton of influence, but television isn't the only source of money in college hoops. The old Big East made millions of dollars from the NCAA Tournament, which distributes a large share of it's massive television rights windfall to conferences based on the number of games their members play in. Getting teams in means getting lots of money out of the postseason.

Fox Sports 1, meanwhile, has had disappointing returns so far. Their ratings are far below the level of ESPN -- the former broadcast partner of the Big East brand. Of televised games featuring a Big East team this season, the ones on the FS1 and FS2 networks had far fewer than 200,000 viewers on average. The NCAA Tournament, meanwhile offers viewership in the millions.

The Big East is locked in with Fox Sports 1 for the forseeable future, but the broadcaster is not the endgame for this league. Getting teams into the NCAA Tournament is perhaps the most viable route to both vital revenue and television exposure. Reducing Fox Sports' influence on the schedule may be necessary to ensure this.

That reduction does carry risk. The league could find itself with reduced television exposure if games don't fit into Fox Sports' available timeslots -- but perhaps the network will be more accommodating. Small schools like those in the Big East have small alumni bases and may not draw ratings on name alone. Games staged between ranked opponents, or at least tournament-bound ones, have far broader interest.