While you were arguing with friends and family about which Thanksgiving dish is the most essential (it’s mashed potatoes by a mile), the Indiana Hoosiers were upset by the Fort Wayne Mastodons.
This game was notable for a variety of reasons. A team from the Summit League defeating a top 3 team is always worth your attention. Fans who celebrate an upset win by swigging from a bottle of bleach…
…also denotes a relevant occurrence.
But the true reason this game mattered was summed up by Fort Wayne head coach Jon Coffman:
Yes, Indiana lost to Fort Wayne, but the truly important note is that Indiana lost at Fort Wayne. Just as Coach Coffman stated, this doesn’t happen in college basketball. The big blue bloods barely play true road games, let alone against in-state mid majors.
Duke will not play a single non-conference game at the opponents’ home gym, with a game in Vegas against UNLV being the closest they come to doing so. Kentucky’s only true road game out of conference comes at Louisville in a rivalry game. The crowd in that one will be nearly 50-50 and the location alternates each season. Syracuse will only play a true roadie out of conference because the Big Ten-ACC Challenge requires them to do so.
Because of early season “challenges” and events, some big dogs will head on the road to face other big dogs. Villanova won at Purdue, but their only other roadie is “at” Penn for a Big 5 game. Arizona heads to Mizzou, and nowhere else. Virginia’s only road test is at Cal.
You’ll notice games in a mid-majors home gym are rare. Games against nearby or in-state mid-majors are non-existent.
Kansas isn’t going to Wichita State any time soon. Virginia would never want to play at VCU. Jim Boeheim wouldn’t dream of coaching at Cornell or Colgate.
There’s a variety of reasons for this phenomenon, but I’m not sure we need to look past the obvious. Indiana tried a game on the road against an upstart underdog, and they lost. Playing on the road is more difficult, that’s a proven fact. So why not have the little guy come to your place for a paycheck, and feel much safer about the game?
For Crean, and the other brave souls who have ventured out of the comfort zone, there are a few reasons it is worth a try. For starters, let’s start with the atmosphere. How big is Fort Wayne’s fanbase? Probably not big enough to keep the oodles and oodles of Hoosier fans across the state out of the arena for the game. Watching on Tuesday night, there was quite a bit of red in the crowd, as you’d expect in any game in the state of Indiana featuring the Indiana Hoosiers. So at worst, it will likely feel like a neutral court.
More importantly, road games provide an easy way to rig your RPI score. RPI counts a home win as just .6 of a win, but a road win as 1.4 wins. The same is true of losses, with 1.4 being awarded for dropping a home game, and .6 of a loss being doled out if the game is on the road. So if Indiana wins at Fort Wayne, they get a bump in the computer formulas that play so prominently in March. If they lose, the computers don’t ding them as hard. On the math side of things, it’s less risk for more reward.
Then factor in the more intrinsic side of things and it starts to make more sense. Crean’s team gets to play a true road game without boarding a plane. Win and you still look like the kings of the state. Lose and use it as an early test for your team. All of these coaches avoiding tough tests early on may be getting a little boost in the win column early on, but at what cost? The Hoosiers play at Maryland, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Purdue, and Ohio State this season. With road games that daunting on the upcoming slate, wouldn’t you want your team to have some road experience under their belts?
The reasoning against scheduling an away game just doesn’t add up. Toss on roadie on the schedule in November. If you lose, there’s plenty of time to learn from it and build through the rest of the season. But the coaches and athletic directors at the other marquee programs were certainly paying attention to what happened in Fort Wayne this week. For every 10 easy wins that big dogs pick up on the road, they are bound to drop one. And the fear of being on the wrong end of an upset like that terrifies top-level programs.
Fort Wayne’s win last night almost certainly hurts the chance of another team getting the chance the Mastodons had, which is patently wrong. Listen to Jon Coffman again and hear the passion in his voice. He’s not just talking about his team or even his school. He saw what that game meant for the community and the sport as a whole.
When push comes to shove though, very few coaches value those things over their win-loss record.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to SALTMoney.org, Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. If you have any suggestions, tips, ideas, or questions, email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Header image via Sports Illustrated