Mark Adams Interview
Ethan Hennessy: I am joined by Mark Adams who is an analyst on ESPN mainly for the American Athletic Conference. He is also a former college basketball coach. He was a head coach for Central Connecticut State in the 90’s, and before that an assistant at Idaho State and Washington State. I actually want to welcome Mark back as he my first guest way back in early 2017. I want to thank you for taking the time to come back on and talk some college basketball; it’s always a great time.
Mark Adams: My pleasure I follow you on Twitter, so it’s good to be back on.
Ethan: I brought you on to talk about something that you are passionate, about and is probably my favorite aspect of college basketball – scheduling. Unfortunately it is a broken system and it seems like it is getting worse every year. Gone are the days that a high major will go on the road to play local, in state, or regional mid majors. What are the biggest problems in college basketball regarding scheduling from your perspective?
Mark: Well the biggest problem is just the fact that the NCAA now for decades and college basketball as a whole including coaches, athletic directors, presidents, and guys like me as announcers – we haven’t done a good job pointing out the inequities that take place in scheduling. Because we haven’t done a good job of that the average fan thinks it doesn’t matter. The average fan’s response to the current scheduling dynamics of college basketball is if you can’t beat Syracuse on the road and get your $100,000 paycheck then you don’t deserve to be in the NCAA tournament because that is the status quo. Well my question consistently is – :how is the status quo working for you? Well it’s not working very well for most of us because the top seven spending conferences in the country average around nine million dollars in spending for men’s basketball. They use that money to buy home games. When you buy to the tune of 65% of your non-conference games to be played at home, you skew any computer metric. I don’t care if it is the NET, RPI, I don’t care if it is the C-R-A-P because it is skewed so much in favor of the teams that have bigger budgets, and they use that budget to simply buy home games. They will give Valpo for example $100,000 to go play at Ohio State, or Vanderbilt, or wherever it may be. Nobody talks about it enough. Nobody understands it well enough. I think it is my personal mission to help people understand that dynamic in a more complete format so that they can see how NCAA tournament bids are literally being bought by the big budget conferences.
Ethan: It really is just a case of most programs at the mid major level, or as you like to say, do-more-with-less level outside of the anomalies of Grand Canyon and Liberty don’t have the money to buy a lot of these games, and because they can’t get home games it affects their schedule and chances to get in the NCAA. Now there hasn’t been a whole lot of information on this, but I have heard rumblings of this mid major scheduling alliance that you are coming up with for next year. The only team confirmed in this is East Tennesse State. Is it kind of like the old bracket busters? I know you can’t talk a lot about it, but are you able to explain a little bit of what this is, and how it works?
Mark: We have several teams now that have said that status quo isn’t working for us – Mark can you help? And my answer has been yes; we can help. What we are doing is building an alliance of schools that are willing to play each other two games each season one home and one away. It is different from bracket busters in the sense that bracket busters were one game, and then you would return that game to the same team the next year, which created its own scheduling issues. Therefore, what I did was used the bracket buster concept where you matched up teams of similar metric value, but two games are what works best. For example, if Valpo was a party alliance (they are not currently a party alliance, but certainty considered it). I would deliver two games for them – one at home where it might be against Western Kentucky, and one away where it might be against UT Arlington. They wouldn’t have to return those games. The next year it would be two different teams – one that came to Valpo, and one they traveled for. The reason we did the one and one split is because conferences like the Missouri Valley Conference, like CUSA, like the Sun Belt, and like the Mid-American Conference
they typically play about 40-45% of their non conference games at home. So I thought okay if we can change our behavior slightly to where I can add for them a 50/50 split that moves the dial of the home games closer to that 50% mark. That helps everybody at this level of college basketball even with that 50/50 split. That is one part of an overall strategy as to how you combat this overwhelming scheduling advantage the big budget schools have.
Ethan: From what you said it sounds like each team would play two different teams which could also safeguard against the possibility that a team you think is going to do well really doesn’t perform well in conference, and ends up having bad season. Also, it doesn’t hurt you because you do play another different team for each of the two games.
Mark: The other thing is it is metrically driven. I’m going to brag a little here I don’t like bragging I apologize, but it’s the truth I’ve done more research on this topic probably then anybody in the world. That just shows how much of a nerd I am.
Ethan: I wouldn’t doubt it; I’ve seen your long posts on Facebook about the analytics.
Mark: What I’ve done is taken a historic look at what teams are. What are their budgets over a long period of time? What does their metric look like over a three-,four-,five year period? Where you can pretty much predict which teams are going to be competitive? Which teams are rising? Which teams are falling? You can create the right kind of matchups. Next year we will launch the Alliance in 2019; the games will take place on November 26th and November 30th. I will assign those games in May after this season based upon the metrics which are a): historically how much does a program spend (because that does determine somewhat how successful they are), and b) what is their three-year running average of the RPI and now NET. That provides the best possible matchups we can bring to good teams, middle teams, and not-so-good teams to make the best matchups we possibly can for November of 2019. I’m pleased to launch it next year. There will be about a dozen teams, and I expect that number to at least double in 2020 because I’ve gotten tremendous response. The only reason why it’s not more this year is because we were delayed in implementing because of some contractual issues with me, with consulting, and some different conferences. It’s not anybody’s fault; that just the way the timing of it worked out. So we’re excited to launch it. We are going to build on it in 2020, moving forward to help schools get the right types of matchups. It’s so hard to get quadrant one and two games because what happens is the power six or seven, if you want to include the American, only play 11.6% of their games on the road period.
Of that 11.6% they’re going to go to a do-more-with-less site maybe 30 times out of almost 1,000 non conference games. Think about that. So we have to generate out own quadrant one and quadrant two games. You can do that through this alliance concept and the matchups where we drive it by metrics.
Ethan: I think that is a great idea and it sounds like it is going to grow even more next season because teams will see how good it is. It is also just good for the fans because I know a lot of fans (of different teams) from across the country that I have talked to always complain that they don’t get enough quality games at home for their season tickets, or just single game tickets. We’ll get more into that later. Right now though I want to talk to you about challenge series. For mid majors you have the Missouri Valley/Mountain West Challenge that just ended, the WAC/Summit Challenge which just started this year, and
the Big Sky/Summit as well. In terms of the Do-More-With-Less level though there really is not a whole lot when it comes to challenges. I know that now that the Mountain West dropped the MVC in favor of the A10 next year being a student at an MVC school
there are a few conferences with which I would like to see a challenge formed. Just off the top of my head WCC, the American, MAC, CUSA. But how do you feel about challenges, and are there any leagues you would like to see pair up in the future?
Mark: I think the challenge series are good as a concept, and have worked to some degree, but here’s what happens in college basketball. Everybody wants to dance with the prom queen, and she already has a date. I’ll put it this way. If in the Missouri Valley, for example, started a challenge with CUSA or with the Horizon League – name a conference – it doesn’t really matter. That’s good, but we want a challenge with the American, or Big East, or whoever it is of those top seven or eight conferences. Well the fact of the matter is those dudes already have a date with the prom queen. They schedule together; they collude in order to schedule together. Which is fine, I’m a capitalist. I’m not against the budgets. I’m against the way the scheduling has been allowed to take place by budgets. That’s why I came up with the Alliance concept because when you match conference by conference sometimes the metrics don’t make sense together. So what I’m doing is I’m basically creating my own mini-power conference among multiple conferences where we can take the two or three best teams out of CUSA, the two or three best teams from the Missouri Valley, the two or three best teams out of the Summit, whatever it is, whatever the conferences that come in and continue to move towards that gravitational pull that is bringing opportunity to Alliance members so that we can create the right matchups. When Loyola (Chicago) is a good program, we can match them up with a Western Kentucky, or a Middle Tennessee State when they were on fire, or a Louisiana out of the Sun Belt, or a Georgia State out of the Sun Belt. By creating multi-conference alliances it gives you more flexibility into the types of matchups you bring to your fanbases, and it helps your overall conference metrics as well. You’re doing the same thing the money conferences are doing. How do they set up their challenges? Its best teams projected vs. best teams projected. They can do that because they own the top part of the scheduling model. We can’t as an individual conference, but we can as a collective conferences that bring power ranked teams to play against each other ala the bracket buster, but in a better format that supports everyone’s best interests.
Ethan: Yes, it does sound like a better format because I know, and I’ll just use the Missouri Valley Mountain West Challenge for an example here because we have been talking about that, it seemed like most of the bottom tier Mountain West teams were hosting this year, so it doesn’t always align where you have the top Mountain West teams and the top Missouri Valley teams where one is at home, and one is on the road. Sometimes both will have a home game in a year or both will have a road game in a year, and then you don’t get to have the best team’s against each other because no one wants to give up their home game. With this it sounds like since it is a bunch of different conferences you can more easily put who has home, and who has away, as opposed to when you are in a challenge you are strictly on a certain schedule.
Mark: Well the other disadvantage with a challenge is if you have a conference that has fourteen teams versus. a conference that has ten teams you can only make ten games out of that. The other four are on their own. But with an alliance structure you can create matchups for everybody. That’s what the value is. There’s value in power, in numbers. As we grow from a dozen teams to two dozen teams to four dozen teams that creates better matchups, better metrics, better opportunities for all teams in the Alliance. That’s what I’ve created, and that’s what I’m going to continue to create moving forward. It makes more sense than straight to straight conference versus. conference challenges. No one is going to tell you this, but the Mountain West and Missouri Valley – that relationship went away because Wichita State left the Missouri Valley, as did Creighton, so the Mountain West wanted to dance with the prom queen.
Once upon a time, with those two teams involved, they were more attractive to the Mountain West, but now not as attractive to the Mountain West. Nobody else is going to tell you that, but I visit with a lot of people when it comes down to scheduling, and that was not just my opinion – that was a message reverberating in the marketplace. That’s why the relationship eventually went away. That is casting no aspersion on the Missouri Valley who, by the way, got Loyola Chicago in the Final Four this year. Looking at those conferences and their relationship: does it bring true value? Value isn’t often times related to the actual metric or data that supports it. Often times it is more of a marketing impression that you have about someone else. That is what I believe drove that relationship to where they are not playing each other, and the Mountain West cut a deal with the Atlantic Ten who seemed more desirable. The Atlantic Ten is down this year though; that is a fact.
Ethan: Now this is just more for my personal curiosity. I’m not sure if you are able or want to disclose it. How many conferences total are in your Alliance for next season? Not specific teams, but just conferences.
Mark: There are four conferences that are represented.
Ethan: Okay. Also, something that just kind of gets on my nerves is all of the non division one teams getting on the schedule, everyone’s schedule. I know I get annoyed particularly with my school Valpo because we are scheduling multiple non D1’s every year now when it didn’t always used to be the case. I know coach Luke Gore. I’m good friends with him personally, and he has a large part in making the schedule. He is a nice guy, and I know he works really hard. I get it’s hard to schedule, but at the same time everyone has difficult aspects of their job, and you just have to find a way. Now with 353 D1 teams it seems like we should all be able to find a way to fill thirteen non-conference games against each other. I read Brett McCormick’s recent article with you where you talk some about these non D1 games, but is there anything that can be done to stop these non D1 games from appearing in such numbers in the schedules?
Mark: Yes, and it is more administrative leadership than it has to do with any type of numbers on the scheduling side. The real dynamic as to what takes place is when you are a head coach, and your athletic director brings you in and says “Okay in order to support our athletic program we need you to go on the road, and play three games against high major big budget opponents who are going to generate for us $300,000. It’s going to help us support other aspects of our athletic program okay?”. That conversation takes place in probably 60-70% of division one men’s basketball programs. The coach says: “Okay I’m going to do that.” It might be $100,000, $300,000, $500,000, or $1,000,000 it depends on where you’re at. The coach says “Okay Mr. Athletic Director we’ll go do that. We’ll generate $300,000. We’ll go play three or four games whatever it is, but I want to be able to schedule teams we can beat at home in order to even out my record, so I don’t look bad.” Maybe the semantics might be slightly different, but that is the overall message. They agree “Okay we’ll spend $10,000 a pop to bring in three non D1’s, pay $30,000 give them some pizzas, and we’ll win those games. Your record is now 3-3. Then we’ll play everybody else.” Here is the way to get around all that stuff. You can not evaluate your coaches based upon the games they play against big budget programs. If your budget doesn’t align like a Valpo who spends around 2.5 million, and you’re playing against Syracuse who has over 11 million, or Kentucky that has 19 million, as an athletic director you simply do not count those games against your coach. Say “I’m going to evaluate you on your record against like budgeted opponents, and those other games I’m just throwing them out”. In five years from now you might be 0-20 in those games. Say “I’m not going to count them against you.” We are going to look at like versus like evaluations because those buy games can be held against you in your overall record. Fans they dont care. They look at it and say you’re under .500, so you aren’t doing a very good job. But there might be 40 games that you played on the road with officials from the ACC or the Big East that are officiating those games. You go and lose those games, so your 20 games under .500, but in reality you’re over .500 against the teams that are like budgeted. Yet you lose your job. That’s the way coaches think, and that’s the way athletic directors think. That’s the reality we face today in college basketball.
Ethan: So it sounds like if Athletic Directors just changed their mindset a little bit, or even worked more with coaches to develop a schedule we could get a bunch of these non D1s off the schedule or at least limit them?
Mark: Here is the other part of that. Look I’m a business man now, so I see things different now from when I was coaching. When I was coaching, I wanted control of my schedule because ultimately it was my record, but it’s not my record. Its the school’s. So in my little world as a college basketball coach there is this thing called “the disease of me”, and scheduling comes out in that disease. Where you are only concerned about your future. The men’s basketball program is part of the financial health of the overall athletic program, and who has the responsibility of the overall health of the athletic department? It’s the athletic director. So now, as a business man, I see more clearly and broadly. I think every school should have a chief scheduling officer. That chief scheduling officer is the one who has direct fiduciary responsibility for the athletic department. Now you can go ahead and delegate some of that scheduling to another administrator in the department that you trust and meet with on a regular basis, but I do think having coaches in complete and sole control of their schedule doesn’t make financial sense from a business perspective. College athletics, as much as we love to talk about graduation rates and all the personal benefits is a business. That’s how athletic directors are evaluated. If I were an athletic director of a division one program today, I would take control of all scheduling matters for revenue generating sports. Period. End of story. Because that is the responsibility of the business person who has responsibility for any business. I run my own business today. I understand the value of cash flow believe me. And I see that as a solution moving forward that everyone needs to look at seriously as a leader of the athletic department.
Ethan: Now let’s talk about Conference USA a little bit.
You worked with them to develop a scheduling plan that the primary goal, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, is to increase the seeding of the champion in the NCAA tournament, and the secondary goal is to get more teams at large bids?
Mark: That’s correct.
Ethan: In this plan you play 14 conference games.
Mark: Yes, there are 14 conference games, so you play everybody in the league once. They will play their travel partner home and home which takes 14 games. That gives us a big enough sample of the league then to place them into the pod.
Ethan: Then when you have the last four games of the conference season you group the teams by their record top five, middle five, and bottom four because they have fourteen there in that league. I have a theory about how this came about, but I want to ask you. I feel like in terms of the “do-more-with-less” leagues, CUSA has actually been one of the leagues that has done better the past few years because they have had a team win an NCAA tournament game every single year. Middle Tennessee the first two and, Marshall this past year. Middle Tennessee was ranked late in the year. The year before this, Western Kentucky made an NIT Final Four. So it seems like it has been working pretty well for them. I’m wondering what was the reasoning behind starting this alliance?
Mark: Kermit Davis follows me on Twitter we’re long-time friends, former head coach at Middle Tennessee State and now at Ole Miss. He asked me to come down and meet with their coaches because they were experiencing some real pain within their conference especially of the metric divide I will call it, where the average RPI of the top seven teams in CUSA was about 100-110, whereas the bottom seven teams average RPI was around 270-280. There was 170-point canyon, metric canyon.
Ethan: They were one of the leagues with the bigger spread. We aren’t going to call out anybody, but there were some teams that were really dragging the conference down.
Mark: And there’s a lot of them like that at the “do-more-with-less” level by the way. There’s a ton of them. I could show you all the different conferences and the metric divide within those conferences. Even the American has had a serious divide, just so we’re clear. Whereas the big money conferences don’t have that divide – trust me. We looked at that divide. Let’s look at Middle Tennessee State in particular. You said things were going well for CUSA, and you were right. They were the only conference in NCAA tournament history to win four consecutive NCAA tournament first round games seeded as a 12-14 seed. So let’s look at Middle Tennessee last year. They were ranked in the top 25 in the country. They win their conference championship on a Thursday night, and then they have to play Marshall, who is a decent RPI team about 120. They lose to Marshall at home. Alright, no big deal, they can survive that. Then they go to their conference tournament, and they play the number eight seed, Southern Miss. Doc has done a great job with that team. They lose to a 220 RPI team, and their metric drops from mid 30s down to 40. They drop out of the top 25, and they go from, what theoretically would have been an eight, nine, or ten seed, to out of the NCAA tournament with that quarterfinal loses. Okay, so you see where I’m heading here. A Louisiana Lafayette, for example, were number 35 in the RPI last year on March 3rd. They played Little Rock, who is number 326, in Lafayette. Lafayette had just won the Sun Belt Championship on Thursday night, and they must have partied hard because they laid an egg. Listen, I’ve partied hard in Lafayette too; I know of what I speak. Lafayette loses in overtime to Little Rock and their metric drops from 35 to 61. They no longer have any shot at an at-large bid.
Ethan: And I believe they also went on the road in the NIT as a six seed.
Mark: Yeah, they had to go to LSU.
Ethan: Yeah, that was a massive drop.
Mark: Yup, so your question is why would you go to these pods late in the season? Well we don’t want to expose the best team in CUSA or the best three teams in CUSA to play against no offense number 326 teams like Little Rock from the Sun Belt, or maybe Rice, who is down a little bit right now. I’m sure they’re going to come back. You can’t expose your best teams to those games in late February because the NCAA tournament selection committee is watching, and it can drop your metrics even if you win. That makes no sense. Therefore, we said “Okay, let’s put our best teams together in a pod that way there is less exposure to drop your metrics, and end up as a 14 seed in the NCAA tournament.” Last point and then I’ll shut up. Since 1985 number 14 seeds have won 15% of their games in the NCAA tournament number 11 seeds have won 37.5% of the time, so if you can improve your seed from a 14 to an 11 you increase your chances to win a first round game two and a half times – from 15% to 37.5%. That’s why we’re doing it.
Ethan: Yes, and because the way those NCAA money shares work getting two teams in the tournament is the same amount of money for your conference as if you have one in, but they win a game. Therefore, your thinking is that,: “Its going to be hard already to try and get a second one in, so that will be a secondary goal, and if we can do that that will be good, but we want to just improve the seeding so that we have a better chance to win the game.”
Mark: Yup, that’s exactly right because every level you advance to in the NCAA tournament is worth 1.7 million dollars.
Ethan: Which is why some of those lower major conferences actually have it better than some of the mid majors. Because the MEAC, SWAC, NEC, Big West, or Patriot, or whoever, end up going to Dayton, and have a 50/50 chance against a like ranked team to win a game, and then they get two shares.
Mark: That’s exactly right! That’s why some conferences would prefer to remain uncompetitive, get bought, and make the money on the guarantee side. They’ll play four buy games, and then balance off their schedule with four non D1 games that don’t matter because they don’t care if they’re a number 16 seed. Because they would rather go to Dayton have a chance to win a first round game and make another 1.7 million. There are conferences right now today that accept the status quo and want to stay down there at a 15 or 16 seed because financially it makes sense for them to do it.
Ethan: As we’re getting over a half an hour here and I want to get you get of here, but I do have one more question for you Mark. So you cover the American Athletic conference specifically. You’ve called some of their games already I know. You’ve been to Cincy, Connecticut, seen Memphis play. There are some good teams in the American. Houston is ranked, they are still undefeated. Cincinnati is good. UCF and Temple both have really good records. One team in particular that is just starting to get the national attention they deserve for really killing it so far this year is Tulsa. I know I texted Frank Haith and let him know that I’m really high on his Tulsa team, and will be following them from afar this season. But who do you think will be the top tier teams in the American and have a chance to make some noise this March?
Mark: It’s a great question, and I’m going to give you a straight answer. I don’t know. But that is good. If I’m investing in division one conference stocks right now, I would invest a majority of my money in the American, not because I cover the American, I want to be clear about that. It’s because of the breadth and depth of the teams in that league. I love Tulsa. I’m going to see Tulsa three straight times coming up this season. What Frank has done with an undersized front line, with a highly skilled perimeter, and just nasty defense has been inspiring as a former coach for me to watch. I can say the same thing about Houston where they may be undersized up front. They may go 6’8 with Fabian White maybe 6’9, but those dudes are nasty. Just like Tulsa is nasty. Then you throw Brooks and Davis and Robinson on the perimeter – those guys are just nasty. They play hard, and then Cincinnati Justin Jenifer who never turns the ball over. You got Jared Cumberland who is a really good offensive player. You got Nassir Brooks who can block shots inside. You have Trevon Scott who is becoming another Gary Clark type of player. I could go up and down this league. How about SMU! I watched them the other day. Ethan Chargois looks like a different dude. He is out there guarding people, he looks in shape, he looks better prepared, and more confident. Jamal McMurray, who can score Jimmy Whitt, who is a dynamic offensive defensive presence for Tim Jankovich, and nobody is talking about them. They just went on the road and won at Georgetown. I could talk about like 10 teams right now that are all top 100 teams in the American. This is going to make for a tremendous conference race and I’m excited about it. I like the Tulsa team too. I think they’re great. It’s going to be a mosh pit. That’s the only way I can describe the American right now. And I’m excited about it.
Ethan: I really want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me this morning about scheduling Mark it’s been a pleasure talking, and getting more of the ins and outs, and how we can all improve it as mid major fans. So thank you for the time.
Mark: Its my pleasure. Listen you’ve done a great job not a good job, a great job. with Happening Hoops. I know how you’ve grown on Twitter, and just the way that you represent the Valley, Valpo, the do-more-with-less teams across the country. I’m proud of you and wish you nothing but the best moving forward!
Ethan: Well thank you. That means a lot from you.
Mark: You bet. Have a great day!
Ethan: You too!
Interview recorded on Tuesday December 18th, and written and published on Monday December 31st by Ethan Hennessy.
The cover photo of Mark Adams with Sister Jean Mark’s photo. All other images that appear in the article were taken by Ethan Hennessy, and are property of Happening Hoops.