The knock on college basketball as a sport is that its regular season doesn't matter. And, to a certain degree, that's true. The MSU football team couldn't have survived the spell of bad results the MSU basketball team had last month and stayed in contention for a national championship.
But that doesn't mean individual college basketball games can't carry a high level of import. It doesn't get a whole lot better than two highly-ranked in-state rivals playing in front of a partisan crowd in January or February. Duke-North Carolina would, of course, be the longest running version of this phenomenon.
In fact, the two teams don't even have to be regular rivals. See the Oklahoma-LSU and Kentucky-Kansas games from this past Saturday. Those crowds couldn't have been any more invested in the outcomes of the games and anyone tuning in on television couldn't have been much more captivated. But a regular rivalry does help buffer against one team or the other not being a national contender.
This brings us to Saturday, when Michigan and Michigan State will play for the only time this season (barring a Big Ten or NCAA tournament match-up). This is an in-state rivalry that now matches or exceeds the quality of any in the country. Over the last five seasons, the two programs have combined for eight 20-win seasons, three Big Ten championships, nine NCAA tournament appearances, 20 NCAA tournament wins, and four Elite Eight appearances. The teams have basically split 11 games over that period (six wins for Michigan; 5 for MSU, including a BTT win), with several memorable finishes among those games. This season, MSU is ranked in the top ten, and Michigan sports a 7-3 conference record despite playing all but one of those games without its best player (#excuses).
It's a game any college basketball fan in Michigan wants to see twice per year and that most serious fans across the nation are going to tune into. And it's a game students from both schools deserve to witness first-hand four times during their college experiences. The Izzone will get no crack at the boys in maize this year. With the expansion to 14 Big Teams, playing your rival twice has gone from being the expectation (7 of 11 seasons on average) to being the exception (5 of 13 seasons).
Elsewhere in the Big Ten, the Indiana-Purdue game has a similar history (if not the same national prominence in recent years). And my sense is that the fans involved in the Minnesota-Wisconsin and Illinois-Northwestern rivalries have something invested. Other rivalries within the conference might not have quite as much history (mainly due to conference expansion), but why not give them a better shot at building intensity over time?
So here's my plan:
--Every Big Ten team is assigned a fixed rival, built around the three in-state rivalries, that it's guaranteed to play twice each regular season.
--To avoid creating a competitive disadvantage for teams whose rivals are perennial contenders, each team would also play a team twice from the opposite side of the previous year's standings, using Big Ten Tournament seeds. If your rival was the #1 seed in the BTT the previous season, the #14 team would also be a double-play; #2/#13; and so on and so forth.
--A third double-play would then also be automatically created--since every team is the inverse seed of someone else's rival.
--A team's final two double-plays (to get to five total) would then be assigned randomly, with some system to rotate them over time (the way they all are now). Ideally, they'd be picked out of the pool of teams you hadn't played twice in season within the last three seasons or so.
Here's how this plan would have looked this season:
You'd have an issue if a team ended up being the inverse seed of its own rival. But you could just flip the seeds with a team immediately above or below the team without creating any serious imbalance. Overall, you reduce the strength-of-schedule swing to three games (the third automatically assigned double-play plus the two randomly assigned double-plays) rather than five. And I think the two automatically assigned non-rival double-plays would end up being pretty random over time. It certainly wouldn't be any worse than what we have now.
The bottom line is maximizing regular season excitement at the very small cost of rotating 12 opponents across four double-play slots rather than 13 over five slots. What's not to like?
P.S. I'll leave the "Ohio State is also Michigan's (/Michigan's only) rival" debate to the comments section. Note that MSU fans would rather play Wisconsin twice. But we're making the sacrifice for logistical purposes.
P.P.S. Thanks to Spartan Dan and CT in TC for helping me work out the kinks in this plan. CT thinks Ohio State-Maryland and Penn State-Rutgers make for better rivalry pairings than what I did above. I'm down.