AAC Solves Scheduling Predicament By Introducing Regular-Season Tournament In 2021

Image credit: East Carolina celebrates its 2018 American Athletic Conference Tournament championship (Photo courtesy of ECU)

The impending departure of Connecticut for the Big East at the end of this season left the American Athletic Conference in a scheduling predicament for future seasons. Its coaches wanted to continue playing 24 conference games, but with eight teams that wouldn’t be possible using a round-robin format.

The coaches found a novel solution by going back to the future. Next year, on the first weekend of conference play, the American will put on a pair of four-team, round-robin tournaments hosted by Central Florida and South Florida. The tournaments will count as conference games and, over the next seven weeks, the teams will play conventional three-game series, giving them a total of 24 conference games. How the teams will be divided into pods for the opening weekend tournaments has not yet been decided but will involve a formula to help balance the fields. 

The conference will use the format in 2021 and 2022. It will reevaluate after that and could consider other host sites. 

The scheduling format is a throwback to the Southwest Conference First Pitch Tournament, which the now defunct league played in 1995 and 1996 to solve a similar scheduling issue

The American has dealt with this scheduling difficulty before. The conference was created in 2013 after the Big East split in two and had eight teams until Wichita State joined in 2018. Back then, every team in the conference had one designated rival that it played home-and-home series against, while playing a series against the other six teams in the conference.

In some cases, the format made sense. UCF and USF are natural rivals and Houston and Tulane made for an easy pairing. But the other half of the conference—Cincinnati, East Carolina, Memphis and UConn—didn’t lend itself to easy pairings. The system was also ripe for imbalance as it created a situation where two teams competing for first place could play schedules that varied greatly in difficulty.

This new format, however, even with some of the logistical considerations that come with it, should be a win for the conference and its teams. There will be some variance in the quality of opponent for every team based on which tournament they are placed in, but by not doubling up on a series a year, the league avoids much of the imbalance of the previous format.

By staying at 24 games, the American also helps itself from a postseason standpoint. Those three extra games against league opponents are likely to be better for the RPI than what could be scheduled in what would be the teams’ seventh non-conference weekend, several of which would fall after most every other conference has started intra-league play. 

Playing 24 games also simply adds more opportunity for teams to separate themselves. Last year, second and sixth place were separated by just 2.5 games, a common sight in the conference standings. 

The tournaments should add buzz to the conference. With no other leagues employing the format, the American has a chance to capture more interest at the start of its conference slate. A higher profile, a more equitable schedule and more conference games should be a boost for all eight teams in the league.

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