Tops face tough road

Adam Eadens

Making a schedule is no easy task. It becomes even more difficult while attempting to build a nationally prominent basketball program.

“It’s the toughest part of my job right now, even tougher than recruiting,” Coach Dennis Felton said.

So many factors come into play when designing a schedule for a season. Felton is clear about what he wants.

He wants a schedule that gives his team opportunities to make national statements. He wants it to be balanced in terms of the number of home and away games. He wants it to be fair to Western fans and fair to his players physically.

Western kicks off its regular season against No. 1-ranked Arizona in Tuscon Nov. 23. The Hilltoppers will also be in Hawaii for the Outrigger Hotels Rainbow Classic in late December.

“Arizona fits well geographically with a lot of our alumni,” Athletics Director Wood Selig said.

It also fits with Felton’s agenda – making his Toppers battle-tested. Western is heavily favored to win the Sun Belt Conference for a third straight year. Louisiana-Lafayette appears the other only viable contender.

“I think our non-conference schedule will be one of the 10 to 20 toughest in the country,” Felton said.

Although Felton is confident in his non-conference schedule, he says he’s disappointed that Western can’t get many top programs to play in a home-and-home series.

“It’s easier for a big school to be taken seriously,” Felton said. “They belong there, and we work twice as hard to catch up.

“The NCAA agenda is going to cater to (big) schools,” Felton said. “That’s who’s running the show. They are going to protect their interest.”

Felton believes that most major schools are “circling the wagons” by refusing to play mid-major teams and certainly not playing them at home. Although big programs have played in Diddle Arena in the past, Felton believes that it won’t happen here anymore.

Felton said the trend in college basketball has shifted to the “win-or-you’re-gone” mentality regarding head coaches. Coaches are being smart about avoiding criticism and potentially losing their jobs. They have no reason to play Western or any team without major status that they could potentially lose to.

But Western will get another shot at a major-conference team Dec. 1 when they play Auburn of the Southeastern Conference in Nashville.

They’ll also play one of any number of quality teams in the same “mid-major” boat when the Toppers compete in ESPN’s Bracket Buster Saturday. The Feb. 22 event will pit several past and potential NCAA Tournament bracket busters against each other for a shot at strengthening their status.

It’s a welcomed addition to the Toppers’ schedule as Western continues searching for good competition. Normally, scheduling is a beg, borrow and steal situation, Selig said.

“You rely on connections and friendships at other institutions,” he said. “You make a zillion phone calls and faxes.”

The Auburn game actually fell in Western’s lap. Auburn was looking for a competitive, non-conference away game. Felton and Selig were happy to oblige.

And they’re always looking for future takers.