For both UC and XU, early-season basketball tourneys offer a valuable litmus test

But scheduling exempt tourneys is no slam-dunk
Posted at 9:00 AM, Nov 18, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-18 09:00:02-05

About the time the University of Cincinnati men's basketball team flies to Connecticut for a pair of weekend games in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame Tip-Off, Xavier will be in the midst of the Tire Pros Invitational in Florida.

UC and XU are among dozens of programs traveling to exempt events in the next two weeks. The early-season tournaments have become fixtures in college basketball for their ability to provide quality competition in condensed formats.

But how do exempt events come to fruition for specific teams?

The formula starts with numbers. Each Division I team has a base of 27 games including its conference schedule. From there, programs have a choice: Schedule two more regular-season games for a total of 29 and refrain from an exempt event, or schedule an exempt event that could vary from three to four games but no more than a regular-season total of 31.

The Musketeers and Bearcats subscribe to the latter scheduling philosophy.

"We identify the biggest benefits as going somewhere, playing on a neutral court and facing teams that can build your resume at a later date and, at an early part of your season, prepare your team to play at a high level," said Mario Mercurio, Xavier's director of basketball administration.

Exempt events can fortify a team's non-conference schedule and bolster its Ratings Percentage Index (a measuring tool comprising wins, losses and strength of schedule), which may enhance its consideration by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee come March.

There are other perks, such as exposure to a national audience. Xavier generally plays in ESPN events, which are televised on the network's family of channels, and the Bearcats also seek tournaments with the broadest possible reach.

Mark Berger, UC's director of basketball operations, said there are intangible incentives, too.

"You get your guys used to playing in a tournament-type atmosphere. It's good for team bonding early in the season for you and your team to get away," Berger said. "And it's good for fans and boosters, depending on where you're going."

Berger said 20 to 30 boosters will be on a Saturday flight to Connecticut, well ahead of the Bearcats' 3 p.m. Top 25 clash against No. 21 Rhode Island. UC, ranked 24th in the latest Associated Press poll, faces top-ranked Duke or Penn State in a Sunday game at a time to be determined.

No. 11 Xavier began the Tire Pros Invitational on Thursday, edging Missouri 83-82 in OT, and meets Clemson in Friday's semifinal at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. If they win, the Musketeers are in Sunday's championship against Northern Iowa, Tulane or Oklahoma.

In a rare twist, Xavier will play on the same court where it won last year's AdvoCare Invitational. The Tire Pros Invitational was originally the Puerto Rico Tip-Off in San Juan, but Zika virus concerns forced ESPN to move the event to Florida in late September.

A rule among exempt events is that teams cannot compete in the same tournament more than once in a four-year span. While Xavier isn't in the same event as last year, HP Field House has good vibes for a team that dismantled Dayton in a 90-61 finale there last November.

Mercurio said the switch from Puerto Rico to Orlando was largely handled by ESPN. Xavier was only responsible for altering its air travel.

"ESPN's connection to Disney allowed for relatively easy access to the Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, resulting in a seamless transition," Mercurio said. "For our team, winning last year's AdvoCare Invitational on the same court and having a general sense of what to expect over the course of the six-day trip are both positives."

Although only one member from a specific conference can be in a given exempt event, the formats vary by tournament.

UC started its season with two non-bracketed Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame Tip-Off games at Fifth Third Arena, for example, meaning its outings against Brown and Albany were stand-alone contests that did not affect the bracketed games in Connecticut.

Meanwhile, the Tire Pros Invitational format consists of three games in four days in Orlando, along with the possibility of a fourth, non-bracketed game on a campus site. The Musketeers seized the opportunity to utilize the fourth-game option when trying to fill a Nov. 26 opening on their home slate.

"This certainly adds another complex piece to the puzzle," Mercurio said. "An exempt event allows up to four games to be included under the same umbrella. If the event itself only schedules three, you can independently contact teams within that event to see if they'd like to play an additional fourth game. We've always tried to take advantage of that option when it makes sense within our overall philosophy."

XU put out feelers to the other seven teams in the Tire Pros Invitational. Northern Iowa reciprocated interest. The programs likely won't meet twice in one week, though, because they're situated on opposite sides of the tournament bracket.

Berger said next year the Bearcats will play three games at one site as part of the new Cayman Islands Classic. The tournament, which is Nov. 20-22 in 2017, includes Iowa, UAB, Wyoming, Richmond, Louisiana-Lafayette, South Dakota State and Buffalo.

In 2018, the Bearcats will return to the Emerald Coast Classic in Florida.

"The crazy thing is how far in advance exempt tournaments are scheduled. People are always like, ‘Why don't you guys get Maui again?' The (Maui Jim Maui Invitational) is booked to 2020," Berger said. "It's hard to get in certain events."

A program may be attractive to tournaments for multiple reasons, from the representation of its conference to the relationships it has with the entities that host the events. Some of the most prestigious exempt events are the Maui Invitational, the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, and the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Next fall Xavier plays for the first time in the FOX-televised Las Vegas Invitational. After two non-bracketed home games, the Musketeers travel to Orleans Arena for a pair of outings Nov. 23-24, 2017. The field has not yet been released.

Then, in 2018, the Musketeers are part of the Maui Invitational which will, for the first time in event history, feature eight Division I schools: Arizona, Auburn, Duke, Gonzaga, Illinois, Iowa State and San Diego State in addition to Xavier.

"In 2019 and beyond, we are very close to ironing out destinations," Mercurio said.

While the allure of vacation destinations and elite competition can be useful in recruiting, to Xavier coach Chris Mack there is no greater benefit than the litmus test afforded by exempt events.

"I think you, as a coach, really learn about your team in 72 to 96 hours. Make no mistake -- we're going to go down there and win the tournament and win our first game and get on the right side of the bracket. But where do you go from there?" Mack said ahead of the Florida trip.

"As far as the NCAA Tournament, it's a big thing to play teams that matter, and we're going to have that opportunity down there. But I also look at it from the perspective of knowing what our team needs to get better at and learning from it when we come back."