Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and a voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt has been awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year three times.
UA's matchmaker: Ruta sweats details of hoops scheduling
Arkansas director of basketball operations Anthony Ruta (left) began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Arizona State, his alma mater, during the 2012-13 season. That is where he met Eric Musselman, who was then an assistant for the Sun Devils.
FAYETTEVILLE -- Anthony Ruta spends a lot of hours watching game tapes of possible opponents for the University of Arkansas basketball team.
Putting together the nonconference schedule is something Ruta, the Razorbacks' director of operations, does in consultation with Coach Eric Musselman.
What’s on the schedule
• The Arkansas men’s basketball schedule for the 2020-21 season hasn’t been released, but some games have been announced or confirmed through a Freedom of Information Act request. Here are the games confirmed so far:
Opponent date site
Louisville, Colorado St. or San Fran. (2 of 3) Nov. 20 and 22 Las Vegas
Oklahoma Dec. 12 Tulsa
Old Dominion Dec. 19 North Little Rock
Tulsa TBA Tulsa
Big 12/SEC Challenge TBA TBA
"We want to play four to five marquee games in each nonconference schedule," Ruta said. "Then we want to fill out the rest of the schedule by playing really good mid-major and low-major teams.
"We want to try to project out, what are teams losing from a roster standpoint? Who do they have coming back? Who do they have coming in? What's their style of play on offense and defense?
"That does require watching multi game films on teams."
Even to fill just a single date on the schedule.
"There might be five teams we're considering for one game," Ruta said. "So I might watch two or three full games on each of those teams, trying to get a feel for how they play compared to our style.
"You're trying to get teams that are going to finish in the top three or four in their leagues and have an opportunity to win 20 games."
Musselman and Ruta did a good job of scheduling those kind of teams for home games in Walton Arena last season.
Five mid-majors -- teams that don't require a return game -- the Razorbacks beat at home during the 2019-20 season finished in the top three in their conferences, including North Texas (20-11) winning the Conference USA championship.
Northern Kentucky (23-9) finished second in the Horizon League, Austin Peay (23-9) was third in the Ohio Valley Conference, South Dakota (20-12) was third in the Summit League and Texas Southern (16-16) was third in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
Arkansas also beat Tulsa (21-10) at home. The Golden Hurricane shared the America Athletic Conference title with Cincinnati and Houston, and will host the Razorbacks during the 2020-21 season.
Six teams Arkansas beat without having to return a game on the road won at least 19 games, including Valparaiso (19-16), which tied for sixth in the Missouri Valley Conference.
"It's part of the deal," Ruta said of analyzing game tape of possible opponents. "You want to be sure. You can't just be throwing a dart at a board and picking a team. It's got to be somebody that makes sense for us to play.
"You don't want to pay somebody to come into your building, and it's a team that you just don't match up with very well. Because in the game of basketball, it's probably unlike any other sport where anybody can beat anybody on a given night. You've got to have a balance where you give yourself an opportunity to win, but you also want it to be a challenging game."
Musselman said Ruta puts together depth charts of the 31 Division I conferences other than the SEC.
"I mean, there are not many people that will sit down and go through an entire conference and put together a depth chart to decide who you want to call," Musselman said. "I've never been around anybody that looks at the numbers and knows who's returning and who's sitting out on other rosters like [Ruta] does."
Last season, Musselman and his staff inherited road games at Indiana, Georgia Tech and Western Kentucky that the Razorbacks already were contractually scheduled to play after those teams played at Arkansas during the 2018-19 season.
The tough road schedule worked out well for the Razorbacks as they won at Indiana (which finished 20-12) and Georgia Tech (17-14), and lost at Western Kentucky (20-10). Arkansas also beat TCU (16-16) at home in the Big 12/SEC Challenge.
The Razorbacks' only nonconference road game confirmed publicly for the 2020-21 season is at Tulsa against the Golden Hurricane on a date that hasn't been announced.
Arkansas will play Oklahoma in Tulsa on Dec. 12 and play two games in Las Vegas on Nov. 20 and 22 against a field that includes Louisville, Colorado State and San Francisco. The Razorbacks face Old Dominion in North Little Rock on Dec. 19.
SEC officials have confirmed Arkansas will again play in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, but on the road. An opponent and game date haven't been announced.
"That's awesome," Musselman said of Arkansas playing in the Challenge for a seventh consecutive season. "We're looking forward to that. It's such a national thing, so that really good."
Musselman said he likes neutral site games.
"I think there are some real positives that come out of a neutral site environment as far as preparation for SEC Tournament play, for potentially playing in the NCAA Tournament," Musselman said. "The Las Vegas games are going to give us some neutral site games against some really good competition, and so will [playing Oklahoma]."
In the four seasons Musselman was Nevada's coach before taking the Arkansas job, the Wolf Pack played numerous neutral site games.
Nevada played three games in Honolulu in the Rainbow Classic in the 2015-16 season. During the 2016-17 season, Nevada played three games at the Great Alaska Shootout in Anchorage. The Wolf Pack played two games in Las Vegas and against TCU in Los Angeles during the 2017-18 season. Nevada was back in Las Vegas for two games in the 2018-19 season and also played Arizona State in Los Angeles.
Last season, Nevada played three games at the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands and also played Saint Mary's in San Francisco in games scheduled by Musselman and Ruta.
The Razorbacks will play two games in the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., during the 2021-22 season in the Hall of Fame Classic with a field that, according to CBS Sports, also includes Illinois, Cincinnati and Kansas State. During the 2022-23 season, Arkansas will play at the Maui Invitational in Lahaina, Hawaii.
Arkansas and Oklahoma will play in Tulsa again during the 2021-22 season with the possibility of extending the series two more years.
"I think the new wave of scheduling over these last five or six years is that a lot teams have gotten away from the traditional home-and-home series," Ruta said. "These neutral site games have become really popular.
"It's such a cool experience for an entire program, but especially the players, and it does tremendous wonders on the recruiting trail."
Financial guarantees that Power 5 programs like Arkansas pay opponents agreeing to play in Walton Arena without a return game might be affected by the coronavirus pandemic if attendance must be decreased for safety considerations. But the industry standard has been between $90,000 to $95,000 for guarantees, according to a source, with payments possibly as high as $120,000 depending on the visiting team's expenses.
"It's all a negotiation," Ruta said. "You have to know what the market rate is. What are other SEC teams paying? What are teams in the Big 12 paying?
"Then you've got to know when there's genuine interest or when you feel like a team is just trying to utilize you to drive up the price on another game. Or if you're a Plan B in case something falls through.
"There's a lot of trying to figure it out as you go. There have been multi times -- whether it was here or at Nevada -- I felt really good about a game and we were excited about it as a staff and athletic department, and then at the 11th hour the game fell through. There are a lot of ebbs and flows when it comes to scheduling."
Ruta began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Arizona State, his alma mater, during the 2012-13 season. That's where he met Musselman, who was an assistant for the Sun Devils.
"At Arizona State I was kind of able to get my foot in the door by helping out behind the scenes when it came to scheduling," Ruta said. "It was something I was always fascinated by, how you put a schedule together."
Ruta followed Musselman to Nevada as an assistant coach.
"Scheduling was one of my biggest responsibilities at Nevada," he said. "It's something I took a lot of pride in and something that Coach Muss and I really tag-teamed together and spent a lot of time working on.
"I've had a lot of fun with Coach Muss on the scheduling part of it, because we may not agree with every game or every opportunity, but it's something that we've been able to build a special bond over."
Ruta called putting the schedule together a collaborative effort among himself, Musselman, Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek and Deputy Athletic Director Jon Fagg.
But Musselman credited Ruta for the time and energy he pours into scheduling.
"Work ethic, and then ego-less," Musselman said of Ruta's approach and attitude. "He loves to call other people. He shares ideas. I know [at Nevada] he was in direct contact constantly with the Mountain West office about how to schedule and wanted their feedback.
"There are other people in the business that we have great respect for what they've done scheduling-wise, and [Ruta] has reached out to those people and picked their brains."
Ruta said Arkansas' nonconference schedule hopefully will be finalized within two or three weeks, but it's not a process that should be rushed.
"You want to get it done as soon as you can," he said. "But you don't want to move too fast and then you miss out on a good opportunity where you wish you had kept that date open."
Sports on 05/26/2020
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