COLUMBIA — With weekend matches against LSU, Arkansas and Drake approaching, Missouri tennis coach Sasha Schmid sat in her office Thursday, trying to recall her calculation of how many wins the Tigers would need to reach the NCAA tournament.
"How many wins do we need, Jas?" she shot across the hall of the newly opened Mizzou Tennis Complex.
"Huh?" answered assistant coach Jason Potthoff.
"Do we need 13 wins?"
"Well, it depends what all gets scheduled, but …"
"Yeah, we’re still trying to schedule a couple more," Schmid said. "It’s either 13 or 14 wins we’re going to need."
Typically, when a team is trying to make its postseason tournament, the coach's job is to win games. Schmid had to add them.
Starting from behind
The team lost two of its top four starters over the winter. A back injury sidelined Elisha Gabb, and Alex Clark left the starting lineup because of personal reasons. The Tigers lost six matches before playing a match in the Southeastern Conference.
"I think that really kind of shook the team, honestly," Schmid said. "When we started, we weren't at all the team that we thought we were when we left for Christmas break."
An NCAA rule implemented two years ago requires a team to have a .500 record to reach the national tournament. With a 4-6 record entering play in one of the nation's toughest conferences, the Tigers had to find another way to boost their win-loss record.
The solution? Scheduling non-conference matches in the middle of the season. The NCAA limits a team to 25 "days of competition" in a given season, which includes matches in the fall as well as the spring. Missouri entered the season with all 25 days full, but because the limit is on dates, not matches, teams can schedule multiple matches in a day to add to its record.
The Tigers added five such matches with hopes of climbing back above the .500 mark.
Although schedules are typically set more than a year in advance, teams can coordinate a non-conference match up to a day before hitting the courts if they want.
Schmid and Potthoff reached out to teams either within the vicinity of Columbia or near the schools Missouri would be visiting on their scheduled road matches. Finding schedule availabilities that overlap is one of the biggest challenges.
"For the most part, everyone is happy to play if they have the open dates," Potthoff said. "Everyone around the country has to deal with the same rules and the same criteria for getting into the (NCAA) tournament ... you get a chance to play a school from the SEC, and some schools are eager to play just to get more competition, just like we are."
Bradley University, one of Missouri's mid-season additions, was happy to play against a team of Missouri's caliber. Bradley coach Matt Tyler said he heard from Missouri in late January.
"They’re a very good team. Regardless of what their schedule says, they’re a great tennis team," Tyler said. "So we were thrilled to have the opportunity to play somebody like that."
Although it was understood that Missouri wanted to play Bradley to better its win-loss percentage, Tyler said he never explicitly asked the Missouri coaches why they wanted to schedule the match. He understood, however, that Missouri anticipated leaving the match with one more "W."
"That’s sort of the obvious thing," Tyler said. "I think our history would be that we would be a team that Missouri would beat. Of course, they have to think about trying to get to the NCAA tournament and what that takes, and that means they have to play some teams that they feel like they can get wins over."
Schmid was on Bradley's side of the equation when she was the coach at Stetson University, an Atlantic Sun Conference school in Florida.
"It was a great opportunity to be able to go and play a school from a major conference," she said. "I think you go in there knowing it’s a challenge, but it’s kind of a cool opportunity for your team to play against a high-level (team) and to learn from it."
The .500 rule has increased the number of teams adding doubleheaders midseason, especially in the SEC, where wins can be hard to come by once conference play begins. Six of the conference's 14 teams are ranked 25 or better.
"I don’t think you find that consistency in any other conference," Schmid said. "The ACC, I think, is a very, very talented conference, but you’ve still got a couple teams in each conference that aren’t quite there at that high level. In this league, you don’t."
Though the NCAA's .500 rule creates an added incentive for teams to schedule doubleheaders the past two seasons, Potthoff said schools have scheduled them "for years and years."
"A lot of time people will use doubleheaders when they play a match against maybe a lower-ranked school to get some of the younger players, or their less experienced players, a chance to get in to play a match," he said.
Snag in the plan
Unfortunately for the Tigers, a disappointing weekend did not bring Missouri any closer to the 13 or 14 wins Schmid estimated. On Friday, Missouri fell 6-1 to LSU. Then Missouri dropped a 4-3 match to Arkansas on Sunday. Both were SEC matches Schmid thought the Tigers could win.
Things got worse Sunday night when Missouri fell 4-3 to Drake in one of the non-conference games Missouri scheduled midseason to improve its win percentage.
The Tigers losing three matches eliminated any incentive to schedule more non-conference matches, which Potthoff planned to do over next week's spring break.
"At this point, beating some unranked team isn’t going to help us anyway," Potthoff said.
The Tigers plan for making the NCAA tournament now shifts away from defeating conference teams they thought they should beat and non-conference foes added midseason to tallying upsets against upper-tier teams.
"Not only do we have to be .500, but you basically have to be in the top 40" to get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, Potthoff said. "And so, beating upcoming teams that we have scheduled like A&M and Rice and Alabama and Auburn, that would kind of kill two birds with one stone. That would help us to move up the rankings and to get our win-loss record where it needed to be. That’s kind of our strategy now."
Though the Missouri staff doesn't expect to add more doubleheaders this year, the process could begin again next year. Potthoff said that hosting more matches is a good way to promote the program.
"With our facility for the most part complete, we’d like to get students and people from the community to come out and see the facility and see the team represent the university," he said.
But if all goes according to plan, Missouri tennis won't be spending much time in future years counting potential wins or scheduling matches midseason to tilt its balance of wins and losses.
"Hopefully, in the very near future, the .500 rule is not going to be something that we have to contend with," Potthoff said. "We’ll have the needed wins and we’ll have the ranking that we need, and hopefully, we’re an every-year fixture in the NCAA tournament. That’s what we set out to do here, and hopefully, that’s happening very soon."
Supervising editor is Erik Hall.