With expanded conference memberships making double round-robin conference schedules an endangered species—with the notable exceptions of the Big 12, Missouri Valley, Horizon, and West Coast, among others—unbalanced league scheduling formulas mean that contenders aren't necessarily guaranteed a plethora of matchups with similarly-placed teams from January to March. (But that's a topic for another week.) Expansion means properly constructing a strong non-conference slate—the portion of the schedule coaches truly control—is now more important than ever.
What constitutes a quality non-conference schedule?
For power conference members in particular, job one is avoiding games against teams likely to finish in the bottom third of the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) table. These contests will only deflate a team's strength of schedule (SOS) and RPI numbers as the year wears on. This is easier said than done, since these schools often need guarantee game checks to help fund their athletic departments.
In recent seasons, Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, Billy Donovan at Florida, John Calipari at Kentucky, Bill Self at Kansas and Tom Izzo at Michigan State have been among the leaders in power conference schedule construction, though often by using different approaches.
Duke rarely plays road games, focusing instead on neutral-site contests. Calipari is another proponent of this route, partnering Kentucky with Duke, Michigan State, and Kansas in ESPN's Champions Challenge series and North Carolina, Ohio State, and UCLA in the CBS Sports Classic, which enters its second season. Conversely, Michigan State is typically good for an unexpected trip each season (witness this year's visit to Northeastern and last season's game at Navy). Donovan bumped up Florida's schedule quality after a couple of NCAA snubs, primarily by signing up for marquee home-and-home series. It will be interesting to see if his successor, former Louisiana Tech boss Mike White, continues that philosophy after playing through a largely Donovan-built 2015-16 slate.
Krzyzewski, Donovan, Calipari, Izzo, and Self do (or in Donovan's case, did) a particularly good job of managing their guarantee games, however. Sure, the occasional contest against the bottom third of Division I appears (in MSU's case, there are three this season), but these coaches attempt to arrange games against non-marquee opponents who are likely to finish with a winning record, if not contend for a conference crown.
Now, not all Power 6 coaches share this philosophy, as I'll illustrate as the week unfolds. You know these schedules because they belong to teams that end up having to sweat out Selection Sunday or, at best, end up with a multiple-line seeding ding when they're likely selections.
For coaches at mid-major schools, a proactive approach to scheduling can pay dividends. Tim Cluess often gets Iona in the at-large picture through smart scheduling. While the Gaels most certainly won't get any big names to come to New Rochelle and aren't a power conference team's ideal guarantee game opponent, Iona typically schedules other squads that are in a similar position. Since those teams are likely to contend come March, Cluess's team typically finds itself with excellent computer numbers come Selection Sunday. In 2012, that resulted in an unexpected at-large bid. Three seasons later, Iona found itself in the NIT. As I'll discuss in a post closer to tip-off, the Gaels could just do it again.
To determine a team's quality, I decided to look at their past performance. Since I had difficulty finding a database with RPI data, I elected to use Ken Pomeroy's rankings for the past four seasons. I took his raw pythagorean win percentage (pwp) numbers for the 2011-12 through 2014-15 seasons (from before the NCAA Tournament) and weighted them—with heavier emphasis on recent seasons, starting with last year's results weighted at 0.8, not 1.0, since change (roster turnover and coaching changes) is the only constant in college basketball. I then summed the four weighted numbers.
The formula looks like this:
2014-15 pwp*0.8+2013-14 pwp*0.6+2012-13 pwp*0.4+2011-12 pwp*0.2
I then ranked each team from No. 1 Arizona (you probably thought it would be another set of Wildcats) to No. 351 Grambling State.
At this point, I performed a variety of tasks to organize the data. First, I grouped the results by conference to see which leagues had performed the best (and worst) over the past four regular seasons.
The six power conferences—the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC—naturally led the way in most of this analysis. The Big East's average of its members' rankings (55) led the way, though the Big Ten (56) and Big 12 (57) were just behind. The SEC was the worst of the six with an average ranking of 75, though this is 32 places above the average of the seventh-place conference, the Atlantic 10.
At the other end of the spectrum, the WAC, Southland, MEAC, and SWAC propped the table up. Looking deeper at those numbers, I looked at the spread between a conference's midpoint and its lowest-ranked members. There wasn't much distance between the two numbers for the SWAC (26 places), WAC (36), MEAC (44), and Southland (48) among the conferences that fell in Division I's the bottom 10 and the OVC (37) that sits just above it.
From a scheduling perspective, the bottom half of these leagues include the teams most likely to fall within the bottom third of Division I based on recent performance. These are the teams to avoid scheduling at all cost.
Curiously, the largest spread between the top and bottom of a conference was in the Mountain West, where 318 places separate San Diego State (18) and San Jose State (336). The Colonial Athletic Association had the lowest, with 84 spots between Northeastern (154) and UNC Wilmington (238).
Ranking Actual Schedules
The second and most important part of my analysis focused on ranking individual team schedules for this season.
Now, I didn't analyze all 351 Division I schedules for time reasons. Instead, I reviewed the 116 teams I think have the best chance of earning an at-large (though in some of these cases, those chances are admittedly slim and I included banned SMU for comparison's sake). This sample includes the entirety of the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC, as well as the American, mostly because I wanted to show how that conference's stratification might hurt its postseason chances. Each of these seven conferences will have its own post.
I also included likely bid contenders from the Atlantic 10, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, and West Coast, along with some longshots from the Big West, Conference USA, Horizon, Metro Atlantic, and Mid-American. I combined these teams in these leagues into a pair of posts that will run on Friday.
Each post will list the team's non-conference schedule, along with the average of their opponents' four-year pwp rankings. I ranked all 116 contenders based on this metric, so the higher the ranking, the better the schedule for potential selection.
With most of these 116 teams involved in some sort of tournament, and with a few scheduling games against non-Division I opponents, I had to decide how to handle those situations. So, for bracketed tournaments, I projected matchups when necessary. For example, I forecast that Virginia would defeat Bradley in the Charleston Classic quarterfinals and meet Seton Hall and Oklahoma State on days two and three. So, I plugged the Pirates' and Cowboys' four-year pwp averages into Virginia's schedule.
If a team purposely scheduled a non-Division I team, I assigned this opponent a 400 rating. Sure, these games allegedly don't count toward selection and, in fact, appear in a separate section of a team's selection sheet, but these contests count as missed opportunities. Thus, I've added a penalty to my analysis. The only exceptions are the two Division II teams that host bracketed tournaments, Chaminade (Maui Jim Maui Invitational) and Alaska Anchorage (Great Alaska Shootout), since playing these teams is part of the cost of signing up to a quality event. So, in the case of Kansas, UNLV, and St. John's, who I projected to play the Silverswords in Lahaina, I assigned the hosts with a score of 351, matching the worst Division I ranking, even though Chaminade would probably finish far higher in an actual Division I RPI table.
Now, this measurement isn't perfect, since it doesn't take into account this season's projections, meaning a game against Maryland won't pack the punch it should, thanks to a couple of lean years in the last four, while a game against, say Florida, might count for too much, due to 2014-15's struggles. I also didn't add a weighting factor for game location (home/road/neutral). These are all factors I may incorporate in future seasons. Feel free to share your thoughts on my methodology as the week rolls on.
I'll come back before conference play begins to see how these contenders did against their November and December opposition and is therefore in the best position to find a place in the bracket come Selection Sunday.
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