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2006 Non-Conference Question Marks

by David Mihm | January 15th, 2007

Most conferences are well underway with their regular-season schedules; some, like the Pac-10, are one-third complete already. (Can that be right? Football season just finished last week!)

But a team’s in-conference record is only part of the equation on Selection Sunday, albeit an important one. What a team does against non-conference opponents, and to some degree even what opponents a team chooses to play, can also have a dramatic effect on selection and placement in the NCAA Tournament.

Clearly, with mid-majors, there’s not always a true “choice” in non-conference foes. But for major-conference teams, the caliber of one’s opponents matters significantly. Mark Gottfried and Alabama learned this lesson the hard way in 2001. The Crimson Tide were left to accept an NIT bid despite a Top 25 ranking at the end of the year, due in large part to a résumé covered with frosting and a non-conference schedule littered with cupcake wrappers.

Last week we looked at teams whose non-conference performances will help them when it comes time for the Committee to seed (or select) them on March 11. This week, we take a closer look at teams whose non-conference résumés may be used against them.

Syracuse

I touched on it briefly in last week’s piece, but Jim Boeheim plays with fire every year with his non-conference schedule, hoping that the relative strength of Syracuse’s Big East foes will keep his team’s profile strong enough to earn an at-large bid.

Syracuse dropped its only two marquee games this year (at home to Wichita State and at Madison Square Garden to Oklahoma State), and also lost a third non-conference contest to upstart Drexel at home. To Boeheim’s credit, there were a number of quality mid-majors on the slate, including Hofstra and UTEP, but nothing that will get the Selection Committee (or fans) excited.

Syracuse has started strong in Big East play (3-1) including wins at Marquette and over Villanova in the Carrier Dome. But with a tough four game stretch to end the regular season (UConn, at Providence, Georgetown, at Villanova), it’s important to rack up the victories now. The Orange almost certainly would not have made last year’s NCAA Tournament without a spectacular Big East Tournament run (see: Cincinnati), and they may yet need the same this year.

Illinois

We move from Syracuse to another orange-clad team in serious non-conference trouble. The Fighting Illini fought hard in their two marquee non-conference matchups (Maryland at home, Arizona in Phoenix) but stumbled late in both games. Finishing either game would have kept them off this list, but there were simply too many cupcakes on the rest of Illinois’ non-conference schedule to make any real statement to the Selection Committee. Bradley and Missouri, both on neutral courts, are good wins, but Illinois now has its back against the wall when it comes to making the NCAA Tournament.

After Sunday’s loss to Michigan State (a game in which they held an 11-point halftime lead), the Illini dropped to 13-6 on the season. The problem isn’t Illinois’ overall record, but its record against the RPI Top 100, which stands at just 3-6. Looking at the remaining Big Ten schedule for the Illini, they’ll need to beat Wisconsin at home or Indiana on the road to give themselves a realistic chance at an at-large bid.

Florida

With an RPI of 31 this week, the Gators are the de facto selection for this slot out of the SEC—more of an award for “surprisingly low RPI.” The simple fact is, every team that could be labeled an NCAA contender out of this conference did a nice job establishing its non-conference profile, including potential bubble teams Arkansas and South Carolina.

Florida’s first five games were a bit sugar-laden for my taste, but when you line up Kansas and Ohio State, in addition to Providence, Florida State, Western Kentucky, and UAB, it’s clear you’re not running from anybody. Not that the defending champs would have any reason to run.

The Gators’ RPI will rise quickly (and already has, up about 20 spots from two weeks ago). There’s no doubt they’ll be a protected seed on Selection Sunday, and potentially a #1. Now that Billy Donovan’s team is fully healthy, the rest of the SEC had better watch out.

Washington

Much like the SEC, every pre-season NCAA contender in the Pac-10 (along with upstarts Oregon, Washington State, and Stanford) did a nice job with its non-conference schedule. It’s just that the Huskies didn’t get the love from the computers to go along with their two marquee wins: Northern Iowa and LSU.

Now that Lorenzo Romar’s team has started Pac-10 play at just 1-5, Washington’s low RPI could make fans “Sleepless in Seattle” the night before Selection Sunday. Despite a sloppy performance at Cal over the weekend, I suspect the Huskies will turn things around. But given the strength of the rest of the conference, the turnaround had better happen quickly.

The Huskies do have one more non-conference game remaining, and it’s a dandy: a February 17th contest at Pittsburgh. With a win in that one, all would be forgiven in the eyes of the Selection Committee.

Texas A&M

With all of the attention Texas A&M received on some of the “other” dot-coms last week, allow me to interject a dose of reality as to why Billy Gillispie’s team hasn’t yet received the respect so many seem to feel they deserve.

Yes, credit should be given to Gillispie for beefing up his schedule in comparison to years past. But despite two home blowouts of Saint Louis and Winthrop, A&M lost its only two marquee games (at LSU, “at” UCLA in Anaheim). A closer look at the Aggies’ non-conference strength of schedule, currently in the 170’s, indicates just how weak their other ten non-Big-XII opponents were.

Texas A&M may yet be an Elite Eight/Final Four-caliber team. But I’m waiting to see what happens this week, as they host Oklahoma State and travel to Lubbock, before making that assessment. A&M’s non-conference profile simply does not warrant any more than a show-me-first approach to their Big XII performance.

Boston College

The Eagles are off to a 4-0 start in ACC play and appear to be headed safely back to the Big Dance. But the non-conference season was one to forget for Jared Dudley & Co.

Make no mistake—the Selection Committee will certainly remember BC’s home losses to Vermont and Duquesne when it comes to seeding on Selection Sunday, probably more than a nice win over Michigan State in the ACC-Big Ten challenge.

I predict that the Eagles’ non-conference woes will come into particular focus as the Bubble begins to develop around the end of February. Why? BC has what might be the nation’s toughest six-game stretch to close the season (at Florida State, Virginia Tech, and Georgia Tech, and at home to Duke, North Carolina, and Clemson). If BC can come out on top in those six games, winning six straight in the NCAA Tournament might seem easy by comparison…but an even split would probably do nicely for an at-large selection.

Creighton

The Bluejays didn’t exactly perform poorly against their non-conference schedule. It’s just that more was expected from the pre-season MVC favorites. There weren’t any bad losses (Nebraska, Dayton, Fresno State, Hawaii, all on the road), but there weren’t any truly “marquee” wins either (Xavier at home is the best).

With key players Nate Funk and Josh Dotzler coming off of surgeries, it’s possible Dana Altman’s team just took a little longer to find its groove than expected. Creighton’s off to a hot start in Valley play, cruising to a 5-1 record that includes a home win over Missouri State in its opener and a road win at Northern Iowa over the weekend.

I only worry for Creighton fans’ sake based on the similarity of CU’s 2007 profile to that of Missouri State in 2006, right down to the RPI in the mid-20’s. The Bluejays’ BracketBuster matchup (and result) will be critical for a return to the NCAA Tournament as an at-large selection.

Gonzaga

Mark Few never shies away from playing anyone, anywhere. The fact is, he needs to schedule aggressively to make up for the anchor-like effect WCC play typically has on his team’s at-large profile.

But this might be the first year the strategy backfires for Gonzaga (somewhat). The Zags looked great through the first week of December, notching neutral-court wins over North Carolina and Texas, and picking up a home W over UW. Then came a brutal four-game losing streak that included losses at Georgia, to Duke at Madison Square Garden, Nevada in Seattle, and at Virginia. With that streak went most of the ‘Zags hopes at a protected seed, a real shame for Gonzaga fans, since they’re eligible for an opening weekend assignment to Spokane (Washington State is the official site host).

Remaining matchups at Stanford and at home to Memphis would give the Committee late-season indications that Gonzaga still deserves the high seed they’ve become accustomed to receiving. An at-large bid is a near-certainty at this point, but 2006-2007 may be the year that finally encourages Mark Few to tone down the frequent flier mileage.

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