Scheduling 101: How to Use Your Schedule to Your Advantage on Selection Sunday

by David Mihm | November 1st, 2006

“RPI.” “SOS.” “Quality wins.” “Bad losses.” “Conference.” “Non-Conference.” “Road/Neutral.” “Last 10.”

It’s too early this season to have heard these terms mentioned much yet. But come March, they’ll be bandied about on ESPN, CBS, and Fox almost as often as we hear “Weapons of Mass Destruction” or “Avian Flu” on CNN. And it’s with good reason commentators and hosts are fascinated by these terms: these are the key factors weighed by the NCAA Selection Committee when it decides which teams to select for the 2006 NCAA Tournament and where to seed them.

But, for the teams involved, March is much too late to start thinking about how each of these factors affects their standing in the eyes of the Committee. Coaches and athletic directors must plan ahead and consider them as they lay out the non-conference portion of their team’s schedule over the course of the previous Spring and Summer.

Because conference play takes up about 60% of most teams’ seasons, a team’s conference affiliation (and with advent of the mega-conference, its conference schedule), plays a big role in deciding whom it should play in the non-conference season. Mid-major schools without a consistent, established program (Gonzaga, Creighton, or Southern Illinois, for example) should schedule games differently than teams from the power conferences.

The Selection Committee has recognized that conference affiliations place a significant artificial ceiling on how high a mid-major team’s RPI can go, and an artificial floor on how low a major conference team’s RPI can go. That’s just the nature of the formula, which, it should be noted, is only one component of a team’s profile that gets examined by the Committee.

Nevertheless, the Committee has implored teams to schedule as many marquee opponents as possible in their nonconference seasons. They’ve done this both by rewarding “Warriors” with higher seeds, or by “snubbing” teams with cupcake nonconference schedules. Some Committee chairmen, including Bob Bowlsby and Mike Tranghese, have explicitly encouraged teams to schedule tougher opponents in interviews with CBS and other media outlets.

Despite what the Committee says, though, harder isn’t always better. Let’s take a look at ten concrete scheduling tips that will improve your team’s chances at a good seed in March:

1. Look at your team.
This is an obvious one that coaches have been following for years, so I won’t go into too much detail. A team’s experience and makeup should play an important role in deciding which opponents to put on its nonconference slate. Teams that start mostly upperclassmen should schedule a bit more aggressively than teams starting mostly freshmen or sophomores, as it’s important to bring young players along in front of supportive, rather than hostile, crowds in the early season.

2. Avoid a sugar rush (no cupcakes*)!
But even if your team is starting five underclassmen, you should never, EVER schedule cupcakes after the first game or two of the year. It’s fine to have a couple of warmup games to work out the kinks in your offense, but beyond that, what are the benefits of scheduling a terrible team?

It’s a guaranteed win, yes, but at what cost? Is your team gaining anything from the experience? Chances are they’d learn more in a controlled intra-squad scrimmage. Your fans are frustrated that you’ve wasted one of their valuable season tickets on a non-competitive matchup with no firepower on the other side of the court. Your fans will be even more angry when they find out you’ve bombed your own RPI by playing these anchors, and thus your team’s chances at locking up a bid to the Big Dance, in March.

The bare bones of the RPI formula are the following: 25% is based on your own winning percentage, 50% on your opponents’ winning percentage, and 25% on your opponents’ opponents winning percentage.

It’s fourth-grade math: since the win only gives you a 25% boost, but just PLAYING the team gives you a 75% knock, you’re shooting your team in its collective foot by a 3:1 margin. Add that to the fact that Selection Committee chairmen have consistently stated they like to see teams that have played a COMPETITIVE non-conference schedule.

If you’re a marquee team and you want to pick up an “easy” win, do it against middle-of-the-road teams from quality mid-major conferences, not the Savannah States and Stony Brooks of the world.

*I consider a cupcake to be any team you expect to end up in the bottom half of the RPI. This means teams 170 and below. There must be some math on Ken Pomeroy’s or Joe Lunardi’s site to back this up, but intuitively, this seems to me to be the cutoff line between RPI anchors and RPI placebos, i.e. teams that neither hurt nor help your team’s RPI.

3. Analyze your conference schedule.
Although teams don’t have control over their in-conference schedules, which are typically set by the league offices, there are ways to use your conference schedule to your advantage, no matter its makeup.

In this era of mega-conferences, not every conference schedule is created equal. The Pac-10 is the only “BCS” conference that still plays a true home-and-home round robin schedule. Even most of the top mid-major conferences split their schedules unevenly (MAC, MVC, CAA, CUSA).

So for non-Pac-10 members, it’s important to consider the weighting of your conference schedule. You’re going to get an RPI boost simply by playing in a quality conference, because of the 25% of the formula that’s derived from your opponents’ opponents winning percentage. For the same reason, your team is going to take an RPI hit if it’s not in a top RPI conference.

But it’s important to look at the teams you’re scheduled to play in conference, rather than just your affiliation. If you’re set up to play the favorites in your conference twice, but some of the weaker teams only once, it’s probably best to schedule more average-quality teams on your non-conference slate, rather than marquee names.

The reverse is true if you play more bottom-feeders than contenders in conference play: John Calipari did a terrific job of scheduling in 2005-2006, following the exodus of most of the Memphis Tigers’ top competition in CUSA to the Big East. Cal scheduled everyone he could think of, including games away from home and on neutral courts, and wound up getting a #1 seed despite playing in a conference ranked in double-digits according to the RPI.

4. Don’t be afraid to go on the road.
Some analysts, including Jay Bilas, have praised Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim for his non-conference scheduling mentality. I am not one of those analysts. Make no mistake: without a desperation three pointer against Cincinnati by Gerry McNamara in the Big East Tournament, the Orange would have been left out of last season’s field of 65.

Syracuse consistently sets up its non-conference schedule so it doesn’t have to leave the Empire State until after the start of the new year. 2006-2007 is no different for the Orangemen, as their only true non-conference road game is a pathetic 149 miles away in Buffalo against lowly Canisius. Their only neutral-court game is in MSG against Oklahoma State.

It may have worked out for Syracuse in 2005-2006, but I would not pin my hopes on that kind of Big East Tournament performance every year. If the Orange go even 1-2 in their three marquee non-conference games this year (Charlotte, N-Oklahoma State, Wichita State), they’ll need a much better in-conference record than last year to make the NCAA Tournament. Boeheim is playing with fire in the eyes of the Selection Committee.

Compare Syracuse of 2005-2006 with the Arizona Wildcats of 2005-2006. Both teams had a lot of talent, both significantly underachieved in conference play, but Arizona set its schedule up in a wildly different manner from the Orangemen.

The Wildcats played three games in Maui, played at Houston, at Utah, and at North Carolina. Their record in those games? 2-4, including a win against Kansas that was probably the ugliest game of college basketball played since the advent of the shot clock. And despite a profoundly mediocre Pac-10 season, the Wildcats were in the “lock” category well in advance of Selection Sunday. Those early season challenges also prepared them for a double-overtime win in one of the best games of the year, at Washington’s Hec-Ed Pavilion.

The bottom line: the reward for even one quality road win far outweighs the risk of a couple of defeats.

5. Play as many neutral-site games as you can.
It’s hard for teams that don’t have a marketing draw to get into pre-conference tournaments like the Maui Invitational, Preseason NIT, Coaches Vs. Cancer, the BCE Classic, and others. But the benefits for those teams that do get in is huge.

Why? Most or all of these tournaments are like miniature NCAA Tournaments. At least half of the games (assuming your team can make it to the advanced stages of the tournament) are played on truly neutral courts, hundreds or thousands of miles away from the confines of your campus, against quality competition. The Selection Committee quite rightly gives these, and other, neutral court games because of their similarity to NCAA Tournament-style matchups.

Another option is to play a single neutral-court game at an NBA or other arena that is close to your fan base. Illinois, Arizona, Gonzaga, and Duke have traditionally used this technique well, playing games at Chicago’s United Center, Phoenix’s US Airways Center, Seattle’s Key Arena, and Greensboro’s Coliseum on a regular basis. While the Committee recognizes these aren’t “true” neutral-court games (like those at a pre-season or conference tournament), the RPI formula doesn’t know the difference, and will give your team a slight boost for playing these games.

6. Quality mid-majors are your friends!
It would be nice if just once a Committee chairman would come out and explicitly proclaim that “A loss to a good mid-major team does not hurt you.” The RPI numbers and the NCAA seeding statistics of years past back this up, but it’s still nearly impossible for mid-majors to get a home-and-home with their BCS brethren.

One of the more powerful recent examples is LSU, which lost home games to Houston and Northern Iowa in the non-conference portion of its schedule. And what did the Tigers do?

Particularly with the latest tweak to the RPI formula that pushed the MVC ahead of the Pac-10 in conference strength, and the CAA and the WAC into the top ten, scheduling teams that finish near the top of these conferences can significantly enhance your NCAA Tournament resume, should you win, and will not hurt your RPI with a loss.

Major-conference teams no longer have any excuse to duck the Wichita States, Creightons, Kent States, San Diego States, and Hofstras of the world.

7. Schedule a quality out-of-conference opponent in the middle of conference play.
Not every schedule is conducive to this technique, but if set up propertly (i.e. a “bye” sandwiched between two home games), adding a quality opponent can be a great addition to any NCAA Tournament resume.

With so many marquee non-conference games being played early in the season, it’s tough for the Selection Committee to evaluate how much better a team has gotten as the season progresses. Conference play can be less than indicative, because teams know each other so well and crowds are at their most hostile.

In recent years, teams that have scheduled successful in-conference games are Cincinnati and Xavier, Arizona and North Carolina, and UConn and Indiana.

Wisconsin was karmatically “penalized” for scheduling a cupcake during its bye week in 2006, losing an absolute shocker to North Dakota State at the Kohl Center.

The final tips outline three possible strategies for a healthy non-conference schedule, using nutrition as an analogy:

8. The Cross-Country Diet.
The Cross-Country Diet likens the non-conference schedule to preparation for a marathon (which the conference season certainly is for many major-conference schools). Runners tend to load up on carbohydrates before the race to make sure they have enough energy to reach the finish line. They sprinkle in just enough protein to make sure they’re building muscle, not fat.

The tricks to making this strategy work are:

a) Make sure you feast on muffins and scones (RPI <170), not cupcakes (RPI >170).
b) Make sure you get those one or two T-bone steaks on the menu…if not, you’ll be in for a crash at the end of the race.

An extreme illustration of the danger inherent in this strategy is Florida State of 2005-2006. The only game on FSU’s state in the non-conference portion of its schedule was an intra-state matchup at Florida. A win in that game, and the Seminoles almost certainly would have made the NCAA Tournament, but instead they lost by 8. Essentially that left the Seminoles’ non-conference record at 0-1 in the eyes of the Committee. The nine wins they put up against their other pre-conference opponents were useless because of the atrociously high sugar content present in their choices. As it was, the win against Duke in ACC play was not enough, and FSU’s 315th-ranked Strength of Schedule ultimately did in the ‘Noles NCAA hopes.

George Washington suffered a similar, though less extreme fate last year, falling all the way to a number eight seed despite a 26-2 regular season record. The biggest reason: a non-conference diet of mostly cupcakes (save for a neutral-court win over Maryland), and failing to beat North Carolina State in Raleigh.

There’s a lot of pressure on one or two early-season games that comes with this strategy, and your team must live up to the hype early in the season to state its NCAA Tournament case.

9. The Atkins Diet.
All protein, all the time: If your team plays in a major conference, with a bruising schedule, even a .500 record gives you a chance at a top-half NCAA Tournament seed. The 2000-2001 edition of the Georgia Bulldogs might be the best example. The ‘Dawgs were just 9-7 in SEC play that year and 16-14 on the regular season. Shockingly, they were 3-7 in their last 10 games leading up to the Tournament, but still earned an 8 seed on Selection Sunday. How did they do it? They played the nation’s toughest schedule, which didn’t allow for any “bad” losses. Along the way, they picked up seven Top-50 RPI wins, and finished the year ranked #19 in the RPI. A number of other 10- and 12-loss teams have earned solid at-large bids with this strategy. Granted, you have to win a decent chunk of these games, but no single loss is enough to knock you out of the NCAA picture.

The danger of Atkins has come back to bite the Temple Owls more than once in the past several years. John Chaney was always known for his “anywhere, anytime” philosophy. The problem is, six to eight non-conference games against Top 50 RPI competition only helps your team if it can win a couple of those games, or if it can go nearly unscathed in conference play. Temple did neither, causing the Owls to miss the tournament. In recent years, both Indiana and Michigan State have been dangerously close to protein-induced heart attacks as well.

Unless your team is built like a weightlifter, some carbs, like muffins or scones, are necessary to complement the meat in your schedule.

10. The South Beach Diet.
South Beach, which is similar but not identical to Atkins, is probably the safest choice for the largest number of schools, both major and mid-major. South Beach allows for a few healthy fats and complex carbs, while strictly forbidding those that are high in sugar. Ideally, this strategy sees you schedule one or two muffins to start (RPI 100-170), and follow those up with two or three T-Bones (1-50) and another five or six cold cuts (50-100).

Bringing things back to basketball, the goal is to do plenty in the non-conference season to get the Selection Committee’s attention, and then really amplify your case in conference play. The majority of teams perennially seeded near the top of the NCAA Tournament align their schedule this way, including Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Arizona, Texas, Kansas, and Wisconsin.

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