Bracketology: Teams can help or hurt themselves with their strength of schedule
The NCAA Tournament notices who and where teams play in non-conference games
There are several factors that come into play when the selection committee for the NCAA Tournament meets to pick and seed the field. All factors are viewed as being equally important, but strength of schedule has always been a little more "equal" than others. That is especially true of the non-conference strength of schedule for teams on the bubble when they are evaluated during selection weekend.
Almost every season, some team gets sent to the NIT primarily because its non-conference SOS is poor. With that in mind, here is a look at what some teams and conferences are doing with their non-conference schedules this season.
One of the complaints that schools not in a major conference have is that the majors get to play so many home games, which creates an uneven playing field. That is not necessarily an invalid complaint, but it is not something that is likely to ever change.
The non-conference schedules bear that out again this season. For example, Big Ten schools are playing a whopping 66.9 percent of their non-conference games on home floors, led by Rutgers, which is playing all 12 of its non-league games at home. Every team in the league is playing at least 61 percent of its non-league games at home except Michigan (53.8 percent) and Iowa (46.1 percent).
Five of the next six spots on that list belong to the other five major conferences. The exception is No. 6, which belongs to the American Athletic Conference. The AAC has made no secret of the fact that it wants to be considered to be a peer with those other leagues. I think we need to see a trend of greater NCAA Tournament participation and for the bottom of the league to be stronger before that happens. Adding a program the quality of Wichita State will definitely help.
Leagues with greater than 50 percent of their non-conference games at home:
- Big Ten: 66.9 percent
- Big 12: 64.3 percent
- ACC: 62.1 percent
- Big East: 61.9 percent
- SEC: 60.9 percent
- American: 60.1 percent
- Pac-12: 60.0 percent
- West Coast: 57.6 percent
- Atlantic 10: 56.1 percent
- Mountain West: 53.6 percent
- Conference USA: 51.1 percent
While some of the non-major leagues complain about not being able to get the kind of games at home that would help their programs with selection and/or seeding for the tournament, others are perfectly happy to hit the road.
The SWAC schools in particular play a ton of road non-conference games to collect paychecks from the bigger schools that are important to funding the athletic departments of those universities. The SWAC will play a whopping 76.5 percent of its non-conference games on the road. Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Mississippi Valley State and Texas Southern will not play a single non-league game at home.
At the other end of the spectrum, a I noted before, Rutgers is the only team playing all of its non-conference games at home. Just three others are playing all but one non-league game on their home floors: East Carolina, Georgetown and Hawaii.
CBS Sports colleague Gary Parrish wrote a column this summerfor such a soft schedule, but I do not have a problem with any of these teams taking it easy on themselves. Hawaii hosts some tournaments every year and always has a home-heavy schedule. For them, it is a matter of minimizing travel costs. That is quite understandable. Rutgers, ECU and Georgetown are all expected to finish at or near the bottom of their leagues. They are clearly in rebuilding mode. There is no reason for them to go out and get their brains beat in before starting a conference campaign that is not likely to see many wins.
Also, only one team that is playing at least 75 percent of its non-conference games at home is expected to play in the NCAA Tournament. That team is Louisville, which plays ten of its thirteen non-league games on its home floor. The Cards are playing two true road games, but those are at Purdue and Kentucky, so it's not like they are totally taking it easy.
Syracuse gets a lot of criticism for traditionally playing soft schedules and never leaving New York until ACC play begins. The Orange have twice been left out of the field largely due to a poor non-conference schedule, but they will buck their reputation this season. Syracuse will leave the state twice, including a game with Kansas in Miami. The Orange also has games with Maryland, UConn and St. Bonaventure.
Some of the more likely tournament teams testing themselves, especially away from home include:
- Baylor (vs Wisconsin, @Xavier, @Florida)
- Texas (vs Butler, vs Alabama, @VCU)
- TAMU (vs West Virginia, @USC, vs Arizona, @Kansas)
- Virginia (@VCU, @West Virginia, vs Vanderbilt).
It is one thing to play a lot of home games, but the committee tends to focus more on who you play rather than where you play them. It is better to be a home-court hero than a no-court hero.
Among major conference teams, only Georgia, Northwestern, Oregon State, Penn State, South Carolina, St. John's, Wake Forest and Washington State have no non-conference games scheduled against an at-large quality team in my preseason bracket. Northwestern is the only team among those that is in my bracket also, but the Wildcats could be hurt when it comes to seeding or even selection if it does not have a quality non-conference win. They do play Creighton at home and the Jays figure to contend for a tournament spot, even though I do not have them in right now.
Scheduling is a key factor in how teams are perceived by the committee, but preseason expectations do not always pan out. OK, so they never pan out entirely. Teams get judged by the quality of the teams they played, not what they were expected to be, so stay tuned.