NCAA Tournament shows it’s madness to play rugged nonconference schedules

In the middle of summer, when many are thinking about sunshine, beaches and maybe 18 holes, and those who follow sports either are going to soccer or baseball games or getting psyched for NFL training camp, the core of the college basketball season is being constructed by telephone.

The nonconference scheduling process receives only a modest amount of attention even among those who follow the sport — save perhaps for the regular tweets from Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports about who will play whom. When the full schedules are complete, usually around the time college football teams are taking the field, then we might hear some discussion about which coaches are cowardly because of the meager competition assembled.

This process wasn’t quite the same this year, not with uncertainty of how a season would be constructed through the pandemic. However, the message ultimately sent by what has occurred in 2020-21 ought not to be ignored by those coaches who want to continue succeeding — and being employed.

Scheduling tough is a sucker’s bet.

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If you are in a major conference and are lining up a number of opponents from other major conferences for your pre-conference schedule, you may be doing what’s best for the sport, and, in a better time, for selling tickets. But there’s a good chance you’re not doing the smartest thing relative to your team’s success.

If you want to find the programs whose schedules were toughest this past season, you do not want to look in the Sweet 16. The average schedule rank for the 13 teams from major conferences still alive in the NCAA Tournament is 63rd in the NET. Only Michigan (19) and Alabama (33) ranked higher than 50th. And if you examine only the nonconference portion of the schedule, the part in the schools’ control, the average is 165. Alabama’s 108 ranking is highest in that category. Michigan, by contrast, was 261st.

The better place to find the coaches who endured challenging schedules: either the unemployment line or the bank, depending on which metaphor you prefer. Many of them were fired and paid handsome buyout checks for the trouble.

The No. 1 schedule in college basketball last season, in part because games canceled over COVID pauses might have lightened it, was played by Penn State and interim coach Jim Ferry. His Lions played only a single mid-major opponent and beat six NCAA Tournament teams. But they finished under .500, and he was not retained.

Indiana played the No. 4 schedule, which included the No. 74 non-league schedule. Archie Miller’s squad, likewise, finished under .500, and he was let go soon after the season ended.

Minnesota and Richard Pitino? The No. 11 schedule. Marquette and Steve Wojciechowski? No. 34. Steve Prohm at Iowa State? No. 3.

The Pac-12 now is being celebrated for placing four teams into the Sweet 16, and many college basketball analysts are being denigrated for previously dismissing the league as unimpressive. Maybe out West they just were smarter than everyone else. Excepting UCLA, whose nonconference schedule was ranked No. 69, the other three Pac-12 schools had an average non-conference schedule strength of 267.

These were the out-of-conference teams played by USC, Oregon and Oregon State: Cal Baptist, Montana, BYU, UConn, UC Irvine, San Francisco (twice), Texas Southern, Santa Clara, UC Riverside, Missouri, Seton Hall, Eastern Washington, Florida A&M, Portland, Wyoming, Portland, UTSA, Portland State and Division II Northwest University.

That’s not exactly climbing the Himalayas.

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It cost them in seeding, but what difference did that end up making? Oregon had a team worthy of a top-four seed but a record the committee judged to be worthy of a 7 seed. The Ducks then ran No. 2 seed Iowa off the court in the second round. Oregon State had the No. 312 schedule and had to win the Pac-12’s automatic bid to reach the NCAAs, but they’ve won two games and still are playing. USC was seeded sixth but took an All-America freshman big man onto the court and manhandled Kansas, which played the No. 45 nonconference schedule and the No. 16 overall schedule but couldn’t find the answer, despite all that experience, to defending Evan Mobley.

College basketball needs those early season matchups that build interest in the sport and the season, the kinds of games you see in the Champions Classic or ACC/Big Ten Challenge, or in annual rivalries such as Kentucky-Louisville or Xavier-Cincinnati.

If all success in such games produced is an advantaged NCAA seed that might or might not be misspent, and all of it might be dismissed as unimportant or misleading in comparison to March success, why bother? Especially when one considers that struggle or outright failure in those games might lead to being dismissed.

This is not to say those who are scheduling tough are doing it wrong. There are many factors that work into the best way to plan for a season: one’s own expectations, the promise of one’s conference, league-wide deals mandating particular games be played.

It is to say it’s much more dangerous to play too difficult a schedule than too easy. And that those judging everything — literally everything — about the college basketball season on the basis of a single-elimination tournament at the end of the season are hijacking the whole endeavor.

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