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Non-conference scheduling a product of what selection committee values

December 28, 2017 Columns No Comments

Georgetown playing softies in its non-conference schedule is about as American as the eagle, as reliable as that Citgo sign lurking over the Green Monster at Fenway Park, or Dick Vitale having 80 teams in his 68-team NCAA Tournament bracket.

The Hoyas are the program that once regularly played the likes of Hawaii-Hilo, Hawaii Loa and Hawaii Pacific and that brought schools such as Quincy, Shenandoah and St. Leo to top 20 recaps back in the 80s. (That’s how far back it was-the polls only recognized a top 20 back then, not moving to our now-familiar top 25 until 1989.)

Georgetown scheduling for-sure W’s has been going on for the better part of 35 years, since John Thompson regularly started taking his team on a junket to Hawaii to open its season against sub-NCAA Division I competition. It was something that took on an almost grudgingly lovable quality when Big John coached, much like Duke or Syracuse now never playing a non-conference road game that TV didn’t force them to. (“Haha, that Boeheim…”)

This offseason, though, there was grumbling, if not full-out gnashing of teeth, about out-of-conference schedules set by Georgetown and some other programs. The Hoyas were the prime example, but not the only one.

Rutgers set up a slate that on paper may have been even worse. Kansas was a target earlier in the summer. Never mind that none of these is the first example of a team to schedule this way.

Ah well. Everyone needs something to be outraged about these days, one supposes. More accurately, college hoopheads need something to talk about in the offseason, and schedules like Georgetown’s serve as fodder for just that.

This time, though, the Hoyas’ itinerary has still been a topic of conversation well into the season and even as we head into the new year, what with Georgetown first having the audacity to win all of its buy games (are we surprised?) and then its strength of schedule ranking poorly in pretty much any metric one can imagine.  Jeff Sagarin and Ken Pomeroy’s ranks are both 351st-last in NCAA Division I, while the RPI and Erik Haslam have it much higher-350th.

There is some validity to the criticism. Checking out of Nike’s birthday bash to celebrate itself, a.k.a. the PK80, was rather cowardly. But the outrage generally seems a bit misplaced, for teams intentionally scheduling lightly has been literally going on for decades.

“Decades” includes not just the far-off past, but the past couple years. In fact, last year’s college hoops season brought us a prime example with Kansas State.

We were apparently on an island in criticizing the NCAA selection committee’s selection of the Wildcats last year, which isn’t that surprising.

K-State has more of a cute factor than, say, Syracuse. Few are going to be offended if Kansas State or Wake Forest make the NCAA tourney with lousy resumes, for there’s not much to hate about either one. As far as major conference schools go, both are far from bullies, and frankly are the types just happy the real “power” schools-those 30 or so revenue factories carrying the so-called “Power 5”-let them be a part of their circle.

The thing about K-State last year was the Wildcats-like a Georgetown or Rutgers this year-also intentionally scheduled poorly in November & December, looking to build some confidence. It worked, with Bruce Weber’s Kitties finishing 11-1 out of conference before entering Big 12 play, with their best win coming over the Mountain West’s second-best team (Colorado State), their second-best against Nebraska-Omaha, number 138 in your year-end RPI report.

The Wildcats then went 8-10 in the Big 12, a record respectable but hardly outstanding. K-State did register a pair of wins over Baylor, a home win against West Virginia and a road victory against Oklahoma State. Overall, though, Kansas State still finished 4-9 against the RPI top 50 and 6-11 vs. the top 100.

A weak-intentionally weak-non-conference schedule, a losing conference mark and overall credentials against top 100 competition like K-State’s should’ve meant almost automatic banishment to the NIT. Likely would have several years in the past.

Last year, though, it was still enough for an NCAA Tournament bid. And now you see why a Rutgers or Georgetown was able to comfortably schedule the way it did this year.

Especially in the case of Rutgers, it’s not hard at all to see the Scarlet Knights this year riding a bunch of non-conference victories (including a prominent one at home against Seton Hall), a few surprises among an 8- or maybe even 10-win campaign in the Big Ten, and a wave of sentimental publicity to an NCAA bid.

Rutgers, a school whose admission to the Big Ten was almost universally ripped, one that hasn’t been to the NCAAs since 1991 and that three years ago was losing at home to St. Peter’s and St. Francis (Pa.), would be a cute redemption story, and don’t think the selection committee couldn’t be influenced by it. They basically were a few years ago, when Nebraska surprised and made a run in the Big Ten and received an at-large berth, despite overall numbers not much different from Kansas State’s last year.

Georgetown is not Rutgers. The Hoyas are one of the giants of the sport, a status they have earned. And the selection committee is also known to make an example out of a major conference team for its schedule every so often. They did with Syracuse last year, South Carolina two years ago, SMU in 2014, and undoubtedly they would consider it with Patrick Ewing’s team this year.

Kansas State, among others in the past, though, shows that it’s a strategy worth a try. Jamie Dixon’s teams at Pittsburgh regularly turned the trick. So has Syracuse. And so, given the committee’s ridiculous overemphasis on quantity of big wins and bad losses the past several years, why wouldn’t Georgetown take its chances at 1) not losing a non-conference game at home and 2) trying for 5-6 top-50 wins in Big East play?

Many want to ‘fix’ scheduling, but the view here is schools should have the freedom to schedule however they want to. Let’s make it clear, though: there should be consequences for a schedule.

If teams want to play a weak schedule to build team confidence, that’s their choice. If fans don’t like it and don’t show up, that’s part of the cost/benefit analysis for a school of putting together a schedule.

The real determinant of whether a non-conference schedule was worthwhile or not is ultimately reflected in NCAA Tournament selection and seeding. And if the selection committee is going to reward building teams like K-State for playing Western Illinois and Hampton and Robert Morris and Prairie View A&M, then why wouldn’t they play them?

The selection committee has every opportunity to make unequivocal statements about where it stands on out-of-conference scheduling. It could’ve rewarded Monmouth’s 27 wins two years ago that included a whopping 17 wins away from home, its Metro Atlantic regular season title and its attempts to play the likes of not just major conference schools like Georgetown, UCLA, USC and-yes, even Rutgers on the road, but also taking risky games at Army, Cornell and Drexel. Instead, it chose to hold the Hawks to an impossible standard of not just playing all those, but having to win every one of them AND make sure the teams they played all have awesome seasons, too.

It could’ve seen Valparaiso’s regular season trip to Oregon two years ago in a positive light, examining the Crusaders’ convincing win at Oregon State (which it deemed a 7 seed in the NCAA tourney) and near loss at Oregon (a 1 seed that year) as signs Valpo should be a tourney team. Instead, it found reasons to keep the Crusaders out, the way it has the past four years for teams like them-Illinois State last year, St. Bonaventure two years ago, Murray State three years ago, Wisconsin-Green Bay four years ago, etc.

The committee could be realistic about which schools are hamstrung in scheduling by their conferences and not hold them to literally unreachable standards. It could emphasize regular season championships as it should and used to, in order to give the field more depth, and less teams squeaking in via seventh-place finishes in their leagues.

It also could punish leagues like the Big East that will benefit from Georgetown’s schedule this year. Regardless of how weak the Hoyas’ opponents are, conference foes beating the Hoyas still get credited in their own strength of schedule for beating a team that went 10-1 in non-league play this year. Efficiency ratings aren’t penalizing Georgetown much either-Butler’s win over them Wednesday is a win over a top 100 team right now in Pomeroy’s rankings, for instance.

Non-conference scheduling is nothing that the selection committee can’t influence. All it needs to do is consistently enforce consequences, rewarding what it claims to like, and punishing what it doesn’t. If the committee rewarded more teams like Monmouth and Murray State with bids, then those teams should have more success playing better schedules, and a nasty cycle is given some needed redirection. And if it consistently punished the Georgetowns of the world-not just every so often to make an example-then it would dry up in a hurry.

But if the committee doesn’t care who major conference teams are playing outside their leagues, then why should Georgetown?

Twitter: @HoopvilleAdam
Email: hoopvilleadam@yahoo.com

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