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Why nonconference schedules are crucial

1/30/2012

C.M. Newton, one of the wisest men to steer the NCAA selection and seeding process, put it very concisely about a dozen years ago: "Teams have no control over their conference schedule, so we look very closely at who you choose to play."

Last week, our own Andy Katz reported the five factors most crucial to the selection committee -- among them is nonconference strength of schedule.

To this day, many misinterpret the committee's weighing nonconference SOS so heavily. It's not a macho thing, as in, "My team has more courage than yours because we play anybody, anywhere." It's actually a much simpler consideration.

Nonconference schedules -- along with obscenely unbalanced home-road ratios in major conferences -- skew win-loss records. And not just a little bit. If the path to a 20-win season includes 10 victories against teams under the 250 mark in the RPI, are we really looking at a 20-win team?

Of course not, which is why nonconference scheduling is so critical to the hard math of the RPI and the perceived value of a team in the eyes of the selection committee. Almost every year we see one or more potential at-large teams kicked to the curb for this reason. And you can bet it will happen again this season.

Last year, it was Colorado (nonconference SOS rank: 325, record: 20-13) and Alabama (nonconference SOS rank: 284, record: 21-11). In 2010, it was Virginia Tech (nonconference SOS rank: 339, record: 23-8). Other examples off the top of my head include Penn State in 2009 (nonconference SOS rank: 307, record: 22-11) and New Mexico in 2008 (nonconference SOS rank: 269, record: 24-8).

In the past five seasons, just five teams have been awarded an at-large bid with nonconference schedules ranked below 275. The list is even shorter than I would have thought:

So it's pretty clear you need to be very, very good in a major conference to overcome an invisible nonleague schedule. Which leads to the obvious question: Who will have the "I can't believe it, but should have known better" face on Selection Sunday this season?

The leading candidate is a familiar one: Cincinnati. The Bearcats, who rode the 11-bid coattails of the Big East in 2011, may come up just short in March. Cincy (nonconference SOS rank: 331, 5-4 Big East) has lost three in a row and is right smack in the danger zone. I still have UC in the projected NCAA field as a "Last Four In" member, but the warning signs can't be ignored.

Take away wins against sub-250 foes Alabama State, Jacksonville State, Miami (Ohio), Radford, Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Chicago, and the Bearcats' 15-7 overall record is a much more pedestrian 9-7. And that's not including a sub-250 home loss to Presbyterian (No. 280). Bottom line: If Cincinnati is anywhere near the at-large cut line in March, this will end badly.

We'll close with a few more teams that could very well sit on the Selection Sunday bubble. Given the data above, you wouldn't want to bet a mortgage payment on any of their at-large chances:

George Mason: The Patriots (18-5, 10-1, nonconference SOS rank: 245) lead the CAA but, after earning one of two at-large bids in the Colonial last season, really have no shot to repeat that feat should it be necessary. In fact, none of the CAA contenders has distinguished itself outside the league, with VCU (No. 207) and especially Drexel (No. 271) boasting little or nothing in their nonconference profiles.

Stanford: This is not the season for a short résumé in the Pac-12. The Cardinal (15-6, 5-4, nonconference SOS rank: 263) don't have much within the conference or outside it. Home wins against Colorado State and NC State are decent but not enough to overcome too many others over the likes of Central Arkansas, UC Davis, Pacific, Seattle and Bethune-Cookman.

Wyoming: A few national types are beating the drum for the Cowboys (15-4, 3-2, nonconference SOS rank: 312), but without a huge six weeks in the Mountain West, this is a non-starter. Toss in double-digit home losses to San Diego State and New Mexico, and Wyoming is more likely an NIT bubble team.

Others: It's probably automatic qualification or bust for Central Florida (14-6, 5-3, nonconference SOS rank: 210), Ohio (16-2, 5-2, nonconference SOS rank: 256) and La Salle (16-6, 5-2, nonconference SOS rank: 246). Don't say we didn't warn you.