- Joe Lunardi, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
Say what you want about the NCAA men's basketball committee -- and I have said a lot over the years -- but you have to admire its consistency. At least when it comes to nonconference scheduling, the "Barons of the Bracket" have been straightforward enough for us to document what should already be an intuitive trend.
If you're on the NCAA tournament bubble, you better have played a competitive schedule. If not, well, be prepared to suffer a familiar fate -- exclusion from the tournament. Here's a look at four teams from the past four seasons that have been burned by the bubble primarily because of a weak strength of schedule:
Colorado Buffaloes, 2011 (NonConf SOS No. 323):
The Buffs had four Inside RPI Top 25 wins, including a three-game sweep of NCAA No. 5 seed Kansas State, but were relegated to the NIT despite winning five of seven down the stretch, 20 games overall and passing the dreaded "eye test" with room to spare. The committee was appropriately unimpressed by home victories over Idaho State (InsideRPI No. 302), Alcorn State (No. 337), Texas-Pan American (No. 343), The Citadel (No. 294), Longwood (No. 319), Maryland-Eastern Shore (No. 323) and a marginal road win at Cal State Bakersfield (No. 310). Take away those glorified exhibition games and Colorado's 20-13 record was a clearly unqualified 13-13. The Buffs were also outclassed by Harvard in their best nonconference road game. Score one for the committee (and give Joey Brackets a black mark for missing the obvious back in March).
Virginia Tech Hokies, 2010 (NonConf SOS No. 344)
The third of four straight NCAA tournament snubs of the Hokies was easy to spot. Virginia Tech had the fourth-worst nonconference schedule in the country that season, rendering an otherwise solid record (23-8 overall, 10-6 ACC) far less valuable. It's not that stacking the home schedule with the likes of Brown (InsideRPI No. 257), UNC Greensboro (No. 249), VMI (No. 310), Charleston Southern (No. 285), UMBC (No. 333), Longwood (No. 286) and North Carolina Central (No. 347) is inherently bad; it's playing them all in the same season that kills you. Anybody can get away with one or two games against the bottom of the D-I gene pool, but seven? When a quarter of your season is comprised essentially of no-lose scrimmages, how is the committee supposed to respond?
Penn State Nittany Lions, 2009 (NonConf SOS No. 313)
Coaches often call me in the offseason to talk about nonconference scheduling. My refrain is constant: The worst sin for a program with only periodic shots at the NCAA tournament is to be better than you think and to have played the wrong schedule. The Nittany Lions were Exhibit A of that tenet in their NIT championship season. Clearly "good enough" with wins over NCAA-bound Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State (away), Minnesota and Illinois (home and away), the Lions were done in by games against the likes of William & Mary (Inside RPI No. 245), NJIT (No. 343), Hartford (No. 299), New Hampshire (No. 201), Army (No. 280) and Lafayette (No. 308). It takes a secure coach to avoid what I call an "NIT schedule" with a potential bubble team, but said coaches often get exactly what they wish for. Ed DeChellis may have bought himself two more seasons in State College, but PSU still hasn't registered an NCAA victory since 2001.
Arizona State Sun Devils, 2008 (NonConf SOS No. 294)
This is a season that still stings in Tempe. The Sun Devils were 9-9 in a six-bid deep Pac-10, yet were left home on Selection Sunday despite splitting with Oregon (9-9 in Pac-10, NCAA No. 9 seed) and sweeping archrival Arizona (8-10, No. 10 seed). Losing out to the Wildcats stung the most, but it could be argued the committee had little choice, given the No. 4 nonconference schedule posted by U of A. Remembering that at-large decisions are rarely -- and correctly -- based on head-to-head results, we're talking about a third of the season -- not two games -- in which Arizona was far superior to Arizona State. As I like to say to coaches who call this time of year, "don't let your schedule be the reason someone votes against you." Or, more logically, "if you're good enough to be on the bubble in the first place, you should be good enough to replace a fistful of third-tier opponents and survive."
Next week we'll look at the five most likely candidates to join this dubious list in 2012. Hint: Both are BCS schools, one of which has never won an NCAA tournament game and the other has never even made the NCAA field.
Joe Lunardi looks at four teams over the past few years that missed the NCAA tournament because of soft nonconference schedules.