Building the Perfect Non-Conference Schedule

By Kevin Sweeney

This past week or so has seen a big wave of non-conference schedules be released. Per @TheD1Docket on Twitter, 292 of the 351 Division 1 teams have released their schedules as of this morning. However, no schedule release drew more controversy than Georgetown’s release mid-day yesterday. The Hoyas drew near-universal scrutiny for a schedule that ranks among the worst in college basketball in terms of the strength of the opponents they will be playing. As I put it yesterday on Twitter in my initial thoughts:

Now, most of the time with mid-majors I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to teams with terrible schedules, citing just how difficult it is to get good games (especially at home). But there is absolutely no excuse for what Georgetown is doing. They backed out of the PK80, one of the most loaded exempt tournaments in the history of college basketball, shortly after Patrick Ewing was named head coach, seemingly looking to avoid potential embarrassment for their first year man in charge. What they replaced it with was even more low-major “buy games”. The schedule now features just 1 road game (at Richmond), and a remarkable 8 games against teams ranked #275 or lower in last year’s KenPom ratings. That’s over 10% of the bottom 77 teams in the country from a season ago!

So, what is the right way to build a non-conference schedule? That is a question that varies greatly upon what you are trying to accomplish. For instance, a rebuilding program with a new coach and almost no shot to be an NCAA Tournament team like Duquense needs to build excitement. How do you build excitement? By winning games. So, Duquesne scheduled a very light slate chock-full of very winnable home games that will allow them to impress fans who are on the fence.

However, if you are a mid-major program with realistic NCAA Tournament aspirations, you need to challenge yourself in the non-conference (but NOT in the way most think). By all means, it is good to play a couple of power conference foes. It’s a great experience for the players to get to play against the teams they watched on ESPN growing up, plus usually the mid-major gets a nice check. Where the schedule should be rooted, however, is in home and home series with other strong mid-majors. Take Siena’s non-conference schedule last year. The Saints entered the year as one of the favorites in the MAAC, so it was necessary to play tough competition. They did just that, playing the 22nd-toughest OOC in the country per CBSSports.com.

  • A look at who the Saints played:
  • Home games vs Cornell, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Bucknell, and Vermont
  • Road games vs George Washington, Kansas, UNC-Asheville, Albany, St. Bonaventure, Florida Gulf Coast, and Hofstra.

Games in bold were part of multi-year home and home or 2-for-1 series. The only negative with this slate is a relative lack of home games, but with a senior-laden team, that was more than acceptable. Now, the difficulty of this schedule backfired on the Saints (3-8 in the slate), but at the same time it demonstrates how workable a strong mid-major schedule can be made without playing nothing but high-major programs.

We are seeing the same style of scheduling catch on at hot mid-majors around the country, with teams such as Florida Gulf Coast and Nevada among those who have done well to schedule mid-major series. So, here’s the blueprint I’d try to follow if I were the one making a non-conference schedule at a contending mid-major:

  • 1 exempt tournament-ideally one that would allow you to play 1-2 power conference foes and a total of 4 guaranteed games.
  • 4 home-and-home series with other contending mid-majors. Ideally, these foes wind up the top 100 of the RPI and can serve as quality wins.
  • 3 series (likely of home-and-home or 2-for-1 nature) versus teams you should beat. The goal would be to play a challenging enough team to be a test, but if it winds up being versus a very weak foe (or non-D1 team) that’s acceptable.

This schedule is for a team playing 11 OOC games, but increasing each of the bottom 2 categories by 1 makes it for a 13 game slate (also common depending on how many conference games you play).

Overall, depending on the balance from year to year of the home and homes, you should wind up with 4-6 home games, and a lot of good tests. The schedule would likely not be enough to get an at-large bid (nothing really is for a mid-major anymore to be honest) but it would certainly help with seeding should you reach the NCAA Tournament and also drastically increase the chance for an NIT berth.

Scheduling is SO important for the overall strength of a conference. It’s important that not just the top teams in the league play strong opposition, or otherwise conference games will tank the metrics of the top dogs. As we look at conferences at critical points in their history right now (MVC for instance), scheduling is one of the biggest keys for the future of that conference.

 

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