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Planning a winning noncon schedule

5/31/2012

That's the title of today's feature by yours truly, wherein I attempt to provide nonconference scheduling tips for teams in fear of ending the season on the bubble without RPI and strength of schedule numbers worthy of the committee's approval. A sample:

Do: Feel free to enjoy a few cupcakes.

Don't: Get sick from extra sugar.

Cincinnati was a quality team in 2011-12, something the Bearcats proved time and again in Big East play. But their nonconference schedule was abominable, ranking No. 317 in the country, thanks to a veritable truckload of cake and icing. UC racked up eight wins over teams ranked at 201 or worse in the RPI, and five wins over teams ranked worse than 300, including Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Alabama State, Radford and Chicago State.

Cincy got into the tournament because it played its best basketball against the Big East's best teams. But until very late in the season, this team's RPI was stuck in the highly prohibitive 80 range. A few breaks in a couple of those close conference wins could have left the Bearcats stuck in the NIT again.

The lesson here: Scheduling guarantee games is fine and dandy, but there is such a thing as a good guarantee game. Scheduling eight of the 150 worst teams in the country doesn't do much good. Schedule a couple of those teams, sure, but replace the other games with squads less likely to deliver RPI hits, even in easy wins.

Generally speaking, I am of the opinion that nonconference scheduling is overrated, at least relative to the way coaches treat it. Why? Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 68 teams, the bubble has softened considerably, and few teams in the past two seasons have had truly legitimate beefs with the selection committee. Thus far in the 68-team era, if your team isn't one of those 68 teams, it means your team wasn't very good at basketball. Oh well.

That said, there are ways coaches can avoid obvious pitfalls, ways for middling majors (trademark: Joey Brackets) and even mid-majors to shape their schedules advantageously around the margins, and ways for every team to take advantage of the NCAA's newfound insistence on challenging nonconference scheduling. And some of those methods -- like, you know, going out and actually playing people -- aren't quite as intuitive as you'd think.