Let's start with the good news: Your favorite team's nonconference schedule only matters so much.
Oh, don't get me wrong. Of course it matters. For the eight to 10 teams that find themselves decidedly on the bubble each and every season, schedule strength can be (and often is) the one minute difference that lifts a team to a place at the NCAA throne or banishes it to the cold, wildling-invested landscapes north of the NIT Wall. (And despite what you may have seen on Game of Thrones, the attractive redhead handmaiden from Downton Abbey will not be there waiting for you. Northwestern will.)
In a way, this has never been more true, because the NCAA tournament selection committee has made it so. Two years ago, it did away with its official emphasis on a team's final 12 games, instead instructing committee members to consider every game from November to March equal in heft. (Some members surely still focus on the last 12 games, at least a little bit but that's a discussion for another time.)
Likewise, recent selection committees have made a concerted and noticeable effort to reward teams that go and play tough games on the road in the nonconference portion of the season. Perhaps more accurately, the committee has recently punished teams that schedule too many cupcakes or too few road games, seeming to factor nonconference performance as heavily -- if not more so -- than performance in the league.
But back to that good news: Because the bubble is a conditional competition between a handful of teams with disparate résumé traits, these are all only relative and mostly minor concerns. In the two seasons since the NCAA expanded the tournament to 68 teams, the bubble has rarely been weaker. It has seen a dearth of teams that were obviously good enough to make the tournament but were instead left home thanks to a weak schedule or an ugly RPI.
In other words, if your team is on the bubble in the last week, your team probably just isn't very good. There is no mystery here. Win early, win in conference play, but just win. If you do, you'll probably get in the tournament. Coaches tend to make a big deal out of nonconference scheduling, and understandably so, but at the end of the day the path to the NCAA tournament has never been easier to trod.
Win games. Simple enough.
For good mid-majors with minimal scheduling flexibility -- word to 2012 Middle Tennessee -- things are not quite this easy. Margins of error are tiny. Life is unfortunately unfair.
But for teams with more flexibility, like hopeful high-majors in good conferences, there are still a few rules worth following, rules that can ensure a team's performance -- rather than its schedule -- is the defining trait of its march to March.
Let's run through a few general dos and don'ts, a Generalized Guide to Scheduling Nonconference Games in Such a Manner That the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee Doesn't Hate You.
It's a working title.
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.
Do: Play your best basketball in conference play.
Don't: Assume it will save your skin.
In 2011, Colorado, Alabama and Virginia Tech were the nation's three most talked-about bubble teams. All three struggled in nonconference play in various ways. CU and Bama played weak schedules and suffered ugly losses; Virginia Tech played a tough schedule but got nothing to show for it, including a devastating home loss to Purdue in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. All three teams later made variously sized pushes in conference play -- Colorado toppled Missouri and Texas and Kansas State twice; Alabama went 12–4 in the SEC; Tech beat Duke and Florida State in the final three weeks of the season -- but all three teams missed the tournament. Why?
Because the selection committee says it doesn't pay attention to conference record or the old final-12-games metric. While that may not always be (strictly speaking, ahem) true, it is true that better-than-average conference results won't make up for the ugliness that came before it. The entire season matters now more than ever before. That may not give coaches as much time to ease their teams into seasons, but it does make for more important games in November and December, something college basketball in general desperately needs. In any case, if you put yourself in too big a nonconference hole, whether through creampuff scheduling or bad losses or some combination therein, it is now harder than ever to climb out.
Do: Play true road games.
Don't: Forget to pick your spots.
The current trend in nonconference scheduling -- the preference for neutral site events over true road games -- has risen to something like a fever pitch. One read through Tuesday's work by Andy Katz and Myron Medcalf is proof enough: Many coaches are finding it harder than ever to find other programs willing to play home-and-home series on a regular basis. For a bunch of coaches, guys who spend lifetimes preaching hard work and the value of adversity, most seem to be running scared. A road game? With a real, hostile crowd? What fresh hell is this?!
This all seems quite overblown, doesn't it? Just go play! As a selfish fan who wants to see more good basketball games played in real college basketball arenas, my advice would be to stop splitting hairs and overstrategizing and start building teams good enough -- and veteran enough -- to tough out big wins on the road. (See: Michigan State.)
Failing that, there is something to be said for scheduling advantageous true road games, similar to the cupcake-but-not-too-cupcake principle above. For example: the 2012 Southern Miss team ended the season with a top 25 RPI, in part because it went to Colorado State -- which itself held a shockingly high RPI for much of the season and ended at No. 29 -- and got a lopsided win. Other than Memphis and Marshall (and South Florida if you count the Bulls' No. 52 RPI) that was the only top-50 win the Golden Eagles had all year. But Southern Miss picked its spot -- a good team with a good schedule, but a beatable one all the same -- and profited from the exchange.
And speaking of Colorado State, the Rams did something few high-major teams are willing or able to do: They played a road game at Duke. They lost, of course, but so what? The Rams also lost at Northern Iowa and Stanford, and while neither of those losses helped (obviously), the sheer fact that they came on the road (a) helped the RPI as much as it hurt it and (b) didn't look nearly as bad on CSU's final résumé page.
Losing on the road doesn't have to be a killer. In their own way, road games for middling teams with tournament hopes are more pressure-free than neutral-court enivornments. The downside is minimized. The NCAA is now far less likely to punish you for losing to UNI on the road. (And if you get blown out, who cares? Margin of victory isn't baked into the RPI anyway.) On the contrary, the nonconference strength of schedule is a major factor in NCAA tournament consideration, perhaps the deciding one for many bubble teams in recent years.
For a variety of reasons, the NCAA wants to see you play on the road. If you can find yourself a plausible road win, great! Schedule that sucker! If not, take the SOS boost and the experience and go win some other games instead. Why does this have to be so complicated?
Director's cut: Bonus shout-out to all my mid-majors! These scheduling guides have mostly been directed toward middling to good high-major teams; it is impossible to create a scheduling guide for everyone. But, if you are a mid-major with legitimate at-large aspirations
Do: Schedule like crazy.
Don't: Totally blow it in league play.
Last season, Dan Monson made his excellent Long Beach State team play an absolute murderer's row of a nonconference schedule, including games at UNC, Kansas, Louisville, Creighton, Pittsburgh and San Diego State, as well as a trip to Honolulu for a stacked Diamond Head Classic. Monson knew he had a very good team in an otherwise bad league, and he didn't want to take the chance of losing out on an NCAA tournament bid because everyone was sitting around screaming about how LBSU hadn't played anybody.
So he took his team on a cross-country nonconference tour, and he lost a bunch of games, and guess what? It paid off. The 49ers ended the season with the nation's No. 1 nonconference strength of schedule and an RPI of 34 despite having just two wins in the top 100. Teams with RPIs that high rarely miss the NCAA tournament. Had LBSU tripped up in the Big West tournament, as so often happens to the best mid-majors, the 49ers' bid was probably still intact.
Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson apparently liked what he saw. Anticipating a strong team in 2012–13, Jacobson told Andy Katz he "loaded up" this year, and he did: UNI will play in the Battle 4 Atlantis (with Duke, Louisville, Missouri, Minnesota, VCU, Memphis and Stanford) as well as on the road at George Mason and UNLV, versus Iowa in Des Moines, and at home versus Saint Mary's and Milwaukee.
This is something Gonzaga discovered long ago: If you're a mid-major with perennial at-large aspirations, you not only need a good team -- you need a great schedule.
As Andy wrote in his story, "Scheduling an at-large bid can be done, if a school wins the right games. But if the games aren't on the schedule, it's hard to even have a chance." That's true of most teams, sure, but nowhere is it more trenchant than in the mid-major ranks.
And then, once you do put that schedule together, you have to take care of business on the other end, too. The margin for error for mid-majors is too slim; three or four bad conference losses can quickly derail an otherwise solid season, and suddenly said team finds itself down by five with a minute to play in the conference tournament, and the rest of the season ceases to matter. Bummer.
That could have happened to Long Beach last year, but the 49ers executed on two fronts: They built an extreme schedule to ensure a good RPI and great SOS, and then they took care of business throughout the Big West regular season. Their reputation remained intact.
For mid-majors seeking to pursue a similar strategy -- frankly, for any team seeking to take advantage of the NCAA's newfound emphasis on where and how you play your nonconference games -- the risk-reward only makes sense if you're good enough to see it through.
In the end, the strategies of scheduling are different for nearly every team in the country. Good teams, bad teams, old teams, young teams, rich teams, poor teams -- it's like a Dr. Seuss rhyme. If a coach isn't tailoring his schedule accordingly, he's a fool.
But for as much as we're talking about nonconference scheduling this week, and for as much one can get bogged down in the technocratic minutiae of the process, the modern NCAA tournament doesn't require a complex input, a hacker's sublime line of code.
However you schedule, the NCAA tournament requires only that you play good teams, and that most of the time you win.
It really is -- or at least it can be -- that simple.