Take Notes: Oregon State’s Scheduling Aids Tournament Push

Posted by Mike Lemaire on March 2nd, 2016

Buried in the middle of the always fun 5,000-word weekly Bubble Watch column from ESPN was a statement that requires additional unpacking. While analyzing the resumes of Pac-12 bubble teams, Eamonn Brennan mentioned that Oregon State remains “the nation’s best testament to the power of intelligent non-conference scheduling.”

Wayne Tinkle: Coach of the Year? (Godofredo Vasquez, USA Today)

Wayne Tinkle’s Team Is Finally Reaping the Benefits of Its Gutsy Scheduling (USA Today)

Brennan can say this so confidently because 10-loss teams barely flirting with .500 in conference play usually aren’t serious NCAA Tournament contenders, yet here we are in March with all of the respected bracketologists penciling the Beavers in as one of the 68 teams in the field. A team with Oregon State’s ho-hum record ordinarily wouldn’t even warrant a conversation, but thanks to a sparkling RPI and strength of schedule, Wayne Tinkle’s team is comfortably projected into the field. College basketball fans around the country can only hope that their schools are paying attention.

What the Beavers did that most mid-level Power 5 teams are loath to do is schedule a very competitive non-conference schedule. Rather than set up non-conference showdowns against Northern Arizona, Northwestern State and Bradley like Arizona, Oregon State invited Iona to Corvallis in November and played UC Santa Barbara on the road just four days later. The Beavers also brought Nevada to Oregon and played Tulsa in Portland. Of course it helps that they won all of those games, but the point here is that Oregon State played just four non-conference teams outside the RPI top 120. They also didn’t play a single opponent outside of the top 300, a point at which even dominant wins can hurt a team’s resume. As a result, Oregon State owns the best non-conference RPI of any team in the Pac-12 despite the fact that few pundits would rank the Beavers higher than the sixth-best team in the conference.

In the interest of watching entertaining college basketball throughout the entire season and not just when the calendar flips to a new year, we should hope that future bubble teams follow the Beavers’ lead in scheduling. It’s wishful thinking to expect the sport’s traditional powers to adopt such a risky strategy (teams like Arizona will always have opportunities to play in marquee non-conference games and neutral-site events), but for teams in the middle of the power conferences that often find themselves on the bubble, this approach can make a legitimate difference.

Take Michigan and Connecticut as two examples. Both teams have more wins, better conference records and per-possession numbers that suggest they are much better clubs than Oregon State. And yet the Huskies and Wolverines are right there alongside the Beavers fighting for the same spots in the field. Thanks to some impressive performances at home, Oregon State has twice as many wins as those teams against teams in the RPI top 50.

Digging a little deeper, there’s more to it than that. UConn boasts wins over Maine (#320 RPI) and Central Connecticut State (#351), while the Wolverines thrashed Bryant (#322) and Delaware State (#345). Without getting into the exact formula used by the RPI (and there is some luck involved in scheduling low majors), it seems safe to say that if Michigan had beaten Nevada by 10 instead of smacking Delaware State by 47, its RPI would have benefited. If this braver scheduling took hold, it would be a good thing for almost everyone involved. Power conference teams would get an opportunity to enhance their resumes; mid-majors would be afforded an opportunity against the big boys; and fans wouldn’t be subjected to so many glorified scrimmages.

It is still possible that Oregon State will lose its last two games of the regular season, gets bounced early in the Pac-12 Tournament, and ends up somewhere other than in the NCAA Tournament. It is also reasonable to believe that the overall quality of the Pac-12 is responsible for the troubling gap between RPI and per-possession numbers for some of the conference’s bubble teams. But just that we are still talking about Oregon State in early March should be incentive enough for strategic coaches and administrators in mid-tier programs around the country to rethink their non-conference scheduling strategy for next year and beyond.

mlemaire (324 Posts)

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