It’s Time to Talk About Utah’s Non-Conference Schedule

Posted by Mike Lemaire on November 22nd, 2016

Utah has not won a game by fewer than 43 points this season, and yet, thanks to some conservative scheduling practices by head coach Larry Krystkowiak, the Utes have already hurt their NCAA Tournament chances. At 3-0, Utah is officially tied atop the Pac-12 standings, a hilarious result given that its first two opponents, Division II members Northwest Nazarene and Concordia (Oregon), considered the games exhibitions. The Utes finally played their first Division I opponent Friday night, smoking 0-5 Coppin State in a game that KenPom gave Utah a 98.7 percent chance of winning. With the victory, Utah earned its initial placement at #289 in the RPI rankings.  There is no unbeaten team from a Power 5 conference with a worse RPI than Utah, and there isn’t a lot of helium left in the Utes’ non-conference schedule to carry it up.

Larry Krystkowiak Mimicking Utah Fans' Reaction to the 2016-17 Schedule. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Krystkowiak Mimicking Utah Fans’ Reaction to the 2016-17 Schedule (Deseret News)

Utah plays Butler at home on November 28 and travels to Xavier on December 10. Aside from those two games, each of the Utes’ remaining non-conference opponents is ranked 227th or lower by KenPom, not including a potential matchup with San Diego State in the championship game of the Diamond Head Classic. Quality opponents from last season such as San Diego State, Wichita State, BYU and Duke have been replaced by UC Riverside, Montana State, Utah Valley and Prairie View A&M. A team that last year barnstormed across America from Puerto Rico to Wichita to New York City will only leave the Beehive State twice before the new year.

What’s worse is that this season’s pillow-soft schedule has been some time in the making. To his credit, Krystkowiak has been relatively open about the logic behind his intent, essentially telling ESPN Radio that a friendly schedule would be more beneficial for an inexperienced team. This is understandable. Confidence is important for young collegiate players, and if the current version of Utah had played last season’s schedule, there might not have been much confidence to go around. Similarly, Krystkowiak is hardly the first Power 5 coach to weigh the quality and depth of his roster when putting together a schedule. But there is a big difference between throttling back and throwing it in reverse.

RPI is far from the perfect metric but the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee still uses it. The three factors that comprise the RPI are straightforward — the team’s winning percentage; the opponents’ winning percentage; and, the opponents’ opponents’ winning percentage. Per ESPN, Utah finished ninth in the RPI last season and, as a result, cruised into the NCAA Tournament as #3 seed. Personnel notwithstanding, there is almost no chance Utah can finish that high this season because of all the pushovers. Teams like Coppin State, Utah Valley and Prairie View A&M are likely to be so bad that they will end up hurting the Utes’ RPI in the long run. The pair of season-opening Division II opponents do not count toward the RPI but the Utes would have been better served by playing a couple top-150 teams, even if they had lost one of them.

After losing stalwarts like Brandon Taylor, Jakob Poeltl and Jordan Loveridge, this was expected to be a rebuilding season in Salt Lake City. But why didn’t Krystkowiak give himself a reasonable chance to earn an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament? We know very little about how good Utah is thus far, but if it turns out to be a bubble team in February, we will know exactly what the Utes will have to overcome.

mlemaire (324 Posts)

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