Pittsburgh is having another solid season, currently sitting at 11-1 after torching visiting Cal Poly by 17 points over the weekend. Here’s the key question, though: Does this record represent a run at an elite season for the Panthers or is this just another instance of strategic scheduling? Many coaches schedule their non-conference slates to challenge and help prepare their teams for the rigors of conference play; while others schedule to win a bunch of games. John Calipari, Roy Williams, and Tom Izzo tend to fall into the latter camp, whereas Jamie Dixon, Jim Boeheim and many others are regularly accused of falling into the former camp.
For the past three years, Dixon has clearly followed the philosophy of scheduling to win. This season Pittsburgh is 11-1 in non-conference play with one more game against Albany to go before ACC play begins. This year the Panthers have only played four teams in the RPI Top 100 (Stanford at #46, Cincinnati at #67, Penn State at #73, and Fresno State at #92), beating all but the Bearcats. Last season they also finished non-conference play 12-1, having played only two teams in the RPI top 100 (Michigan at #17 and Detroit at #64), splitting those games. In 2011-12, Pittsburgh finished non-conference play at 11-2, playing five teams in the RPI top 100 (Long Beach State at #36, La Salle at #83, Tennessee at #86, Wagner at #92, and Penn at #98), losing to both Long Beach State and Wagner.
The problem for Pittsburgh is that it plays in the tough-as-nails ACC, so if non-conference play doesn’t prepare the Panthers for the difficulties of league play, it’s tough to just flip the switch on come January. It’s understandable that coaches don’t want to schedule such a difficult non-conference schedule that their teams are burned out and lacking confidence heading into the conference season, but there needs to be enough competition so that the team also improves from early November to late December. Last year Pitt finished the non-conference season at 12-1, went 12-6 in the Big East, and then lost its first game of the Big East Tournament before doing likewise in the NCAA Tournament. The year before that, Pitt finished non-conference play at 11-2 before falling apart in the Big East with a 5-13 record and not making the NCAAs at all.