Scheduling is always an imperfect science for most collegiate basketball teams. Besides your conference games, you’re guaranteed maybe a few marquee non-conference games and a bit of non-NCAA competition.
But some teams don’t fall in line with that thinking. Programs, for a multitude of reasons ranging from luck to money, will make their schedule as hard as possible to reap whatever benefit they can from their stronger opponents.
Out of all the teams in the top 10 for strength of schedule, seven are mid-majors. Not all are looking for the same thing from this strategy, though.
Look at Texas Southern for example, who have a history of beefing up their non-conference slate. The Tigers have played 13 away non-conference games and lost every single one.
In fact, they have not had a winning record in non-conference play in the last five years. Yet they’ve won the Southwestern Athletic Conference regular season all five years and went to the NCAA Tournament in three of those five.
Head coach Mike Davis said that the games do help prepare his team for their conference schedule and lead to a big pay day. In 2016, they made $900,000 from “body bag” games, and only had to give $350,000 to the rest of the athletic department.
But Davis also said it saves money in the long run.
“To have a home game you’ve gotta pay the officials $4,000-$5,000,” Davis said to the Arizona Republic. “The people [working the scorers’] table are another $2,500. So in order to have a home game, we’ve gotta clear $10,000. We’re not gonna clear $10,000. And I don’t want to waste my time playing NAIA teams. If we play a lower team, nobody’s gonna come in and see that. The math is simple.”
But it ain’t always about the money. Some teams, like Temple, schedule tough opponents and have major success with them. Temple was the lone team of the seven to have a win against a top 50 RPI opponent, and the Owls have three.
Temple’s situation is different than Texas Southern, as the Owls can count on often having marquee games with up to three ranked opponents at any time in the American Athletic Conference. For a team like them, those key wins against bigger programs mean a lot more for getting an at-large bid.
For the Owls, that tough scheduling included having its first six games on the road or at neutral sites. Despite the obstacle, the team went 4-2 and looks like it could be a dark horse in the AAC championship tournament.
“It’s always nice to get to the Liacouras Center and play, but that’s the way the schedule worked out,” Temple head coach Fran Dunphy said to the the Temple News. “Scheduling is very difficult at this level, but we had a wonderful opportunity to be in New York City Thursday, a great opportunity to be in D.C. at a professional arena playing a good basketball team. So we’re excited by that, and whenever we can go play, we should be unbelievably excited.”
New Orleans least benefited from the stronger schedule. The Privateers are the only team besides Texas Southern to not have a D I win in non-conference play, but have wins against an NAIA and two D II programs.
Despite those three wins, they are actually worse off than the Tigers when it comes to non-conference RPI. Plus, they are not on the same level as Temple in terms of conference strength.
While the Privateers got their first NCAA berth and conference championship in 20 years last season, there are no guarantees that they will repeat as Southland champions this year. With that as their goal, their strong schedule doesn’t give them the same boost as Texas Southern going into their respective conference play.
Other highlights include Savannah State, who are 0-9 against teams in the top 150 in RPI and the Buffalo Bulls, who have an RPI of 42 despite not beating a team with an RPI below 150.
As Buffalo point out, sometimes SOS doesn’t factor into how you are ranked. AP No. 21 Cincinnati? Their strength of schedule is 290, but they seem to be an outlier.
Of all the teams in the top 30 for RPI, only Auburn, Clemson and Virginia have SOS numbers over 100. If anything RPI goes to show you what teams find the best balance of strong schedule and cupcake wins, as three of the top 20 RPI teams are in that SOS top 10.
All in all, it shows all the different ways that teams are trying to get to March Madness or build for the future. Texas Southern is pocketing the money and still dominating in conference play while Temple is looking to stock up on quality wins to go with a strong conference schedule.
Both ways can get you to the big dance, but each strategy works for the respective team. Temple is not going to avoid playing at home with the alumni base they have in Philadelphia, while Texas Southern is not going to spend money trying to play Dallas Baptist for what would be on paper an easy win.
But both have strategies that, while there is inherent risk with them, can lead to a NCAA Tournament berth. If anything, these teams are paving a way for other teams to think about scheduling.