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Posted: Tuesday February 17, 2009 3:21PM; Updated: Tuesday February 17, 2009 3:21PM

Mythbusters: Tough non-conference schedules don't pay off

By Jacob E. Osterhout

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Stephen Curry and Davidson sport a 22-4 record despite playing a tough out-of-conference schedule.
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

With only three weeks left in college basketball's regular season, everyone holds an opinion about which teams have proved themselves worthy of NCAA Tournament bids. So, it seems like a good time to debunk the commonly held belief that tough scheduling helps bubble teams make the Tournament.

For many mid-major college basketball programs, scheduling tough non-conference games might seem like a good way to solidify a NCAA Tournament bid if they don't win their conference tournaments. But, for the smaller programs and even a few of the bigger ones, the risks of a tough out of conference schedule outweigh the benefits.

To beat a top-25 opponent, most of these teams will need to play a great game on the road. That's not easy to do, especially at the beginning of the season, when teams are still trying to find their identities and the basketball is more about individual skill than team cohesion. A game based on aggregate talent obviously benefits the favored team.

Coaches at mid-major programs know they are at a disadvantage and schedule multiple games against traditional powerhouses in the hopes of attaining that one signature win. These coaches are basically sacrificing multiple losses in the hopes of achieving an elusive single victory and that can be dangerous, especially if the big win never materializes.

The Siena Saints entered the season with high expectations after returning their core lineup from a team that upset Vanderbilt in the first round of last year's NCAA Tournament. In a bold move, Siena coach Fran McCaffery set up the toughest out of conference schedule in the country. The Saints played Tennessee, Oklahoma State, Pittsburgh and Kansas - and lost all four games.

Now, one can argue that these four losses made the Saints a better team and contributed to their current 15-1 MAAC record. But I do not buy the whole "what does not kill you makes you stronger" rationale. If it were true, NJIT would be a basketball powerhouse by now. The fact is, with losses to every decent team it has played, unless Siena wins their conference tournament, it is going to be hard to argue for the squad's inclusion in the NCAA Tournament.

That's the risk these schools take by scheduling tough games. When the underdogs come up short, it just reinforces the theory that these lesser-known teams cannot play with the big-time programs.

Why not go with the Utah State approach to scheduling? Arrange to play a lot of bad teams and beat them all. Until their recent loss to Boise State, the Aggies were the hottest story in college basketball, having won 19 games in a row, the nation's longest winning streak. Granted, other than an impressive victory over Utah, the Aggies played the biggest cupcake schedule in the nation. Their non-conference strength of schedule comes in at a lofty 234. But that's not the point.

The point is that Utah State won a lot of games in a row and drew national attention because of it. Let me restate that so it's clear: Utah State raised its profile by NOT scheduling difficult games.

And even though Siena is 15-1 in the MAAC, the Saints are largely ignored because they failed to prove themselves at the beginning of the season. Nothing can override their high-profile losses except a conference tournament title.

The best a mid-major team can hope for is to be in Davidson's situation. Showcasing its superstar Stephen Curry, the Wildcats played an intensely difficult out-of-conference schedule. And they did fairly well. Davidson beat West Virginia and North Carolina State, but lost to Oklahoma, Purdue and Duke. Don't get me wrong, the WVU win is huge. But can we just ignore the losses? Even with a player the caliber of Curry, Davidson could only compile a 1-4 record against teams with RPIs in the top 50.

It's just not worth it to schedule these tough non-conference games. Ask Cleveland State, a team that upset Syracuse earlier this season on a three-quarter-court buzzer beater, but most likely won't receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament unless they win out the rest of the season. While the Vikings took down the Orangemen, they also lost to Washington, Kansas State and West Virginia. The trade off actually hurt them more than it helped, considering that many critics will call the Syracuse win a fluke.

When "bracketologists" talk about bubble schools needing to play a strong schedule to make the NCAA Tournament, what they really mean is that these teams need to not just play, but beat a high-profile program. And there's a big difference between scheduling and actually winning. Better to post impressive numbers against lesser opponents than forgettable numbers against quality teams.

 
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