Posted: Wednesday February 16, 2011 12:12PM ; Updated: Monday February 21, 2011 7:32PM
Seth Davis
Seth Davis>COLLEGE BASKETBALL MAILBAG

How vital is strength of schedule?

Story Highlights

Don't question San Diego State's credentials; the Aztecs could snag a No. 1 seed

Durrell Summers has completely lost his confidence, and MSU is paying the price

Anthony Grant is a true stud, and Alabama would do well to keep him around

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Joakim Noah
Florida's '06 title team didn't have the toughest schedule, ranking 66th overall and 253rd nonconference.
Bob Rosato/SI
Past National Champions' SOS
Year Champ SOS NC SOS
2010 Duke 8 35
2009 UNC 22 93
2008 Kansas 50 155
2007 Florida 38 159
2006 Florida 66 253
2005 UNC 18 82
2004 UConn 17 93
2003 Syracuse 40 157
2002 Maryland 10 --
2001 Duke 6 --
2000 Michigan State 28 --
1999 UConn 28 --
1998 Kentucky 10 --
1997 Arizona 19 --
1996 Kentucky 3 --
1995 UCLA 60 --
1994 Arkansas 55 --

We begin with an appropriately geeky question from Overland Park, Kan., former home to the NCAA's headquarters.

Is there a correlation between the strength of a conference and the national champion? One would think that a team in a strong conference would have had more tests against ranked teams and would thus be better prepared for the challenges in the NCAA tournament.
-- Brad Warner, Overland Park, Kan.

Rather than limiting myself to the subjective assessment of conference strength, I set out to answer Brad's question by mapping out the strength of schedule rankings for each of the last 17 NCAA champions. Why did I choose that number? Because that's how far back the archives go on my RPI website of choice, Jerry Palm's CollegeRPI.com. Jerry also has the nonconference strength of schedule rankings back to 2003, so I've included those as well. The table is to your right, and the most revealing thing about the numbers is how little they reveal.

The average strength of schedule rank of the last 17 NCAA champions was 28.1, ranging from 3 to 66. The average nonconference strength of schedule rank was 128.4, ranging from 35 to 253. Both averages were lower than I expected, but the range is what really disproves Brad's theory. Some teams have won taking on all comers, while others have sailed through a regular season virtually unchallenged and still ended up hoisting the big trophy.

I've long felt that the notion you have to come from a strong conference to do well in the tournament did not hold water. John Calipari's teams at Memphis were the most recent example. There's something to be said for playing some easy games in February while your competition is going to war every night. Plus, playing against weaker opponents gives a coach more leeway to experiment with different lineups or sit key players who are nursing minor injuries. The point is, both ways work. Tom Izzo plays every tough game he can find in November and December, while Jim Boeheim doesn't like to leave the great state of New York. And they both have rings.

I'm sure some really hardcore geeks out there (I'm talking about you, John Gasaway) will crunch some other numbers and support a theory arguing one way or the other. To me, Brad's question yields the answer so many other questions yield: It depends.

Having (not) solved that mystery, let's dip into the rest of this week's mailbag. We'll begin with two questions about my poll ballot.

Seth, you said you would rank Xavier after they beat Georgia and Duquesne, but you still have not. What is your trepidation with ranking Xavier? Do you think they can continue their streak of Sweet 16s this year?
-- John Cassidy, Findlay, Ohio

Yes, I am going to do the so-and-so-beat-that-team-you-ranked. UCLA just beat St John's and does have more wins this year. Why no love in the Top 25?
-- John O., La Jolla, Calif.

The basic answer to both of these questions is that I only have 25 spots. For one team to move in, another has to move out. I did predict I would rank Xavier if it won at Georgia and Duquesne, but as I mentioned in my column, the résumé of St. John's is far superior. The Johnnies have six wins over teams ranked in the top 50 of the RPI, including two on the road and five against the top 25. Xavier has three top-50 wins and none against the top 25. Who's better? Nobody can say for sure until they play on a neutral court, but I say that wherever you rank Xavier, St. John's should be ranked ahead. My fellow voters obviously disagreed, ranking Xavier 24th and leaving the Red Storm out.

UCLA is also a close call, especially considering the Bruins beat St. John's on Feb. 5. Still, that game was in Pauley Pavilion, and I'm less inclined to rank teams based on head-to-head results this late in the season. Besides St. John's, UCLA's only other top-50 win was a neutral/home victory over BYU in Anaheim. And while St. John's did have that bad loss to Fordham, the Bruins also lost at home to Montana. So that's a wash. But again, in this instance my fellow voters ranked UCLA ahead of St. John's in others receiving votes.

That's the fun in all of this. Lots of different opinions out there, and none of them decide anything important.

After seeing San Diego State in person, it amazes me that people still question that the Aztecs could get a possible 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. They have it all to make a deep run: championship head coach, size, athleticism, point guard and an NBA first-rounder in Kawhi Leonard. To me, their season reminds me of the St. Joseph's team in 2004, only less celebrated. Do you agree?
-- Andrew Brannon, Las Vegas, Nev.

I don't know who these "people" are who are questioning San Diego State's credentials as a possible No. 2 seed, but I can promise you none of them will be in that hotel conference room in Indianapolis in three-and-a-half weeks. To me, the question regarding the Aztecs isn't whether they can garner a 2 seed, it's whether they can get a 1. A lot of people assume that San Diego State is in worse shape than BYU because it lost to the Cougars in Provo, but that is the Aztecs' only loss and they still have the return game at home on Feb. 26. If San Diego State runs the table and wins the Mountain West tournament, not only is it possible that it will get a 1 seed, I think it's downright likely.

Incidentally, I love the comparison with the Jameer Nelson-Delonte West-led St. Joseph's of 2004. To me that will always be the benchmark of mid-major greatness. I'm not sure this team is quite that good, but it's not far off, either.

 
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