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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Cupcakes, Twinkies, High Fiber, Macrobiotic

No, I'm not about to analogize college hoops schedules to the types of diets or foods people eat, but suffice it to say that there are differences among the schedules that various Division I schools play. Many schools, I believe, fall into the large center category (to use a political analogy, I suppose). They play some teams they can beat, some games that could go either way, and some games that would be very good wins.

That's probably the way it should be. If you play a diet of lesser teams, you risk playing down to your competition and not being well-prepared for your conference schedule. If you're Duke and you scheduled Longwood, Kennesaw State, University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Northern Arizona, you probably wouldn't be ready for a grueling ACC schedule. In contrast, if you're Harvard and want to get ready for what could be your most productive Ivy season in 21 years, you don't want to warm up by scheduling Boston College, Syracuse, Michigan State and Cal. You won't get a good measure of yourself if you get pasted by 30 points in each of those games. In fact, you could sap your team of any pre-season confidence it might have had.

I don't subscribe to the RPI (that is, I don't have access to it) and I am not a numbers cruncher per se, so indulge me in my rather liberal arts approach to evaluating whether a team has a tough, middling or soft schedule. As one-time U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote about pornography, "I know it when I see it." Well, the same can hold true for evaluating a college basketball team's schedule.

My source for this exercise is The Sporting News college basketball guide. It came out well before the college basketball season, which means that some of the schedules might have changed. A strength of this guide is that it rates conferences, which means I'll point out some pre-season schedules that I think deserve some scrutiny.

1. Notre Dame. I like their roster, and Mike Brey has been able to recruit some good players to South Bend, which, once again, is reasserting its status as a football school. Notre Dame gets 3 cupcake rating -- out of four -- for a pre-season schedule that includes Lafayette, Hofstra, Florida International, Indiana Purdue at Fort Wayne, Niagara, Columbia, Fordham and Wofford. Okay, Notre Dame also had N.C. State, Michigan and Alabama on its pre-season schedule, but Michigan isn't Chris Webber's Michigan, and the bulk of the schedule doesn't present the most challenging games for the fighting Irish.

2. Pittsburgh. Jamie Dixon gets a 3.5 cupcakes out of four for the Panthers' pre-season schedule, which includes St. Peter's, Robert Morris, Maine, St. Francis (NY), Duquesne, Penn State, Vermont and Coppin State. True, he's scheduled South Carolina on the road, Wisconsin at home and Auburn, but the bulk of this schedule is weak. Vermont was a great story last year, but four of the five starters from that team are gone. Penn State is not a good basketball team, and neither South Carolina nor Auburn are that outstanding. Formidable enough for the pre-season, perhaps, but this is a weak pre-season schedule.

3. Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights' pre-season schedule includes St. Mary's, Maryland Eastern Shore, Buffalo, St. Thomas Aquinas, South Carolina State, Charlotte and Princeton. Okay, so the Big East schedule is brutal, but this schedule suggests that sparring with Pee Wee Herman would have been a good way to prepare for a championship bout against Smokin' Joe Frazier. This schedule rates 3.5 cupcakes on the four cupcake scale.

4. St. John's. About 2.5 cupcakes for the Johnnies, who did schedule Duke and Virginia Tech (the latter on the road), but also have Maryland Eastern Shore, St. Francis (NY), Hofstra, Niagara, Charleston Southern, Stony Brook and their own layup, the Holiday Festival, on their pre-season schedule. This isn't as bad as some of the other pre-season schedules, but it isn't that challenging.

5. South Florida. Predicted for second-to-last in Big East pre-season polls, this squad has scheduled Alcorn State, Jacksonville, Florida International, the Missouri State Classic, Stetson, Florida Atlantic and Bethune-Cookman. Sure, there's UAB and Michigan mixed in, but neither are that formidable, and then there's the Rainbow Classic as the holiday treat. Score this one 3.5 cupcakes out of four.

In contrast, look at Duke's pre-season schedule.

Pre-season NIT, Davidson (the cream of its conference), Indiana (on the road), Pennsylvania (the cream of its league), Texas, Valparaiso, St. John's, UNC Greensboro and Bucknell (cream of the Patriot League and a team that could crack the Top 25 this year). Sure, Coach K gets a lot of these teams to play at Cameron, but the Dookies aren't playing Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Central Florida and South Florida in the same pre-season. They wouldn't think of it.

Now, you might say, hey, wait a minute, it isn't fair to analogize Duke to anyone, that the Dookies are in a class by themselves, and, well, it's just not fair. Well, Duke could schedule a few more cupcakes in its pre-season and probably get away with it. To Coach K's credit, they don't. It's not like Davidson and Penn really have a good chance to win in Durham, but they're well-coached, disciplined teams that present interesting challenges for Duke. At best, it's a challenging schedule. At one's most critical thinking, it's a crafty schedule that presents winnable if intriguingly challenging games. I say it's a good schedule for Duke.

And, if you say, well, Duke shouldn't be the measuring stick, then let's look at John Chaney and Temple. Say what you will about Coach Chaney (and he brought a lot of criticism on himself last year), he will schedule anyone anywhere. Let's look at Temple's pre-season schedule: Preseason NIT, Miami, Rutgers (away), Penn (away), Princeton (away), Alabama, Auburn (away), South Carolina, Villanova. And this is an easier schedule than in past years, but it still presents challenges against historically good teams or teams from big conferences. A high-fiber schedule without a real cupcake among these teams (even if Princeton is having a down year).

"So what?" you say. Well, let's compare the Owls' pre-season schedule to that of the current darlings of the A-10 watchers, George Washington. Its pre-season schedule is a 2.5 cupcake affair that includes Kennesaw State, Norfolk State, St. Francis (PA), Boston U., Maryland, Florida International, Morgan State, Maryland Eastern Shore and North Carolina State. Okay, you do have two ACC teams in the mix, but the other teams won't help get you off the bubble and into the Big Dance if that's where you find yourselves at season's end.

So what's the message here? What's the proper prescription for your favorite college basketball team? It's hard to say. But let's suppose you're a mid-major, you have a reasonably talented team coming back, and you want a good mix of 12 games as part of your pre-season schedule. I would suggest that you schedule 3 teams that probably will beat you, five that are reasonably challenging and four that you should win. Let's suppose you're the Penn Quakers, winners of 8 of the last 13 Ivy titles.

Four top or bigger-name teams: Duke, Villanova, Colorado, St. Joseph's.
Five challenging teams: Drexel, LaSalle, Hawaii, Fordham, Citadel.
Four games you should win: Siena, Navy, BYU-Hawaii, Lafayette.

That sounds about right. You will test your abilities against a variety of teams, see who can play under different circumstances and against different styles, and, in the process, ready your team for the Ivy season. You didn't beat Duke tonight and you shouldn't beat Villanova, but you'll be competitive in many of these games and win about 7 or 8 of them. An 8-4 non-Ivy record should help you compete fiercely in the Ivies and win your league.

Take a look at some schedules when you get the chance. What you'll see, when you get past the extremes, is a healthy mixture of sure wins, toss-ups and will wins. That's a healthy prescription for a good season.

And it doesn't have to be that complicated.


Anonymous Stormy said...

A handful of comments.

1. Duke's game against Virginia Tech is an ACC game, not non-conference.

2. Temple gets bonus points from me for trying to resurrect the Big Five.

3. Boston U. (GW's schedule) is supposed to be the cream of this year's America East with UVM's losing everybody (but gaining a fabulous young coach in Mike Lonergan and a great unpaid assistant in his wife Maggie). B.U. should help GW's RPI assuming they do what they are supposed to do in the Big East.

4. I think you're right, Penn did get preseason scheduling right.

5. The hard part for coaches is confirming their teams' paths to the postseason (NCAA tournament, not the NCAA-lite tournament - formerly the NIT). Penn will get there only with an Ivy crown. GW and Temple both have to balance winning the A-10 tournament with the possibility of an at-large berth. So those are different goals, but both important. Wins matter in the RPI, but SOS matters a lot too. No doubt about it, it's a tough balance.

Nice post!

11:46 AM  

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