Dear NCAA Tournament Selection Committee…
No, I’m not writing to complain about K-State’s seed. I’m writing to ask you to help us make college basketball better.
Let me offer good news and bad news, Wildcat fans. The good news is that K-State isn’t all that different from most major-conference programs, and the schedule’s ranking can (probably*) be upgraded pretty easily. The bad news is that upgrading the schedule probably won’t entail more marquee home matchups.
*I’m not on the phone calling MVC and Horizon League schools to ask for non-conference games. But this doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility.
A quick definition. In college basketball, I’ll define “major conferences” to include the following: Big 12, Big 10, Big East, ACC, Pac-12 and SEC. This leaves out some conferences with strong teams, notably the AAC, which has three top-20 teams by KenPom. But after those three teams, nobody appears until SMU at 85th. Top-to-bottom, the American doesn’t belong.
But that leads to a couple caveats. The following analysis ignores true home and road games scheduled against good teams from the American, or Gonzaga, or other strong teams in lesser conferences. It also ignores neutral-site games against even major-conference teams.
Why? Outside of a very few examples of annual neutral-site games, such as the Mizzou-Illinois Braggin’ Rights Game, most neutral-site games are one-off affairs. And every college fanbase complains about giving up home games for these neutral-site games. Schools do it for any number of reasons, from financial guarantees from big-city venues to giving alumni in nearby metro areas an easier game to attend.
According to Selection Committee chairman Bruce Rasmussen, the athletic director at Creighton, the Committee is looking at schools that “challenged themselves” in the non-conference schedule. That includes scheduling both road and neutral games against good opponents.
Such good opponents certainly aren’t limited to major-conference schools, but it’s a sufficient proxy for these purposes. Also, I don’t have a research assistant I can task with diving into this in the minute detail I would prefer. And we’re further limiting it to true home and road games for a couple reasons. First, true home crowds typically make for a more enjoyable game environment. They also appeal to the broadest possible cross-section of a school’s alumni and fans. It’s great that K-State alums and fans in Wichita got a local game against Tulsa (well…), but K-State fans and alums in Kansas City have less reason to travel to Wichita than they do for a game in Manhattan.
Also, thanks to K-State beat writer Kellis Robinett, we know that K-State has attempted to add major-conference opponents such as Creighton, Nebraska, Arkansas and other regional opponents, and all of them have declined. We can guess at the reasons. K-State is a relatively difficult opponent to beat in Manhattan, and still a decent challenge as a road team, and losses to the Wildcats won’t impress the Committee. Kansas isn’t a recruiting hotbed. And a trip to Bramlage Coliseum doesn’t hold the same appeal as a trip to somewhere like Cameron Indoor Stadium.
So the purposes here are twofold. First, let’s evaluate how the Committee did at rewarding schools for scheduling true road and home games. I know Rasmussen said neutral-site games were considered, too, but almost all major-conference schools play in a holiday or early-season tournament, and neutral-site games are less desirable for the reasons mentioned above. The fastest way for schools like those K-State has contacted to start saying yes to those invitations is to see such scheduling rewarded. And second, let’s see how K-State can upgrade its non-conference schedules in the future.
Over the past two years, here are the per-school averages for true home and road games played against major-conference schools.
- Big 10: 4.8
- ACC: 4.4
- Big East: 4.4
- Big 12: 4.1
- SEC: 3.9
- Pac-12: 2.2
Broadly speaking, major-conference teams play about two true home or road games per year against other major-conference teams. The Pac-12 is the obvious outlier. Presumably this is because the western United States contains a lot of land and not very many people. By this metric, K-State did pretty well this year, with two
three** true home or road games against major-conference schools.
**Post-Publication Note: K-State’s game against Washington State in Spokane is classified as a true road game by CBB Reference, from which the data for this post was derived. This is incorrect. One of these days, Morse will find budget for a research assistant for me.
How about the Committee rewarding schools for scheduling up this year?*** Here are the last six teams in the NCAA Tournament, per the Committee’s seed list, with their number of true home and road major-conference games in parentheses.
- Texas (2)
- Oklahoma (2)
- UCLA (1)
- St. Bonaventure (1)
- Arizona State (2)
- Syracuse (2)
***We note, of course, that scheduling is only one among many factors in deciding which teams make the tournament. But among relative equals in results, we’ll assume that scheduling ends up being among the most important deciding factors.
So other than UCLA and St. Bonaventure, all of these schools were basically average. According to the Bracket Matrix, the following nine schools just missed the field:
- USC (2)
- St. Mary’s (1)
- Louisville (4)
- Middle Tennessee (2)
- Oklahoma State (1)
- Notre Dame (2)
- Marquette (3)
- Nebraska (4)
- Baylor (2)
I’m not exactly in the business of sympathizing with Louisville or Nebraska fans, but how would you feel if you had scheduled four of these games, challenging yourself in a way none of the last teams to make the field did? Nebraska scheduled a home-and-home with KU, taking a close home loss in December when another win might have at least given them shot at Dayton. For that matter, Marquette took losses to Purdue and Georgia and finished with 19 wins. A couple more wins wouldn’t have hurt their case.
In college basketball as in anything else, the actors respond to the incentives in their environment. If the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee is committed to making the sport better, then it needs to make clear that it will reward schools for playing true home and road games against other major-conference opponents. Syracuse, Arizona State, UCLA, Oklahoma and Texas did about what’s expected in scheduling non-conference games this year, and ended up with résumés fairly similar to a number of schools who narrowly missed the field while doing more than the average in terms of scheduling. Let’s get games back on campus where they belong.
Now, let’s turn to K-State’s schedule. As mentioned already, the Wildcats actually played more true home or road games against major-conference schools than the average school plays. But their non-conference strength of schedule is atrocious because of the following six games (KenPom ranking in parentheses):
- American (329)
- UMKC (275)
- Northern Arizona (326)
- Oral Roberts (230)
- SC Upstate (338)
- SE Missouri State (256)
A compelling argument can, and should, be made that these games should not affect the Selection Committee’s decisions. Every school schedules guarantee games, and once you get below about 150th in the KenPom rankings, the likelihood of a win is about the same. But as of right now, this is a factor, and if you’re on the fringes of NCAA Tournament consideration, getting left out because of it would be stupid.
Upgrading even five of the games above to matchups with teams like Drake (154), North Dakota State (169), UTSA (175), Oakland (178) and North Texas (185) would make a huge difference in non-conference strength of schedule. The geographically adjacent Missouri Valley is full of teams living in the 100-150 range. Or you could consider a stronger challenge with teams like South Dakota State or South Dakota.
And before I get the hindsight argument, I get that scheduling isn’t an exact science. But it doesn’t take a lot of legwork to know that American, UMKC, Northern Arizona, Oral Roberts, SC Upstate and SE Missouri State will almost certainly be strength-of-schedule anchors. Only Oral Roberts has cracked the top 200 in KenPom’s ratings in the last two years.
I get that these aren’t very exciting answers, K-State fans. Getting home games with brand-name opponents will be difficult because, frankly, very few schools are doing this. And while fixing a really bad strength of schedule shouldn’t be all that difficult, it’s not all that exciting.
That’s why we turn our lonely eyes to you. Save us, Selection Committee. You’re our only hope.