The Buzzer 2013: How to Schedule For Success

woo, scheduling! - USA TODAY Sports

Breaking down the art of modern-day non-conference basketball scheduling.

We all know the drill by now: the non-conference schedule the Iowa basketball team played in 2012-13 (ranked 313rd in the nation, per ESPN's RPI rankings) was a gigantic anchor on their 2013 postseason aspirations. That schedule wasn't the only reason they failed to make the NCAA Tournament -- if they'd managed to avoid snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in a few of those road games against Purdue, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Minnesota (not to mention in home and neutral-court losses to Michigan State), the cupcake-friendly non-conference slate wouldn't have stopped them from putting on their dancing shoes -- but it certainly didn't hurt help their cause anyway. Fran has explained why he set up the schedule the way he did and there's certainly no need to rehash arguments over whether or not the 2012-13 Iowa team needed a schedule with more marshmallows than your average pan of Rice Krispie treats or if they were actually good enough to handle a slightly more challenging slate -- what's done is done. But what about next year's schedule?

Before we get to that, though, it might be instructive to look at the non-conference schedules from the Big Ten teams that did make the NCAA Tournament this year, in order to see how different (or not-so-different) their slates were than Iowa's schedule.

Indiana_2012-13_basketball_schedule_medium

By way of explanation... the first RPI figure is the team's final RPI number after the 2011-2012 season. So when athletic directors and coaches were making their 2012-13 schedules, that's the most recent RPI information they had available. The second RPI figure is the team's final RPI number after the 2012-2013 season -- in other words, that's how good the team ended up being this past season. I also included the KenPom figures, too, for the hell of it. All RPI data comes courtesy of ESPN's RPI calculations, mainly because they had the most easily accessible archive.

Looking at the 2011-12 final RPI data...

RPI 1-50: 2
RPI 51-100: 1
RPI 101-200: 2
RPI 201-300: 7
RPI 301 or worse: 1

The Hoosiers played a really lousy non-conference slate. They played 8 teams ranked 201st or worse in the RPI -- same as Iowa, who was absolutely lambasted for their weak non-con slate. It seems even more egregious for Indiana to schedule so many creampuffs; at least Iowa could claim that they were a young team that needed to build confidence in the early going -- Indiana entered the season as a national title contender. Their best non-conference opponents were Butler, North Carolina, and Georgetown -- but they didn't do much to actually schedule those teams. Indiana, Purdue, Butler, and Notre Dame play in a Hoosier State version of the Big 4 Classic that the Iowa schools started playing this year; last year the Hoosiers played Notre Dame, so Butler was automatically their draw this year. North Carolina was their assigned foe in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge and Georgetown was an opponent in the neutral-site Legends Classic in Brooklyn, NY. The best team they genuinely scheduled without any sort of tournament set-up or pre-existing scheduling arrangement was... North Dakota State. Indiana also didn't play a single true road game until Big Ten play tipped off.

Ohio_st_2012-13_basketball_schedule_medium

RPI 1-50: 4
RPI 51-100: 1
RPI 101-200: 2
RPI 201-300: 4
RPI 301 or worse: 2 (includes Northern Kentucky, a non-Division I program)

I gave Ohio State credit for scheduling Marquette, although they ended up not reaping any RPI benefits from it because they didn't actually play the Golden Eagles (it was one of those early-season aircraft carrier games and poor weather conditions forced them to cancel the game). Ohio State also had three other games slated against 2012 Top 50 RPI opponents: Duke (as part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge), Kansas (the back-half of a home-and-home series with the Jayhawks), and Long Beach State (who ended up being a mediocre mid-major opponent this year rather than a really good one). They played a half-dozen cupcakes, though, including non-Division Northern Kentucky, exploiting the NCAA's RPI loophole there.

Michigan_state_2012-13_basketball_schedule_medium

RPI 1-50: 3
RPI 51-100: 1
RPI 101-200: 4
RPI 201-300: 1
RPI 301 or worse: 4 (includes Tuskegee, a non-Division I program)

Tom Izzo is often praised for his brutally tough non-conference schedules, but in that regard, this was not a vintage MSU slate. Sure, there were three games against RPI Top 50 teams -- UConn and Kansas in neutral-site games and Texas at home -- but there were also some absolute dogs, like Nicholls State, Arkansas Pine-Bluff, Loyola (IL), and Tuskegee.* Granted, Arkansas Pine-Bluff and Loyola (IL) both ended up being better squads in 2013 than they had been in 2012. In fact, Michigan State's schedule ended up being tougher than it initially looked, thanks to a much-improved Boise State squad and the fact that Miami had a very good team this year, too.

* Although the Tuskegee game was played for very noble reasons, so props to MSU for that.

Michigan_2012-13_basketball_schedule_medium

RPI 1-50: 2
RPI 51-100: 3
RPI 101-200: 1
RPI 201-300: 5
RPI 301 or worse: 2 (includes Slippery Rock, a non-Division I program)

Michigan had a fairly standard non-conference schedule: a few good teams (NC State in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, Kansas State and a resurgent Pitt in the Preseason NIT), a few teams that looked decent (West Virginia and Cleveland State, although both ended up being much worse in 2013), and a host of middling teams, but very few total pushovers (just Binghamton and Slippery Rock, and only Binghamton really worked against Michigan's schedule, since Slippery Rock is a non-Division I opponent). They also played a game at Bradley, which... okay.

Wisconsin_2012-13_basketball_schedule_medium

RPI 1-50: 5
RPI 51-100: 0
RPI 101-200: 4
RPI 201-300: 2
RPI 301 or worse: 2

Wisconsin had an interesting non-conference schedule this year. They entered the season with five 2012 RPI Top 50 opponents on the slate (Florida, Creighton, Virginia, Cal, and Marquette), and while Virginia and Cal fell a bit off that pace (although not by much in Cal's case), that's still a solid bunch. Outside of those notable major conference opponents (and Creighton), they had a host of teams who had been mostly solid in 2012, with the exception of Samford, Presbyterian, Nebraska-Omaha and SE Louisiana. SE Louisiana ended up being slightly better in 2013, but Samford was slightly worse, and Presbyterian, Cornell, and UW-Milwaukee were all much worse in 2013. But you can afford some teams like that when you have quality at the other end. Wisconsin's non-conference schedule benefited from Marquette being extra-good this year (like Iowa-Iowa State, that's their annual series against an intra-state rival from another power conference) and from Creighton remaining very good and Arkansas being improved, but they also deserve some real credit for scheduling home-and-away series with the likes of Cal and Florida. As we've seen from this breakdown, not many Big Ten teams are doing that.

Illinois_2012-13_basketball_schedule_medium

RPI 1-50: 2
RPI 51-100: 0
RPI 101-200: 4
RPI 201-300: 7
RPI 301 or worse: 1 (includes Chaminade, a non-Division I program)

At first glance, Illinois' non-conference schedule appeared to contain a lot of trash, but it ended up being pretty solid (despite Auburn turning out to be one of the worst major conference teams in the country). That road game at Gonzaga looked great before the season began and it ended up being outstanding, especially since Illinois won. USC, Gardner-Webb, and Eastern Kentucky were far less tire fire-y in 2013 than they had been in 2012, which worked out nicely for Illinois. They also benefited from beating a much-improved Butler team in the Maui Invitational final.

Minnesota_2012-13_basketball_schedule_medium

RPI 1-50: 3
RPI 51-100: 2
RPI 101-200: 6
RPI 201-300: 2
RPI 301 or worse: 0

Overall, Minnesota played the toughest non-conference schedule by far of the conference's NCAA Tournament teams. That schedule included only one really elite team (Duke), but it also avoided the trash and creampuffs that littered everyone else's schedule. The worst teams they played were American (much worse in 2013 than they had been in 2012), Toledo (slightly improved), and North Florida (slightly worse). USC went from disgrace to decent, while all told they played nine teams in the RPI top 120 this year (Iowa played three such teams). This schedule was a key reason why Minnesota kept a solid RPI figure all season and found themselves firmly in the NCAA at-large field, even when they were imploding all over the place during Big Ten play.

Iowa_2012-13_basketball_schedule_medium

RPI 1-50: 2
RPI 51-100: 1
RPI 101-200: 2
RPI 201-300: 5
RPI 301 or worse: 3

We all know about Iowa's non-conference schedule. It was not very good. It may have been what a very young Iowa team needed to develop into a very dangerous team by the middle of the season, but it certainly wasn't what they needed to get the NCAA Selection Committee to look at them favorably on Selection Sunday.

As for what the 2013-14 schedule looks like...

Iowa_2013_14_basketball_schedule_medium

We only know about half of the schedule at the moment. (Obviously Iowa will not be playing every team in the Battle 4 Atlantis field -- they'll only be playing three of them -- but since we don't know which three teams that will be, I listed the entire field.) Nebraska-Omaha is the season opener and is predictably cupcake-y. Iowa subs out UNI for Drake in the Big 4 Classic in Des Moines, while the annual Iowa State game remains on tap (although the venue switches to Hilton Coliseum this year).

And Iowa will have a game in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, against an opponent TBA. The B1G-ACC matchups are usually based in part on the final standings from a year ago; Iowa finished in the middle of the league, which means we're probably looking at a team from the ACC's crunchy chocolate center as well. The teams that finished in the 4-8 range in the ACC were North Carolina State, Virginia, Florida State, Maryland, and Boston College. Of course, all of t hose teams except Florida State also played on the road in the B1G-ACC Challenge last year and probably will get home games this year, which would rule out Iowa. There's also the matter of the ACC adding Pitt and Syracuse into the mix. Virginia would have been an interesting opponent -- not only would it be a rematch of the this past season's NIT quarterfinals, it would match up two of the more popular sleeper picks for next year ($). From a butts-in-seats, gets-people-talking, general buzz perspective, the ideal matchup for Iowa would be North Carolina, a college hoops blue blood (no pun intended) and a recent recruiting rival (see: Woodbury, Adam and Paige, Marcus).

As for what else will fill out Iowa's schedule... I wouldn't look for an abundance of thrilling matchups. Going by the 2012-13 schedules listed above, there were just nine games that featured Big Ten teams facing other power-conference teams home or away, a figure which includes the annual Iowa-Iowa State and Wisconsin-Marquette series. You can bump that number to 11 if you include Illinois' game with Gonzaga (not a power-conference team, but certainly a heavyweight opponent) and their neutral-court game with Missouri (an annual tradition at this point). That's still not much.

The vast majority of non-conference games for Big Ten teams -- even those at the top of the mountain -- are money-spinning home games against teams from smaller leagues. The trick for Iowa is to schedule fewer games against teams from the MEAC and the SWAC. You can't guarantee the quality of a team a year from now, given the volatility of college basketball, but you can improve your odds by scheduling from the right leagues. Teams from the MEAC, the SWAC, and the Southern Conference tend to suck, by and large. Teams from the Missouri Valley Conference, the Horizon League, and the Mountain West Conference (to name a few) tend to be much more respectable. Hell, Minnesota played multiple games against teams from the Summit League, which clearly worked out beautifully for them. So as Iowa fills out the rest of its schedule, you may not recognize the team at first glance, but take a look at their conference of origin -- that should give us some idea of what Iowa is doing to improve the quality of their non-conference slate.

That's not much consolation to the fans paying for season tickets, but if it's any consolation to Iowa fans, realize that your plight is not much different than the plight of your fellow fans at Michigan or Ohio State or Michigan State. There are still a lot of interesting non-conference games pitting power conference teams against one another... they just tend to happen on neutral courts, in preseason tournaments or made-for-ESPN one-off events. That's why it was so exciting (and important) to see Iowa ditching the Great Alaska Shootout (with its decent, but decidedly unspectacular field) for the Battle 4 Atlantis (with its field full of recognizable names and RPI-boosting opponents). I don't know if Iowa will add any more neutral site games to next year's schedule (although I would bet against it, given that they're already slated to play three games in the Bahamas, another in Des Moines, and a road game in Ames), it might be worth trying to get in on the early-November basketball bonanza in Dallas (meant to serve as an appetizer for the Final Four at Jerry World at year's end) mentioned here. The opposition would be good, but not unbeatable (the state of Texas did not exactly cover itself in glory in the NCAA Tournament last season) and it could be a nice boost for both Iowa's RPI and Iowa's national profile.

Either way, Iowa's 2013-14 schedule is already looking very promising. Too bad tip-off is still six long months away.

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