It is time once again for me to talk about one of my pet peeves, scheduling. At all levels of college basketball teams schedule in different ways. Some schedule tough, some schedule light and some are in between, scheduling tough games while giving their teams a chance to gain some confidence against lesser opponents. But how that scheduling is viewed not only depends on who you are but it also depends on when it is looked at. That is to say the narrative when it comes to scheduling in November is different than the ones we will hear about the same schedules in March, at least for some.
I want to look at three teams specifically, two notoriously have very difficult non-conference schedules, one is a mid-major the other is an upper echelon program and an high major team that likes to schedule lesser opponents in the non-conference.
Long Beach State has had a history of scheduling in a manner that says, if we don’t win our conference tournament we want a shot at an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. They do that by scheduling as many high-major programs as possible. Now the other side of that coin is you have to win your fair share of those games, but you can’t win them if you don’t schedule them. Last season the 49ers played Byu, Seton Hall, Virginia, Oklahoma State (twice), UCLA, San Diego State, Oregon, Arizona and Duke before conference play began. This season LBSU currently has the 20th toughest non-conference schedule in the country having already played Wichita State, North Carolina, Louisville and Washington with match ups with Kansas and Texas on the horizon. Scheduling like this as a mid-major does a number of things. It gives your team a shot at an NCAA Tournament bid if you can win a few of these games and happen to not win your conference tournament, it assures your team is battle tested heading into conference play and for a team like Long Beach State a win or two of that caliber does wonders for the program as a whole in terms of recruiting and branding of the program.
One school that doesn’t have to worry about any of those things is Michigan State. Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo is always willing to play anyone anywhere in the non-conference schedule and I would argue it is part of the reason he and his teams are so successful in March, they have already experienced anything that could be thrown at them. Izzo schedules so tough that this past week he actually apologized to his team for that schedule, a schedule that has seen them play Arizona, Kentucky, Wichita State, Baylor and tonight Duke. Izzo said he hasn’t left much time for his team to practice and gel and that is his fault. But come tournament time his teams will be praised for their preparation and the time from November to January will be a big reason why.
The other end of the scheduling spectrum comes when a high-major team uses its already built in conference schedule to pad its tournament resume so much that their successful but weak non-conference schedule gets overshadowed. Historically one program has been the poster child for this strategy and that is the Syracuse Orange. Seeing Syracuse leave the state of New York, whether for a neutral site game or a true road game before January is a bit like seeing Haley’s Comet every 87 years. For reference since joining the ACC for the 2013-14 season Syracuse has played a total of 10 road/neutral games outside of New York (with two being true road games not part of the ACC/Big 10 Challenge, at Georgetown and at Villanova). By contrast Michigan State has played a total of 20 such games outside of Michigan in the same time period with three true road games at Texas, Notre Dame and Northeastern). Also by contrast the highest mid-major team in terms of strength of schedule right now is Florida at 6th and they play more true road games in December (3) at North Florida, Duke and Florida State as Syracuse has in four years and as many as Michigan State in that time. So Syracuse loads up on lesser opponents before January and come March people say, well look they won 23-24 games and played an ACC schedule. That last part is the key, they played an ACC schedule, and they have no choice but to play Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Louisville, etc. twice a season. The likes of Long Beach State don’t have that luxury.
My peeve is if Florida and Michigan State can do it why doesn’t Syracuse instead of resting on the laurels of a built-in schedule year after year. It certainly doesn’t seem to hurt those teams in March.