Last year, for the trillion billionth time, Northwestern didn't make the NCAA Tournament: although Kenpom had the Cats as the No. 49 team in the country, they weren't an entry in the
65 (68! This takes some getting used to...) team field, while lower-Kenpom-ranked teams such as Texas A&M, UCLA, USC, Georgia, and Tennessee earned at-large spots. It's the type of thing that makes you want to drown your sorrows in Nestea.
Sadly for NU, the NCAA doesn't factor in Kenpom as much as it does the RPI: Northwestern had the No. 87 RPI in the country last year, the schools above were Nos. 30, 44, 65, 47, and 33 respectively.
While Kenpom uses a variety of factors to pretty accurately determine how good teams are, RPI is a formula based entirely on your winning percentage, those of your opponents, and those of their opponents. Last year, NU insisted on playing a schedule filled with Gordon Gee's proverbial sisters of the poor, which absolutely maimed the Cats' RPI.
For the past few years, Bill Carmody's staff has given NU a chance to post a nearly flawless record against highly flawed competition. If the Cats want to qualify for the NCAA Tourney, they'll have to boost their scheduling - early indicators show that Carmody will.
You might think that because NU went 10-1 in its non-conference schedule, they were spectacular and everybody applauded their out-of-conference work. Of course, nobody did, because of the caliber of their opponents. Here's where NU's opponents ranked according to RPI:
Yeah. Instead of peppering the schedule with somewhat competitive opposition, NU scheduled four games against squads that would have had a run for their money against my 0-4 white league IM basketball team. (To be fair, one of our games was really close.) Anything besides a 11-0 run would have been disappointing, and the loss to St. John's - the No. 26 team in the country - sealed that disappointment.
It gets to the point where in the formula, a loss to a middling-tier school outweighs the benefits of beating a school such as SIU-Edwardsville. You can see the adverse effect those teams have on NU's RPI here. Sure, you need tuneups, but do those tune-ups have to be against such unequivocably bad teams?
The fact that the overwhelming majority of these games were at home - home wins count for less than road wins in the RPI - wasn't good either.
But even early,we have already seen improvements to NU's schdeuling.
We can swap the home game for Creighton for a road game at Creighton, a squad that was one of the better out-of-conference teams NU played against - 124 in the RPI, 95 in Kenpom. Thanks to Big Ten/ACC scheduling, the home game against Georgia Tech becomes a road game at Georgia Tech, another one of those rare top 200 teams in NU's RPI that will only improve as time goes on (although they'll have to do it without Iman Shumpert, my newest New York Knick.)
NU has purportedly inquired into series with Temple and Baylor, who finished last season at 29 and 94 respectively in the RPI.
And of the seven teams NU could play in the neutral site Charleston Classic, most of them were passable teams: only LSU didn't crack the top 200 of RPI.
There's no doubt this will at least be better for NU. Sure, the winning percentage will be slightly lower. But some spice can't hurt: a good record against a mediocre slate of opponents as opposed to a near-perfect record against awful opponents looks better to pretty much everybody. Not to mention that schools like Baylor and Temple are better draws for home games than Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
This is a risk that isn't really much of a risk: there's no way NU can be harmed by increased out-of-conference competition, so it's nice to see that NU is acknowledging that. People have cited a lot of factors - namely, that nobody wants to play Northwestern, a team good enough to beat you but with a bad RPI and without much name recognition so that it doesn't look like a good loss - but hopefully that's been worked around.