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The Cautionary Tale of Iowa: Why Northwestern's New Coach Needs To Schedule Smart

Iowa has a very good team this year, but they won't make the tournament because of a soft non-conference schedule. The new Northwestern coach, whoever he is, shouldn't make the same mistake.


The 2012-13 Iowa Hawkeyes, by any reasonable metric, are one of the top 68 teams in college basketball. They rank 29th in Jeff Sagarin's rankings and 29th in KenPom. They won 21 games overall and finished 9-9 in by far the best conference in college basketball. But they didn't make the NCAA tournament, for a simple but stupid reason: they played a bunch of terrible teams at home during non-conference play.

Fair or not, if you play a weak non-conference schedule, the selection committee is going to punish you for it. It happened in 2009 to Penn State, a team that went 22-11 (10-8) in the top RPI conference, and it happened again to Iowa this year. That Penn State team would go on to win the NIT, and Iowa might do the same. Unfortunately for Iowa, when you play 7 of your 13 non-conference games at home against the likes of:

Texas-Pan American (RPI: 306)
Central Michigan (RPI: 268)
Howard (RPI: 334)
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (RPI: 323)
South Dakota (RPI: 240)
South Carolina State (RPI: 342)
Coppin State (RPI: 313)

you are going to get screwed over by the committee. I explained the huge flaw in using non-conference strength of schedule last year, but the main point is this: the RPI formula thinks there is a huge difference between playing the 175th best team in the nation instead of the 340th best team in the nation, but in reality a team good enough to get an NCAA at-large bid is extremely unlikely to lose at home against anyone worse than 150th in the country; Iowa would be 90%+ to win at home against any such team. It is silly to penalize Iowa so much for playing so many terrible teams, because they showed during the Big Ten schedule they were good enough to compete against top competition. But it's the system we've got, and the NCAA is pretty consistent in using it.

As I watched the Iowa saga unfold, I tried to imagine how I'd feel if Northwestern were clearly good enough for an at-large bid but didn't get in because they played a bunch of cupcakes in non-conference. I'd probably be raging at everyone involved in the selection committee and every bracketologist who inaccurately predicted NU would make the tournament (I will never forgive Jerry Palm for being the only guy on the planet who thought NU would make the tournament last year).

But most of all, I'd be upset with the Northwestern coaching staff for putting together such a terrible schedule. Rigging the RPI system is a solved game: don't play anyone 250th or worse, play a lot of games away from home, and play a lot of teams in the 51-100 range to get the all-important RPI top 100 wins. Fran McCaffery is smart enough to know this. He also is smart enough to know that he had a team capable of getting an at-large bid, but he still put together the gauntlet of crap described above.

So whoever the new Northwestern coach is: do not schedule a bunch of home games against schools from the Great West, SWAC, MEAC or other perennially terrible conferences.

So whoever the new Northwestern coach is: do not schedule a bunch of home games against schools from the Great West, SWAC, MEAC or other perennially terrible conferences. Get into tournaments with good but not great fields like the Charleston Classic NU won in the fall of 2011. Schedule home-and-homes with mid-majors that are usually competitive. Call Illinois State or Akron or Valparaiso or Oakland or Northern Iowa or Belmont. Get some top 100 wins, build up the RPI, and then try to survive the Big Ten gauntlet.

Even though many Iowa fans are irate right now, they can take solace in knowing they bring back basically their entire team next year and will probably be picked to finish in the top half of the conference. For Northwestern, a team good enough to be in the top 30 in KenPom probably won't come around often: in fact it's never happened in the modern history of the program. So if and when that day comes, they better not miss the tournament because their coach wasn't smart enough to schedule the way the NCAA wants.