Jacobs: Why college basketball coaches depend on the nonconference schedule

November 6, 2013 

College basketball coaches are apt to bemoan their nonconference schedule almost as often as they lament a squad’s youth. Of course this glosses over the fact that scheduling opponents outside the league is one of the few areas over which a coach has significant control.

The way a schedule is fashioned, and the amount of risk undertaken, usually says a lot about a coach’s regard for a team’s talent and experience. But a heightened emphasis on caution also seems evident in a newly invigorated ACC.

“The changing face of the ACC is just off the charts,” said North Carolina coach Roy Williams. “I just sit back and say, ‘Why should we be playing anybody that can dribble and chew gum at the same time out of conference?’”

That’s a question the vast majority of ACC clubs confront as they seek a viable path to earning an NCAA bid.

“If my goal is to somehow find a way to get into the NCAA tournament, you’ve got to have a schedule that’s going to challenge your team, will make you better but it’s also going to look good to the selection committee,” said N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried.

Gottfried’s summary could speak for most ACC men’s coaches, other than those at programs with near-automatic NCAA bids such as Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse.

Boston College’s Steve Donahue certainly took note when Boise State got an NCAA bid in 2013 with a 9-7 record in the Mountain West Conference, while Virginia was excluded despite an 11-7 ACC mark. “The mid-majors have all figured it out,” said Donahue. “We have to play as many teams that we can to better ourselves each and every game. We can’t afford to play bad teams. That’s the only way.”

Donahue reports a road game is more than twice as valuable as a victory in boosting a team’s RPI, a key formula used in awarding NCAA tournament berths. So Boston College plays five games away from home this year, easily more than any team in the ACC.

When 14 of 15 ACC squads open the 2013-14 season this Friday, only Boston College will do so at a hostile arena, traveling to Providence College, a member of the reconstituted Big East.

The Eagles host a measly four nonconference home contests, a factor no doubt influenced by having the league’s lowest per-game attendance in 2013 (4,244). “I can’t buy 13 games and get sellouts,” said Donahue. Forward Ryan Anderson said the Boston College basketball squad must win with regularity to earn the same level of passionate home support accorded the school’s hockey team – which has five NCAA titles to its credit.

“I think it’s a challenge,” B.C. guard Olivier Hanlan, the 2013 ACC freshman of the year, said bravely of the heavy dose of roadwork. “Coach, he likes putting out challenges. Obviously a road game is a lot harder, whoever you play. A bottom team or a top team, you never know.”

Most ACC coaches prefer a more circumspect path to prosperity. Only five other league schools scheduled as many as three games on hostile courts – Florida State, Georgia Tech, Miami, N.C. State and Virginia.

Duke and Pittsburgh entirely avoid playing on opponents’ home floors this season. For the Blue Devils this seems reasonable given a predominantly underclass roster. Yet Mike Krzyzewski pulled the same trick last year with a veteran unit, managing 13 nonconference games without visiting an unfriendly venue.

Duke’s schedule does have its challenges. The Blue Devils potentially play three of the country’s top seven teams in the preseason Associated Press poll – No. 5 Kansas on a neutral floor in Chicago, No. 7 Michigan at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and No. 6 Arizona should both advance to the finals of the Preseason NIT at Madison Square Garden. The No. 4 Devils also face 2013 NCAA entrants Davidson and UCLA, the Bruins back at Madison Square Garden, which recently underwent a $1billion renovation.

Maryland, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest each undertake a single true road test in 2013-14. The Terrapins and Fighting Irish drew away games in the annual challenge series with the Big Ten.

Williams’ Tar Heels similarly picked up a road trip in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, traveling to Michigan State, No. 2 in the preseason AP poll. UNC also faces No. 1 Kentucky at Chapel Hill and could play No. 3 Louisville in the championship game of the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament.

But UNC’s schedule is less bruising than it appears. The only other nonconference road game is at Alabama-Birmingham. Just three certain non-ACC opponents made last year’s NCAAs. And Williams arranged an especially comfy respite prior to starting the conference season, with six straight games at the Smith Center from Dec. 14-31.

The only ACC coaches who stick close to home for a comparable stretch are Notre Dame’s Mike Brey and Gottfried, whose inexperienced squad plays eight of its first nine at Raleigh, including seven straight.

Gottfried knows how narrow the margin can be between NCAA inclusion and disappointment; just two years ago N.C. State was perhaps the last team invited to the tournament, where it mounted a surprising advance to the Sweet 16. Consequently the coach crafted a modestly daring schedule for his rebuilding program.

The Wolfpack travels to Cincinnati and Tennessee; hosts a pair of 2013 NCAA teams, Florida Gulf Coast and Missouri; and gets visits from Detroit-Mercy, East Carolina and Eastern Kentucky, each a 20-game winner last year. In keeping with the athletic program’s “Our State” theme – a particular favorite of UNC football coach Larry Fedora – five of the Wolfpack’s non-ACC opponents come from within North Carolina.

“You want to become at the end of the year the best possible team you can be, and I think playing an aggressive schedule helps you do that, helps you get there,” Gottfried said.

But no one is as aggressive as Donahue, with an up-and-coming program, a sketchy home court edge, and a carefully calibrated formula for success.

“Now, we’re not going to have a pretty record,” warned the fourth-year B.C. coach. “I don’t care honestly what people think. We care that people value our program and will separate us from those other monster programs that (have folks saying), ‘Look who they play.’”

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