NC State

Doing the math: How NC State ended up with the worst strength of schedule last season

NC State’s Keatts: ‘We’ve got great losses’

NC State coach Kevin Keatts talks about the team's record, the strength of the ACC and wins and losses after the Wolfpack's victory over Syracuse at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Feb. 13, 2019.
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NC State coach Kevin Keatts talks about the team's record, the strength of the ACC and wins and losses after the Wolfpack's victory over Syracuse at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Feb. 13, 2019.

So many things had to go wrong for N.C. State to end up with the worst nonconference schedule in all of Division I basketball last season.

And somehow, they all did.

With the release of the 2019-20 ACC basketball schedule on Thursday night, it’s worth circling back to last season to figure out how the Wolfpack ended up with the No. 353-ranked strength of schedule for its nonconference games.

N.C. State, 22-11 on Selection Sunday, was one of the first teams left out of the NCAA Tournament last season. Coach Kevin Keatts has said he didn’t think the weak SoS hurt his team’s chances, but it certainly didn’t help, either.

Why SoS matters?

The NCAA selection committee includes strength of schedule, for all games and for nonconference games, on the official team sheet it uses it to sort and compare teams.

SoS is a component of the NET rankings (the NCAA’s primary sorting tool) but it’s also a stand-alone number the committee uses to compare teams. Pointing out it counts “twice” (or complaining about it) doesn’t change the fact that it’s part of the committee’s criteria.

The nonconference schedule is given more weight because those are the games a school controls. Basically, the committee wants to see how a school decided to test itself outside of league play. Did you rack up easy wins? Did you play away from home?

With an 18-game ACC schedule, N.C. State played 13 nonconference games last season. That will change to 20 ACC games and 11 nonconference games this season.

The NCAA formula

Officially, the NCAA uses a number called “Opponent Success Rate” to rank strength of schedule. The way NCAA calculates that number is a little confusing. It doesn’t just add the cumulative record of N.C. State’s opponents.

First, it throws out all of the games against non-Division I teams. So USC-Upstate, for example, went 6-26 last season, but three of its wins were over non-Division I teams. So its record, according to the NCAA team sheet, was 3-26.

Next, the NCAA formula takes out the result of the game against N.C. State (a 98-71 loss). So, in the NCAA’s SoS formula, Upstate’s record is 3-25.

Then, Upstate’s winning percentage (wins/games) is calculated and turned into a three-digit number (Upstate’s would be .107). You add up the winning percentage for each team and divide by that total by the number of nonconference games.

Easy, right?

So, N.C. State’s “Opponent Success Rate” was .317 last season. The main culprits were Upstate, UNC-Asheville (.071), Maine (.133) and Maryland-Eastern Shore (.172).

To put that in perspective: Temple, which was one of the last at-large teams in the field, had an OSR of .475. St. John’s, another team in the “First Four” and landed on the right side of the bubble, had an OSR of .478

Of the at-large teams to make the field, Iowa had the lowest OSR (.440).

How did it get so bad?

N.C. State head coach Kevin Keatts high-fives Blake Harris (55) as a timeout in called during the first half of N.C. State’s game against UNC-Asheville at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018. Ethan Hyman

Some of it can be blamed on operator error. N.C. State scheduled eight teams (out of 13) with a first-year coach. Not all coaching transitions go poorly, but when a team makes a coaching change, you can probably deduce there was a reason.

Also, N.C. State scheduled five teams that finished the previous season in the 300s in the KenPom rankings. Fair enough, some teams get better (and some get worse). It’s not easy to predict how a season will go, but five 300-plus is a ready-made recipe for disaster.

Six teams finished the season in the 300s. Arizona State, another one of the last at-large teams in the field, played one.

What N.C. State didn’t control, and couldn’t have been expected to predict, is how much of a drop-off from 2017-18 some teams would take in 2018-19.

UNCA went 21-13 in 2018 and finished No. 187 in the KenPom rankings. The Bulldogs lost their coach and had some players transfer up to different programs. First-year coach Mike Morrell was left to make do and could only find four wins (only two of which were against Division I teams). The Bulldogs had a 17-win swing from the previous season.

Penn State ended up being a win that both helped (PSU had a good NET ranking) and hurt. The Nittany Lions won 26 games (and the NIT in 2018) but finished 14-18 last season, which was a 12-game dip.

Vanderbilt’s fall was especially impossible to predict. The Commodores went 12-20 in 2018 but had guard Darius Garland, a five-star prospect, coming in. Vandy started the season 4-1 and then Garland got injured and was out for the rest of the season. The Dores were 9-3 when they entered SEC play and then proceeded to go 0-18 with a loss in the SEC/Big 12 challenge to boot to finish 9-23.

Of the 13 teams N.C. State scheduled last season, only three (Wisconsin plus-8, Auburn plus-4 and Loyola plus-2) improved their win total. Nine teams saw their win totals decrease.

What does it mean for this season

N.C. State’s Markell Johnson (11) celebrates during the second half of N.C. State’s 78-71 victory over Auburn at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018. Ethan Hyman

For starters, only one team is breaking in a new coach (Appalachian State). That’s progress. Also, only one team finished last season in the 300s in the KenPom rankings (No. 349 Alcorn State). Again, progress.

There are three marquee games (Memphis, Wisconsin and Auburn), which is one more than last season. There’s also what figures to be a major upgrade in Southern Conference foes with a swap of UNC-Greensboro (29-7) for Mercer (11-20).

One potential pitfall: The 11 teams on the schedule have a total of 17 games against non-Division I opponents. Those non-D-I games hurt because they’re usually wins, but the NCAA’s math doesn’t include them. Alcorn State, FIU and The Citadel have 11 non-D-I games between them.

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