Sub-150 games will come back to bite

Updated: February 7, 2006, 7:03 PM ET
By Joe Lunardi | Special to ESPN Insider

Joe,

Why do you emphasize non-conference Strength of Schedule? Why not just SOS? Why should it matter whether a team plays a strong in-conference schedule and a weak out-of-conference schedule (or vice-versa)?

Enjoy your work.

Chuck Willing
Concord, N.H.

I'm gonna take a wild guess that Chuck is a UConn fan. Whether he is or not, his is a perfectly legitimate question.

Why does it matter if Connecticut plays seven sub-150 teams? Or Florida? Or Pittsburgh? Or North Carolina State? All play in incredibly competitive conferences and have more than enough chances to face high-quality teams on a regular basis. In fact, we can document the effect that only half a conference schedule already has had on the respective SOS rankings for these four schools:

Impact of sub-150s
NONCONF SOS OVERALL SOS
Connecticut No. 211 No. 57
Florida No. 245 No. 120
Pitt No. 244 No. 67
NC State No. 231 No. 61

The numbers in the right-hand column will continue to rise, of course -- although not as much for Florida (because the SEC is far weaker overall than the Big East or ACC). It's also worth noting that Florida couldn't have avoided two of its sub-150s, as they were assigned games in the NIT Season Tip-Off. Regardless, those SOS rankings will be more than enough to offset the nonconference component in the unlikely event any of these teams lands on the NCAA bubble.

So, Chuck is right. SOS is all that matters. My emphasis on nonconference scheduling is a load of manure.

Except it isn't. The NCAA Tournament committee has demonstrated time and time again that "whom you choose to play" in nonconference games is a significant factor in terms of both selection and seeding. Who can forget 2004 committee chair Bob Bowlsby answering a question about how Pittsburgh -- No. 5 in the RPI, No. 6 in the polls and 29-3 overall -- could fall to the lowest No. 3 seed position?

Bowlsby pointed to Pitt's nonconference schedule (No. 247) and 12 games that season against sub-150 teams (nonleague). By contrast, the 11 teams ranked ahead of Pitt on that year's S-Curve had the following nonconference SOS rankings and nonleague game "count" vs. sub-150 teams:

2004 top-three seeds
NONCONF SOS NONCONF SUB-150s
Kentucky No. 71 3
Duke No. 22 3
Stanford No. 156 5
Saint Joseph's No. 1 0
Oklahoma State No. 204 7
Connecticut No. 103 7
Mississippi State No. 186 6
Gonzaga No. 25 4
Georgia Tech No. 111 5
NC State No. 87 4
Pitt No. 247 12

Only UConn and Oklahoma State were even close to Pittsburgh that year in what I call "avoidance factor" -- more explicitly stated as "games you cannot lose without an act of divine intervention" -- but the Cowboys won the Big 12 tournament on Selection Sunday while the Panthers fell to UConn in the Big East final. Regardless, with what amounted to a 17-3 record for Pitt (subtracting all "avoidance" games), the NCAA sent the Panthers, and others, one sledgehammer of a scheduling message.

At the other end of the spectrum, 2004 was also the season in which Utah State -- 25-3 overall and No. 21 in the polls -- was passed over for an at-large bid after failing to reach the Big West championship game. Turns out 22 of the Aggies' 25 wins (as well as one of their losses) came against sub-150 opposition. So, in strictest terms, one could make a case that Utah State was just 3-3 in games that mattered for NCAA consideration.

The bottom line is that you can pile up all the quality wins in the world -- as Pitt did in '04 with a 9-3 record vs. Top 50 teams -- but if you go too far with respect to "avoidance games," the committee can't help but seed you lower than comparable teams that don't. It's no different from scheduling non-Division I opponents; the committee has to consider the possibility of the team in question playing a "real game" and losing.

All of which begs the question: Which teams are going to be dinged in 2006 on account of the "avoidance factor?" Let's start with the first list above, add a few more "soft schedule" cousins, then comment on what the eventual outcome might be.

Sub-150s impact
TEAM NONCONF SOS NONCONF SUB-150s COMMENT
George Washington No. 322 9 Will cost 1-2 seed lines.
Florida State No. 319 8 Huge disadvantage if bubble team.
Stanford No. 305 5 Also lost a sub-150 game.
Colorado No. 304 5 No margin for error in Big 12.
Air Force No. 280 9 Need outright regular-season crown.
Florida No. 245 7 Will cost one seed line.
Pitt No. 244 6 Another seed line lost.
NC State No. 231 7 Already harming its seed.
Connecticut No. 211 7 Will lose No. 1 overall if close.

You don't have to believe me, of course. But ignore the facts at your own risk.

Joe Lunardi is the resident Bracketologist for ESPN, ESPN.com and ESPN Radio.

Joe Lunardi | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com