Strength of schedule reaches Summitt at Tennessee


Editor's note: Charlie Creme will project the 2004 NCAA Tournament bracket each month throughout the season. Click here for a glance at this month's field of 64, and be sure to check out Creme's take on each team.

When it comes to practice, game strategy, academics and recruiting, discipline is the juice coursing through Pat Summitt's veins.

But when it comes to scheduling, the Tennessee coach seems to throw it out the window, instead playing the role of a high-stakes blackjack professional: Put it all on the table, let ride, let's play anyone, anywhere.

Summitt's killer nonconference schedule is nothing new, but this season seemed even more extreme than usual. Every single pre-SEC opponent is tournament worthy (then there is Connecticut later on). At least last season had Army, St. Louis, and USC mixed in. Coming off the graduations of standout leaders Kara Lawson and Gwen Jackson, it hardly seemed an appropriate year for blockbuster after blockbuster. Yet the Lady Vols have more than survived. They've thrived. Against all comers, home, away, and neutral, Tennessee is still unbeaten and back in the familiar position of a No. 1 seed.

Even at a time of year when, in trying to project an NCAA field, evaluating what is and what isn't a quality win for most remains difficult, Tennessee's schedule eliminates all mystery. We all know, even now, winning at Stanford, DePaul and Oklahoma in a seven-day stretch is the most impressive run any club has enjoyed this season.

More amazing is that fact that Tennessee doesn't need to go this far. With the SEC competition ahead, the marathon is grueling enough with perhaps just Connecticut and Louisiana Tech sprinkled in. Not to mention that simply by performing well in the conference the Lady Vols are a virtual cinch to make it to March.

What it all showcases is that, yet again, Summitt leads the way. It really is all about scheduling. The concept of the top schools playing each other often is exciting and good for the game.

No one has gone to Tennessee's extreme, nor should they, but many have followed the lead. Penn State has already met seven teams in this month's field. UC Santa Barbara has upgraded its schedule to include five teams from the field and three more that warranted consideration. The likes of Texas, Purdue, Old Dominion and Rutgers have backed away from no one, but only Tennessee has avoided even one automatic.

Let's face it -- so often decisions by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee come down to the question, "Who have they played?" Schedule now to be rewarded later. Win or lose, that all-important SOS category is bolstered simply by having quality competition listed in the prospectus. Certainly it helps to win those games, but a loss to an RPI No. 10 is more valuable than a win over RPI No. 200.

Right now SOS is, for the most part, still difficult to measure. Not everyone has made it obvious by scheduling like Summitt. The "who have they played" category, along with overall record, are still the chief measuring sticks. It's just that in December, the SOS is more of a subjective analysis rather than a mathematical one.

The exciting part is that everyday we inch closer and the picture gets clearer. Why not take a shot at what Selection Sunday might look like?

Remember, how teams stand today is still combined with some realistic projections of the future. For instance Maryland has built a 7-2 record against modest opposition, but is still not considered a strong ACC contender. So the Terrapins were left out. Expectations, right or wrong, are that the record will change dramatically once conference play begins.

The flip side might be preseason favorites. Some of them -- such as Liberty and Valparaiso -- from the one-bid leagues have seemed to stumble out of the gate. They might have a poor record with relation to some of the other Big South or Mid-Continent members, but that's more to do with a more ambitious nonconference schedule than anything else. They actually are rewarded for that. A 5-4 record at this juncture is not enough to erase March expectations. Not yet, anyway.

The NCAA fate of schools from the smaller leagues hinges far less on scheduling or how they've started the year. It's all about the end, which makes the vision even more speculative.

Of course, it's all speculative, especially at this point. That's what makes it enjoyable. And good scheduling makes the season even more fun.

Who doesn't want to see more games such as Tennessee-Stanford or Louisiana Tech-Penn State? Then we can get the rematch in March.

A look at this month's field of 64:

Last four in: Xavier, California, N.C. State, New Mexico
Last four out: Alabama, Florida, Maryland, Nebraska

Charlie Creme can be reached at cwcreme@hotmail.com.