I’ve been over this time and time again, but I’ll write it one more time (this is it; I promise): this has been the longest college basketball offseason ever. Creighton fans went from a disappointing 2009-2010 season, to a surprising departure by Dean of the Valley Dana Altman, to an exciting hire of Greg McDermott as Altman’s replacement. Bluejays backers are curious about what the future of CU hoops holds, and they’re anxious to rebound from an unusually down season.
One thing I look forward to during the offseason, amidst watching summer league games and trying to keep track of recruiting developments, is the staggered unveiling of teams’ non-conference schedules. The non-con schedule is for many teams the way to build a compelling case to pass the “eye test” of Bracketologists and NCAA selection committee members around the country. Crafting a non-con schedule that is equal parts challenging and navigable is becoming a requirement for the majority of mid-major schools that want an invite to the Big Dance. And the Missouri Valley Conference is looking to get more than two bids for the first time since it received four back in 2006. Boy that seems like ages ago.
As a basketball geek, I take pride in looking at the numbers surrounding the game a bit closer than casual fans might. And for the past couple of seasons, I’ve reviewed the Valley’s non-conference schedules, trying to find patterns and purpose for the scheduling strategies of the league’s schools. After 3 years of digging into this, it is clear that the fluctuation of the scheduling amongst the member schools has been pretty dramatic.
I know, I know. Performance can change from year to year. But the previous season’s RPI is a good indicator of how a team will be the following season and based on previous history. The numbers I use are based on the final rankings from the College Basketball Ranking Comparison site that takes the different RPI, Power, Sagarin, Pomeroy, and other power rankings and provides a “RPI” ranking for teams. Also, for the MTE (Multi-Team Events) I took the potential matchups and averaged the RPI for those opponents. For example, Missouri State could possibly play Tennessee or Belmont in their second round Preseason NIT game while also possibly playing eight other different teams in their other rounds. So, I took the average of the possible teams for that particular game to give it a rating.
Average Non-Conference RPI
The average RPI of the Valley’s non-conference opponents (again, based on last year’s final numbers) is 180.16. This is higher than last season’s average of 173.84 and a dramatic increase from 2008-09, when MVC schools averaged a non-con RPI of 160.02. Over the past couple of years it has been harder for the MVC schools to schedule attractive opponents, likely because the MVC as a whole has not been as attractive itself as in the past. Perhaps that’s a by-product of becoming a one-bid league the past few seasons: there are still attractive opponents on the non-con schedules, but just not as many.
Bradley appears to be at the top of the Valley in this ranking of non-conference schedules. Jim Les, seemingly always on the hot seat, probably needs a schedule filled with a few opportunities to slay some traditionally strong schools. He has a lot of returning players, including All-MVC caliber guard Sam Maniscalco. Here is the chart below.
|School||Average Non-Conference RPI|
Southern Illinois, Indiana State, and Northern Iowa must have talked as they created their schedules; their averages are almost exactly the same. But each school presents a different scenario for its schedule. SIU is trying to rebound after two rough seasons. The Trees are breaking in a new head coach, following Kevin McKenna’s departure to rejoin Altman. And UNI is coming off a dream run through the NCAA Tournament.
But after you check out this year’s RPI averages, review the dramatic differences over the past three seasons and you will see more of the story.
With this information in mind, here’s a look at each MVC team’s non-conference schedule.
Creighton: The first thing that sticks out when comparing this year’s non-con schedule to last season’s is obviously the lack of participation in an event like the Old Spice Classic. But after that, it becomes evident that most of the best non-con opportunities for Greg McDermott and the Jays take place in Omaha this year, instead of on the road like last season. Sure, the Bluejays play two Big 12 teams on the road (Nebraska) and on a neutral court (Iowa State) and a Big Ten team on the road (Northwestern). But games against BYU and St. Joe’s are at home, and the RPI for Creighton’s home schedule is slightly better in 2010-11 than last season. Plus, McDermott was able to schedule three winnable home games between finals concluding and the Valley schedule starting, to help Greg Echenique work himself into mid-season form just in time for league play.
Bradley: The Braves created some nice balance in the non-conference for this season. They are taking part in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off, a MTE that had troubles filling the field for awhile (the games have changed several times). Bradley starts with a D-II school to start the season, but then plays three decent games against Loyola Marymount, USC, and TCU. The Horned Frogs were one of those late additions and adds another matchup for the Braves against a Mountain West Conference team.
But all other non-con games in the league pale in comparison right now to Bradley’s December 8 game at Duke. Les asked his players if they wanted to play this game before agreeing to the one-and-done, and they answered with a resounding “Yes!”
Missouri State: The Bears have given themselves a challenge in playing in the Preseason NIT. If I remember correctly, they are probably one of the first Valley schools to take part in what used to be the premier early season event for the hoops season. They open against Arkansas State, who they will play again a month later, with the hope of taking on Tennessee. Then, depending on how that goes, MSU could get some other good matchups against teams like Wake Forest or Villanova. Games at Tulsa and Oklahoma State and one with Rick Majerus and the Saint Louis Billikens provides Cuonzo Martin’s team with a pretty solid slate of games.
Southern Illinois: The Salukis have a renovated arena, they’re participating in the ESPN 24-hour college hoops marathon, and they get games against two of the school’s recent coaches. SIU goes to Illinois for the first time since Bruce Weber left Carbondale, and then play against former coach Matt Painter and the Purdue Boilermakers as part of an MTE in Chicago. Add in the always-tough Western Kentucky (part of a new 4-year series) and New Mexico in the MVC/MWC Challenge, and Chris Lowery’s make-or-break season at SIU starts with a challenging non-con schedule.
Indiana State: New head coach Greg Lansing didn’t have a whole lot of say on the schedule, other than a last minute decision to play a one-and-done at Notre Dame or to go with Rhode Island for a home and home. The Fighting Irish won out, and the Sycamores will go on the road for 7 of their first 8 games and 8 of their 11 non-conference matchups. Like SIU, the Trees face Purdue at a neutral site — Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Northern Iowa: Northern Iowa’s non-conference scheduling has fluctuated during the past three seasons, but this year they’ll reap the benefits of their big wins in the NCAA Tournament last March — albeit, on the road and not in Cedar Falls. The Panthers open the season with a one-and-done at Syracuse, go to TCU for the MVC/MWC Challenge, and head to Vegas to play Indiana and either New Mexico or Colorado. Add in road games at Iowa and Wisconsin-Milwaukee and you can call them the Traveling Panthers.
Wichita State: Teams in the power conferences know the Shockers are the preseason favorites in the Valley. That is why the Shockers still had three games to schedule as late as mid-September and their home slate of games is nothing to get excited about. But you can bet Shox fans are pumped for the chance to play in the always-stacked Maui Invitational. WSU begins that tournament against UConn, then Michigan State, and then either Kentucky, Washington, Virginia, or Oklahoma.
The Shockers finish their three-game series against LSU at a “neutral site,” which is basically an LSU home game. They also head to San Diego State for the MVC/MWC Challenge. They pretty much need to win all of their home games, have a good showing in Maui, and win against either San Diego State or LSU to look good to the committee if they have troubles in Valley play.
Evansville: The Purple Aces get some interesting games with power schools, but mainly because they are sitting on the lower end of the conference. They got a gift in their two-for-one series with North Carolina, as the Tar Heels come to town to satisfy Roy Williams’ promise to play a game in one of his player’s back yard (interestingly, the UE-UNC game is the say day as Duke-Bradley; call it an abbreviated MVC/ACC Challenge). The Aces start a new two-for-one at Indiana; they’ll welcome the Hoosiers next fall when Evansville unveils a new downtown arena. Throw in a game against national runner-up Butler and UE has its work cut out in the non-conference. If Colt Ryan can get some support this season, could the Aces pull some tricks from their non-sleeved jerseys?
Drake: Since Keno Davis left for Providence, coach Mark Phelps has taken a different approach to Drake’s non-conference scheduling. Things may seem weak right now, but he has been proactive in securing some positive matchups for Drake down the line. After getting beat by SIU-Edwardsville last season, the Bulldogs got rid of their two weekend MTEs that usually featured very low-level schools. Instead, this year the Bulldogs travel to the almost-dead Great Alaskan Shootout, where Drake may meet Arizona State. But other than their in-state Iowa and Iowa State games, Drake’s schedule leaves much to be desired.
Illinois State: Ah, yes, the usual review of the Redbirds’ oft-knocked non-conference schedule. I said last year I didn’t think it would be possible for Illinois State to schedule a worse non-con slate than 2009-2010. But at a quick glance, it looks like Tim Jankovich may have proved me wrong! Sure, he has an excuse — gone are Osiris Eldridge, Lloyd Phillips, and Dinma Odiakosa —but seriously, this type of scheduling for a Valley school is just embarrassing. In Jank’s tenure in Normal, they have not played in any major neutral court tournament. It is hard for me to believe that ISU-Red cannot get into one. If it wasn’t for the MWC/MVC Challenge game against UNLV and a matchup against an Ohio team that turned a few heads in last year’s NCAA Tournament, the schedule is unbelievable.
Scheduling Major This season
The Missouri Valley Conference offices have told member schools in the past to avoid one-and-done games as much as possible and play in some type of neutral site MTE to play the major schools. But with the scheduling problems to get home and home series signed, a lot of schools took the plunge and will head out on the road for a one-and-done. However, with the risk could come some great rewards and could raise the Valley’s profile. Others have signed two-for-one deals to get the opportunity for the power team to come to their place. Check out these one-and-done games:
- Northern Iowa @ Syracuse
- Bradley @ Duke
- Indiana State @ Notre Dame
- Indiana State vs. Purdue (at Conseco Fieldhouse)
- Southern Illinois @ Illinois
- Southern Illinois vs. Purdue (at Chicago Invitational Challenge)
New two-for-one series
- Missouri State vs. Oklahoma State
- Evansville vs. Indiana
The Best Games Available
Use the chart below to gain more insight about the scheduling done by MVC schools based on the best non-conference games for each school at home, on the road, and at a neutral site.
|Drake||Boise State||Iowa State||Arizona State?|
|Indiana State||Buffalo||Notre Dame||Purdue|
|Missouri State||Saint Louis||Oklahoma State||Tennessee|
|Northern Iowa||Iowa State||Syracuse||New Mexico?|
|Southern Illinois||New Mexico||Illinois||Purdue|
|Wichita State||Tulsa||San Diego State||Maui Invitational|
A few notes regarding this table
- It is obvious that again, the MWC/MVC Challenge is paying dividends for some conference schools. Illinois State, Southern Illinois, and Creighton benefit by having their top games coming from this agreement. But with the dismantling of the conference going on, this series might go the way of BracketBusters; that’s not a good thing.
- Surprisingly enough, Indiana State only has three non-conference games at home this season; one of the three is against D-II Oakland City. Funny that the matchup against Buffalo at home looks better than DePaul.
- Wichita State’s best home game is against Tulsa, but it will be played at the new downtown Intrust Bank Arena. The rest of the home slate is pretty ugly.
- Iowa State loves the Valley.
Getting Teams to Your Barn
Many of the Valley schools have updated or built some great venues during the past decade. Unfortunately, not many high-major schools want to check out these sparkling new digs.
Schools in the MVC have a difficult time to get great games at their home venues. There is very little reward for those schools. If a team like Michigan State comes to town to play someone like Creighton, that team is expected to win. If they lose, then it makes news. BCSers like to play all of their non-conference at home, if possible. If they are forced to go on the road, it is likely against another power team so if they lose, it doesn’t look as bad in the media’s eyes. As a result, the Valley schools struggle to get games on the court that fans will be pumped up for. See the chart over the past two seasons for the average RPI for the Valley’s non-conference home games.
|Home Non-Conference RPI||2010-11||Non D-1 10-11/09-10?||2009-10|
If you look at the numbers, some of them may not look too bad. But you can see how some schools have resorted to playing non Division-I schools so that they can get another home game. For this season, 6 of the 10 Valley schools play a home game against at team with a 200 or worse RPI. In reality, Creighton, Wichita State, and Illinois State are even worse. The Bluejays get a great game against BYU due to the MVC/MWC challenge, but take that away and their home RPI rises to 250.88. For Wichita State, if you take out the Tulsa home game (which isn’t really a home game), their home game non-conference RPI jumps to 296.8. For Illinois State, you take out the UNLV gift from the MVC/MWC Challenge, and the Redbirds rock a 239.88 average.
It is funny what one or two games can do to a schedule. Shouldn’t season ticket holders receive some valuable non-conference games as part of their investment in the program?
This analysis is an exercise in frustration. As a fan, I want Creighton and the rest of the Valley teams to schedule up as much as possible. But so many issues factor into the creation of these non-conference slates. Still, you have to go out and play the games. And if the Valley teams win the games they’re supposed to, and maybe steal a few wins in the few matchups they have against marquee teams, the Valley could find itself on the national basketball radar once again.
What games are you most excited for?