With the obvious caveat of winning many more games that not, so much of a team's March fate rests on how its coaching staff schedules games for November and December. Nonconference play makes up for roughly 30-35% of a team's schedule, which is discernibly not an insignificant number.
And while strength of schedule as a metric cannot tell us how good a team is, it can provide important data to determining how we weight one team vs. another, particularly when looking at how teams performed against the top or bottom tiers. Plus, data analysis aside, it's just good for college basketball to have its highest-rated teams challenging themselves and placing themselves in high-profile games in November and December, when college hoops can always use a little more of a PR boost.
So in advance of the 2019-20 season, I wanted to take a look at how the nonconference schedules of every Major Seven program (AAC, ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC) and see how they stack up against each other, to get an idea of which teams are positioned to better their chances for making the NCAA Tournament. I also included five teams outside the Major Seven structure that made the top 30 of : Gonzaga, Davidson, VCU, Utah State and Saint Mary's.
I brewed up an admittedly uncomplicated -- but revealing -- formula of six data inputs to determine the strength of each team's "noncon power score." The inputs:
- Games vs. preseason top-25 KenPom teams (2 points)
- Games vs. preseason 26-50 KenPom teams (1 point)
- Road games (2 points)
- Neutral-court games (1 point)
- Games vs. 2019 NCAA Tournament teams (0.5 points)
- Games vs. sub-200 KenPom teams (-1 point)
I put emphasis in this experiment on high- and low-end opponents, leaving the soggy middle (which muddies strength of schedule) almost entirely out of my measurements.
I didn't stop there.
You may ask yourself: But what about all those November tournaments? Teams will play against other teams in bracket play and we don't know those matchups. This is true, but in the spirit of tabulating every game of every team's noncon sked, I accounted for every November and December multi-team/bracket event and gave wins to the higher-ranked KenPom team in each matchup. (As these things go, the betting favorite almost always aligns with the KenPom favorite, so this was the most logical workaround.)
In effect, this gives teams their "most likely" opponents in bracket play.
Of course these days a chunk of nonconference schedules are arranged by TV networks and their cooperation with leagues. So this analysis isn't so much a subjective judgement or arbitration, but rather a big step back and overview at which schools, no matter the reasons or excuses, are situated nicely, just-OK and pretty poorly.
Remember, this is all just projection and it will definitely be interesting to come back in early March and see how drastically -- or not -- things change. OK, let's first reveal the 11 power-conference teams (there's a tie for 10th) that set up to have the strongest out-of-conference schedules this season.
Toughest nonconference schedules
|1. Seton Hall||18.5||The Pirates are tied with Tennessee and Butler for most games against 2019 NCAA Tournament teams (seven) and also play as many top-50 KenPom opponents as anyone else (six). Their six combined road and neutral games are a true test, bolstered by their forecast in the best bracket event of November this year: Battle 4 Atlantis. Outside of that, Michigan State, Oregon and a roadie vs. Iowa State awaits.|
|2. Florida||16.5||Five top-50 opponents and five neutral-site settings get the preseason-top-10 Gators in good position. If Florida can win 85% of its nonleague schedule, it will be a lock for a No. 1 seed should it win the SEC. Props to Mike White for scheduling ambitiously with a Final Four-capable crew. Florida State, Baylor and Providence are on the docket, plus road games against UConn and Butler.|
|T3. Cincinnati||16||I'm higher on Cincinnati than anyone you'll read or hear talking about college basketball this season. So it's a little discomforting to realize just how difficult the Bearcats' nonleague schedule could be. Road games against in-state rivals Ohio State and Xavier, plus tricky home events against Tennessee and mid-major power Vermont. Only two games vs. sub-200 teams. |
|T3. Kansas||16||Jordan Sperber did the legwork earlier this week and pointed out that Kansas' overall noncon SOS is the best (per average KenPom preseason ranx) among power-conference teams. Here, the Jayhawks tie for fourth thanks to two road games, five neutrals and five top-50 opponents. Duke, at Villanova, home vs. Tennessee and at Stanford makes for an eclectic-yet-challenging set. |
|T3. North Carolina||16||Roy Williams ain't scared. UNC will play a road game at UNC Wilmington -- that's UNC Wilmington out of the Colonial Athletic Association -- for the Tar Heels' second game of the season. This a year after UNC opened on the road against Wofford and Elon. No shock to see Carolina rate so well: Williams is lined up to face four top-25 teams and tip off vs. six squads that made last year's NCAA Tournament, including Gonzaga and Ohio State.|
|6. Davidson||15.5||High expectations for the Wildcats land them on this list. Obviously Davidson has to schedule differently than your Dukes, Michigan States, even Nebraskas and Arizona States. Davidson's five noncon road games are the most of any team I tabulated, while big neutral-court matchups vs. Auburn and Marquette will help clear up for us just how good the Wildcats can or will be this season.|
|T7. Alabama||15||I don't know how much of Alabama's noncon schedule was Nate Oats' doing, given he just got the job, but if he had a say in at least 60% of it, color me impressed. Bama didn't make the NCAAs last season, yet the Tide is not going to take it easy on themselves. Only two sub-200 opponents and there's a we-ain't-scurred treble of roadies against Rhode Island, Penn State and Samford. Top opponent is UNC in the Bahamas.|
|T7. Purdue||15||The No. 7 team (!) in KenPom's preseason rankings will face as many top-50 opponents in nonleague (six) as any other team listed in the chart below. I adore coaches in power conferences willing to play mid-majors on the road. We get that here with Purdue going to Ohio University in December. Other key foes: Virginia, Texas, Marquette and VCU. |
|T9. Michigan State||14.5||Sparty being here should be no surprise. Tom Izzo schedules with gusto almost every year. The preseason No. 1 team in college basketball could face four top-25 KenPom teams outside of Big Ten competition, led by Kentucky, Seton Hall and Duke. The seven combined road and neutral games are as many as any team in power conference except for the low-level AAC clubs. |
|T9. Butler||14.5||Bulldogs can overachieve based off preseason forecasts if they can pull off some big upsets. This is the only team in the top 11 I don't project to make the NCAA Tournament. Seven 2019 NCAA tourney teams on the slate, with five alike of top-50 and sub-200 opponents. Toughest tasks are road games vs. Ole Miss and Baylor and the Crossroads Classic in Indy vs. Purdue. |
|T9. Tennessee||14.5||Vols will play five sub-200 teams in the noncon, but they've also got seven games against 2019 tourney teams and will play six top-50 teams. Will play Florida State and Washington on neutral courts, will travel to Cincinnati and Kansas. Toughest home game is probably Memphis, which is on Dec. 14. |
Below, the list of 92 teams: 87 from Major Seven conferences in addition to Gonzaga, Davidson, VCU, Utah State and Saint Mary's.
Before you scroll and search, a few notes:
- The highest noncon score is 18.5, the lowest is -2.5 (eeek, Virginia Tech). The mean is 8.2. The median is 8.5. Most common score is 10; eight schools landed there.
- Average number of sub-200 teams scheduled is 4.3. Average number of top-50 teams scheduled is 2.8.
- League-wise, the Big East's average noncon power score of 10.7 is best. The worst? Somewhat surprisingly, the ACC at 6.0.
- Easiest November tour easily goes South Carolina. Six of the first nine games the Gamecocks play come against sub-200 teams.
- Though it doesn't come in last, East Carolina takes the cake for truly worst schedule on the list, as its 11 (ELEVEN) games vs. sub-200 KenPom opponents is by far the most.
- Teams not scheduled to face top-50 competition: ECU, Tulane, Washington State, Vanderbilt, SMU, Boston College.
- Most combined road+neutral games: Davidson with nine. Then it's Florida, Utah, Kansas, Villanova, Temple and Alabama all with seven. This can really help NCAA Tournament cases down the way, provided enough games are won.
- Four highest-rated noncon scores from teams I don't project to make the NCAA Tournament: Butler, Marquette, Temple, Utah.
- Four lowest-rated noncon scores from teams I do project to make the NCAA Tournament: Notre Dame, Virginia, NC State, Illinois.
Nonconference schedule power scores