Cupcake Connoisseurs: CBB Teams with Absurdly Easy Nonconference Schedules
Constructing a strong nonconference schedule for college basketball is an art form, and Georgetown is No. 1 on the list of teams that miserably failed that art class this year.
Nonconference SOS is one of the most important factors considered by the NCAA selection committee. Ranking No. 1 in that category was one of the biggest reasons Vanderbilt not only got into the 2017 NCAA tournament with 15 losses, but did so as a No. 9 seed. And ranking No. 282 in NC SOS was the main reason UCLA was never truly in the running for a No. 1 seed.
Syracuse was No. 215 in NC SOS last season, was one of the last teams left out of the tournament and, as a result, scheduled more aggressively this year than at any other point in the past decade.
Not every program takes its scheduling seriously, though.
For several of the teams at the top of this list, we get it. Georgetown is in a total rebuild. Rutgers and Boston College have been struggling for years and are nowhere near competing for a spot in the 2018 tourney. But for potential bubble teams like Iowa, Iowa State and Virginia Tech, these weak schedules could be the difference between the NIT and NCAA tournament.
The strength of these schedules (and the numbers you'll find on the following slides) is based on the RPI rank of every team at the end of last season. It's admittedly not a perfect science, as there are potential preseason Top 25 teams that weren't in the RPI Top 150 at the end of last season, but it's the best mathematical option we've got. Teams are ranked in order of average RPI of their nonconference opponents.*
*Does not include the to-be-determined games in the latter stages of early-season tournaments, as we cannot make assumptions about who those opponents will be.
In addition to our 10 ranked teams that scheduled horrendously, here are 11 other teams that didn't do much with their nonconference slates:
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets: Perhaps with the most bizarre schedule in the country, Georgia Tech faces six teams with an RPI of 315 or worse, but also six teams in the top 130. As a result, the average RPI of opponents settled just a little above 200, which isn't quite bad enough for the "top" 10.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish: They should get two quality bonus opponents in the latter stages of the Maui Invitational—possibly Michigan and Wichita State—but the schedule that's set in stone is Michigan State and not much else. They face six opponents with RPI worse than 235, and that doesn't include their Maui opener against Chaminade.
DePaul Blue Demons: Like Georgia Tech, DePaul scheduled a blend of challenges and cupcakes. The Blue Demons face Michigan State (in the PK80), Notre Dame, Northwestern and Illinois, but their next-best opponent is either UIC or Youngstown State.
West Virginia Mountaineers: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. WVU's NC SOS has been nothing special for the past several years, but that hasn't stopped the Mountaineers from getting good NCAA tournament seeds. They'll face Kentucky in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge, they play Virginia for the third time in as many years, and they have an intriguing season opener against Texas A&M in Germany. Outside of those three games, though, bleck!
Minnesota Golden Gophers: Minnesota has a few quality opponents—particularly if Miami (FL) and Alabama are as good as most are expecting—but it doesn't play in a non-exempt tournament, and it scheduled six opponents that finished last season ranked outside the Top 270 in RPI.
Mississippi State Bulldogs: Thirteen of 14 teams in the SEC scheduled incredibly well. Mississippi State? Not so much. Other than a game against Cincinnati, this schedule is a mess, including games against Alabama State, Florida A&M, Southern Miss and North Georgia.
Oregon State Beavers: Mathematically, this one didn't quite crack the top 10, but it might be the worst in the country. Oregon State might face Missouri and/or West Virginia in the Advocare Invitational, but it also might get Long Beach State and Marist in the latter stages of that tournament. From what we do know, the toughest opponent the Beavers get in nonconference play is Wyoming (RPI: 128).
Oregon Ducks: Like Notre Dame, Oregon should get some quality opponents in the last two rounds of its tournament (PK80), but the rest of the schedule isn't pretty. Alabama State, Central Arkansas, Prairie View A&M and Coppin State are the "lowlights" of what could be a NCAA tournament-excluding nonconference resume.
Utah Utes: Utah faces Butler for the second time in as many years, and the game against Missouri (RPI: 253) should end up counting for a lot more than it currently appears to. That's all she wrote, though, for this nonconference schedule.
Washington State Cougars: If Washington State is lucky, it'll face Saint Mary's and either Georgia or San Diego State in the Wooden Legacy. If Washington State isn't lucky, its two best nonconference opponents will be Kansas State and Texas Southern. But this might be the worst power-conference team in the country, so we can't blame the Cougars for not getting too aggressive.
Saint Mary's Gaels: The search for this article was limited to just the power-conference programs, but as one could argue that Saint Mary's is a pseudo member of that group, we would be remiss if we didn't point out this atrocity. Save for maybe a game against Georgia or San Diego State in the Wooden Legacy finals, the Gaels might not even face an NIT team in nonconference play.
10. Virginia Tech Hokies
Sub-275 Opponents: North Carolina A&T (350), Presbyterian (346), Detroit (289), The Citadel (283), Maryland Eastern Shore (279)
Average RPI of Opponents: 213.1
To Virginia Tech's credit, it scheduled arguably the toughest nonconference game an ACC team can, playing at Kentucky on Dec. 16.
Outside of that game, this thing gets ugly in a hurry. (And if you think this is bad, you wait. We're just getting started.)
The Hokies do host Iowa in the ACC-B1G Challenge, travel to Ole Miss in early December and will probably draw Providence in the championship of the four-team 2K Classic. But the rest of their schedule is home games against bad teams. In addition to the five Sub-275 opponents listed above, they also play Morehead State, Radford and Houston Baptist, none of which finished in the RPI Top 180. And their first game of the 2K Classic is against Saint Louis (RPI: 247).
So, what if instead of drawing Providence in the second game in that event, Virginia Tech ends up getting Washington instead? And what if it loses two of the three games against Iowa, Ole Miss and Kentucky? Would 11-2 against this schedule mean anything good to the selection committee?
Even if they beat all of the teams that they should, unless they can shock the Wildcats in Lexington, the Hokies will probably need to win at least 10 ACC games—maybe even 11—to reach the NCAA tournament.
9. Penn State Nittany Lions
Sub-275 Opponents: Coppin State (336), Binghamton (312), Oral Roberts (290)
Average RPI of Opponents: 213.8
With just three games against terrible opponents, Penn State is in better shape than most teams on this list in terms of resume landmines. But this schedule is loaded with not-great games.
The bar for inclusion as a terrible opponent was arbitrarily set at 275, but Fairleigh Dickinson (271), Columbia (264), Campbell (235), Montana (216) and Rider (197) aren't exactly the world's stiffest challenges.
As far as last year's RPI is concerned, Penn State's toughest game is on a neutral court against Pittsburgh. But the Panthers are probably going to finish last in the ACC and have little to no hope of posting a Top 75 RPI this year. Beyond that, the best opponent set in stone is George Washington (RPI: 109) for a home game in December.
The #WellActually note is that Penn State's true best opponent is yet to be determined. The night after facing Pitt in the Legends Classic, the Nittany Lions will draw either Oklahoma State or Texas A&M, either of which will be a significant step up from the rest of this schedule. Had we factored in the RPI from that game, Penn State would have been an honorable mention rather than one of the 10 worst schedules.
Then again, if we play that game for the Nittany Lions, we have to play it for everyone, and maybe they would've ended up even higher on the list. Either way, you would expect a more aggressive nonconference approach from a head coach who might be No. 1 on the list of guys likely to get fired if his team doesn't make the NCAA tournament.
8. California Golden Bears
Sub-275 Opponents: UC Riverside (330), Cal State Northridge (313), Central Arkansas (311), Cal Poly (297), Cal State Fullerton (278)
Average RPI of Opponents: 218.5
This one could have been a lot worse. Cal is part of the Maui Invitational, where it will play Wichita State before probably drawing VCU and either LSU or Chaminade. The Golden Bears will also face San Diego State for the third consecutive year and will host Saint Mary's for the second time in three years. Depending on how the Maui bracket breaks and how competitive San Diego State is this season, those games could be five pluses for this schedule.
Is that enough to make up for eight minuses?
In addition to the five games listed at the top of this slide, Cal has two near-misses in Seattle (RPI: 272) and Portland State (268). The only borderline team is Wofford (189), and the Terriers haven't posted a winning record in either of the past two seasons. With the exception of the road game against Seattle, all eight of those games will be played in Berkeley.
Here's the thing, though: This team is going to be even worse than its schedule.
The top two returning scorers each averaged just 4.6 points last season. No. 3 on that list of returnees is Cole Welle, who has played 74 minutes over the last three years. The Golden Bears do get Kentucky transfer Marcus Lee after sitting out a year, but that is a small consolation prize for all this team lost. It probably needs eight cream puffs on the schedule just to finish the season with a double-digit number in the win column.
7. Michigan Wolverines
Sub-275 Opponents: Alabama A&M (351), Southern Miss (331), UC Riverside (330), Jacksonville (305), Detroit (289)
Average RPI of Opponents: 219.2
The wild thing about Michigan showing up on this list is that the Wolverines face two really good opponents in North Carolina (RPI: 1) and UCLA (14). They also have a game against Texas (156) that should carry a lot more weight than it would have this past season, and they have TBD games in the Maui Invitational that could come against Notre Dame and Wichita State.
Then again, they could face Chaminade and California in the latter stages in Maui, and what if we're wrong about Texas, and the Longhorns stumble their way to another losing season? At that point, this schedule is two games against blue bloods and little else.
This is par for the course for John Beilein and Michigan, though: Beat the tar out of 5-7 bottom-feeders and face just enough top-notch opponents to balance the equation and make anything better than a 9-4 nonconference record look respectable. It's a formula the Wolverines have been following for a decade—minus the part where it went off the rails with back-to-back home losses to NJIT and Eastern Michigan a few years ago.
The surprise isn't that it's working. The surprise is that there aren't more programs following suit. Get in a nonexempt tournament where you'll face two or three quality opponents, schedule a national championship contender (on the road, if you must), get one other quality opponent on the docket and fill the rest out with buy games. Mick Cronin at Cincinnati has figured this out, too, and the Bearcats have gone to seven consecutive NCAA tournaments.
It's not rocket science. And it's more important than ever now that margin-of-victory metrics like KenPom and Sagarin are getting more play with the selection committee. Just make sure you actually slaughter those sacrificial lambs to boost the numbers. Because if you're only going to beat Alabama A&M by 5-10 points, you'd be better off scheduling a potential loss to Alabama.
6. Iowa State Cyclones
Sub-275 Opponents: Western Illinois (325), Appalachian State (295), Maryland Eastern Shore (279)
Average RPI of Opponents: 220.2
Let's note right off the bat that there's one game on Iowa State's schedule that won't be anywhere near as bad as it currently appears. The Cyclones open with a road game against Missouri, which didn't even rank in the Top 250 in RPI last season. Whether or not you're buying the Tigers as a tournament team with the addition of Michael Porter Jr., there's no way they're that bad again this year.
After that first game, though, there's nothing worth bragging about. All remaining nonconference games will be played at Hilton Coliseum, save for the Puerto Rico Tip Off, where the toughest possible route for Iowa State would probably be Appalachian State, Tulsa and South Carolina—which isn't saying much for that field. Home games against Iowa and Tennessee are as good as it gets, and with Iowa showing up on our next slide, it's possible the loser of that game goes winless against the RPI Top 100 in nonconference play.
As was the case for California—and as will be the case for several other teams to come—it's hard to blame the Cyclones for taking it easy. They lost more key players from last season than just about every other team in the country. Monte Morris, Naz Mitrou-Long, Deonte Burton, Matt Thomas, Darrell Bowie and Merrill Holden are all gone, taking more than 81 percent of last year's scoring with them. And to replace those guys, Steve Prohm brought in three graduate transfers and a couple of freshmen, most notably Lindell Wigginton.
With that much change, it's probably going to take some time for everything to come together. Opening on the road against Missouri will be a nice measuring stick to determine what needs to be addressed over the course of the following seven weeks. It's just a shame Iowa State couldn't work in at least one or two other decent tests along the way.
5. Iowa Hawkeyes
Sub-275 Opponents: Alabama State (342), Southern Utah (341), Grambling State (321), Southern (319), Chicago State (318), Drake (316)
Average RPI of Opponents: 225.9
Normally, Fran McCaffery and Iowa put together a solid schedule. There are always a few cupcakes along the lines of a Coppin State, Longwood or Delaware State, but the Hawkeyes make up for it with roughly one top-50 opponent for every sub-250 opponent. The start of this approach can be pretty clearly traced to the 2013 offseason, after they went 21-12 overall, 9-9 in the Big Ten and missed the NCAA tournament thanks to a nonconference schedule that was awful.
This past season, though, they went 8-5 against a somewhat challenging nonconference schedule before going 10-8 in Big Ten play and missing the tournament again. And apparently the solution to that problem was to return to the pre-2013 days of filling up on cream puffs.
Facing six opponents that ranked in the bottom 36 nationally in RPI last season is reprehensible. With the exception of the No. 1 team on this list (Georgetown), Georgia Tech is the only other power-conference team that scheduled at least four opponents that bad. And at least the Yellow Jackets kind of made up for it by also scheduling UCLA, Northwestern, Georgia and Tennessee.
Iowa has its annual game against Iowa State, faces Virginia Tech in the ACC/B1G Challenge and that's about it. There's a chance the Hawkeyes will run into Cincinnati in the championship game of the Cayman Islands Classic, but if either team slips up before the finals, Iowa's nonconference schedule consists of two games against bubble teams and a whole bunch of garbage.
They may well go 13-0 against this slate. If they don't, it might be another year in which even 10-8 in the Big Ten doesn't cut it.
4. North Carolina State Wolfpack
Sub-275 Opponents: Presbyterian (346), VMI (329), South Carolina State (307), Jacksonville (305), Charleston Southern (296), Bryant (280)
Average RPI of Opponents: 226.5
North Carolina State is going through a lot of changes this offseason. Dennis Smith Jr. left for the NBA and Maverick Rowan left to play overseas. Ted Kapita also declared for the draft. Terry Henderson and BeeJay Anya both graduated. Mark Gottfried was fired as head coach and replaced by Kevin Keatts.
It's quite the overhaul, and it's no surprise the Wolfpack wanted to ease their way into the season with a few early home games against VMI, Charleston Southern, Bryant and Presbyterian. Pretty much every team has at least a couple of "warm-up" games in November, and this schedule would be fine if business picked up from there.
But after the Battle 4 Atlantis—where they will face Arizona in the first round before probably drawing Northern Iowa and Tennessee in the consolation bracket—they go right back into their atrocious schedule.
They get a home game against Penn State in the ACC-B1G Challenge (no offense to Penn State, but that's one of the easiest possible draws in that event) before five more home games against South Carolina State, UMKC, UNC-Greensboro, Robert Morris and Jacksonville.
Even if they lose to Arizona and win all 12 of the other games, the Wolfpack are going to have a terrible nonconference resume. They don't play a single road game prior to opening ACC play at Clemson, and their toughest home game is either against UNC-Greensboro or Penn State—neither of which would have even made the NIT last year if UNC-G hadn't received an auto bid for winning the SoCon.
Depending on the teams it can defeat in ACC play, NC State legitimately might need to enter the ACC tournament with a 23-8 record to feel safe about receiving an invitation to the dance. The only way that changes is if the Wolfpack can stun Arizona in the Battle 4 Atlantis to boost their resume with two more games against the likes of SMU, Purdue and Villanova.
3. Boston College Eagles
Sub-275 Opponents: Central Connecticut (344), Hartford (327), Maine (323), South Carolina State (307), Dartmouth (304), Sacred Heart (299), Colgate (291)
Average RPI of Opponents: 235.4
Aside from the annual game against Providence and a few quality opponents in nonexempt tournaments, Boston College's nonconference scheduling has been a complete joke since the start of the 2014-15 season. But can we blame Jim Christian for wanting to get a few wins against cream puffs when we all know the Eagles are entering a world of pain once ACC play begins?
Over the last two seasons, the even bigger problem than the weakness of the schedule has been Boston College's effectiveness against it. In 2015-16, it lost to both Santa Clara and UMass Lowell. Last year, the Eagles lost to Nicholls State in their season opener and proceeded to drop games against Hartford and Fairfield.
Because of that, even though they try to schedule at least 10 winnable games per year, they have finished each of the last two seasons with a single-digit number in the win column.
So which games trip up Boston College this year?
With the exception of the game at Hartford, all seven of the games listed above will be played at home, as is the game against Columbia (RPI: 264). And that's two-thirds of the schedule. There's also the game against Providence, the Eagles play at Nebraska in the ACC-B1G Challenge, they host Richmond, and they'll play Texas Tech and likely La Salle in the Hall of Fame Tip Off.
End of list. Aside from probably Providence and maybe Texas Tech, they don't play a single team that will be in the running for an at-large bid.
2. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Sub-275 Opponents: Central Connecticut (344), Coppin State (336), Hartford (327), NJIT (293), Bryant (280), CCNY (D-III)
Average RPI of Opponents: 232.5
Technically, Boston College's average opponent RPI is worse than Rutgers', but BC didn't schedule a D-III opponent that doesn't count as far as RPI is concerned. Given the gap between the Eagles and the Scarlet Knights was rather slim, we opted to give Rutgers a slight bump in the rankings.
Regardless of whether they're No. 2 or No. 3, the moral of the story is that the Scarlet Knights have an abysmal schedule.
It's not all bad, though. They host Florida State in the ACC-B1G Challenge and will also be the home team in their annual game against Seton Hall. Winning either of those games would be quite the coup after going 0-8 over the last two years against anything even remotely resembling a quality nonconference opponent.
Beyond those two games, this is a nightmare.
For the second straight year, Rutgers will not partake in a nonexempt event, so there aren't any TBD games on their schedule. Thus, we know that the third-best opponent outside the Big Ten is Stony Brook (RPI: 186).
Worse yet, each of the Scarlet Knights' 13 nonconference games is a home game, so one can't even spin a contest against an East Carolina or a Fordham as a potential challenge. It's as if they sent a memo at the beginning of the scheduling process saying they would not leave Piscataway, and these were the only teams that bothered to respond.
The sad thing is this team was finally showing some improvement last season. It won three Big Ten games—four if you count beating Ohio State in the B1G tournament—and lost seven conference games by a single-digit margin. With most of last year's key contributors returning, Rutgers could have been a sneaky-good team. Turning that into a NCAA tournament bid for the first time since 1991 will be nearly impossible, given this putrid nonconference schedule.
1. Georgetown Hoyas
Sub-275 Opponents: Alabama A&M (351), North Carolina A&T (350), Howard (339), North Texas (338), Coppin State (336), Maine (323), Jacksonville (305), Maryland Eastern Shore (279)
Average RPI of Opponents: 265.1
This might be the worst nonconference schedule in major-conference history.
The one saving grace was supposed to be Georgetown's participation in the PK80 Invitational. The worst-case scenario there would have been losses to Michigan State, Connecticut and Portland. But instead of taking those lumps and learning from them, new head coach Patrick Ewing and the Georgetown administration decided to pull out of the event.
They didn't replace it with another tournament, either. They've just decided (for now, at least) to only play 11 nonconference games, most of which are....not impressive.
The road game against Richmond is a nice touch. Not many major-conference programs are willing to travel to face a middle-of-the-pack mid-major team. Kudos to the Hoyas on that one.
The other 10 games are dreadful. They play the two worst teams in the nation from last season, as well as six other games listed above—all of which are home games. They also have home games against Mount St. Mary's and Syracuse. In most years, that Syracuse game would be a marquee event, but the Orange might be the second-worst team in the ACC this year.
As a result, we could be headed for an interesting dichotomy: Georgetown going 11-0 in nonconference play before going 0-18 in the Big East. The Hoyas will probably pick up a win or two against a DePaul or a St. John's, but there's no question they enter the season with the lowest expectations among Big East teams.
You have to assume that's why they put together a schedule that looks like a cream puff baked into a cupcake that's been covered in bubble wrap.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.