Creating a non-conference college basketball schedule is more art than science. For a second year coach like Indiana’s Archie Miller, you have to add in a healthy dose of “the hand you were dealt.”
It has become clear in recent years that the NCAA tournament committee places a hefty emphasis on strength of schedule. In recent seasons, Indiana has seemingly had a do-or-die non-conference schedule, with a few a high caliber opponents sprinkled in over a slate full of cupcakes.
You either win those tough contests, or your resume ends up running the risk of having no quality out-of-conference wins.
The quest to receive a NCAA tournament at-large bid starts long before the first tip in November. The art of nonconference scheduling is a complicated process that has elements that can go back years, and in some cases not be finalized until months before the season.
With 20 Big Ten conference games going forward, that only leaves 11 nonconference contests in the typical season. That dynamic places a greater emphasis on finding the right opponents. At least for the elements of the 2018-19 schedule that were within his control, Indiana’s 2nd year head coach’s work is done. Is it a masterpiece?
The short answer is Miller needs more time. When he was hired in 2017, he said “you have to be the master” when it comes to non-conference scheduling. At less than 17 months on the job, Miller hasn’t had enough time to see the remnants of the Crean-era drop-off. The master doesn’t have a full mastery yet.
Miller made it clear in his introductory press conference in 2017 that he places a heavy emphasis on the nonconference schedule. Here was his full quote on the topic —
“The nonconference scheduling component is probably the second most important thing you do as a coach other than recruit.” said Miller. “Here at Indiana University, nonconference scheduling is about finding a way to put yourself in a great position in terms of seeding. You know, you have to be the master of creating a nonconference schedule that, one, creates great excitement with your fans; two, challenges you at the highest level as you enter the Big Ten; and three, puts you in a nonconference resume that stacks up with the best teams in college basketball. That’s what will be our goal.”
There have already been improvements in this area under Miller. Frankly, the bar was low. Ken Pomeroy rated the Hoosiers’ nonconference schedule No. 243 for the 2017-18 season. While still unimpressive nationally, it was the best such number for the program going all the way back to 2009.
Realizing there was more work to be done going into the 2018-19 campaign, Miller addressed the topic again in May —
“Our non-conference schedule will be more difficult than last year’s. We have to challenge ourselves,” Miller said. Our league, in general last year from a nonconference standpoint, just quite frankly didn’t get the job done. That’s why our league, in general as the course of our season went along and you had good wins, just didn’t get any credit for that in the Big Ten. That was something that as a league we addressed this spring.”
There are arguments to be made that the nonconference schedule again improved going into Miller’s year two. Here are Indiana’s nonconference schedules for the past four seasons, with the Torvik/KenPom ranking of each opponent and the corresponding average of such rankings for each season. We used Torvik for 2018 because it factors in roster turnover, thus providing a better projection looking forward.
Perhaps there is some improvement. It certainly isn’t overwhelming.
On the positive side, IU should have more top-100 games on its schedule than it has had in a while. Conversely, there is still a hearty helping of clunkers to bring down the average. Some of those bottom feeding teams were actually better last season but project to be heavily impacted by roster turnover. UT Arlington is a good example.
There is clearly more work to be done here. Questions will linger about long-discussed games against Kentucky and Arizona. Adding in those two games in lieu of a couple of the clunkers would dramatically tip the scales here and likely end this annual discussion.
Beyond just the on-court and NCAA tournament advantages that can be gained from a more difficult schedule, Miller also has incentives in his contract for playing a tougher slate. He’ll get this done.
Miller also has a track record from the Dayton years to further support this. The Flyers routinely played a non-conference schedule that was ranked in the top-100.
In the meantime, incremental progress is being made. Moreover, when you factor in the two Big Ten conference games that will once again be played in December, the first two months certainly won’t feel like a picnic. Similar to last season, there will be an important run of games that involve Duke, Louisville, Butler and a couple Big Ten opponents.
That will have to do for now — while the master works to get full control of his domain.
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