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How vital is strength of schedule?

We begin with an appropriately geeky question from Overland Park, Kan., former home to the NCAA's headquarters.

Is there a correlation between the strength of a conference and the national champion? One would think that a team in a strong conference would have had more tests against ranked teams and would thus be better prepared for the challenges in the NCAA tournament.-- Brad Warner, Overland Park, Kan.

Rather than limiting myself to the subjective assessment of conference strength, I set out to answer Brad's question by mapping out the strength of schedule rankings for each of the last 17 NCAA champions. Why did I choose that number? Because that's how far back the archives go on my RPI website of choice, Jerry Palm's CollegeRPI.com. Jerry also has the nonconference strength of schedule rankings back to 2003, so I've included those as well. The table is to your right, and the most revealing thing about the numbers is how little they reveal.

The average strength of schedule rank of the last 17 NCAA champions was 28.1, ranging from 3 to 66. The average nonconference strength of schedule rank was 128.4, ranging from 35 to 253. Both averages were lower than I expected, but the range is what really disproves Brad's theory. Some teams have won taking on all comers, while others have sailed through a regular season virtually unchallenged and still ended up hoisting the big trophy.

I've long felt that the notion you have to come from a strong conference to do well in the tournament did not hold water. John Calipari's teams at Memphis were the most recent example. There's something to be said for playing some easy games in February while your competition is going to war every night. Plus, playing against weaker opponents gives a coach more leeway to experiment with different lineups or sit key players who are nursing minor injuries. The point is, both ways work. Tom Izzo plays every tough game he can find in November and December, while Jim Boeheim doesn't like to leave the great state of New York. And they both have rings.

I'm sure some really hardcore geeks out there (I'm talking about you, John Gasaway) will crunch some other numbers and support a theory arguing one way or the other. To me, Brad's question yields the answer so many other questions yield: It depends.

Having (not) solved that mystery, let's dip into the rest of this week's mailbag. We'll begin with two questions about my poll ballot.

Seth, you said you would rank Xavier after they beat Georgia and Duquesne, but you still have not. What is your trepidation with ranking Xavier? Do you think they can continue their streak of Sweet 16s this year?-- John Cassidy, Findlay, Ohio

Yes, I am going to do the so-and-so-beat-that-team-you-ranked. UCLA just beat St John's and does have more wins this year. Why no love in the Top 25?-- John O., La Jolla, Calif.

The basic answer to both of these questions is that I only have 25 spots. For one team to move in, another has to move out. I did predict I would rank Xavier if it won at Georgia and Duquesne, but as I mentioned in my column, the résumé of St. John's is far superior. The Johnnies have six wins over teams ranked in the top 50 of the RPI, including two on the road and five against the top 25. Xavier has three top-50 wins and none against the top 25. Who's better? Nobody can say for sure until they play on a neutral court, but I say that wherever you rank Xavier, St. John's should be ranked ahead. My fellow voters obviously disagreed, ranking Xavier 24th and leaving the Red Storm out.

UCLA is also a close call, especially considering the Bruins beat St. John's on Feb. 5. Still, that game was in Pauley Pavilion, and I'm less inclined to rank teams based on head-to-head results this late in the season. Besides St. John's, UCLA's only other top-50 win was a neutral/home victory over BYU in Anaheim. And while St. John's did have that bad loss to Fordham, the Bruins also lost at home to Montana. So that's a wash. But again, in this instance my fellow voters ranked UCLA ahead of St. John's in others receiving votes.

That's the fun in all of this. Lots of different opinions out there, and none of them decide anything important.

After seeing San Diego State in person, it amazes me that people still question that the Aztecs could get a possible 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. They have it all to make a deep run: championship head coach, size, athleticism, point guard and an NBA first-rounder in Kawhi Leonard. To me, their season reminds me of the St. Joseph's team in 2004, only less celebrated. Do you agree?-- Andrew Brannon, Las Vegas, Nev.

I don't know who these "people" are who are questioning San Diego State's credentials as a possible No. 2 seed, but I can promise you none of them will be in that hotel conference room in Indianapolis in three-and-a-half weeks. To me, the question regarding the Aztecs isn't whether they can garner a 2 seed, it's whether they can get a 1. A lot of people assume that San Diego State is in worse shape than BYU because it lost to the Cougars in Provo, but that is the Aztecs' only loss and they still have the return game at home on Feb. 26. If San Diego State runs the table and wins the Mountain West tournament, not only is it possible that it will get a 1 seed, I think it's downright likely.

Incidentally, I love the comparison with the Jameer Nelson-Delonte West-led St. Joseph's of 2004. To me that will always be the benchmark of mid-major greatness. I'm not sure this team is quite that good, but it's not far off, either.

I watched in utter frustration as the Illini gave up 54 second-half points to a Hummel-less Purdue squad and dropped back to .500 in the Big Ten. Relatively speaking, how good is the talent assembled in Champaign? Are they totally underperforming or where they should be given their talent? Is Bruce Weber's job in jeopardy?-- Bill Rathe, Deer Park, Ill.

Ah yes, what would a college hoops mailbag be without a chord of discontent from an Illinois fan? I must say, this one is well-deserved. That was a highly uninspired performance the Illini put on Sunday against Purdue. You could argue that Illinois' roster has more top-to-bottom talent than Purdue's, but the Boilermakers play hard, tough and smart every single possession. The Illini, uh, don't.

I understand the instinct to blame the coach, and there is no doubt Weber deserves to be criticized for the way this team has been playing. But at some point, the players have to accept responsibility, especially when they are seniors. This team is going to the NCAA tournament and it still has enough time to get its mojo back. Maybe the seniors will at long last adopt a sense of urgency now that their final season is nearing an end. But I can't help but believe that this program is going to take a step forward next season after Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale have moved on. You can see that sophomores Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson, as well as freshman forward Jereme Richmond, are more competitive and ready to lead, but for now they are waiting their turn. I think they'll form a much more dependable nucleus next year. And as a result, Weber is going to look a lot smarter.

At what point and time do you put Durrell Summers on your All-Disappointment list for the year? I think I've seen him with his head down and the other team going for a layup after one of his bad passes more than I've seen him drive to the basket this year.-- Dan Kramer, Detroit, Mich.

Talk about timing. Dan sent me this question before Summers, a 6-foot-5 senior guard, pulled his disappearing act Tuesday night at Ohio State. He picked up two fouls within the first minute and played just 16 minutes without scoring a field goal or attempting a free throw. It was odd seeing Summers sitting on the bench with a blank stare on his face while his teammates fought gallantly before losing.

Summers' numbers are about where they were last season. (He averaged 11.3 points as junior on 45.5 percent shooting. This year he is scoring 13.2 points on 41 percent shooting.) But he certainly has not taken the leap forward I expected after his terrific play in the NCAA tournament, when he averaged 18 points per game and was the team's best player after Kalin Lucas ruptured his Achilles. Summers has been inconsistent for most of the season, but lately he has been consistently terrible. He has failed to reach double figures now in four straight games, and he is shooting 28.6 percent during that span. Worst of all, he shot four free throws in his last four games. There is simply no excuse for that. If you're not shooting the ball well, you have to drive, especially if you're as athletic as Summers is. Yet instead of driving, Summers has become more and more passive.

I am not in that locker room every day, so it's hard to say exactly what is going on, but it is clear that Summers has totally lost his confidence. He still has time to get it back, but as Yogi Berra would say, it's getting late pretty early around here.

Why can't Wisconsin recruit higher profile players? Is it the system or style of play? The environment (Grateful Red) has to be in the top 10 in the country and nobody wins at the Kohl Center. Just ask Duke last year and Ohio State this year. I would love to see Bo Ryan coach a team that has the athletes of a Kansas, Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, Michigan State and even Ohio State.-- Tom Ganser, Milwaukee

Remember Chris Rock's line about Bill Clinton? "A man is only as faithful as his options." That's how I feel about recruiting. A coach's recruiting "style" is 10 percent design and 90 percent necessity. The coach is only as faithful to his style as his options dictate.

Wisconsin fans might not want to hear this, but Ryan simply does not have great options when it comes to recruiting. First and foremost, his home state is a lousy recruiting base, especially when compared to neighboring states like Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. Second, the school does not have near the tradition of many of its Big Ten rivals. Even Michigan, which hasn't won anything since the Fab Five, still has more cachet in the recruiting world than Wisconsin.

That's why Ryan is the perfect coach for this program. He knows what his options are, so he has devised a system that suits them. He's also brilliant at developing his players so they get stronger and smarter each year. It's amazing to think that this gem of a coach spent 17 years working in Division III before some big-time athletic director gave him his big break. Makes you wonder how many other great coaches are languishing in obscurity now.

It has been 20-plus years since Loyola Marymount's run-and-gun, high-speed offense. Why has no other team tried this concept with any success since then? It was entertaining as hell compared to the smashmouth style of ball we see today.-- Terry Duffin, Lititz, Pa.

The operative phrase here is "with any success." Paul Westhead's Loyola Marymount teams sure were entertaining, but I've always thought his frenetic, up-and-down, shoot-it-as-soon-as-you-touch-it style of play was more of a gimmick than anything else. Those Hank Gathers-Bo Kimble-led teams won a lot of games, but nobody else has made a ripple playing this way. Southern University put up a ton of points in the early 1990s, while VMI has earned some notice in recent years for averaging upwards of 100 points per game. Duquesne coach Ron Everhart is one modern coach who likes to keep his pedal on the metal, but he still keeps it within reason. Generally speaking, the Westhead model has never proven to be a ticket to the big-time.

One thing I do miss about Westhead's teams is their classic games against U.S. International. LMU won their three meetings by scores of 186-140, 181-150 and 162-144. Those LMU teams produced five of the top 10 alltime scoring performances. Those were fun days, indeed.

My friends and I have been discussing this Alabama team. I say 13-3 in league play is enough to make the tournament, even with a one-and-done in the SEC tourney. What's your take?-- Ryan Barks, Tuscaloosa, Ala.

To begin with, since Alabama has two conference losses right now, Ryan is assuming that when Alabama finishes its season at Mississippi, at Florida and home against Georgia, it will do no worse than 2-1. That's a pretty strong assumption. The Tide might be able to survive a first-round exit in the league tournament if that happens, but given that they're currently ranked 85th in the RPI, that would be playing with fire. That said, I do think this team is in excellent shape, having won 11 of its last 13 games. The selection committee eliminated the last 10 (or 12) games as a criterion a few years ago, but I assure you those members will notice that this team is playing much better ball late in the season.

Why is that the case? It starts with that well-built man on the sideline, Anthony Grant. Early this season, the Tide played a disastrous tournament in the Virgin Islands. They lost all three games they played, including the last one to St. Peter's. When he returned home, Grant suspended his best player, junior forward JaMychal Green, for "conduct detrimental to the team." Grant never explained what Green did to deserve the suspension except to say it was basketball-related. Green stewed on the bench for three games, including a big one at Purdue (which Alabama lost). After that game, Grant reinstated Green and he -- and the Tide -- have been terrific ever since.

I have always been impressed with Anthony Grant ever since he was an assistant at Florida. But to be honest, I wondered back then if he was head coaching material. He seemed so understated that I wasn't sure he had the fire and charisma to make it in the top spot. I got my answer one day while watching Grant work as an assistant coach for USA Basketball on a team of high school players. Grant, who at the time was the head coach at VCU, was asked to take over the practice to work on defense. At one point he blew his whistle, told the players to line up on the baseline and had them do some wind sprints. When they were done, Grant held out his hand and said, "I've had it up to here with this lack of effort." He never raised his voice, never called anyone out, never cursed. He made his point firmly but without demeaning anyone. I sensed then that he was special, and his team's performance this season has borne that out. Anthony Grant is a true stud in this profession, and Alabama would do well to keep him around.

Finally, I got lots of great suggestions for my call to name the play where a guy throws the ball inbounds off the back of an opposing player, then drops it in for an easy layup. I want to give special props to Randy Tapp of Stantonsburg, N.C., and Bill Rymer of Yardley, Pa., for citing the person who I remember first pulling it off: Maryland guard Keith Gatlin, who used the tactic to score in the closing seconds of the Terps' upset at North Carolina in 1986. The unsuspecting Tar Heels player that night was Kenny Smith. That was the first game North Carolina ever lost in the Dean Dome, and it came courtesy of 36 points from the late, great Len Bias. God that man could hoop.

The best name suggestions were:

- Back-Score (Andrew, Los Angeles)- The Backside Layup (Bob Feeney, Middletown, N.J.) - The Pippen (Anthony Resnick, Burbank, Calif.) - Back-N-Up, Back-N-In, Gotcha Back (Chuck Johnson, Trinity, N.C.) - The Back-Back Door (Dr. Greggy, Burley, Idaho) - Back Burner (Paul Fogleman, Hickory, N.C.) - Back Atchya (Gary Bradt, Summerfield, N.C.; and Kevin Nelson, Lewis Center, Ohio) - Boomerang (Patricia Jordan, Chapel Hill, N.C.) - Back Stabber (Randy Tapp, Stantonsburg, N.C.) - Backbreaker (Robb Paulson, Bel Air, Md.) - The Ass-ist (Steve Anderson, San Diego) - Banana in the Tailpipe (Eric McDade, Auburn, Ala.)

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