Old-School Coaches Understand Importance Of Home
Sporting News, Mike DeCourcy
So the other day I’m talking to a member of the coaching staff at a major basketball school about the needlessly brutal schedule his program arranged for itself this season when he says something profound:
“I think all those old guys have it right.”
In fact, they do.
Those of us who’ve lived more than a half-century like to believe age helps us to accumulate wisdom, since it surely does not improve our 40 times. And here’s still another piece of evidence that can be true: The non-conference schedules compiled by the coaches at Syracuse, Connecticut, Duke, Kentucky, Louisville and North Carolina.
Every one of those guys—Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun, Mike Krzyzewski, John Calipari, Rick Pitino and Roy Williams—is over 50. Their teams have played a combined 78 non-conference basketball games to date. Only six of those were on the road – an average of one per man.
How has it damaged them to be so timorous? Not at all. Their teams have won 91.7 percent of their games overall, 93.5 percent of their non-conference games and 100 percent of the home games they arranged for themselves. None is ranked lower than No. 11 in the most recent Associated Press poll.
That last item is most illuminating, because no one agitates more for programs to increase the difficulty of their schedules than people in the media, be they reporters or commentators. That these teams mostly choose to play non-league games at home doesn’t hurt them in the least in the court of public opinion.
Neither will it damage them when it comes to NCAA Tournament seeding.
By the time these teams arrive in March, they’ll have played on the road plenty because their conference schedules demand it. They’ll have played plenty of elite opponents because their conferences include such teams.
Whether their non-league schedules register as challenging with the NCAA Tournament selection committee will have only a marginal bearing, if any, on where they are seeded in the field.
Last season, Ohio State had the No. 72-rated non-conference schedule—though he’s not in the over-50 club, Buckeyes coach Thad Matta also is wise—and still earned the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed. Those Buckeyes played twice on the road but, as has been their custom, eschewed entering one of those loaded neutral-court tournaments.
A year ago Pitt did not play a non-league road game and faced only two opponents outside of conference that eventually competed in the NCAA Tournament. The Panthers’ schedule was ranked 100th in Division I. But their championship in the Big East Conference earned them a No. 1 seed, anyway.
Each year when attempting to defend their selections and seedings, often against criticism which is not rooted in an understanding of the process, the selection committee members rely on the dogma of “who’d you play, where’d you play, how’d you do?”
It’s an easy enough policy to defend, but it’s mostly misinterpreted by many who’ve ended up on the wrong side of those decisions.
Virginia Tech has missed the NCAA Tournament every year since 2007, often by the narrowest of margins. This often has been attributed to substandard non-league scheduling, the implication being that if the Hokies played more good teams out of their league they’d have made it. Which is nonsense.
During its four-year fallow period, Va Tech has reached double-digits in conference victories only once—and that year proceeded to lose its first-round ACC-Tournament game. Non-league scheduling had nothing to do with Florida State making the field last year and Tech staying home; the Seminoles played three NCAA Tournament teams out of conference last year and lost each time, but they finished 11-5 in a substandard ACC to Virginia Tech’s 9-7.
If you examine today the teams that are considered to be struggling or disappointing, you’ll mostly find a collection that chose to play ambitious schedules either because they felt it necessary to help them with the selection process or because their schools were too cheap to buy enough home games.
Memphis (8-5) has played only seven times at FedEx Forum, even though the Tigers can sell more than 18,000 tickets to most games. Vanderbilt (9-4) played five times away from Memorial Gymnasium despite the extraordinary homecourt advantage provided by its unique configuration. Alabama (10-3) played six games away from campus, including losses at Dayton and Kansas State.
UCLA hasn’t played at home at all, technically, and while that’s an entirely different story – Pauley Pavilion is closed for renovations – it is a part of why the Bruins have been poor.
Through eight home and four neutral-court games, surprising Missouri was able to maintain a perfect record. That mark remained intact after the Tigers finally went on the road last Friday to Old Dominion and scraped to win a game coach Frank Haith admitted to Sporting News was not one he’d scheduled. He called it “a dangerous game.”
Haith is 46 years old and, with few gray hairs and a wrinkle-free complexion, looks much younger. But he’s already learned.