For a basketball team that finds itself on the NCAA Tournament "bubble," its postseason fate may depend more on what happened the previous spring and summer than during the last couple of weeks before Selection Sunday.
Madness, you say? Perhaps.
Reality? Increasingly so, especially for teams that finish in the middle of the standings in the six "power" conferences — ACC, SEC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-10.
"A typical scenario is there are seven teams that all look kind of alike and they're vying for the last two spots in the tournament," said Stanford athletic director Bob Bowlsby, a former men's basketball committee member and one-time chairman of the group that picks the 34 at-large teams. "So you're looking for a way to distinguish among those teams. One of the things that you look at is the schedule over which they had some control."
That's a dozen or so nonconference games and that brings us back to this time of the year, when coaches are busy finalizing that part of their schedule.
Consider what happened last season: Florida, Arizona State and Virginia Tech all won at least 19 games after their respective conference tournaments and were .500 or better in league play. All scheduled, for various reasons, less-than-ambitiously in the nonconference segment.
All ended up in the NIT.
"To be one of those last picks," said North Carolina State athletic director Lee Fowler, another former selection committee member and chair, "you've got to at least look like you wanted to play somebody and wanted to be competitive in the nonconference schedule."
An exact science it isn't, but you can glean something of a blueprint for building the kind of nonconference schedule that help your at-large case:
Pack your bags
Putting together a schedule involves meeting budgetary needs and wants, factoring in available dates and the academic calendar and also assessing your team's likely strength. But it's prudent to have a balance of home and away nonconference games.
Of Florida's 15 nonconference games last year, 11 were at home, one was in Tampa at the St. Pete Times Forum (Vermont), one was in Jacksonville (Georgia Southern) and one was in Sunrise (Temple), which left just one true road game (Ohio State).
Coach Billy Donovan recognized he'd be replacing his starting five and a younger team needs wins to build confidence, but that dearth of true road games couldn't have helped the Gators make a compelling NCAA case.
"(Former Kentucky athletic director) C.M. Newton would tell me, 'This is a national tournament and all your games are played on the road and if a team didn't go on the road and didn't win many conference games on the road, why would you think they'd be competitive in this tournament?' " Fowler said. "So it has a lot to do with playing on the road and not just buying people to come so you can beat them at your place."
Perhaps more important than where you play is who you play. At least, some of the time. Fowler said he's felt his coach should always schedule four to six teams from the other "power" conferences and not just go for the usual low-hanging fruit.
"It has to be representative of basketball teams that are competitive year in and year out," Fowler said. "You're rolling the dice a bit if you don't."
Several times in the last five years, the Seminoles haven't gone after the usual suspects. In 2004, Bowlsby, then the selection committee chair, cited FSU's "developmental" nonconference schedule.
FSU coach Leonard Hamilton has said there is too much emphasis on that part of the schedule to give more opportunity to the mid-major conferences while "penalizing the major conferences."
"That's why we need to open the thing up," he said of expanding the field.
Although his team's complete nonconference schedule hasn't been released, it seems the Seminoles have gotten more ambitious in November and December. In addition to their annual game against Florida and Northwestern in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, the Seminoles play Big East power Pittsburgh (an upgrade from USF or Providence from last year) and will be in Las Vegas in an exempt tournament that could mean a couple more games against "power" conference teams.
"You want to get a reasonable mix of quality opponents and demonstrate you've gone out and tried to schedule some people," Bowlsby said. "The key word is balance."
Or March might just be maddening.
Brian Landman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3347.