One of the best Christmas presents that college basketball fans receive is the end of the dreadful, pre-conference schedule.
Until this point in the season, except for a few made-for-TV match-ups, competitive offerings are slim. Most college powers set up schedules guaranteeing 10 wins by the time they play their first conference game of the season.
That’s becoming a problem for college basketball, where the early games are oftentimes boring and the outcomes mostly assured. It’s good for a coach who wants to pad his schedule, but not so for fans who pay good money to watch bad teams.
Recent estimates of the Rating Percentage Index (RPI) used to evaluate teams at the end of the season, which factors schedule strength, showed that Indiana so far has played seven teams ranked 150th or lower. The Hoosiers aren’t alone. Louisville claims six victories against bottom-feeders, while Kentucky, UCLA and Duke have five. The list could be much longer.
Conversely teams with the poorest records play the toughest schedules. Among the Top 10 in the Strength of Schedule rankings thus far are North Dakota (1-6), Oakland (2-9), Santa Barbara (4-3) and Grambling (0-4). They do get paid well - in ticket receipts - for their beatings.
It wasn’t always this way. When Denny Crum coached Louisville to two national championships, he loaded up the early portion of his schedules in hopes of getting his teams ready for conference play. For instance, in 1985, his pre-New Year schedule included Miami (Ohio), St. John’s, Tulsa, Kansas, Purdue, Indiana and Kentucky. It worked. The Cardinals won the 1986 NCAA crown.
Today’s soft schedules make it harder to tell which teams are the better ones in the opening weeks of the season. It’s generally safe to say the powers use the initial weeks to reload and work new players into their systems.