When the great and powerful NCAA selection committee detours you 2,595 miles from home and assigns you a seed below an 11-loss, fifth-place Big 12 team like Baylor, you know you have sinned.
According to Kenpom.com, the Oz of basketball analytics, Arizona’s nonconference schedule ranked No. 304 in college basketball. It sounds bad. It gets worse.
No. 305 is Grand Canyon.
The Antelopes’ nonconference schedule was a Who’s-Not-Who in college hoops: Black Hills State, Alcorn State, Mississippi Valley State, Portland State, Hampton, Central Michigan, Southern, Nebraska-Omaha, Delaware State, Houston, Marshall, SIU-Edwardsville, Bethune-Cookman, San Diego State and Louisville.
And it’s not like there’s a gap between No. 304 and No. 305.
Kenpom.com’s computer gave Arizona a rating of .3871. The Lopes are at .3854.
Not-so-wonderful news: Arizona has scheduled a home game against GCU next season.
Even worse news: Arizona State, forever the subject of deep belly laughs from UA basketball fans, played the nation’s 69th-most difficult nonconference schedule this season.
Not so funny: Had Arizona played the Sun Devils’ schedule, which included Kentucky, Texas A&M and the 27-5 Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks, it’s likely the Wildcats would be, at worst, a No. 4 seed in Denver.
Sean Miller has been transparent about Arizona’s diminished scheduling potency. This is a transition season at McKale Center, so he pulled back a bit. He was also unlucky; he expected unranked Gonzaga to be better, and the grand design was for Arizona to meet Michigan State in the finals of the Wooden Legacy tournament.
On Monday, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, whose team will play Vanderbilt on Tuesday for the right to meet Arizona late Thursday in Rhode Island, said his message to all teams is “schedule up.”
The Wildcats scheduled down.
Wichita State, which doesn’t benefit from a strong conference scheduling quotient, willingly played tournament teams USC, Iowa, Utah, Seton Hall and Tulsa this season. Talk about a bring-it-on approach. Only one of those games, Utah, was played in Wichita.
If the Shockers don’t play an imposing nonconference schedule, they would drop off the face of the basketball earth. But in a season Arizona played four games against Mountain West Conference teams, the drop was more subtle. Instead of a No. 4 seed, it’s a No. 6 seed.
Those who follow the NCAA Tournament closely know there’s a significant gulf between No. 4 and No. 6. It’s not just the first game, against Hawaii or Iona instead of Vanderbilt or Michigan, but also the next game, when you would be linked against a No. 5 seed instead of a No. 3.
On Sunday, selection committee chairman Joe Castiglione told reporters Arizona was closer to being a No. 7 seed than a No. 5.
“(The Wildcats) were 23 on the seed list,” he said. “They were third of four teams on that line.”
This slippage does not go unnoticed by long-term Arizona basketball followers. From 1986 to 2007, Lute Olson ducked nobody. Tickets at McKale Center were coveted not just because Arizona was consistently a top-10 program, but also because the home schedule was filled with UConns, Dukes, North Carolinas and Syracuses.
Since Kenpom.com began his basketball metrics program in 2002, Arizona’s nonconference schedules ranked this way:
No. 1 in 2002.
No. 10 in 2008.
No. 14 in 2006.
No. 20 in 2007.
No. 23 in 2003.
Olson’s lowest-ranked nonconference schedule was No. 85 in 2005.
Kevin O’Neill inherited Olson’s 2007-08 team and had a dismal season (in Arizona terms), at 19-13. But the Wildcats earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament because of a strong schedule.
Here’s another perspective, in five-year blocks:
From 1990-94, Arizona played 15 Top 25 nonconference teams in the regular season.
From 1995-99, the number climbed to 20.
From 2000-04, it was again 20.
From 2005-09, the number dropped to 12.
From 2010-14, it was down to 10.
Over the last two seasons, Arizona played just one nonconference Top 25 opponent, Gonzaga.
Two people follow these declining numbers closely: those UA fans paying thousands of dollars for season tickets (and a yearly priority tax) at McKale Center, and the NCAA selection committee.
Miller has already moved to make the 2016-17 nonconference schedule more difficult. The Wildcats open against powerful Michigan State in Honolulu. Thereafter, it’s possible Arizona can play Butler and Vanderbilt in a Las Vegas tournament. Games against New Mexico, Missouri and Gonzaga (in Los Angeles) are scheduled.
But except for the Michigan State game, it’s not an “Arizona good” schedule.
The Wildcats have yet to announce two nonconference games. They’ll need to be elite-level teams to turn any heads.
It will be, after all, the 20th anniversary of the Arizona’s 1997 national championship team, when the Wildcats played a regular-season nonconference schedule that included No. 3 Utah, No. 4 Michigan, No. 7 North Carolina, No. 18 Texas, No. 19 New Mexico and No. 21 Tulane.
That’s called scheduling up.
The option is for the selection committee to let you down.