Nonconference scheduling for NCAA Division I men’s basketball teams is an inexact science.
Teams at different levels of the top collegiate division have different motivations. They range from power conference schools filling out their home slates with winnable nonleague games that fill their arenas, to low- and mid-major programs seeking such “guarantee” games to help subsidize their athletic budgets.
America East recently recommended a new nonconference scheduling framework for its men’s basketball programs to be implemented for the 2020-21 season. The ultimate goal is boosting the profiles of both the conference and its member schools.
The recommendation begins by dividing the nine America East programs, including the University of Maine, into three pods based on recent performance.
The three strongest teams of recent vintage — likely Vermont, Stony Brook and UMBC — would be encouraged to schedule the strongest nonconference opponents.
The NCAA last season replaced the Ratings Percentage Index, or RPI, with the NCAA Evaluation Tool, or NET. The new measure relies on game results, strength of schedule, game locations, scoring margins, net offensive and defensive efficiency, and the quality of wins and losses.
The RPI previously was the measure used to help the NCAA selection committee, select, seed and match teams for national tournament play.
NCAA teams are divided into four quadrants based on NET ratings. Quadrant 1 opponents involve home games against teams ranked in the top 30 by NET, neutral-site games with teams ranked 1-5 and away games between Nos. 1-75.
Quadrant 2 opponents are home games against Nos. 31-75 teams, neutral games with Nos. 51-100 and road games at teams Nos. 76-135. Quadrant 3 foes are home contests against Nos. 76-160, neutral-site games with Nos. 101-200 and road games against Nos. 136-240. Quadrant 4 games are at home with opponents ranked Nos. 161-plus, neutral-site games taking on Nos. 201-plus and away games at Nos. 241-plus.
“What you don’t want is to have your stronger teams playing too many weak opponents because that pulls down your [conference] NET,” UMaine Athletic Director Ken Ralph said.
If the recommendation was in place today, UMaine would land in the lowest three-team AE pod based on its 29-127 record over the past five years. The Bears would be encouraged to schedule more lower-quadrant, nonconference opponents in an effort to generate more victories and higher NET ratings for the Black Bears and the league.
“A program like us is going to look to schedule differently than a program that’s where Vermont is right now,” UMaine men’s basketball coach Richard Barron said. “Things are different at every school, and what we’re saying is that we will try to give coaches the best information we can so they can make the best decisions they can.”
Complicating the issue for UMaine is its reliance on “guarantee” games against higher-quadrant competition that help finance the school’s athletic budget.
UMaine generated $620,000 in revenue from guarantee games last season playing the likes of such upper-quadrant programs as Utah, Rutgers and North Carolina State.
“What America East would like is for the programs that are trying to grow like Maine or New Hampshire to play more Quadrant 4 games and try to build up the number of wins to help the league,” Ralph said. “That’s fine, but I still need to play a certain number of guarantee games in order to make the revenue budget.”
Guarantee games often are scheduled well in advance in order to provide participating schools cost certainty within their budgets.
“Some contracts are signed four years out, and you may think you’re signing a contract with a team that’s in a certain NET range, but one or two player changes on a roster or a coaching change can dramatically change who you thought you were scheduling,” Barron said.
Take UMaine’s scheduled game at Virginia this fall.
When Barron negotiated the contract to play the Cavaliers, they were coming off that first-round loss to Maryland, Baltimore County in the 2018 NCAA tourney.
When the teams square off in Charlottesville, Virginia, in late November, Virginia will be the reigning national champion.
And while the Cavaliers still will be a prohibitive favorite, they recently lost three potential returning starters to the NBA draft.
“There’s so many moving pieces,” Barron said.