To President Herbst, AD Manuel, Coach Ollie and all those who bleed blue
We are two years into this new conference. No longer a member of the most dominant league in college basketball but rather, the American. A conference more comparable to the island of misfit toys in the Christmas classic Rudolph- the schools no conference wants to play with. Pittsburgh Big Monday rivalry games have been replaced with lazy Sunday's in Houston. Our night on ESPN College GameDay is no longer with Syracuse, but SMU. And finally, after much research, I can officially confirm last night's win over Tulane will count towards our conference record. Yes, the outlook sure seems bleak at times and every time AAC gets auto-corrected to ACC I'm left wondering what might have been. But, does conference realignment alone mean Storrs, Connecticut is no longer home to the college basketball capital of the world? Absolutely Not.
It's time to turn the page.
Last Thursday's loss to Memphis, while discouraging, was by no means disqualifying. As with any season, the ultimate goal is to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. From there, anything can happen. Now, we must shift our focus off this season's frustrations and onto how we can position ourselves for continued postseason success-- keeping in mind our position in a new, weaker conference.
Schedule for an at-large, play for an automatic.
At-large bids for the NCAA Tournament are awarded based on a number of different criteria, none more prominent than the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI). To summarize , you are rewarded for beating teams who beat good teams on a scale of all D1 teams ranked 1-351 (how RPI is officially calculated). Although other rankings do exist that may be more accurate, RPI is primarily used by the NCAA selection committee. Similar to the SAT and college admission, if a strong RPI doesn't get you in, it at least gets you looked at.
In contrast to the (original) Big East, the AAC is more on par with a pair of mid-majors- the West Coast Conference (WCC) and Missouri Valley Conference (MVC). Here is a comparison of the percent of conference members in the top 50 of numerous statistics evaluated by the selection committee. As illustrated below, the level of competition found in the 2010/11 Big East is far superior to the 2014/15 AAC, WCC, and MVC.
|Big E. 10/11||65%||80%||70%||95%|
*Ratings Percentage Index, Strength of Schedule, Conference RPI, Conference SOS*
Without the Big East to inflate our postseason resume, how can UConn ensure an at-large bid without winning the conference title? For that, we will take a look at mid-major college basketball powers Gonzaga (WCC) and Wichita State (MVC).
It begins with our non-conference strength of schedule.
Four years ago, we could rely on the strength of the Big East to tip the scales and float us into the tournament when we were on the bubble. In 2010/11, the Big East Conference had the No. 1 overall RPI out of all D1 conferences, including a ridiculous 10 teams in the top 50. Given the ultra-competitiveness of the Big East, each week provided an opportunity to boost RPI, or, recover from a loss. The last week of conference play in 2011 saw UConn win at Cincinnati (31) then lose at West Virginia (16) and again at home to Notre Dame (12). On paper, yes that's a 1-2 mark but when you take a deeper look at the numbers the road loss to West Virginia was essentially negated by the win over the Bearcats and UConn enters the conference tournament off a home loss to a tough Notre Dame squad. Definitely not an ideal stretch entering tournament play but also not bubble bursting due to the quality of our opponents.
After easily defeating DePaul (217), the Huskies faced Georgetown (6), Pittsburgh (7), Syracuse (17) and Louisville (18). Though we beat all four, my guess is we earned the at-large bid after the quarterfinal victory over Pitt. The beauty of the competition in the Big East was it provided an opportunity to control fate with your play, a luxury not all conferences can offer. Glancing at the chart below, Big East members played on average 10 games against RPI top 25 teams in 2011. That is ten opportunities to prove yourself against an elite team, ten opportunities to beef up a resume and ten opportunities to demonstrate growth over the course of a season- opportunities that simply do not exist in the AAC, WCC, and MVC.
|Conference||RPI 1-25||26-50||51-100||Total 1-100|
|Big East 2011||10||2||4||16|
*Louisville removed for accuracy
To illustrate the dramatic change, let's look at a recent stretch of UConn AAC play. Starting January 25th with a win over South Florida (215), UConn lost on the road to Cincinnati (29) followed by another road loss to Houston (239). This time, although the Cincinnati loss is not a "bad loss" in terms of RPI (and most importantly, in the eyes of the committee) Houston is inexplicable. Additionally, although we won our next two games, Eastern Carolina (242) and Tulane (182) combined hardly account for the Houston loss- especially when Doug Gottlieb chimes in:
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>UConn, we have a problem... It is <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Houston?src=hash">#Houston</a></p>— Doug Gottlieb (@GottliebShow) <a href="https://twitter.com/GottliebShow/status/562009862545371136">February 1, 2015</a></blockquote>
<script async src="//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
In any case, the days of mourning the Big East are over. A new era is underway and we must not be shortsighted. How does UConn compensate for a lack of quality competition in conference play for years to come?
Schedule for an at-large...
To answer that question, let's take a look at the resumes of both Wichita State and Gonzaga in relation to ours. Also, note the 12/13 Wichita State and 11/12 Gonzaga profiles are from years where did not win the conference tournament but earned an at-large bid. These are the numbers impressed the committee enough to extend an at-large invitation.
UConn's non-conference strength of schedule (NCSS) is particularly alarming considering a conference strength of schedule (CFSS) over 100. Aside from the obvious fact they are winning, both Wichita State and Gonzaga have a significantly stronger NCSS. To date, our best non-conference win comes over Dayton (32), hardly eye-popping on paper. We desperately need to schedule quality non-conference games, and LOTS of them. Take January's win over Florida- though quality at the time- means nothing after the Gators recent struggles. Our schedule must be packed with talent to compensate for opponents unexpected down years.We cannot afford to play in mediocre tournaments-we need to face off with the elite. Recent home-and-home series have been announced with Georgetown, Arizona and Ohio State along with planned participation in the 2016 Maui Invitational. This type of aggressive scheduling is necessary should we require any wiggle room in conference play due to poor performance or injury.
The consequence of failing to schedule for an at-large bid results in the most evil word in sports.
The Missouri Valley Conference has seen 5 RPI top 40 teams snubbed in recent years, including the most infamous snub of all time. In 2006 Missouri State's bubble was popped after posting a 21 RPI- the best of any team ever left out of March Madness. In 1998, Gonzaga missed out on an at-large bid after losing in the WCC Finals- despite claiming the regular season crown and defeating #5 Clemson. Don't think it can happen in the AAC? Just last year SMU posted a 23-9 record with a 53 RPI but was left out of the tournament following a first round loss in AAC play. Makes you feel a little better about last weekend...
...until you realize we are in the same conference...
...which brings me back to this year. Schedule for the at-large bid but...
...play for the automatic.
Maybe being in the American isn't so bad after all. Because every year we stand a really good chance of getting that automatic bid. Realistically, no matter how much we struggle during the regular season, the AAC tournament could punch our ticket on a yearly basis. I like the idea of sealing our own fate as opposed to leaving it up to the NCAA (we are still the UConn of old in that regard).
LRPI measure's a team's RPI in road/neutral games only- a statistic we can use come tournament time (games are played at neutral sites). Here is a look at the average LRPI of each AAC member over the past 5 seasons.
As the numbers show and "five games in five days" proved, we are a tournament team like few others in the conference. Given our performance, there is still no combination of AAC teams I am scared of come March. Take our recent match-up with Tulsa where we held the #1 team in conference (at the time) to 31% shooting in a 25 point blowout win. Ball movement was the best I've seen all year and the Huskies fed off the crowd's energy.
BREAKING NEWS: We get that crowd for the tournament.
Remember, Hartford hosts the AAC tournament this year. The average distance for AAC members to travel from their campus to the XL Center? 1,155 miles or 17.5 hours. That's Hartford to St. Louis- ON AVERAGE! Aside from Temple (211 miles), the next closest school is Eastern Carolina (615 miles). As fans, there are few situations where we can impact the outcome of a game as we will be able to do in Hartford this March. We need to emphasize this advantage with a sea of blue and white. I saw what we did last year at Madison Square Garden and there's no reason to think it cannot be recreated. Yes it is improbable, but hey, we feast on the improbable. We are after all, and will continue to be, the Hungry Huskies.
Undeniably, this is a new era for UConn basketball. Our struggles will be heavily documented and triumphs largely unnoticed. We no longer present ourselves along with the clear, unquestionable power of the Big East behind us but in a cloud of doubt cast upon by a weak conference. The Gonzaga Bulldogs currently sit at #3 in the AP poll with many calling the current squad best in school history. Yet in his column earlier this month, Yahoo Sports analyst Pat Forde still asked the question of "whether the WCC sufficiently seasons Mark Few's program for NCAA play". Regardless of our trophies, regardless of our NBA pedigree and regardless of our tradition, this same question will be asked about our Huskies year after year.
But you know what, Houston, we don't have a problem. Actually, we have an advantage. We are once again the underdog, problem is- we do just fine as the underdog. In the words of captain Ryan Boatright after last night's victory:
"We control our own destiny. We needed to take care of business today and build momentum into the conference tournament. Anything can happen in the conference tournament. Our backs are against the wall, we just gotta keep fighting."
There are few to put on a Huskies uniform with more fight than Ryan Boatright. In a mere 6 weeks, there could be fewer. Let's continue this new era and let's start with this season. See you in Hartford.
Thank you, God bless you, and God bless UConn Country.