Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Wishful Thinking Or Potential Reality? The Case For Oakland's Schedule

When the Oakland basketball schedule is released every year, fans have come to expect to see a challenging non-conference portion typically including at least five games against major conference opponents. Over the years, coach Greg Kampe has talked at length about why he schedules this way, commonly citing these games as opportunities to extend the Oakland name, give his players a chance to play against the best college teams prior to conference matches, and collect a payday that can help pay for travel and other expenses throughout the year. Sometimes the Golden Grizzlies are able to keep these games close or even win (as they did recently against Oregon), but usually such matches always end in a loss. It was never worse than in 2009-10 when Oakland was plastered in games against Kansas, Syracuse, Michigan State, and Memphis. With the senior leaders and other talent on that year's roster, many fans were justifiable disappointed in the outcomes of these competitions.

It's safe to say those early losses were all but forgotten by the time Oakland traveled to Sioux Falls for The Summit League tournament on the heels of a one-loss conference season. Even with the success the team experienced, there has often been a sense among some fans that OU should not play as many games against the power conferences, instead searching for matches with those from some of the more competitive mid-major leagues (the Missouri Valley, Atlantic 10, and Horizon League could fall in this category). There are many programs that subscribe to this philosophy. Illinois State out of the MVC is one such program, yet even playing in a more competitive league, their non-conference schedule has never been strong enough for them to warrant at-large consideration. Utah State has also been notoriously stingy when it comes to playing in guarantee games, though unlike Illinois State, the Aggies have still been a bubble team in the last few years even without as many "marquee" opponents.

The scheduling advantage that Illinois State and Utah State have is that they play in leagues that can earn more than one-bid to the NCAA tournament without shocking anyone. The Summit League, on the other hand, is your standard one-bid league. Using this thought, one could argue that the non-conference games are even less meaningful for a team like Oakland, and therefore the team should play games where there would be a higher chance of winning. This argument ignores some of the real benefits of these games, however, such as a strengthened RPI which can then result in higher seeding in the NCAA Tournament. This is clearly something Coach Kampe has considered, as it was fine and dandy just to get there in 2005 as a play-in 16-seed, yet last year there was a stronger sense that the program's progress warranted a higher seed (which did indeed occur).

In an ultimate what-if scenario, playing such powerful non-conference opponents could have another glorious result for Oakland: an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. There are very few teams from a level comparable to Oakland that have been able to do this, though the 2007-2008 South Alabama Jaguars serve as a recent example. Whether or not the bubble was weak that year, USA somehow managed to make it into the Tournament as a 10-seed despite bowing out in the semifinals of its conference tournament (the Sun Belt, which had not had an at-large since 1994). So how did the Jaguars do it? Looking back on their schedule from that year, it's rather clear: they played a competitive non-conference slate, took care of the teams they needed to, kept games against the BCS schools close, and nearly ran the table in-conference. In November and December, USA lost by only three points to SEC foes Mississippi and Vanderbilt and beat Southern Miss from Conference USA and the SEC's Mississippi State. In other words, the Jaguars showed up for all of their games that year and were rewarded accordingly.

Last season, many thought the Portland Pilots were destined for the same kind of success. Though its West Coast Conference has often received more than one bid, the Pilots had never been a consistent contender for an at-large. Early on, Eric Reveno's squad had three straight wins against BCS opponents (Oregon, UCLA, and Minnesota). That streak gave the program a national ranking and much national attention, a consequence some have said distracted the team and led to losses in its next three games, squashing any early hopes of an at-large. From this example, we learn just how difficult it is for a mid-major program to sustain such a pattern, especially when the national attention comes creeping in. South Alabama had an advantage in this regard because the 07-08 upsets didn't come until the middle of December when the media was busy getting ready for big-time conference games to begin.

In 2010-11, many of the games where Oakland could make some noise are fittingly in mid-to-late December. The Golden Grizzlies will face Illinois, Michigan State, Tennessee, Michigan, and Ohio State in a 16-day span of time. Earlier, they'll also get West Virginia and Purdue as well as a few games with quality mid-major programs. While there are more marquee names on this schedule than South Alabama's in 07-08, it still sets up much like that one did. The teams are perhaps tougher for Oakland though, and given recent history, many won't give the Grizzlies a chance in these match-ups. However, if Coach Kampe can implement a gameplan that keeps these games close, people will start to notice. And if his team can pull out two to three victories (while taking care of business against lesser opponents), folks might start throwing the "at-large" word around.

Admittedly, the chances of Oakland receiving an at-large are small. So much has to go right. In addition to having the right mix of players, the team would need a bit of luck to knock off a few of the giants. Moreover, any mid-major from this level has very little room for error during the conference season, which means Oakland would have to try to come as close as possible to its 17-1 mark from 2009-10. Surely accomplishing such is no small feat. But as South Alabama showed us three seasons ago, it has happened. And there is no reason why it won't again.

If Coach Kampe were to put out a schedule more like those that UMKC and WIU have put together this year, Oakland would win a lot of games but have no shot at an at-large. In essence, at least this schedule gives Oakland a chance to achieve such glory. The drawbacks are that the team gets pummeled by the big programs, those fans laugh at Oakland, and Oakland fans are upset for a while at the team's performance. On the other hand, if the Grizzlies keep those games close or win one, two, or three of them, we are looking at a team that the pundits would talk about as a potential bubble team in March. It would be impossible for the selection committee to ignore the program's track-record, even when naysayers call The Summit League a lackluster conference. In essence, such a schedule is ammunition, if used properly.

I'm not saying that this year's roster is the one that will finally break through and win a couple of these marquee matches. In fact, going into those games as a fan with such expectations is probably a bit unhealthy. No, this is essentially a defense of Coach Kampe's scheduling philosophy. One day this process will pay off. It could be this year; after all, the team has a legitimate center and athleticism and experience at most of the other positions. Alternatively, there are a number of questions surrounding this roster still, so perhaps such results won't come so quick. Either way, I'll continue to hope for games against the Big Ten and Big East with a shot at national recognition and at-large consideration over a pack of winnable games against teams that won't do much for the program's profile*.

*Please note that this is not an advocation for a complete non-conference schedule against BCS teams. Going this route would result in a plethora of away games and no home games for the program to entertain and win over new fans. Every schedule is about balance, and home games in November and December are a part of that balance.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sick of playing all of these big name BCS schools in the non-conference schedule only to be humiliated nationally by 20-30 each game. Sure they help out RPI out a little, but playing crap summit schools in the 200s and 300s in RPI offset that RPI boost anyway. What if OU was to not play any of the BCS schools last year and finished 32-2 or you think they could have gotten a higher seed than 14? I think it's possible