One of the following is not true about the Pac-12’s new nonconference scheduling standards:
* The process took almost four years to complete.
* The head coaches were strongly in favor of tougher schedules.
* The change will solve all of the conference’s problems.
All three nuggets might be cause for pause, but the correct answer involves the nonsolution:
The recovery process for men’s basketball starts on campus — with sound recruiting and effective coaching, with smart hires and investment in resources — not with conference policy.
The new scheduling standards and the move to a 20-game conference rotation are vital complementary pieces.
“It should not be perceived as a magic pill,’’ said Pac-12 deputy commissioner Jamie Zaninovich, who ran point on the adoption of the standards.
“This is one part of the ecosystem. It’s one component of a strategic plan to get men’s basketball to the point that it’s having consistent success.”
The origins of that strategic plan can be traced back to the fall of 2015 …
Before the conference sent three teams to the Sweet 16 and one to the Final Four (2017) …
Before it produced an 0-3 tournament record, the worst performance ever by a major conference (2018) …
Before the Pac-12 became engulfed in a wave of negativity and defeat (2019) so powerful that the head coaches realized their survival instincts — the notion that soft schedules equal more wins, and more wins equal continued employment — were leading the conference astray.
“The coaches looked at which teams were getting in (the NCAAs) and what their profiles were, and they realized you have to challenge yourself,’’ said Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir, the chair of the tournament selection committee.
“We’re all cognizant of the number of teams other conferences are putting in the tournament, and we want to increase (the Pac-12’s) numbers.”
The research process initially focused on data:
The conference sought advice from specialists in college basketball analytics; it examined schedule models in other conferences; and it focused on the core relationship between nonconference performance and NCAA tournament berths.
Success on Selection Sunday, after all, is defined by quantity and quality:
The more teams in the field, and the higher the seeds, the better for everyone in the conference — including the programs that aren’t invited.
Two decades of data produced an unmistakable correlation:
Major conferences that won 75 percent of their nonconference games were exceedingly likely to send at least half their teams to the NCAA tournament.
“We realized we needed to get to 75 percent as a group,’’ Zaninovich said. “But not everybody can play the same schedule. A team that’s rebuilding can’t play the same schedule as a team that’s returning five starters.”
The conference spent two years consulting with coaches and athletic directors from every school about the best path to achieving the magic 75 percent figure.
Geographic and financial considerations were central to the calculation:
How realistic would it be to schedule the right mix of opponents given that the pool of midlevel programs tilts heavily to the eastern half of the country?
Would Pac-12 programs be better able to win 75 percent of their nonconference games when playing 13 … or 11?
The 11-game model was deemed the easier path. To make that work, two conference games had to be added.
Fortunately, the Pac-12 had a peer group to study. The Big Ten switched to the 20-game conference rotation for the 2018-19 season, leading to fewer cupcakes (the so-called ‘buy games’) on the nonconference schedule.
The result: It sent eight teams to the NCAAs this spring, a conference record.
“There have been teams that racked up wins against Quadrant 4 teams (the lowest level) but didn’t have enough good wins to get into the tournament,’’ said Muir, who spent five years on the selection committee.
“One of the questions we ask is, ‘What did you do when you had control of your schedule?’ (The nonconference portion.) Teams get left out because they didn’t challenge themselves enough.”
The implementation of nonconference standards and the jump to a 20-game league schedule moved on parallel tracks through the Pac-12’s research and scrubbing process.
It became clear to the coaches and athletic directors that opponents with power ratings in the 300s served no purpose — unless a program was undergoing a full rebuild — and that road games against opponents in the 200s were lose-lose propositions: No credit came with victory, and resume stain accompanied defeat.
The end result was the set of standards unveiled earlier this week:
* A nonconference five-year trailing average of opponents’ NET ranking (or Pomeroy rating) must be 175 or less,
* No participation in road buy games (i.e. cash grabs against Power Five blue bloods)
* No regular season games against non-Division I opponents and
* No road games versus a nonconference opponent with a five-year trailing average of 200 NET.
The standards will be applied to the 2020-21 season, when the 20-game conference schedule takes hold, but full implementation will require more time because opponents that don’t meet the criteria have already been scheduled.
Formal approval by the presidents and chancellors gave the conference office the necessary enforcement mechanism.
“There are specific consequences for schools that don’t hit the standards,” Zaninovich said.
The greatest challenge to establishing an ideal lineup for each program, and giving the collective a chance to reach the magic winning percentage, will come from within:
Because of the timing of the NBA draft process and the increase in transfers, coaches might not have a full grasp of their roster — and the appropriate nonconference schedule — until mid-or late spring.
That could lead to a smaller pool of available opponents in the NET sweet spot (No. 150-200), bringing the potential for prices to climb.
“It’s going to put some pressure on us to find games,” Muir said. With a nod to the potential for escalating costs, he added: “We’re going to have to work on our guarantees.”
Those budget ramifications were yet another reason the presidents and chancellors needed to sign off.
But like the coaches and athletic directors, they were able to spot the long-term benefits of schedule standards:
More tournament berths and higher seeds will, in theory, lead to an upturn in victories and more cash on the back end through the annual distribution of millions of dollars in NCAA units.
Said Zaninovich: “There are very few revenue streams out there with upside.”