State of the UConn
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 conference in college basketball but rather, the American Athletic Conference. A conference reminiscent of 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. ESPN College GameDay is no longer with Syracuse, but SMU. And finally, after much research, I can officially confirm the win over Tulane will count towards our conference record, not exhibition.Yes, the outlook sure seems bleak at times and I am reminded by every AAC-Google-search-autocorrected-to-ACC of what could have been. But, does conference realignment alone mean Connecticut is no longer home to the college basketball capital of the world? Absolutely Not.
Tonight, we turn the page.
This weekend’s blowout loss to SMU albeit disheartening was by no means disqualifying. As with any season, the ultimate goal is and still remains 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. Success that will translate from year to year, keeping in mind our position in a new conference.
Schedule for an at-large, play for an automatic
March Madness can be achieved in one of two ways- an automatic bid (win the conference tournament) or an at-large bid (selected by NCAA committee based on performance). At-large bids 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 1(best)-351(worst). Click here to see 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 SATs and college admission, if a strong RPI doesn’t get you in, it at least gets you looked at.
The eccentrically formed American Athletic Conference simply cannot compete with the strong numbers posted by powerhouse programs in the former Big East. Numbers that are highly scrutinized by the selection committee, and, will ultimately decide a team’s postseason fate. In contrast to the 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 2011 Big East is far superior to the 2014/15 AAC, WCC, and MVC.
|Big E. 2010/11
*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 float us into the tournament when we were on the bubble. The Big East Conference had the #1 overall RPI out of all D1 Conferences, including a ridiculous 10 teams in the top 50 (above). Given the ultra-competitiveness of the Big East, each week provided an opportunity to boost RPI, or, recover from a RPI-crushing loss. The last week of Big East conference play in 2011 saw UConn win at Cincinnati (31) then lose at West Virginia (16) and 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 at 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 Big East was supremely competitive but it also provided opportunity to control fate with your play. Glancing at the chart below, Big East members played on average 10 games against RPI top 1-25 teams in 2011. That is 10 opportunities to prove yourself against an elite team, 10 opportunities to demonstrate growth over the course of a season. Opportunities that simply do not exist in the AAC, WCC, and MVC.
|Big East 2011
*Louisville removed for accuracy
For further comparison, 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 it allows Doug Gottlieb to do this:
In any case, the days of mourning the Big East are over. A new era is underway and we must not be shortsighted. How do we 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 our Huskies. Also, note the 12/13 Wichita State and 11/12 Gonzaga profiles from years they did not win the conference tournament, but earned an at-large bid. These are the numbers that got them in the big dance.
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 head-turning. We desperately need to schedule quality non-conference games, and lots of them. Even 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 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 need 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 one word so evil it can drop a slipper straight off a cinderella’s foot…
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 this weekend…
…until you realize we are in the same conference…
…which brings me back to this year. Schedule for the at-large bid…
…play for the automatic.
Maybe the American isn’t so bad after all. One HUGE advantage to playing in a weak conference? The conference tournament aka the automatic bid. Realistically, no matter how 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 (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 last week’s match-up with Tulsa. 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.
Update: 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, we need to emphasize this advantage with a sea of blue and white. I saw what it 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 power of the Big East, but in a cloud of doubt cast upon by a weak conference. Gonzaga, currently sits 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.
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.
Let’s continue this new era, and let’s start with this season.
Thank you, God bless you, and God bless UConn Country.