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Unbalanced Conference Schedules And Why The Mythical "Regular Season Title" Is A Farce

March 5, 2010
Ever since the death of the round robin conference basketball schedule, it’s become more difficult to objectively look at conference win/loss records to determine which teams are best in the league.

The win/loss column is no doubt a good place to start–no one would argue that State is a better team than Duke, for example, despite the Pack winning the lone head-to-head meeting. But since each team plays more teams only once (6) than it does twice (5), it can lead to some misleading perceptions when looking at the standings.

This post is an attempt to give a clearer picture of which teams have faced tougher competition within the conference this season. Since the validity of the win/loss records are in question, I’m looking at RPI numbers to determine the strength of each team. To come up with a strength rating for each team, I took the total number of Division 1 teams – Team X’s RPI, then divided that number by the lowest team’s rating to serve as the baseline.

For example, Virginia has the lowest RPI (currently) of 122. Subtracting that from the total number of Div. 1 teams gives us 347-122=225. The divisor for all the team ratings therefore becomes 225. Virgina’s strength rating becomes 1 (225/225), and Duke’s becomes 1.528 ((347-3)/225).

The next step is to add up all of the combined strength ratings of the teams on a particular schedule. But since away games are typically more difficult than home games, I borrowed the RPI’s convention of multiplying home game values by .6 and away game values by 1.4.

So, a team’s schedule strength rating becomes: ((Sum of team ratings for home games)*.6) + ((Sum of team ratings for away games)*1.4)

Make sense? Me either. In any event, here’s the chart:

What we see:

  • Virginia Tech has played the weakest schedule this year of any team in the league. In addition to a crappy non-con schedule, they can’t even lean on their in-conference body of work to impress the Tournament Selection Committee.
  • Carolina has played the toughest in-conference schedule due mostly to home-and-aways with Duke, Georgia Tech and Wake, and their lone matchup against 2nd-place Maryland was away.
  • Clemson’s 9-6 conference mark looks disappointing on the surface, but they’ve played the 2nd-toughest conference schedule of any team: two games each against the 1st, 2nd and 4th teams in the standings.
  • Being the worst team in the league (in terms of RPI) doesn’t guarantee you faced one of the tougher conference schedules. Virginia, despite having a conference schedule entirely full of teams with better RPIs, still wound up with a weak 7th-place schedule rating.

The bigger implication that comes with comparing schedule strength is that it makes it easier to debunk the notion of a “Regular Season Champion.” That term gets thrown around so much these days, carelessly, by members of the media and coaches alike. Coaches love any excuse to hang a banner, and the media–for some reason–seems to have a beef with conference tournaments determining the league champion.

This, I don’t understand, precisely BECAUSE of the imbalanced schedules. If the round robin format were still in place today, I could stomach the notion of a regular season champion more easily. But because some teams play far more difficult schedules than others, how can we legitimately crown any team “regular season champ?”

Case in point: Virginia, 2007. They finished tied with Carolina in the conference standings, despite playing a weaker conference schedule. Were they legit “regular season champions,” along with the Tar Heels? I don’t buy it. I’m sure they hung a banner in John Paul Jones, but as far as I’m concerned, it carries far less weight than what the Tar Heels accomplished that season.

So why debate? Let the conference determine its champion like it ALWAYS has–on the court, in a conference tournament. Finishing first in the regular season awards you one prize and one prize only: top seed in the tourney.

Just like Everett Case wanted.

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