University of Miami assistant coach Eric Konkol will be the first to tell you that it's not an exact science, and that the NCAA selection committee looks at a mountain of information to determine tournament participation and seeding. With more teams, games, data and at-large bids than ever before, there is no guarantee that a team's projected profile will come to pass in March, or that the selection committee will view it the same way that a coaching staff does when they make the schedule, sometimes years in advance. The old practice of scheduling has gone by the wayside, replaced by a hybrid of science, mathematics, art, and maybe even a little bit of psychic fortunetelling.
Konkol, the chief scheduler for the team, does his best to treat it as science - to continue to schedule and refine a formula that will have the year's version of the team looking attractive to the decision-makers come March. While many different factors go into scheduling, and fanbases or television producers may clamor for "sexy" matchups, for Miami, it all comes down to numbers. Konkol was kind enough to take his head out of his vastly detailed spreadsheets and offer us some insight as to the team's scheduling philosophy.
"We don't really use the terms mid-major, low-major, high-major, we use numbers", Konkol explains. "We use top 100, 100 to 200, or 200 and above."
He is referring to the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) by which teams are ranked based on a formula that considers a team's own winning percentage (50 percent), as well as its opponents winning percentage (25 percent) and its opponents' opponents winning percentage (25 percent). There are over 300 Division I teams that are ranked in the RPI. The selection committee looks beyond records to determine how teams have done against elite opponents, how inflated their record might be, and the overall quality of their opponents and their wins in order to select at-large bids for the tournament.
Knowing what the selection committee is looking for, how does it all come about?
"I have a spreadsheet that's basically just called our Macro Plan, where we're looking at all of our contracts, how they impact each year," Konkol responds. "You have 29 regular-season games you can play," he continues, "or you can play 27 regular -season games, plus an exempt event, which can be up to four games, so you can play a maximum of 31 games."
These events are typically single elimination tournaments at a neutral site, and for Miami, they form the backbone for any year's schedule.
"We want to play in an exempt event every year," Konkol says. Pointing out that the staff was unable to find a replacement for a canceled event in their first year, Konkol indicated that Miami is currently in the second year of a five-year contract with ESPN to play in their tournaments, the first being last year's Diamondhead Classic. "We know they are stable, we've been in them before and they're first class events, and we had those dates locked in and we could build the rest of our schedule around it, and do it years in advance without worrying what exempt event we're going to be in."
"We feel like playing in those events, on the road or neutral site, it mimics the NCAA tournament. You'll play back to back nights," Konkol says. "We know we're going to get some pretty quality teams," plus he adds, that "it's also a great bonding experience" for the team.
Miami plays in the Wooden Legacy in Anaheim this year, starting on Thanksgiving afternoon against George Washington. A potential second-round revenge matchup against Sweet 16 opponent Marquette looms, with Creighton and San Diego State most likely to come out of the other side of the bracket. The remaining three years of the contract will see Miami play in Charleston, Puerto Rico, and Orlando.
According to Konkol, scheduling is still not a one-year process, even beyond the exempt tournaments. "I have charts all the way out to '16-'17, " he notes, "but other than our exempt events and the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, we don't have any games locked in there." Konkol plans for Miami to be a participant in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge each year, as only one ACC team will be excluded in the future due to an imbalance in conference numbers. The Hurricanes play on the road against Nebraska, and plan to play a home game next year against an unknown opponent.
Beyond these made-for-TV contracts and the conference schedule, schools are independent in scheduling other match-ups, though their television partners might suggest a high-visibility match-up against a like team. Typically, schools will pay to bring in lower-rated foes (called "guarantee" games) on a one-year basis, as well as reaching deals for home-and-home series against similar opponents, or "2-for-1" series where the power conference team visits the smaller school once. As Miami plays road games at Savannah State and College of Charleston this year, it might be fair to assume those teams will be back in Coral Gables as soon as next year.
When looking at potential partners, there are a wide variety of factors that come into play. But it all comes back to the numbers. In addition to the RPI, Miami has its own proprietary formulas to look at strength of schedule in a way that they believe has the most impact on their own profile come March.
"We feel there is a number you want to reach, a number of top 100 games and not play anyone 200 or above," Konkol says. "Let's try to schedule like you're not going to play any, but know that you're probably going to play two, and that's okay, out of 30 games."
Konkol and the rest of the staff typically review data, looking at three- and five-year averages and trends amongst potential opponents. In addition to previous scheduling, the staff considers what the proposed opponents might bring to the table during that particular season - returning players and newcomers, the overall strength of that team's conference, and the like. They want to play true road games, but not play in a "small bandbox" - if not playing a similar opponent, they'd prefer to play them at an off-campus site that may have some historical or eye-catching prestige, citing Madison Square Garden or the Barclays Center in New York as examples.
The team also gives considerations to matchup styles, if possible - the game last year against Florida Gulf Coast, a carryover contract from the previous staff, was a challenging contrast between the upstart's "Dunk City" style and Miami's beefy interior. Most importantly, the team wants to be challenged in its schedule.
"Coach L has always believed in playing good teams," Konkol says. "He doesn't like to play games that you're just supposed to win by a landslide, and we know when some people look at our schedule they may think that. He knows that's not the case. We can sit in front of our team in our preparation and say ‘Hey, this team went 16-2 in their league last year, and they've got almost everybody back.'
Konkol tells us that while fans may not see the marquee matchups on this year's schedule, the team would rather play a consistent schedule than pinning its entire profile on one or two elite games that may not have as much impact as was predicted months or even years in advance. He knows the data inside and out, and can easily point to several bubble teams that had weak non-conference schedules, and were hurt by it on Selection Sunday.
"They've got very little margin for error," playing that sort of schedule, he says. According to Konkol, if their strength of schedule number was "cut in half, those teams might have made the tournament."
The staff may also try and schedule near a player's hometown, or in an area where they would like to recruit more. Konkol points to this year's Savannah State road game, which serves as a homecoming for senior guard Rion Brown, who grew up just 15 minutes away."It's a cherry on top if you can make it happen," Konkol explains. "It's a nice thing to say in recruiting that we're going to try and play near your home." A game near basketball hotbeds such as New York, Washington, DC, or Atlanta also helps increase visibility for the program and amongst potential high-priority recruits.
But, he cautions, "The bottom line is, some of these games, you can't get everything." And above all, the team prioritizes the numbers.
With all of that said, what about this year's schedule?
The school is in the process of announcing non-conference games, and Konkol feels that the numbers work out in favor of the Hurricanes.
"The non-conference schedule we're about to play, if we played them last year, and you assume that we play Marquette and San Diego State (in Anaheim) would be the 30th strongest schedule in the country," according to Konkol. La Salle, a Sweet 16 team last year, is the strongest team that Miami is guaranteed to play when they visit the Hurricanes on December 22.
Konkol calculates that, conservatively, "unless something happens to some of these teams like some major injuries, we anticipate having a top 100 non-conference schedule." He says that should be good enough for fourth- or fifth-best in the ACC based on how other teams traditionally schedule.
Konkol realizes that with tough mid-majors and low-major contenders, the schedule is not as "sexy" as last year's that featured Michigan State and UMass, as well as a matchup with top ten Arizona in Hawaii. He admits that is somewhat by design.
"It's impossible to know how we're really going to be," Konkol says. "We've got nine new players, and two of them may not play (transfers Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan). We've got a lot of figuring out to do, but we're still going to be challenged in the non-conference. These are some good teams coming in here that are used to winning."
Konkol explains that, "we want to give them great challenges against teams that are used to winning, and we know that if we play well in those games and if we can continue to improve and get hot in conference play," anything can happen.
Again, he emphasizes looking at the numbers rather than the name on the front of the jersey.
"Last year, I had guys come in my office who were upset, they were concerned that I didn't think we'd be very good based on our schedule," Konkol notes. "We expected to have a top 20 schedule," though he admits that even he was surprised it worked out favorably to be rated as high as fifth in the country.
So, Canes fans, even if names like Savannah State and Texas Southern don't excite you, know that excitement is not the only reason to schedule a game. The Canes will be challenged in the non-conference, will play elite conference foes like Syracuse (twice), Duke, and North Carolina. Konkol thinks that the team will deliver an exciting product and the staff hopes fans will continue to provide such strong support as they did last year. "Only four of these teams had losing records, and only two of them had RPIs more than 200 last year," Konkol says. Fans are "going to be surprised at the end of the year with the strength of the schedule." Hopefully, the NCAA Tournament selection committee will be surprised as well when they place the Hurricanes somewhere in the bracket next March.