#TGW: The Art of Scheduling

Sept. 11, 2014

By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word

If you’re looking for a meaty debate topic, here’s a question to ponder: Is building a college basketball schedule a form of art, or a matter of science?

It’s a tricky deal, and a case can be made for either school of thought.

Georgia Tech head coach Brian Gregory and the Yellow Jackets are more than two months away from their Nov. 14 season opener against Georgia, but he took time to talk about a process that can be confounding even for those who list scheduling as a primary part of their job descriptions.

“When you’re preparing your schedule, the ultimate objective is to create a schedule where you can win games and still have a solid strength of schedule and a solid RPI,” he said.

“You have to take a look at where you’re at as a program, and are you scheduling to win [a lot of] games or to play in the postseason? Those [can be] two different thought processes.”

Sometimes, these goals can work at cross purposes, and priorities may vacillate.

If the strength of schedule is super strong, and a program is not up to the tasks, its win-loss record will show it. If a program over-schedules easy wins, then RPI and SOS may suffer (not to mention attendance). That matters to the folks who pick NCAA Tournament fields in March.

Plus, enough variables can crop up in the process that luck may come into play as well. If Tech schedules an opponent while believing that team will be good, and instead that team is not, the RPI and strength of schedule will suffer no matter how much science or art was applied on the front end.

With a couple more wins last season, the Jackets (16-17) would have been a borderline candidate for a postseason tournament other than the NCAA. They hope to make more of themselves this season.

In chasing that goal with a roster that will include 10 players who are new to the program or sat out last season after transferring to Tech, Gregory, director of basketball operations Chris Jacobs and senior associate athletics director Ryan Bamford had their hands full building the Jackets’ 2014-’15 schedule.

The home slate is strong with visits from non-conference foes Georgia, Vanderbilt and Charlotte along with nine ACC games that will include Syracuse, Notre Dame, Louisville and North Carolina.

That would appear to give Tech a good start toward improving upon last season’s Realtime RPI of 157 and a SOS of 115.

Given that the Jackets play in such a strong conference, which is good for RPI and SOS, that means the non-conference schedule needs to be beefed up.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Tech has to schedule a murderer’s row.

The Jackets do need to avoid playing teams that have such low RPI and SOS numbers that even when the Jackets beat them their metrics drop or don’t move.

Maryland won one more game last season than Tech, going 17-15, yet finished with an RPI of 83 – considerably closer to NCAA tournament-worthy than Tech.

How did the Terrapins bump up their profile so much with just one more win (and two fewer losses)? Strength of schedule.

The Terps played the 23rd most difficult schedule among 351 Division I programs with just two opponents with an RPI of 222 or higher in Abilene Christian (343) and Florida Atlantic (271).

Tech played five opponents that finished with an RPI of 325 or higher, including a Presbyterian squad that lagged the entire field at 351.

The Jackets won all five of these games, but victories over Kennesaw State (325), Delaware State (332), North Carolina A&T (341), Mississippi Valley State (345) and Presbyterian did not bolster Tech’s RPI and SOS profiles.

Tech also beat East Tennessee State (196).

The ACC schedule takes care of itself, and Tech’s non-conference games against Georgia (RPI of 76 last season), Vanderbilt (122), Northwestern (126), Dayton (43) and Charlotte (151) all look solid – providing these teams do not implode.

The Jackets will also play three games in the Old Spice Classic, including  Marquette (89), in a field of quality teams.

So, the goal is to keep winning “buy games” or “guarantee games,” as Gregory calls them for sake of the fact that Tech pays those non-conference opponents to visit without a return away game, AND to beat better buy opponents.

“The most important games are those guarantee games when it comes to building a high-quality RPI because when you add those 18 (ACC) games to the four quality games to the three in the tournament, you’re at 25. Twenty five out of your 30 or 31 games are against high-quality opponents,” the coach said.

“The problem with those guarantee games is you have to play teams between 100-200; you don’t want 200 or above in the RPI.”

The Jackets have just four buy games this season in Alabama A&M, IPFW, USC Upstate and Appalachian State.

Last season’s RPI rankings are of modest use in looking at this season, but they’re just about all that exists before games are played. Here’s a look: Alabama A&M (275), IPFW (118), USC-Upstate (161) and Appalachian State (336).

Tech is counting on Alabama A&M and Appalachian State being better this season, although this is where some guesswork blew up last season.

Gregory and Jacobs did not schedule Presbyterian; that game was on the schedule as part of the deal that brought the Blue Hose football team to The Flats.

Also, the North Carolina A&T and Mississippi Valley State games were part of the four-game tournament that the Jackets finished with games against Ole Miss and St. John’s at the Barclays Center.

Tech chose the tournament, not the opponents.

“Do you play in a three-game tournament, like we’re doing in Orlando [in a field that includes Marquette, Michigan State, Kansas, Rider, Tennessee, Santa Clara and Xavier], or do you play in a four-game tournaments where you play two home games and then travel somewhat to play two good games,” Gregory said.

“Usually when you do that, the home games are against lesser opponents.”

A lot of work goes into picking the buy games, and Jacobs does much of the research. The vagaries of sport can come into play.

“That’s where we spend the most time analyzing [potential opponents] and who they have coming back, what their record was last year, any transfers, what’s the recruiting situation?” the coach explained. “Does that team have to play a lot of guarantee games so they’re going to start the year out 1-9 or something like that?

“Part of the equation is not only your opponents’ schedules, but your opponents’ opponents’ schedule . . . Why wasn’t our strength of schedule so good? It’s because some of the teams that we played. We had five of the 30 highest RPI teams in the country last year. That’s way too many.”

Gregory admits he and his staff missed their guesses last year on Delaware State and Kennesaw State, and got pinched by fate in that Presbyterian game.

“Nobody thought Kennesaw State was going to win just four games,” he said. “And I thought Presbyterian was going to be better; they damn near beat us the year before.”

Appalachian State looks like the weakest link on this season’s schedule, yet there was logic behind the decision to play that game.

It will be the Jackets’ first after fall semester exams. Gregory said, “Everybody always tells me you’ve got to play one of those games because of the way finals beat up guys.

“As we build it, we have scheduling meetings with Ryan to make sure that we’re on track to meet our objectives with the home schedule, balance of home and away. We usually get a budget of what we can spend on those [buy] games. Sometimes, you go over, and sometimes you get a great deal and go under.

“Buy games go between $75,000 and $90,000, some are over $100,000 – those teams that know they’re going to be good, and still have to get bought two or three times for the purposes of running their program. They can demand $100,000 to $125,000.”

When Gregory refers to staying on track and meeting objectives, that includes paying attention to the quality of the home schedule with fans in mind.

“Obviously, you want to have two or three of the non-conference opponents in here that are going to be high-quality opponents. You have Georgia every other year, and on the off years you’re going to have a Big Ten team in here,” he said.

It’s standard formula to count on Georgia and a Big Ten opponent each season – one home and one away – and then to try to schedule one more high-quality home opponent and one more high-quality road opponent.

This season, the Jackets have two such road games in Northwestern and Dayton (as a result of a clause in Gregory’s contract when he left the school as coach), and three such home games in Georgia, Vanderbilt and Charlotte.

That left less room for buy opponents this season.

“We played an extra road game last year [Georgia, Vanderbilt and Charlotte] to have a little better home schedule this year [with an eye toward Gregory’s first recruiting class being juniors],” the coach said.

“You don’t want to completely rely on the nine-game ACC home schedule. You definitely want a home schedule where you have 10 or 11 games that are high-quality opponents.”

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