Sunday, July 5, 2009

Reactions to the 2010 Big East Schedule

Looking Over the Mirror Games
A reader (thanks Deal) gave me a heads up that the Big East had released their schedule. The home/away portion may not change much, season over season, but the dynamic of team composition adds an element of uncertainty not found when rosters are more stable. Andy Katz over at ESPN penned a thoughtful reaction, as he focused on the mirror games for the top half (or so) of the conference. I decided to split the conference into thirds -- top (Cincinnati, Connecticut, Georgetown, Villanova & West Virginia), middle (Louisville, Marquette, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Seton Hall & Syracuse) and bottom (DePaul, Providence, Rutgers, St. John's & South Florida) to compare match ups with Katz's analysis. He nailed it -- Villanova had the most challenging match up. It seems as if the schedule maker was thinking along those lines too. The "average" SOS for the conference mirrors was 2.0 (middle), and the "distribution of difficulty" was surprising uniform -- eight teams had "average difficulty" mirrors (2.0), three (Connecticut, Notre Dame & West Virginia) were ranked immediately behind Villanova in the challenging half, three others (Marquette, Providence & St. John's) were ranked with less challenging mirrors, while DePaul (no surprise) was given the least challenging set of mirror opponents (Marquette, Rutgers & St. John's). As a quick reaction, Katz did a great job, but this line of analysis has two problems...

1. Will the assumptions hold?
Whenever I see mirror match ups I remember the 2006 Big East schedule. Villanova had mirrors with Connecticut, Louisville and Syracuse. It looked like a killer schedule, Connecticut, Louisville and Villanova were considered the co-favorites in the conference (and the schedule maker, dazzled by the possibility of ratings bonanzas for Connecticut-Louisville and Villanova-Louisville no doubt jumped at the prospect of pairing those three up), and Syracuse, with a brace of senior front court players, was ranked just outside of the three co-favorites. Villanova and Connecticut were evenly matched with the same set of mirror opponents, while Louisville, coming off of a Final Four season, drew Cincinnati (Huggins was under pressure to leave over that summer, Andy Kennedy became the interim coach in August) as their third mirror, and seemed in control. Two crucial injuries decimated the Cardinal front court going into the season, and while Villanova and Connecticut did deliver two great regular season games, Louisville staggered through the front end of their schedule and going into late February found themselves on the BET bubble. Assumptions can be murder on fan expectations.

What happens if Stephenson does not make it through the Clearing house (or the inevitable NCAA investigation into his family's finances)? No question the Bearcats will be good, but not bye bid good. Or the Hoyas continue to be confounded with personnel problems? Coach Thompson's offensive system will reap points, but they may struggle to reach .500 (and any post season beyond the BET). Or Seton Hall's transfer trio blend seamlessly with Coach Gonzalez's system? Should those assumptions play out, then West Virginia draws the most challenging schedule, while the Wildcats, Huskies and Panthers follow just behind. DePaul still draws light duty (will it help them get off the schneid this coming season?), and South Florida draws a slightly easier set of opponents.

When contemplating assumptions, consider that...
1. Connecticut, Louisville, Marquette and Villanova (and Seton Hall & South Florida) have all struggled with season-altering injuries at some point in the past 4 seasons.
2. Connecticut, Georgetown, Louisville, Notre Dame, Syracuse and West Virginia have lost starters and/or crucial role players for non-injury reasons (off court conduct, academics, team rules, etc.).
3. Connecticut, Georgetown, Louisville, St. John's, South Florida, Seton Hall, Villanova and West Virginia have lost multiple players through transfer from 2006-2009. While South Florida's and West Virginia's transfers are connected with recent coaching changes, transfers at Georgetown and St. John's continued after the coaching staff "settled in".

2. What About the Home/Road Mix?
Looking over Notre Dame's schedule and results during the Mike Brey era, I would much rather host the Irish (in Philadelphia) than face them in the Joyce Center. When Notre Dame lost to St. John's early last January, some might have seen it as a harbinger of things to come, but many shrugged it off as a random (if not careless) road loss that might, at worst, cost Notre Dame a favorable seed in the NCAAs. When I looked at each school's entire schedule, considering all games and where they are to be played, I decided to use the Pythagorean winning percentage with the offensive/defensive efficiencies (as described by Ken Pomeroy as he explained his ratings system) to see if the (universally acknowledged) unbalanced schedules would clearly advantage one or more of the top contenders. I averaged each team's Pythagorean winning percentage for Big East home and road games for the past two seasons, then averaged that percentage for each team's home slate and road slate. Each team's home and road SOS...

Notre Dame0.34870.5984
Seton Hall0.39860.5837
South Florida0.35620.6720
St. John's0.41860.6131
West Virginia0.43700.5475

I would expect that a contender, knowing they would have to face every non-mirror opponent once, would prefer to get the toughest match ups at home and the easiest match ups on the road. Looking over the SOSs, it would appear that Syracuse gets a slight advantage in the scheduling for home games. The Orange will host Connecticut, Pittsburgh and Villanova without having to return the favor. The Connecticut game in particular should be interesting as it will be the only time the two will have met after their classic 6 overtime BET quarterfinal game (Syracuse won by 10). Providence hosts Connecticut, Georgetown, Louisville and West Virginia in non-mirror match ups, at this point that appears to be a huge scheduling bonus, but with their relatively inexperienced team next season, will Coach Keno Davis will be able to take advantage of the opportunity? The Mountaineers may have a slightly more favorable home draw than Villanova by virtue of their hosting Louisville, Syracuse and a possibly resurgent Georgetown (not to mention Cincinnati) without the obligation to return the date (until the 2011 season). Villanova by contrast drew non-return dates with Connecticut and a possibly more-difficult-than-normal Seton Hall. Hosting Notre Dame in a non-mirror game is more addition by subtraction -- the Joyce Center can be very hostile.

For road slates, it appears that among contenders Georgetown and Villanova have more worries than West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Louisville and Cincinnati. The Hoyas will have to see Louisville, Pittsburgh and West Virginia without benefit of a return engagement. For the Wildcats, the road to the 2010 BET will travel through Cincinnati, Louisville, Pittsburgh (the Peterson Center has been very tough for the 'Cats) and Syracuse (though the Carrier Dome has not been especially hostile to the Wildcats of late).

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