Sunday, July 18, 2010

Reacting to the Big East 2011 Match ups

Scheduling A 16 Team Conference
The first few years of the mega-conference newspapers from Providence to Washington (and Milwaukee) were chock-a-block with stories of the trials and tribulations of scheduling 16 teams. The stories have thinned out with most posting recap/report type pieces, much like Dana O'Neil's ESPN article from last June, but Jack Bogaczyk over at the Charleston Daily Mail was kind enough to pen a an extended refresher piece on the inputs and the process followed to develop the match ups announced at the end of June this year. Bogaczyk identifies the process as two steps, the schedule maker first develops the paired opponents (or mirror games/home-away match ups, etc.) and then determines the home and away opponents. Conference members review this draft version and after comment and correspondence, the conference reworks and releases the final version of match-ups usually in the first week of July (conference realignment buzz, along with a conference meeting at the end of June may have accelerated this timetable in 2010). Those sources the office draws on for information as they draft the match-ups...

1. An Early Pre-season Coaches Poll, Plus
I always wonder how sincerely the Media Day coaches poll reflect those coach's true opinions. It seems to me there is usually a bit of gaming going on. Bogaczyk reports that in addition to the 16 conference head coaches, the scheduling office also polls six or more staffers for additional perspective on how the 16 teams should be ranked. The objective is well understood -- the mirrors should provide a balanced set of opponents for each team. Bogaczyk also reported that the office developed a five tier model for the conference (all the more unusual because the Big East scheduling officer's five tier model did not as would be assumed, cluster three teams in each tier), not the usual three tier (five teams clustered in each tier) model used in the past few off seasons. Four new-to-the-conference head coaches, an unprecedented number, will whistle in the fall 2010 practice. A 25% turnover of first chairs has to create some uncertainty. Combine that turnover with over 19 outbound transfers (which does not include those 3-4 who left just weeks before the school year began last September), the largest that I can remember since the expansion, along with the more normal number of NBA early departures (seven this past June), an argument for less than usual (for the past five years anyway) certainty can easily be made. I averaged last season's Pythagorean Winning Percentage (from conference games only) for each team's mirror opponents, and developed the following profiles for each team's mirror opponents...

2010 SeasonReturning
Notre Dame0.51910.00.6332
Seton Hall0.5396.70.5572
South Florida0.36711.00.6702
St. John's0.5298.70.6253
West Virginia0.4668.00.6832

The average of returning minutes provides a rough suggestion as to the degree of change the team might expect. The conference-wide average for returning minutes is 61.1%, higher than the returning minutes going into the 2010 season. Looking at the PWP alone, it appears that Cincinnati's Mick Cronin might have a mole in the Big East front office. Balance that relatively low PWP, however, with an 80%+ rate of returning minutes (Norm Roberts did not leave a bare cupboard in Queens) and only a single veteran Big East head coach (no doubt the "equal and opposite reaction" of the low PWP...). Losing both Lance Stephenson and Deonta Vaughn, All-Big East players both, and maybe drawing DePaul, St. John's in addition to Georgetown, is not such an huge advantage after all. The stern tests for Connecticut and Pittsburgh suggested by their mirrors may be in part an allusion. The much lower than average (average of) returning minutes suggests neither team will have to deal with the squads that compiled those PWPs.

2. Rivalries, Geography & Location Considerations
The Backyard Brawl is one of the conference's oldest (and most intense) rivalries, which explains why Pittsburgh and West Virginia have been paired for the fifth consecutive season. Unlike the Atlantic 10 Conference, which allows every member to "protect" one other conference member (for mirror purposes), the Big East fosters these traditional rivalries "off the books". So it should be no surprise that Rutgers and Seton Hall will again conduct their annual "Battle of New Jersey" as a home-away engagement, or that Georgetown and Syracuse, two schools whose fan-base relations are (to phrase it charitably) acrimonious, are also paired for the fourth consecutive season. Taking all of the factors into account it appears that both Syracuse and Villanova were handed very tough mirror assignments, accounted for in part because they were matched with each other. I doubt, however, that either squad (or coaching staff for that matter) objected too strenuously to the pairing.

3. TV Considerations
With an abundance of name programs available, every conference member has more than two or three marquee matches to draw fans. St. John's fan-base has been ready for a change since 2009. The Johnnies have played before a packed Garden even when the program struggled, but if the Red Storm can inaugurate the Steve Lavin Era with a series of wins, find themselves playing in the center of New York City's basketball universe filled with rabid fans cheering for them, rather than the visitors. Which would be very handy when they host Connecticut, Pittsburgh and Syracuse. Marquette will host traditional rivals DePaul & Cincinnati, along with Notre Dame and Connecticut. Seton Hall will host rivals Villanova and St. John's, along with (always good draws) Connecticut and Georgetown. Something for everybody, especially the networks, it seems. The Lesson of 2005, an over ambitious "made for TV" triple pairing of expected conference leaders Connecticut, Louisville and Villanova, has been learned. And not repeated.

4. Home/Road Opportunities
I compiled the Pythagorean Winning Percentage for each conference member's road and home games (conference games only) and took an average to develop an idea on the strength of the home and away slates. I excluded the mirror games since I had assembled them separately. the non-mirror segments of the home and road slates should indicate how well Big East Director of Basketball Operations Shawn Murphy's, scheduling software (re?)balanced the home and road slates...

Home Away
Notre Dame0.3670.6550.5740.590
Seton Hall0.3880.6250.6280.609
St. John's0.3270.6030.6830.566
South Florida0.5440.5780.5320.647
West Virginia0.3270.5660.6570.631

If one is looking for balance, it appears that for South Florida, the home (highest PWP in the conference, below average returning minutes) and road (#13 in conference, but very high returning minutes) combination does indeed balance a less competitive (Pitt excepted) set of mirror opponents (DePaul, Pittsburgh and Providence). Seton Hall's mirrors (#4 in PWP) is balanced with less strenuous home (ranked #9 with average returning minutes) and road (#8 with below average returning minutes). Villanova's home/road slate appears suited to the Wildcats' situation and ambitions. The home slate is one of the most competitive in the conference, ranked #3 in PWP with an above average (average of) returning minutes. The Wildcats will host Georgetown, West Virginia, Louisville, Marquette and a St. John's squad that returns nearly 90% of their minutes without having to return the favor. Their road slate by contrast is ranked #15 in PWP, with a less than average (average of) returning minutes. Villanova has road (only) dates with Connecticut, Notre Dame and Seton Hall among others. The Huskies and Fighting Irish however, return less than 50% of their mintues (and points, etc.), while the Pirates do (Herb Pope recovered) return over 70% of their minutes they have a rookie head coach who will be making his first rounds in the conference. The Big East can be very unfriendly to mid-major coaches.

Timing is Everything
Who is on the schedule and where the games will be played (home/road) are two of the elements for any analysis. When (and in what sequence), to be announced at a later date (most likely the beginning of September) are the last elements for consideration. Villanova drew Marquette as a mirror opponent in 2010, and played (and won) both games in the first two weeks of the season. Marquette, having lost the program's three most dynamic guard/wings, was still integrating Darius Johnson-Odom and Dwight Buycks into the rotation. They were a far stronger team at the end of February than they were in the beginning of January, and defeated Villanova in the quarter-finals at Madison Square Garden in the beginning of March.

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