Saturday, December 25, 2010

Big East Road Warriors and Home Bodies

Carrots & Sticks
Maybe it is just me, but the past 2-3 seasons have seen more Big East teams abandon the cozy comforts of home court and take to the road early and often in their out of conference portion of the season. While the days of guaranteed games are hardly behind us (below the Red Line conferences and teams still need to balance budgets & above the Red Line programs crave cupcakes), a judicious application of carrots and sticks has I believe, altered the historic tendency for above the Red Line teams to open the season with a 10+ game home stand.

One Big Stick
The NCAA Selection Committee has not been reticent about snubbing homebodies in the past four Selection Sundays. They have made very public examples of high profile programs like Syracuse and Florida State, in each case citing extended home stands and/or weak out of conference (OOC) schedules as the factor that negated a decent-to-good conference (and overall) record or a solid close on the season. Coach Jim Boeheim grumbled and hinted at a conference breakup in the 2008 post season, but took his team out of the Carrier Dome for several games the following season. Program critics may wonder aloud if New York City is really "the road" for the Orange, but Syracuse has passed on several 200k play dates at the Dome every season since.

Most of These Carrots Are Green
Back in 2004 the NCAA reworked the RPI calculation to give a road win at 1.4 of a win and a road loss at 0.6 of a loss. Home win/losses are also adjusted accordingly. Ken Pomeroy ran a scathing review of the formula (despite his early disclaimer...) about a year before he decided the RPI was a useless instrument for what he wanted anyway. Pomeroy may have moved on, but the formula remains, and continues to give a bump for an on-your-opponent's-homecourt win (and hand the home team a whopping penalty for dropping a home court game also...).
TV money has a way of persuading the NCAA to do lots of things, both good and evil. Just ask the BCS bowl committees. CBS convinced the NCAA to open up their post season basketball tournament to spectacular results (both on the court and in the wallet). ESPN has underwritten most of the above the Red Line conference challenges, which entice BCS conference teams out of their home arenas and onto neutral courts to play the kind of power conference opponent they usually shun for OOC play.
ESPN and other media organizations (like the Gazelle Group) have also underwritten early season invitational tournaments, the D1 equivalent of a high school mixer. Though the tournaments have a variety of formats, one of the common features is out of conference match ups on neutral courts, and again format-dependent, a few below the Red Line teams thrown in for good measure.

Looking at the Big East teams and their schedules through December 23, it is clear some teams have embraced the spirit of the NCAA directive, while others have read the fine print carefully. And still others apparantly did not get the memo...

West Virginia420.667820.8000.600
Seton Hall240.333650.5450.545
St. John's320.600730.7000.500
South Florida150.167670.4620.462
Notre Dame310.7501110.9170.333

The table above gives the discussion some perspective. Note the data is sorted by percentage of the team's schedule played outside of their home arena. Ken Pomeroy's Team pages (and his judgement) is the arbiter on whether the venue is a home, neutral or away site. I count any game played at a venue other than the team's "home venue", normally (but not always) a facility located on the school's campus, or in a nearby town where the team commutes to play virtually their entire "home" schedule. Pomeroy dices a bit more finely than the generally recognized "Home", "Neutral" and "Away" categories as he can also identify a game as "semi-home" and "semi-away", identified in his game plan pages with a lower case "h" or "a" (depending on the designation). I have lumped anything not "H" as "not at home", and count it in the tabulations above and below.

On The Road...
Conference-wide, the average percentage of "not at home" games through 12/23 is 36.5%, or between four and five games, depending on the number of games played. Seven teams are at or above that average. Most readers can probably guess three-to-five of the teams who fall below the average...the usual suspects.
...The Warriors
West Virginia has taken 60% of their schedule outside of Morgantown so far, an inspiration to homebodies everywhere. Beyond the usual three game invitational tournament (the Puerto Rico Tip-Off this season -- they lost in the Championship game to Minnesota) and a traditional rivalry game with Duquesne, scheduled for Pittsburgh this season, the Mountaineers added a road game with Miami (FLA), and a game with VMI in Charlestown, WV (guarantee game or a home-n-sort of home?). Their last two OOC games will be on a neutral court and at home, so the move away from the Coliseum this season was deliberate. Given the difficulties Coach Huggins has had away from home in past seasons, is it possible he decided to get his squad aclimated to life on the road?
Georgetown's schedule is in most respects even more impressive than West Virginia's. The Hoyas packed an invitational tournament (the Charleston Classic -- the Hoyas swept), along with return dates Old Dominion and Temple, both in hostile areans. Add the away game with Memphis, and GTown put together an OOC schedule that Pomeroy ranks #25. Coach John Thompson III's squad will start conference play next week, and a title-challenging run should net Georgetown a #3 seed at least (given).
Villanova plays in the Big 5, so the Wildcats are, with three off site invitational games and two Big 5 road games, will almost always have an OOC schedule with a 35%-40% "not at home" component. Villanova's invitational this season was the NIT Tip-Off -- they lost to Tennessee in the Championship -- which, coupled with their two Big 5 away games and a run down the (Jersey) shore to Monmouth produced a 45.5% "out of the home arena" mix. Had Monmouth been ranked #103 instead of #303 by Pomeroy this would have been a solid OOC schedule and probably ranked in the mid-low hundred, rather than #207. Taking three games in hostile environs yields a higher RPI than taking those same three opponents at home. If Villanova meets preseason expectations and takes the Big East regular season title, few (and that includes the Selection Committee) will remember this stretch of the Wildcats' OOC was a bit light. Villanova has two more OOC games to complete their slate -- both at home -- Temple on 12/30, before the Wildcats begin conference play, and Maryland in mid January, a return date from the BB&T Classic last season.
After stumbling out of the gate at Princeton, Coach Mike Rice seems to have Rutgerspointed in the right direction. Their loss to St. Joseph's of the A-10, a team Pomeroy ranks #329 for experience, is puzzling, and coupled with their (neutral site) win over Auburn, their 23 point road win over Monmouth and their two point (home) win over St. Peter's, suggests the team has not yet established a consistency.
On Their Shields? -- St. John's, Seton Hall and South Florida -- for the Johnnies and Pirates, stocked with experienced players, the stategy may have seemed sound in July, but each program has been challenged with bringing a new staff, with their own ideas about offense and defense, together with an established squad. Seton Hall's Coach, Kevin Willard faces the additional problem of a sidelined star (Jeremy Hazell) and a less than 100% starter, Herb Pope, who continues to rehab from an extended hospital stay in the off season.

...The Lawyers
Cincinnati's Coach Mick Cronin took the team to Canada over the Labor Day Weekend to find some offensive options, and the Bearcats appear to have built on those wins through the front part of the season. The mix of "out of home" opponents and sites has worked to the team's advantage so far. The Bearcats' resounding win over Dayton and their 10 point win over Oklahoma are reasons for optimism, but this is one of the softer schedules in the conference (ranked #341 by Ken Pomeroy) if not all of Division 1. Two of the next three home opponents, Xavier (the last OOC opponent on the slate) and Seton Hall, should provide a better gauge on the state of the Cincinnati team.
Connecticut, Pittsburgh and Syracuse have this down to a science. All have taken the largest portion of their OOC schedules at home, leaving the home court only to take neutral site, or "friendlier" venue games with (relatively) high profile opponents. Syracuse ventured out of New York state for a change this season, taking two games in Atlantic City, NJ in addition to a game in Madison Square Garden. The opponents -- Georgia Tech, Michigan and Michigan State -- were hardly cupcakes, but the Orange were well supported by what is probably the best "traveling" fan-base in the conference. Crowds from the Boardwalk Convention Hall, about 5,500 per the announced attendance for the two games played by Syracuse, were 70%-30% Orange fans.

At Home...
...The Homebodies
Marquette and Providence are both less experienced squads (ranked #210 and #325 respectively by Pomeroy), standing reflected in their performances away from their home courts...

OffensiveDefensiveO - D

A four factors looks at those games identifies different problems for each team, but ironically the point per possesion (PPP) differential for each (the last column) is the same. Providence has difficulty scoring (note the Friars' Offensive eFG%) and defending their opponents' shots (Defensive eFG%), but compensate offensively by limiting turnovers and securing second chance points...but they foul too much. Marquette scores more consistently, but has similar difficulties limiting their opponents' conversion. Marquette's rebounding difficulties, especially the defensive boards, is evident in their 38.0 defensive rate, which is about 6% lower than the D1 average. The decision to limit out of home games as the squads mature and continue to train, is probably a good decision. The Golden Eagles have one last road game, versus Vanderbilt, on their OOC slate. That game, and the three they will play (@Rutgers, @Pittsburgh and @Louisville) in the first 15 days of conference play, should indicate whether they can hope for a 0.500 or better road record in conference play.

...The Agoraphobes
Is Louisville trying to pay off the Yum! Center in it's first season of operation? Off season problems getting squad members qualified could not have been anticipated as the schedule was assembled, but it was probably a fortunate accident. The single foray outside of Louisville City limits (but still within the state of Kentucky) yielded a decisive win over a well regarded opponent (Western Kentuck, perennial Sun Belt Conference power), but is far too small a sample to predict how the Cardinals will do in the nine conference road games over the next two plus months.

No comments: