Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Big East Conference 2012 -- Home & Road Opponents

Who Drew a Short Straw?
Most of the commentary about conference opponents has devolved into a recitation of the opposing slate laced with opinions (with a heavy reliance on memory and recollection...) of whether this player is returning, that recruit will make an impact and the other team was good/bad or will be better/worse than they were last season. With the many of the the "summer report" cycle winding down, many of the academic casualties going into the fall semester still unannounced, the NCAA Clearing House yet to process many in the incoming class, there is more speculation than fact available when looking at the home-away slates...

Maters of Their Domains?
Win the home games -- one of the first rules of conference play, comes into play every season. Running the home slate will not guarantee a top finish in conference play (think of Louisville's 9-0 record at the Yum! last season; the Cards still finished in a three-way tie for third and took the #4 seed at Madison Square Garden), but doing just better than 0.500 will not get your team into the bye seeds (think Villanova's #9 seed on a 5-4 home record). If your team is expected to challenge for a bye seed, which suggests your favorites ought to be able to go toe-to-toe with the conference heavyweights (...which would suggest your team is one of the conference heavyweights...), then common sense would dictate that the toughest opponents should come to visit. On homecourt your guys have the high ground. On the other hand, you your team is struggling for respectability, and a place in the post season conversation, then running up a big home court record (and taking your lumps on the road...) would be the better strategy...assuming your guys can keep it respectable on the road. Excluding the mirrors (I looked at those pairings in an earlier post), which teams got a draw that works for their strategy? I looked at home opponents...

Seton Hall0.4480.491'Ville, NDU & Pitt!
DePaul0.4410.645Not a good draw for needs
St. John's0.4210.631Thrown into the deep end?
Syracuse0.4140.519What they want
Connecticut0.4080.494A puzzle?
Rutgers0.3960.556'Nati & Cuse
Marquette0.3870.476A rebuilding year?
Notre Dame0.3800.687A lot of routs in South Bend
Georgetown0.3690.556RU, USF & PC...
Louisville0.3660.538Swap Rutgers for 'Nati?
West Virginia0.3630.612'Vill & 'Nati toughest
Providence0.3620.547Host the Huskies
South Florida0.3520.432Favorable for Bulls?
Cincinnati0.3370.678Returning mins high
Villanova0.3310.661See above
Pittsburgh0.3300.486Cincinnati and...?!

The table orders the conference by average Pythagorean Winning Percentage (PWP) of the non-mirror visiting teams. I also averaged that slate's returning minutes, to give myself an idea of whether each team would face a home slate with personnel similar to the personnel they faced in 2011. The conference average for returning minutes next season (as of July...) is 56.1%. The results brought a few surprises.

One of the more interesting questions is where Connecticut will fit in 2012. The Huskies, who finished #9 in the conference last season with a 4-5 road record, and will not have the services of Kemba Walker (or Jamal Coombs-McDaniels) next season, remain an enigma. Georgetown, Louisville and Villanova may count themselves lucky in that they get to host a sophomore-dominated squad next season without having to take a rematch in Storrs. St. John's, which returns all of 4.8% of their 2011 minutes (and 3.7% of their scoring), is another wildcard. Coach Steve Lavin will have an extremely talented -- but extremely young -- roster to mold. The Red Storm sported a relatively modest 0.333 road PWP last season, even lower than their 4-5 record would suggest. But given the virtual makeover for 2012, even 0.333 may be an overstatement. Will Marquette, Pittsburgh and Seton Hall regret not drawing the Johnnies at the Garden as a swap for say Notre Dame, Syracuse and Cincinnati (repsectively)? Though most expect Pittsburgh to contend again next season (Jamie Dixon has the best conference record of any Big East coach over the past five seasons), the Panthers cannot look to a favorable schedule mix as a boost. Of their non-mirror visitors, Cincinnati (0.447), Georgetown (0.425) and Villanova (0.405) have the highest road PWPs in 2011 conference games. Of those three, only the Bearcats return more than the conference average for minutes next season. For Cincinnati, the high percentage of returning minutes, combined with high percentage of returning scoring from their visitors will make matching their 2011 conference home record (6-3) a challenge. If the Bearcats want to move into the conference elites however, they will have to dominate that slate.

...And On the Road
The road strategy reverses for those aspiring to bye bids -- take the weakest teams in their buildings. For those struggling in conference play, opportunities to win are maximized at home, so take the conference elites on the road and hope to stem the bleeding in the low double digits...

Louisville0.7100.484St. John's & WVU skew mins
Notre Dame0.7060.471Johnnies, Hoyas & Hall
Villanova0.6920.449Johnnies, Hoyas & RU skew
DePaul0.6830.525What Demons need?
Providence0.6790.503Good for need?
Georgetown0.6660.616'Ville, Pitt & Cuse Oh my!
South Florida0.6430.653DPU only road softie...
Rutgers0.6200.627Matches bubble strategy
Pittsburgh0.6200.633UConn, NDU & Cuse
Seton Hall0.6160.654Cuse & Nova
Marquette0.6120.650Irish, Orange & 'Eers
Syracuse0.5930.487Good match to need
West Virginia0.5800.553Cuse & Huskies
St. John's0.5670.555If team struggles...ouch
Cincinnati0.5580.521A good match for need
Connecticut0.5210.596Tailored to need?

I calculated the PWP for road games (conference only) for each team and averaged those road PWPs for each team's slate of opponents. Again mirrors have been excluded.

For Connecticut, Syracuse, De Paul and Providence, the slate matches the strategy pretty well. The Demons and Friars want wins, and conceding road games to the stronger teams in the conference in exchange for favorable home matchups should be cause for little concern. Each drew a challenging road slate that features Cincinnati and Notre Dame. The Huskies and Orange, by contrast, want their weakest opponents on the road, on the assumption they will beat them no matter where they play. Both feature road games with Rutgers, but other fourth quartile finishers are listed among each team's mirrors. Coach Calhoun's squad will see the Bulls, who sport the weakest 2011 home PWP this side of De Paul. Coach Boeheim drew De Paul, owner of the weakest home PWP last season. Syracuse also drew rebuilding St. John's. If the Storm struggles, this could prove to be a hidden bonus.

Exclusions, The Fine Print
The dynamics of a team are not especially predictable. It is rarely in a coach's (or school's) interests to disclose that half the squad does not want to play ball with the other half, or is planning to transfer at the end of the season. Injuries have derailed a team's season and a player's career, and yet remain among the wildcards. Players sometimes behave badly, the type of situation that most fans see far more clearly after the fact than before. All of those however are random and absolutely unknowable. The as yet uncharted elements that can impact a team's ability to successfully navigate their conference schedule...
1. Chronology & Sequence -- will the team draw the easier opponents earlier or later in the conference season? The distribution of "difficulty" might seem even in the preseason or early season, but unknowable events can strengthen or weaken slate as the season progresses. Villanova looked like a world beater eight games into their 2011 conference slate, having taken down Syracuse by double digits on the road, but four weeks later they could not beat South Florida on a neutral court.
2. Home/Away Distribution -- Though the conference tries to schedule no more than two consecutive away games, circumstances can make that impossible. A school may schedule an away out of conference opponent at the beginning or end of an away sequence, adding a level of difficulty (TV money can cloud judgement that way).
3. Youth vs. Maturity -- Common wisdom suggests freshmen-dominated squads "wear out" in the latter stages of the season. Balance that nugget with a countervailing common wisdom notion that freshmen progress as the season lengthens (think Jeremy Lamb here). How can we use that information when determining if the 'Eers (who return 39% of their minutes and 45% of their scoring) will be a better team to host than visit? How about St. John's, which returns 5% or their minutes and 4% of their scoring?

Thoughts on the Wildcats' Slate
The home-road slates are a mixed bag that would help if Villanova proves to be a bubble team next season. The 'Cats, who bring back 52% of their playing time and 47% of their scoring should benefit from drawing a comparatively weak home slate. Leaving out the mirrors, the 'Cats should be able to handle Seton Hall and De Paul, two teams they barely beat at the end of the 2011 season, not to mention Providence, a team that cleaned their clocks, all on the road last season. A youngr Connecticut squad (the Huskies swept the 'Cats in 2011) will visit as well. On the road, Pitt and Louisville will be tough unless everything falls into place for the 'Cats. Georgetown will depend as much on how well the new Hoyas gell as on the Wildcats' maturity. Villanova will revisit Rutgers, a team that beat them in overtime last season, and as been mentioned before, the enigmatic Johnnies will pose a challenge.

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