Strength of schedule shapes NCAA Final Four

01/17/2014 3:59 PM

11/12/2014 3:43 PM

Records can be deceiving at this point in the college basketball season.

Perennial powers Duke and Kansas each have four losses. Virginia has five losses despite coming into the season as a popular pick to surprise with what appeared to be one of the best frontcourts in the country. North Carolina, ranked 11th in preseason, is out of the rankings in what has been a wildly inconsistent season.

It’s too early, though, to count any of those teams out of making a run in March. Just look at their strength of schedule and it’s easy to see why the won-loss totals aren’t more impressive.

Duke lost its first two games to teams then in the top five, followed by road struggles at Notre Dame and Clemson. Three of Kansas’ losses have come against teams now ranked in the top 10.

Virginia lost three of its games to teams that were ranked at the time, and the other two on the road.

North Carolina had inexplicable early-season losses to Belmont and UAB and is now on a three-game losing streak early in the Atlantic Coast Conference season. But would anyone be surprised if the Tar Heels got hot at the right time and made a run come tournament time?

It’s happened before. Last year, Minnesota went 20-12 with the fourth-hardest schedule in the country. The strength of schedule might have helped the Gophers get in the tournament as an 11-seed, and they blew out sixth-seeded UCLA 83-63 in the round of 64.

Illinois and North Carolina also had double-digit losses with schedules that were among the 10 most difficult. They won their first round games.

This season, these four schools might get the benefit from their strong schedules:

North Carolina (10-6, 0-3 ACC)

Nonconference losses to Belmont and UAB and a home loss to Texas may come back to bite the Tar Heels. Three consecutive losses to start conference play aren’t promising, either. But the Tar Heels have the 17th-toughest schedule, according to ESPN, and a strong finish down the stretch should make their case for tournament inclusion. With 15 games left, a 20-win season is still within reach and getting there should lock them in.

BYU (11-7, 3-2 WCC)

The Cougars’ first three losses were to ranked teams, and then they lost four straight, all on the road, between Dec. 14-30 in what is the sixth-hardest schedule in the country. They’ve turned it around, though, with a four-game winning streak that featured all double-digit wins. Don’t be surprised if the high-scoring Cougars, who average 87.1 points a game, sneak into the Big Dance.

Kansas (12-4, 3-0 Big 12)

Barring an unforeseen collapse, the Jayhawks won’t be a borderline tournament team. But KU’s seeding might get a bump by having played the toughest schedule in the country. KU lost three of four in late November and early December, and then suffered a rare loss at Allen Fieldhouse to San Diego State. Those losses will become a footnote if Kansas wins a 10th straight conference title.

Florida State (12-4, 3-1 ACC)

The Seminoles lost three out of four early in nonconference play, and then opened the ACC with a 12-point loss to Virginia. FSU appears to have gotten back on track with three wins by at least 10 points, and having the 14th-hardest schedule in the country should help it get a more favorable seed come Selection Sunday.

Rising

Wichita State The Shockers are one of three remaining unbeaten teams and might have the best chance to run the table. They overcame a 19-point deficit and won in overtime against Missouri State on Jan. 11, and then rolled to a 72-50 victory over Bradley on Tuesday. The Missouri Valley Conference has always been known for its basketball, but losing Creighton to the Big East certainly made a perfect season more attainable for Wichita State.

Falling

Oregon The Ducks started 13-0 with wins over Georgetown, Illinois, BYU and Utah. But Oregon is reeling with three straight losses to conference opponents that pushed it out of the Top 25. The schedule isn’t getting easier, either, with road games against Oregon State, Washington and Washington State next week.

Three games to watch

Pittsburgh at Syracuse (3 p.m. Saturday, ESPN): One of these former Big East schools is going to start ACC play 5-0. Instead of struggling to break into a new league, Pitt and Syracuse have posed more problems for one of the top basketball leagues in the country.

Baylor at Kansas (8 p.m. Monday, ESPN): Baylor had a head-scratching loss to Texas Tech on Wednesday, and the road gets more challenging with Oklahoma on Saturday before Kansas. The game at Allen Fieldhouse should help determine whether the Bears will be a major player for the conference title.

Indiana at Michigan State (6 p.m. Tuesday, ESPN): Young and talented, Indiana has gone through its fair share of struggles. Michigan State is an experienced, proven team that walked into Indiana’s home, Assembly Hall, earlier this month and left with a 17-point victory. But the Hoosiers are showing signs of progress, especially after upsetting No. 3 Wisconsin on Tuesday.

Projecting the top seeds

West: Arizona (18-0, 5-0 Pac-12) The top-ranked team in the country had a perfect nonconference run and is going strong in Pac-12 play with consecutive 20-plus-point victories over USC and Arizona State. Juniors T.J. McConnell and Nick Johnson give the Wildcats experience in the backcourt, and freshman sensation Aaron Gordon has lived up to the hype so far.

East: Syracuse (17-0, 4-0 ACC) The Orange was the the team to beat in the Big East and that status isn’t in jeopardy in the ACC. C.J. Fair is one of the best big men in the country, and freshman Tyler Ennis has excelled at point guard for one of the three remaining unbeaten teams.

Midwest: Michigan State (16-1, 5-0 Big Ten) This could flip-flop between Ohio State and Michigan State all season. But the Spartans have to get the edge after a 72-68 overtime victory over the Buckeyes on Tuesday. MSU could keep a tight hold on a top seed, too, as they are the most experienced team in the country.

South: Wisconsin (16-1, 3-1 Big Ten) The Badgers lost for the first time at Indiana on Tuesday. That isn’t enough to keep them from a No. 1 seed at this point. They still have a strong post presence with Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky, and will challenge for the Big Ten title.

Key dates

March 16 Selection Sunday

March 18-19 First round (Dayton)

March 20, 22 Second-third rounds (Buffalo, Orlando, Milwaukee, Spokane)

March 21, 23 Second-third rounds (Raleigh, San Antonio, San Diego, St. Louis)

March 27, 29 South Regional (Memphis) and West Regional (Anaheim)

March 28, 30 Midwest Regional (Indianapolis) and East Regional (New York)

April 5 National semifinals (Arlington)

April 7 Championship (Arlington)

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