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Men’s Basketball

Mariani: Non-conference or non-contest?

| Friday, September 28, 2018

As the calendar approaches October, it brings along fall and cold weather. But basketball? Is it not still football season? The reason why the beginning of the season does not get the prominence it deserves at Notre Dame is because the men’s team’s non-conference schedule consists more of a non-contest games than actual competitive games.

Given that Notre Dame has so many ties to schools around the country, it is shocking that the Irish unable to schedule more high profile teams. There are ties to schools like USC and Stanford because of football rivalries every year. There are ties to schools like the University of Connecticut and West Virginia University because of Notre Dame’s previous membership in the Big East. There are ties to schools like the University of Michigan and Michigan State University because of their proximity to Notre Dame.

Why, then, does Notre Dame play teams who are less competitive, which results in a very easy non-conference schedule?

Emma Farnan | The Observer
Irish senior guard Rex Pflueger drives past a defender during Notre Dame’s 84-63 win over Hampton in the NIT tournament on Mar. 13.

Look at last season for example. A big win over Wichita State, a blow out loss at Michigan State, a loss to a down Indiana and a home loss to … Ball State? By looking at the rest of the non-conference schedule, it is hard to see how Notre Dame could have lost another game as it is was that easy; KenPom, an advanced statistics website, rated Notre Dame’s non-conference slate 203rd out of 351, which means there were 202 teams who played a non-conference schedule more difficult than Notre Dame’s non-conference schedule.

Not only was the schedule supremely easy — except for the game at Michigan State — but it was also the reason why Notre Dame missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014 and only the second time in the previous nine years. Games against teams like Chicago State and St. Francis (NY), among others last season, are glorified exhibition games that happen to count for NCAA purposes. It is understandable to play a “creampuff” or two a year, but for Notre Dame to play as many as it does is unacceptable, especially as an ACC team.

To push this idea even further, as a current senior at Notre Dame, the toughest non-conference team Notre Dame played at home was Iowa. And even then that game was played as part of the ACC/Big 10 Challenge so it was a game that was scheduled by the conferences and not by the schools. If games played as part of a tournament or challenge were omitted, the toughest team played would be … DePaul. And they have not even had a winning record since 2006-2007.

Why is Notre Dame so reluctant to schedule more competitive non-conference games, either at home or away? It cannot be that head coach Mike Brey believes his team is not good enough. As evidenced by last year’s graduating class becoming the all-time winningest senior class in Notre Dame history. Perhaps this achievement is somewhat undermined due to the ease of the schedule it played.

Thankfully, though, the non-conference schedule is bound to get tougher in the near future.

This year, near the end of non-conference play, Notre Dame will play five-consecutive non-conference games against power five opposition: DePaul, Illinois, Oklahoma in New York, at UCLA and Purdue in Indianapolis. This stretch of games will be a very strong test, not necessarily due to the strength of the opponent, but because of Notre Dame’s youthful team. The team will be tested, but not unfairly tested. DePaul and Illinois have been going through down years and Oklahoma had freshman sensation Trae Young declare for the NBA Draft. UCLA and Purdue — schools that have aspirations to be ranked in the Top 25 throughout the season — will be tough matchups, although it is unlikely either will break into the Top 10. These games will also serve as good preparation before ACC play, where the Irish will be tested in every game.

Furthermore, since the non-conference schedule for basketball is usually put together a couple months prior to it being announced, the strength of the schedule can usually be determined as the schedule is being assembled.

This is both a blessing and a curse.

This is great because coaches and teams seek out particular teams to make sure it has a good balance of easy, balanced, and tough games on its schedule. Additionally, when a team misses the tournament the previous year because of its lack of strength in its non-conference schedule, the team can ensure it will not make the same mistake again… definitely not speaking from experience here.

This is bad because coaches are less likely to schedule home-and-homes with each other. Since players are allowed to declare for the NBA Draft after any year and teams play with just five players at a time, collegiate teams can have large fluctuations in performance between one year and the next. As a result, coaches will usually want to see who will be on their team and their opponents’ team before setting its non-conference schedule.

Notre Dame and UCLA are beginning a home-and-home this season. The teams will play at UCLA this season and at Notre Dame next season. Hopefully Notre Dame will continue with this type of scheduling. Maybe after UCLA, Notre Dame can schedule a home-and-home with one of its foes from the Big East days or with a rival like USC, Stanford or Michigan.

The non-conference schedule should not be so hard that the team loses every game, but it also should not be so easy that the team wins every game without a fight from the other team. There needs to be a nice balance to it. After the last few years of playing predominantly bad teams in the non-conference, hopefully this year’s non-conference schedule is a sign of what future ones will look like.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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