- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 8, 2006

March Madness is five months away. College basketball practice doesn’t start for another week. And the season doesn’t tip off until November.

However, the late summer was hardly a down time for many programs hoping to reach the NCAA tournament. In fact, it will prove to be critical for many NCAA tournament hopefuls in March.

Coaches and administrators worked on their schedules well into August, building a slate of games designed to put their programs in position to hear their names called on Selection Sunday. Schedules — and the related Rating Percentage Index — are often the deciding factor in whether mid-major programs like George Mason, George Washington and Wichita State reach the tournament or have their bubbles burst.

“Besides recruiting, scheduling is probably the biggest thing to building a successful program,” Wichita State coach Mark Turgeon said. The Shockers are among a growing number of mid-majors hoping success against a difficult schedule will land them in the NCAA tournament if they lose in their conference tournament.

With its miraculous run last season, George Mason became perhaps the most unlikely team to reach the Final Four. But before the Patriots advanced to Indianapolis, they pulled off something almost as unlikely. George Mason would not have been in position to make the Final Four if it had not become the first Colonial Athletic Association program to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament in 20 seasons.

“The first thing we are always trying to put together is a schedule so we will be seriously considered for an at-large bid if we don’t win the Colonial Athletic Association tournament because winning our tournament is a crapshoot,” George Mason coach Jim Larranaga said.

George Mason is among those who regularly scramble for quality opponents in hopes of building an NCAA-worthy resume. Other mid-majors like Hofstra (also from the CAA), Creighton and Southern Illinois (from the Missouri Valley Conference) and George Washington and Xavier (Atlantic 10) wage similar battles.

Major conference teams like Maryland and Georgetown don’t have such concerns. Teams like American and Howard also have few worries, knowing their conference champion will earn the league’s only bid as the automatic qualifier.

For those caught in the middle, scheduling is a thankless task and, at best, an inexact science.

“I really don’t know the answer to it, to tell you the truth,” said Hofstra coach Tom Pecora, whose Pride posted a 24-6 regular-season record and an RPI of 30 but were left out of the NCAA tournament largely because of a weak nonconference schedule.

Pecora has loaded up for the coming season. His program will play 10 of 12 nonconference games away from home, something that should be rewarded by the NCAA tournament and RPI. Hofstra is playing in the Great Alaskan Shootout against Hawaii and possibly California, in the Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden against Saint Joseph’s and perhaps St. John’s, and at Syracuse and at Charlotte. In contrast, the Pride — who had a 21-game home win streak snapped in the NIT last season — played four of nine nonconference home games last season. Their toughest nonconference games were at Notre Dame and St. John’s.

“We all know the [NCAA tournament selection committee] compares apples and oranges,” Pecora said, referring to major conference teams rarely leaving home and playing easier teams in nonconference play. “Last year we won 24 games and didn’t get in. I wonder if we win 18 this year, do we get in? Do we get rewarded for that?”

One reason the Pride’s schedule is so road-heavy is few schools from the six major conferences will play mid-majors in home-and-home series.

For that reason, Wichita State was forced to be more creative. The Shockers, who earned an at-large berth last season and returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1988, have added trips to LSU, which made the Final Four, and traditional Big East power Syracuse.

“I have been begging BCS schools to play us home-and-home for the last six months, and no one would do it,” Turgeon said. “[The NCAA has] to do something to try to equalize scheduling. It’s frustrating.”

The LSU series will be a two-for-one deal with two games in Baton Rouge and one in Wichita. Syracuse is a one-game deal, known as a guarantee game, in which a big-time program will pay a visitor up to $100,000 to come in with no return game. This is standard operating procedure at major programs. For example, Maryland will play 11 of 13 nonconference games at home and only one true road game — at Illinois as part of the ACC-Big Challenge.

The guarantee games are perhaps the biggest obstacle to mid-majors trying to make competitive schedules. Host teams win guarantee games more than 90 percent of the time, and too many nonconference losses — even to top teams — can eliminate a mid-major’s at-large hopes.

“[BCS schools] said we are not going to play them unless we can buy them [in guarantee games],” said Turgeon, whose team also will play a Sweet 16 rematch at George Mason. “It is something we have to do. Hopefully it will help our program.”

George Mason won a school-record 22 game in the regular season, but that would not have been enough to reach the NCAA tournament if not for its strong schedule, which gave them an RPI ranking of 26. George Mason won at Manhattan and Wichita State and lost early in the season at Wake Forest and Mississippi State. Larranaga refuses to do guarantee games unless there is an extraordinary reason, such as when the Patriots visit Duke on Dec. 9 for a nationally televised game on ESPN. Mississippi State will visit Patriot Center this season in a rare home-and-home series with an SEC team. George Mason played at Wake Forest as part of a preseason tournament.

“BCS schools won’t play us home-and-home,” said Larranaga, who contacts Virginia and Virginia Tech each offseason but receives little interest. “That eliminates 80 teams. So you have to go out to tournaments for nonconference games and play top-50 teams from non-BCS conference like Creighton and Wichita State in home-and-home series.”

The Patriots will play host to Wichita State and travel to Creighton as well as play mid-major power Bucknell in the BB &T; Classic at Verizon Center. George Mason also will play host to an undetermined opponent in a made-for-television “Bracket Buster” game. The Patriots will have at least six games against teams from last season’s NCAA tournament and perhaps another in the Bracket Buster. The 2007-08 schedule likely will feature a game with George Washington, according to both schools.

GW appears to have an alternative view on scheduling despite residing in the A-10, a mid-major conference that did not receive an at-large NCAA bid in 2004-05 and would have been shut out again last season if the Colonials were not upset in the conference tournament. GW’s primary scheduling goal was to play nonconference games at home and brought in Division I bottom feeders like Maryland-Eastern Shore, Kennesaw State, Stony Brook and Florida International.

The Colonials’ 26-2 regular-season put them into the tournament, but the selection committee showed its dissatisfaction by awarding them a No. 8 seed and a second-round game with top-seeded Duke.

“[Scheduling] is a problem,” GW athletic director Jack Kvancz said. “My biggest thing is I want to play in front of the student body. If I can do that and help us towards getting an at-large bid, it is good. I wouldn’t change too many things because of how well we did last season. I guess it worked.”

The Colonials seem to have slightly upgraded this season, but they must post another gaudy record to get at-large consideration. They will face only Air Force and Xavier from last season’s NCAA tournament. GW will meet Virginia Tech in the BB &T; Classic, Southern Cal in the Wooden Classic and Air Force in the Cable Car Classic.

The A-10 penalized GW for not having a sufficiently competitive schedule and, in theory, hurting the league’s overall RPI. The league withheld $25,000 in shared revenue. GW was one of five A-10 schools to fail to reach the criteria based on opponents’ RPI.

“We want scheduling designed to get multiple teams in from the Atlantic 10,” A-10 commissioner Linda Bruno said. “I honestly think if you go out and play tough competition that in the end you get rewarded for that.”

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