Non-Conference Strength of Schedule and the Post-Season

The non-conference slate is about to get really heavy tonight. With multiple top-25s in action against other top-25s and Utah playing their most significant Non-Con game since before Harry Dunn was Will McAvoy, I wanted to know how any of it might matter.

The study, without further adieu, was to see whether or not there was any truth to the adage that a strong non-conference schedule prepares teams for March. Often we revere teams that “challenge themselves” outside of conference play. But is there any merit to doing it? Does playing a really good team in November help me beat them in March?

We follow a game that uniquely celebrates its semifinals so to quantify “March success” I noted not championships but Sweet 16s. From there I used Ken Pomeroy’s Non Conference Strength of Schedule (NCSOS) to find a team’s non-conference ranking. Examining rank rather than the NCSOS Pythag score provides better context . There were 351 teams ranked by KenPom in 2014. I took this five seasons deep (2010-2014).

Here it is:

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It varies, season by season, but basically a Sweet 16 team has just a slightly above average NCSOS. In 2014, the team that had the 156th best NCSOS was 9-23 North Carolina State A&T.

S16 Participant avg NCSOS rank: 156th

If we look at how this breaks down within segments of the rankings, we get a pretty standard bell curve:

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Here we see that 26.3% (21) of teams making a Sweet Sixteen rank between 150-199 in NCSOS. Meanwhile, just 10% (8) rank in the top-50.

Of course it’s worth noting that the vast majority of teams that make it to the Sweet 16 are high major teams and are playing a generally tougher schedules throughout the year. Consistent tests. Just fourteen mid-majors made it to the Round of 16 in the last five seasons – including Butler, VCU and Wichita State, the only mids to make a Final Four. As these teams don’t have the same weekly in-conference challenges as the high majors, it would make sense that this group of Cinderellas might rank higher in the NCSOS department.

Mid-Major avg NCSOS rank: 134th


And they do! This includes the highest ranked schedule – 2010 Butler – to make a Sweet 16 in the last five years (5th highest) of any program. If you’ll recall, that’s also the Bulldog team that was an inch short of a National Championship.

Speaking of champions and final fours, how do those guys look in NCSOS?

Final Four avg NCSOS rank: 126th

National Champs avg NCSOS rank: 146th

It’s interesting to note that the average jumps back up when looking at  National Champions. KenPom data goes back to 2002 so I looked at the NCSOS ranking of each of those 13 national champs:

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These numbers suggest that while the teams are hanging banners, they didn’t necessarily break a sweat to do so in November. You’ll also notice that champs are generally very well known. These teams are often playing some already great teams in their conference slate and perhaps don’t always need to challenge themselves outside the friendly confines. Hell, 5v5 intrasquads might be some of the most challenging games these teams play.

Based on all of the above data, I don’t think we see a significant relationship between challenging non-conference scheduling and post-season success.

But let’s be careful not to speak in absolutes. I won’t soon tell you that playing the aforementioned North Carolina A&T Aggies as opposed to the North Carolina Tar Heels is going to benefit your team. There’s nuance to scheduling. But just because you play Roy and Co. on Turkey Day, doesn’t mean you’re gonna beat ’em on St. Patrick’s Day.

My suggestion? There’s nuance to it all and scheduling is both an art and a chore. But when you can, play the big dogs. Go down swinging. Whether the numbers support it or not, you’ll be the better for it.

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