When Wichita State basketball came up short last season in its attempt to build an NCAA Tournament resume, some fans screamed: Schedule tougher, even if it means playing at a marquee opponent without a return game at Koch Arena.
Jerry Palm's reply: Be careful. Teams don't grab one of the 34 (now 37) at-large spots by playing the role of road loser.
"It's almost always better to win," said Palm, who owns and operates CollegeRPI.com. "I can't think of a single team that missed the NCAA Tournament that would have made it by replacing wins by losing to better teams."
The question: Can a team consistently build an NCAA Tournament at-large resume scheduling road games at national powers with no returns?
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The answer: Few teams, if any, do so. Going on the road without a return is best done rarely and strategically. It can help pay bills. It can give players a thrill. It can get the team on ESPN. It's not a magic cure for scheduling problems, and it can be a financial and prestige negative.
"We can't lose sight as a league of the importance of getting NCAA-caliber teams to play in our arenas," MVC commissioner Doug Elgin said. "That doesn't necessarily mean the Dukes of the world."
Don't expect WSU coach Gregg Marshall to sell the Shockers for one night on the road. He lived that life at Winthrop and wants no part of it. While at Winthrop, he said Duke made an offer — with a reduced payday for the privilege of playing at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
"I know you need to win games," he said. "Winning games builds your confidence. Getting destroyed some place can hurt your confidence."
You know that scheduling is a nightmare for Missouri Valley Conference schools and their ilk. Coaches are tired of talking about it. Fans are tired of hearing and reading their complaints. High-profile teams are reluctant to go on the road. Buying opponents for home games gets more expensive each season and the bidding is fast approaching $100,000 in some cases. It is a crucial part of building a program, but one that coaches feel they can't control.
"The art of scheduling is what we joke about around the office," said Butler assistant coach Matthew Graves. "It takes some planning, but it also is a lot of luck."
Swallowing pride and taking the cash from a big-money, big-football school appears to be the easy answer for schools looking to boost schedule strength. Win or lose, a game at Michigan State or Kansas seems guaranteed to help a team's power rating. Playing one home game in return for going on the road twice also is tempting.
It's not that easy, according to Palm. He subscribes to the mantra that most coaches and schedule-makers repeat:
"You want to play the best team possible you reasonably think you can beat," West Coast Conference commissioner Jamie Zaninovich said.
Upsets happen, as WSU proved at Syracuse in a no-return game in 2006. Those wins are rare. In February, an Associated Press story calculated that Bowl Championship Series schools won more than 76 percent of home basketball games since the 2001-02 season. That is why Palm doesn't advise schools to count on seducing the NCAA Tournament selection committee with road games against the elite.
A team's RPI is 25 percent winning percentage, 50 percent opponents average winning percentage and 25 percent opponents' opponents winning percentage. Palm said it's most important to juice the winning percentage. Trying to improve the RPI by adding games against big names isn't efficient if it means adding losses. The effect of one big game is diluted in a schedule of 30 games and those 30 opponents' opponents.
Palm also advises coaches to remember the RPI is only part of the selection committee's evaluation. In March, a team needs to stand out from the crowd. Losing is not the way to do that.
"Whatever benefit you may get from playing Duke on the road as opposed to playing Western Illinois at home is negligible," Palm said. "You're not going to impress anybody either way. Beating Western Illinois is better than losing to Duke for the RPI in almost every case."
That brings us back to the middle road, which almost every at-large team from non-BCS conference has followed this decade. The selection committee notices when teams beat NCAA-worthy opponents, even when the name on the jersey isn't UCLA or North Carolina.
"You have to schedule your RPI as high as you possibly can," UNLV director of basketball operations Mike Shepherd said. "You also have to win some of those games."
UNLV doesn't go on the road without a return. Neither does Butler, which earned at-large bids in 2003, 2007 and 2009. Gonzaga did in the early days of its rise. Now the Zags are hot enough to attract opponents for high-profile neutral-site games and made-for-TV matchups. Xavier, with at-large bids in 2003, 2007, 2008 and 2010, insists on return games. Utah State, an at-large team in 2006 and 2010, refuses to play guarantee games. Southern Illinois earned at-large bids in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2007 — and played one road game against a BCS school (Indiana as part of a home-and-home series).
"A few years ago, a team in our league went out to raise their strength of schedule," Utah State coach Stew Morrill told Yahoo.com. "They did that, but their RPI got a whole lot worse because they couldn't win those games. I get criticized a lot for scheduling, but you have to be smart about it."
The first goal of good scheduling is to get into a good neutral-site tournament, something WSU perfected with recent trips to the Virgin Islands, Florida, Kansas City and this season's Hawaii excursion. A trip to Puerto Rico for another ESPN-promoted tournament is in the works for next season. Almost every non-BCS school with an at-large bid in recent seasons played neutral-site games.
With that piece in place, schools should avoid the extremes. One extreme is playing at Kansas with no return. The other is playing home games against teams with RPIs in the 300s.
In between, rests a mix of home and road games against schools in the top 100 or so of the RPI. In Palm's view, WSU's four-game series against Tulsa is a perfect match. Both schools can help each other.
"You don't have to play No. 1 seed-quality teams," Palm said. "You can play somebody that is 8 or 9 (seed) good. You might have a chance to get that team."
WSU's 2010-11 schedule isn't complete. From what's known, it appears to hit the marks for a smart schedule. The Shockers play in a Maui Invitational field that also includes Kentucky, Michigan State, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Virginia, Washington and Chaminade. The Shockers travel to Mountain West Conference tournament champion San Diego State, meet LSU at Shreveport, La., and play host to Tulsa. The unknown is how home games against weak opponents will affect schedule strength. In 2010, CollegeRPI.com ranked WSU's strength of schedule No. 105 overall and No. 284 for non-conference games. Five non-conference opponents ranked No. 250 or lower.
"Teams that go 1-11 in non-conference play are not going to help you," Elgin said. "The one thing you have to avoid at any cost is playing the really low RPI teams."
Some seasons, none of those moves work and the schedules needs a boost. The risky move of going on the road can work with the right team.
Former WSU coach Mark Turgeon saw his 2006-07 schedule needed help. He took his veteran team to Syracuse and LSU (as part of a road-home-neutral series) and won. Northern Iowa played at LSU as part of a tournament in during the 2006 season. The win over a top-20 RPI team helped UNI's at-large resume. In 2004, Richmond won at Kansas on its way to an at-large bid.
Even Elgin is softening his stance, saying it is often necessary for the high-profile team to get some kind of perceived advantage in a series. Schools must weigh the competitive and financial ramifications of giving up home games.
"Five years ago, I was staunchly opposed to anything other than a 1 for 1," he said. "In some cases, a 2 for 1 is the best you can get. We have to be bold in our scheduling. We have to schedule up when we're good. You have to try to create that second path to a tournament bid."
Bradley coach Jim Les, already one of the Valley's best schedulers, is doing just that. His team, experienced with three senior guards, is playing at Duke on ESPN or ESPN2 this season. He let the team vote, and said the Braves unanimously wanted the challenge.
"I'm not crazy about (playing road games without a return)," he said. "This is a special situation, a special experience. In the past nine years, this is the only one we've done."