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Conference USA is willing to do what it takes for multiple NCAA Tournament bids

Its new league schedule format is designed to maximize its chances.

NCAA Basketball: Conference USA Tournament-Western Kentucky vs Old Dominion Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

As a staff, we REALLY like the new Conference USA schedule format, which the league has put together in hopes of maximizing its chances for multiple NCAA Tournament bids.

If you haven’t heard already, here’s how it’s going to work: The league will keep an 18-game schedule, and play its first 14 games as normal. That means each team will play the other 13 CUSA teams once, plus its travel partner an additional time. After that, the remaining four games will have pre-determined dates, but matchups will be made based on the league standings at the time. That means the top five teams in the conference will play each other, teams 6-10 will do the same thing, and teams 11-14 after that.

As for the conference tournament, teams 1-5 in the standings after 14 games will be guaranteed no worse than the 5 seed, and teams 6-10 will be guaranteed no worse than the 10 seed. This helps ensure that top-tier teams don’t torpedo their tournament position because they lose a few tough games.

What this format does guarantee is that the teams near the top of the standings will get additional opportunities at quality wins late in the regular season.

The schedule change comes on the heels of a strong overall year for CUSA, but one that still saw only one of its teams make the NCAA Tournament. Marshall won the auto-bid, while Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky were relegated to the NIT. Meanwhile, Old Dominion finished the season with a 25-7 record, the top 65 in KenPom and missed both postseason tournaments.

Of course the new format will only help maximize bids if the conference has multiple NCAA Tournament-quality teams, which likely won’t be the case every year. And even if it does, this still might not help much. But it’s a cool thing to try and will, at least sometimes, offer real benefits.

The one thing you have to be clear about right away is that this is not going to be the one and only factor in determining whether a CUSA team gets in via an at-large bid. A team’s overall strength of schedule, road wins, non-conference wins, and what it accomplished in those first 14 games, etc. are all going to matter. But the final five games against the conference’s best opponents might be able to move the needle. A little.

Take a look at the top five teams in CUSA in 2017-18. In order, they were Middle Tennessee, Old Dominion, Western Kentucky, Marshall, and UTSA.

MTSU and WKU both came up short of at-large bids in 2018. Had this new schedule been in effect last year, the Blue Raiders would have played Old Dominion (KenPom No. 64) and UTSA (KenPom No. 174) in two of their last four games, instead of Southern Miss (206) and Louisiana Tech (149). That change alone would have moved the average KenPom ranking of their conference opponents from 161.56 to 155.06. For their entire schedule, it would have gone from 138.1 to 134.07. Not a big change, but a bump.

Western Kentucky would have replaced Charlotte (308) with UTSA. That alone would have brought the average KenPom of their conference opponents from 162.28 to 154.83. Of course, this single-game change would have an impact on the Hilltoppers’ entire schedule — not just their CUSA opponents. Swapping Charlotte for UTSA would change Western Kentucky’s average KenPom opponent rank from 146.93 to 142.47.

Old Dominion, which wasn’t even near the at-large radar, would have benefitted greatly, swapping out Florida Atlantic (233) and FIU (222) for Middle Tennessee (45) and UTSA. No, a hypothetical win over the Blue Raiders would not have put the Monarchs into the tournament. But had they played a better non-conference schedule, this conversation would be different.

Of course, the system isn’t perfect. The team this would have benefited the most, UTSA, wasn’t sniffing the postseason anyway. The Roadrunners would have replaced Southern Miss (206), Rice (289), Louisiana Tech (149), and North Texas (146) with each of the other top-four teams in the conference. And on the other side: How much more would a win over UTSA have helped Middle Tennessee than its win over FIU? It slid the numbers up just a tad, but provided no real line on the Blue Raiders’ resume.

So that’s all a long-winded way of saying this change will be a good thing, but exactly how good it is will differ from year to year.

The one downside seems to be that it puts teams who start slow but make a charge late in the season at a disadvantage. Those teams will not be in at-large contention anyway, but could feasibly make a run in the last week of the regular season and in the conference tournament. Not being able to clinch a seed better than 6 would hinder that, as our friend Sully pointed out on Twitter today.

He’s not wrong. But this system wasn’t designed to benefit the late-charging team that could maybe steal the auto-bid. It was to help keep the 2018 Middle Tennessee and Western Kentuckys of the world on the right side of the bubble.

I can’t wait to see how it works.