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Ranking the top 10 mid-major non-conference schedules

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Teams from eight different conferences make the list.

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NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round- Florida State vs Vermont David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

In a world where more power conferences are turning to 20-game schedules and making scheduling alliances between themselves, a few non-high-major schools have put together formidable 2019-20 non-conference slates.

With the start of the season around the corner, there’s no better time to take a look at the 10 best mid-major schedules this season.

Eight of the 10 teams that made this article last year made the postseason. Seven of those made the NCAA Tournament and three of those teams earned at-large bids. Lipscomb, the one team that missed the tournament, made a run to the NIT championship game.

In order to find which schools made the best non-conference schedules this year, I used a new formula:

Instead of basing the strength of schedule on opponents’ combined win percentage, this year’s formula includes a NET score (explained in just a bit) and also multiplies a team’s 2018-19 win percentage into the final score. The reason for this? Mid-major teams with better records will have a harder time putting together difficult non-conference schedules, whereas middling teams will have no problem getting good teams to play them. Multiplying last season’s win percentage rewards better teams for their scheduling and docks lesser teams for scheduling games they’re unlikely to win.

Just as the NCAA introduced the NET rating, the formula for determining the best non-conference schedules also has an extra wrinkle. In order to reward teams for playing on the road and penalize teams that schedule non-Division I teams, the NET score was derived from last year’s end-of-season NET rankings and used in this formula:

Tougher schedules earned higher Mid-Major Madness Metric (M4, for short) scores.

But first, the fine print:

  1. All 131 mid-major teams that finished .500 or better last season were eligible. The point of this article isn’t to see if Cal Poly has a better schedule than, say, Idaho. The focus is only on the realistic conference contenders.
  2. Non-Division I teams weren’t factored into the combined record analyses.
  3. First-year Division I school Merrimack wasn’t factored in the analysis. Is Merrimack the equivalent of a Quad 3 or a Quad 4 school? Who knows? Of the 131 teams analyzed with this formula, only Hartford, Akron, Brown and UC Santa Barbara scheduled the newest Division I school. Adding an extra point to each of these teams’ NET scores didn’t do much — Brown jumped from 68th to 60th, but that was about it.
  4. Second-round games in MTEs weren’t factored in either. If we tried to play with all the potential scenarios, we can go on for days. Depending on how these tournaments pan out, some of these schedules might get even better.

10. Prairie View A&M

M4 score: 955.561

Away: California, Colorado, Loyola Marymount, Seton Hall, Texas, Texas State, UCF, UTSA
Neutral: 2K Empire Classic (Georgia State, Central Arkansas/Cal Baptist)
Opponents’ combined win percentage (18-19): 60.767%
Postseason teams: 8 (3 NCAA, 2 NIT, 2 CBI, 1 CIT)

Kicking off this list with a SWAC school isn’t the sexiest move, but the numbers don’t lie: The Panthers have the 10th-best non-conference schedule because they didn’t schedule a single home game against Division I opponents.

This isn’t anything new. Last year, the Panthers kicked off their road-only slate by thrashing Santa Clara, then losing 10 straight games despite being either tied or ahead at half in four of them. But this season’s non-conference games are winnable. Facing UCF to start the season probably won’t give the Panthers another season-opening win, but Prairie View has several chances to pull upsets against a bad Cal team, a Ron Hunter-less Georgia State team and an LMU team that loses a lot.

It’s hard not to think about what this schedule could’ve been. If Prairie View A&M didn’t schedule two home games against non-D1s, then it would’ve not only had a true all-road game schedule, but also the fifth-best schedule in these rankings.

9. Gonzaga

M4 score: 997.310

Home: Alabama State, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Cal State Bakersfield, Detroit Mercy, Eastern Washington, North Carolina, North Dakota, Texas Southern, UT Arlington
Away: Arizona, Texas A&M, Washington
Neutral: Battle 4 Atlantis (Southern Miss, Seton Hall/Oregon, 1 TBD)
Opponents’ combined win percentage (18-19): 53.241%
Postseason teams: 5 (2 NCAA, 1 CBI, 2 CIT)

Let’s overlook that Gonzaga is a high-major playing in a mid-major conference for one moment and marvel at the fact that the Bulldogs host North Carolina, regularly establish home-and-home series with Pac-12 contenders in Washington and Arizona, and play in another loaded MTE.

Aside from the requisite home cupcakes on the schedule, the college basketball world should give credit where it’s due. Scheduling four Power-5s is nothing to snuff at — neither is the fact that Gonzaga could play North Carolina twice if they meet in the Battle 4 Atlantis Championship. And better yet, Gonzaga is favored in all but one non-conference game.

8. UC Irvine

M4 score: 1006.063

Home: Cal Baptist, Eastern Michigan, Pacific
Away: Boise State, Colorado, Harvard, Pepperdine, San Diego, TCU, UIC
Neutral: MGM Resorts Main Event (Detroit Mercy, Louisiana), Sun Bowl Invitational (Kent State, North Carolina A&T/UTEP)
Opponents’ combined win percentage (18-19): 50.023%
Postseason teams: 4 (4 NIT)

Thanks to a tough road slate, the Anteaters’ M4 score checks in at No. 8. UC Irvine will play 11 of its 16 games on the road, spread across seven states in four different time zones.

UCI’s November will be quite the challenge. After playing a pair of road games against in-state opponents (Pepperdine, San Diego), UCI embarks on a difficult three-game road trip. First it’ll play a rising Boise State team, which generally boasts a decent crowd at elevation. Then the Anteaters go to Colorado (good crowd, also at elevation) before heading down to Fort Worth to play TCU — all in the span of six days. From there, they’ll get two days’ rest before traveling to Las Vegas for the MGM Grand Main Event.

To parrot an earlier article from this site, the Anteaters play in two neutral court events and they have a good shot at winning both. They won’t play their first D1 opponent at home until Nov. 30, which kicks off the softest three-game homestand on the schedule (vs. Eastern Michigan, Cal Baptist and non-D1 Pacific Union).

7. Nevada

M4 score: 1031.042

Home: Loyola Marymount, Santa Clara, Texas Southern, USC, Utah, UT Arlington
Away: BYU, Davidson
Neutral: Paradise Jam (Fordham, GCU/Valparaiso, 2 TBD), Saint Mary’s (in San Francisco)
Opponents’ combined win percentage (18-19): 54.942%
Postseason teams: 4 (1 NCAA, 1 NIT, 1 CBI, 1 CIT)

6. Yale

M4 score: 1077.818

Home: Siena, Vermont
Away: Albany, Clemson, Howard, Lehigh, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Oklahoma State, Penn State, San Francisco, Stony Brook
Neutral: NIT Orlando Season Tip-Off (Western Michigan, Bucknell/Seattle)
Opponents’ combined win percentage (18-19): 54.460%
Postseason teams: 5 (2 NCAA, 1 NIT, 2 CBI)

5. Belmont

M4 score: 1093.359

Home: High Point, Kennesaw State, Lipscomb, Samford
Away: Boston College, Eastern Washington, Illinois State, Lipscomb, Middle Tennessee, Saint Louis, Western Kentucky
Neutral: Alabama (in Huntsville)
Opponents’ combined win percentage (18-19): 53.465%
Postseason teams: 3 (1 NCAA, 2 NIT)

4. Stony Brook

M4 score: 1145.018

Home: Brown, Manhattan, Norfolk State, Yale
Away: American, Delaware, Hofstra, Providence, Seton Hall, Virginia, Wagner
Neutral: Islander Invitational (Texas A&M-CC, UTRGV, North Dakota State)
Opponents’ combined win percentage (18-19): 58.333%
Postseason teams: 9 (4 NCAA, 3 NIT, 1 CBI, 1 CIT)

The next four teams on this list either inherit tough non-conference schedules from former head coaches or will undergo rebuilds.

This year’s Nevada team will not be the 29-win, NBA prospect-laden team that it was last season, but the Wolf Pack’s schedule isn’t too shabby. Nevada hosts a pair of Pac-12 teams in USC and Utah, two middling WCC programs (LMU and Santa Clara), plus two likely conference contenders in UT Arlington and Texas Southern. The road slate includes at-large hopefuls in Davidson, BYU and Saint Mary’s.

Yale will embark on its road-heavy slate without four of its five starters back from last year’s NCAA Tournament roster. It’s worth noting that the Bulldogs have an added bonus of playing only 14 conference games — thus giving them more non-conference games to fill out their schedule.

Belmont’s slate has a couple intriguing games against Western Kentucky and a neutral-site game against the Nate Oats-led Alabama Crimson. Of the four teams, Belmont appears to be in a good spot, yet the Bruins probably won’t be the at-large team they were last year.

Meanwhile, Stony Brook scheduled a whopping nine postseason teams — the most of the 131 teams surveyed in the metrics. But the Seawolves will have to play these teams with a new head coach and without last year’s leading scorer and rebounder Akwasi Yeboah, who transferred down to Rutgers.

3. VCU

M4 score: 1186.402

Home: Alabama State, Florida Gulf Coast, Jacksonville State, Loyola (MD), LSU, Missouri State, North Texas, Old Dominion, St. Francis (PA),
Away: College of Charleston, Wichita State
Neutral: Emerald Coast Classic (Purdue, Florida State/Tennessee, 1 TBD)
Opponents’ combined win percentage (18-19): 60.199%
Postseason teams: 5 (3 NCAA, 2 NIT)

Going into this season, VCU looked like an at-large team. Then Mike Rhoades and his staff doubled down on the preseason hype by putting together an absolute gauntlet of a schedule.

Observe:

The Rams play five postseason teams from last season, plus a few teams that should’ve made the postseason (North Texas, Jacksonville State) and a Missouri State team that is talented enough to maybe win a game in the NCAA Tournament.

The only real knock on VCU’s schedule is the lack of road games, yet playing in a loaded Emerald Coast Classic field should alleviate those concerns. Both Purdue and Florida State were picked to finish in the top third of their conferences, while Tennessee should be in the mix in the SEC race.

2. Texas Southern

M4 score: 1408.605

Home: Lamar
Away: Arizona State, Arkansas, Gonzaga, Montana, Nevada, Northern Kentucky, Oregon, San Diego State, South Dakota, Texas A&M, Wichita State
Opponents’ combined win percentage (18-19): 60.238%
Postseason teams: 8 (6 NCAA, 2 NIT)

One of the biggest disappointments from the college basketball offseason must be addressed.

Texas Southern scheduled a home game.

Need proof? Here’s the school’s official statement on the matter:

The team’s home opener is set Saturday, Nov. 30 as the Tigers will host Lamar University. This marks the first time since 2014 TSU will host a Division I team as a non-conference opponent.

This news comes on the heels of last year’s impressive non-conference run, in which the Tigers bookend their all-road game slate with wins over eventual-NCAA Tournament participant Baylor and Texas A&M — and threw in an upset over Sweet 16-bound Oregon for good measure. In fact, the Tigers were one of two mid-majors that missed the NCAA Tournament despite having three wins over Power 5 schools (the other was Western Kentucky).

Although the Tigers lose a lot from the nation’s fifth-oldest roster, per KenPom’s metrics, the Tigers’ group of nine transfers (including three from Power 5 schools) should make them favorites over teams like Montana, Northern Kentucky and South Dakota.

1. Vermont

M4 score: 1415.003

Home: Boston, George Washington, Lipscomb, Towson, UNC Greensboro
Away: Bucknell, Cincinnati, Dartmouth, St. Bonaventure, St. John’s, Virginia, Yale
Neutral: Hall of Fame Tipoff (Central Connecticut, Columbia/Rider)
Opponents’ combined win percentage (18-19): 59.404%
Postseason teams: 6 (4 NCAA, 2 NIT)

Under John Becker’s direction, Vermont has played KenPom top-100 non-conference schedules in three of the past four seasons.

This year’s non-conference slate features four NCAA Tournament teams, including the defending 2019 National Champions, NIT-runner up Lipscomb, and perennial conference favorites in UNC Greensboro, Bucknell and Yale. Even the deep-cuts on the schedule like Towson and St. Bonaventure are primed to look much better in March than they do now.

Unbelievably, the lone blemish on Vermont’s schedule comes from a multi-team event. The Catamounts will play in the lesser of the two Hall of Fame Tipoff brackets against the likes of Central Connecticut State, Columbia or Rider (combined record: 37-53).

Granted, that same MTE gives Vermont games against St. John’s and Virginia, so beggars can’t be choosers.


To see how all 131 teams stacked up, access the full leaderboard here.

h/t Chris Dobbertean at Blogging the Bracket and @TheD1Docket.