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On “overscheduling” and the 2017-18 Vanderbilt Commodores

Vanderbilt has played the #14 schedule in the country so far and is 3-7 to show for it.

NCAA Basketball: Vanderbilt at Arizona State The Republic-USA TODAY NETWORK

So far in the 2017-18 basketball season, the Vanderbilt Commodores have played (per KenPom) the 14th-toughest schedule in the country, and the 13th-toughest non-conference schedule. (Wisconsin’s two Big Ten games played to date push their overall schedule ahead of Vanderbilt’s.) That number will almost certainly go down a bit after upcoming games against Houston Baptist and Alcorn State, though they’ll also be buoyed again thanks to an SEC/Big 12 Challenge game against TCU.

That’s led to predictable teeth-gnashing that Vanderbilt “overscheduled,” and the team may underperform thanks to a difficult schedule, the bigger issue is that Vanderbilt isn’t as good of a team as many of us thought they were in the preseason. And that has nothing to do with the schedule (except that the schedule has meant that Vanderbilt has picked up a bunch of losses) and everything to do with the team being mediocre, but let’s talk about this concept of “overscheduling” while we’re here.

As I said, over the past five years, just ten Power 5 teams have played a top-30 nonconference schedule according to KenPom; over that same time period, forty-seven Power 5 teams have played a bottom-30 nonconference schedule. (I use KenPom rather than the RPI because KenPom’s schedule ratings consider where the game was played.) Right now, eight of the bottom 30 nonconference schedules in the country belong to Power 5 teams. Meanwhile, the teams ranked above Vanderbilt are mostly low-majors loading up on guarantee games (Texas Southern, which has played the country’s toughest schedule — and is currently 0-12 — will not play a single home game outside of its conference.) In other words, Vanderbilt’s nonconference schedule is very much outside of the norm for a Power 5 team. The “norm” is more like Mississippi State, which isn’t an appreciably better team than Vanderbilt, but is 9-1 against a schedule of one top 100 opponent, which was also their only game away from Starkville. (Bet you can’t guess which game they lost!)

That said, the rationale behind playing a soft nonconference schedule has very little to do with the usual platitudes about building confidence. Major-college athletic departments like soft nonconference schedules because they like the added ticket revenue from playing nine home games instead of six, and the only way to consistently play that many home games outside of your conference is to schedule the Texas Southerns of the world (who will come play at your place for a check instead of expecting a return game at their place.) Coaches like soft nonconference schedules because they know most fans only look at wins and losses, not KenPom rating, and will raise fewer hackles about a 17-13 season (where you went 11-1 against a joke of a nonconference schedule and 6-12 against your conference) than about a 12-18 season (where you were the same team, but scheduled a few more difficult games outside of your conference.) And the reasons why Power 5 schools usually don’t schedule road games at good mid-majors, or sometimes just mid-majors in general, are much more nefarious than that. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that Vanderbilt fans would be happy if the team were 9-1 right now with a bunch of performances like the Radford game — in which Vanderbilt sleepwalked their way to a 12-point win over a middling Big South team -- than with the current record.

The preferences for a certain kind of nonconference scheduling are so deeply ingrained that people in the business — and fans! — have come up with a lot of ex post facto justifications for them that have basically nothing to do with the actual reasons. (This is even more pervasive on the football side, where we’re “not a real SEC team” for scheduling home-and-homes with schools like Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky.) But the usual platitudes about building confidence don’t really seem to be true. Vanderbilt may very well finish the 2017-18 season with an ugly record, but that’s mostly because they’re fundamentally not a very good team and not because they “overscheduled.” As a general rule, it’s better to overschedule than underschedule, though: playing a tough nonconference schedule is how you make the NCAA Tournament with a 19-15 record; playing a soft nonconference schedule is how you miss the tournament with a 24-8 record. And logically, hanging with North Carolina in Chapel Hill (as Tennessee did last year) probably does a lot more to build confidence for a young team than beating Alabama A&M by 50 (as Missouri did last year, in the opener to an 8-24 season) does. And picking up a loss early in the season can do wonders to get a team’s attention to things that need to be fixed.

We’re just seeing the downside to a tough schedule right now. Sometimes, in part because you’re not a very good team and maybe because you get a few bad breaks, you play six games against top 100 teams and also play the #115 team on the road and lose all of those. Vanderbilt may end the season with an ugly record, but that’s more because they’re not a very good team than because they “overscheduled.”

Do you really care about going 16-15 instead of 12-19? If you do, I can see why you’re upset that Vanderbilt played teams like Arizona State, USC, and Kansas State.