PSU Basketball: Building a National Powerhouse One Cupcake at a Time

I've been stewing for the last few days over the out of conference basketball schedule that was announced last week. It's apparent to me that the administration has no clue about how to create a contending program that generates excitement for the students, fans, and alumni.

Now first let me say I completely understand that the athletic department has a dollar target they need to hit. In putting together the basketball schedule, much like putting together the football schedule, heavy emphasis is put on ensuring enough tickets will be sold to turn a considerable profit necessary to support a miriad of Penn State sports teams. I'm not naive to the situation. Money makes the world go around. But let's do a little math. Tell me which of the two home schedules below you would prefer.

Schedule A Schedule B
Home Games 10 7
Average Attendance 6000 9000
Total Tickets Sold 60,000 63,000

Now you could argue that the difference here is negligible and I'm pulling statistics out of the air, but the point here is that you can take a reduction in the number of home games if you offset it with a boost in attendance. How do you boost attendance without giving away free tickets at the HUB? Easy. Schedule better competition.

For the heck of it I went back and looked at our out of conference home schedule for the past two years. I looked up the attendance for each game, and then I looked up the final RPI ranking of the opponent in that game. I didn't expect to see much of a correlation, but I was surprised to see a noticeable trend. Charts? Hell yeah, charts.

Attendance2_medium 
BSD: Now doing Excel charts at a birthday party near you!

Most of the points are jumbled together without much of a pattern, but notice how four of our top five our top four attendance games came against teams with an RPI less than 120. (Ed. - Chart corrected for data entry error). It's pretty obvious that the fans are willing to come out to see games against Seton Hall and Virginia Tech, but they're not so willing to walk from Beaver Avenue or drive from Altoona in the middle of December to see the Nittany Lions play Canisius and Denver.

The non-conference schedule this year is more of the same from Penn State. Take a look at the final RPI rankings of our non-conference home schedule. (Philly classic excluded since opponents aren't yet known.)

Date Opponent 2008 RPI
Nov 14 William & Mary 154
Nov 17 New Jersey Institute of Technology 341
Nov 20 Hartford 158
Nov 23 New Hampshire 300
Dec 6 Temple 51
Dec 10 Army 207
Dec 13 Mount St. Marys 146
Dec 21 Lafayette 163
Dec 23 Sacred Heart 155

After Temple our toughest competition is Mount St. Marys. And we play Lafayette and Sacred Heart in late December when classes are out of session meaning attendance will barely top 5000 if they're lucky. Why even bother opening up the Jordan Center? Let's just play the games at the IM building and treat the crowd to the Creamery afterward with all the money we'll save by not paying the ushers and cleanup crew.

The problem for Penn State is that we're not at the point where we can go out and load the schedule with Duke, Georgetown, UConn, Pitt, and North Carolina and expect to be competitive. No kid wants to go to a school where they promise to get blown out every night. If they wanted that they would go to New Jersey Tech. But why put games on the schedule like NJ Tech, Army, and New Hampshire if they bring nothing to the table come tournament time?

Of course I'm not alone in my distain for the scheduling. David Jones ripped the schedule apart this week by contacting other college basketball experts to get their analysis.

Palm and Lunardi were told only that the schedule belonged to a BCS-conference school with hopes of making the NCAA tournament.

Palm's response: "I would say they'd better kick some butt in their league. Unless Georgia Tech is better than they've been, there isn't anyone on this list that's going to get anyone's attention. This is a schedule full of potential bad losses. But not many potential good wins. Maybe none."

Lunardi's appraisal: "If this team aspires to be in the field, they'd better plan on winning a lot of conference games. There just isn't enough in the form of likely NCAA teams, the ones who'll probably be in the at-large pool. There certainly aren't enough scalps there. That schedule strikes me along the lines of somebody attempting to stay employed."

These days it's all about the RPI, baby. Now, the Rating Percentage Index can be a complicated thing. Thankfully the Kenpom.com blog breaks it down for us in simple terms.

The Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) is the formula used by the NCAA to rate men’s and women’s college basketball teams. The formula is described below.

The RPI is calculated by adding three parts.

Part I (25% of the formula): Team winning percentage. For the 2005 season, the NCAA added a bonus/penalty system, where each home win or road loss get multiplied by 0.6 in the winning percentage calculation. A home loss or road win is multiplied by 1.4. Neutral games count as 1.0. More on the effect of these changes can be found here.

Part II (50%): Average opponents’ winning percentage. To calculate this, you must calculate each opponent’s winning percentage individually and average those figures. This is NOT calculated from the opponents’ combined record. Games involving the team for whom we are calculating the RPI are ignored.

Part III (25%): Average opponents’ opponents’ winning percentage: Basically taking all of the opponents’ Part II values and averaging them.

Penn State has decided to focus on boosting their RPI through Part I and scheduling easy competition. But they are completely writing off Parts II and III which amount to 75% of the equation. To rely on your conference schedule to make up for the deficiencies of your out of conference schedule is a waste because ultimately it's a wash. For each winner in the conference there is a corresponding loser and the records of your opponents comes in close to 0.500. This is why you need to schedule decent competition outside of the conference. Playing a team like NJ Tech that didn't win a single game last year doesn't do anything for you and their winning percentage counts toward 50% of your RPI. The system rewards teams that play tough competition from tough conferences. It's that simple.

Any respectable school in a major conference like the Big Ten should never schedule a team with an RPI over 150. You're going to have to suck it up and give up a few home games to schedule some one-and-ones with other major programs. How much better would this schedule be if we took off the games against NJ Tech and New Hampshire and replaced them with a home game against Pitt and a road game against Syracuse. Would our record take a hit? Sure, but due to the fact they are traditionally good teams in a good conference their win percentage and opponents' win percentages will probably do more for your RPI than playing a school that is only going to win three or for games a year. And besides that, which is more attractive to a recruit?


A. Come play for Penn State and record unimpressive wins against a no-name schedule that at best gives you an opportunity for an NIT bid.

B. Come play for Penn State and compete against a tough schedule that at least gives you a chance to make the NCAA tournament.

You're never going to get the highly talented kids to come play a bunch of exhibition games in front of 5000 people. Not only does it lack excitement, but you are essentially stacking the deck against yourself come selection Sunday. We better hope to run the table at the Big Ten tournament, because given this schedule, that's the only way we're going to be dancing in March.

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