Invitational: Strength of Schedule
Monday, November 21st, one of the best preseason tournaments in
NCAA history will tip off at 2:30pm Eastern, and countless college
basketball fans around the country will be anxiously tuning in.
The EA Sports Maui
Invitational will feature four preseason top ten teams, and five teams
overall that have won national championships in the past dozen years. The
tournament will also host two Hall of Fame coaches, and three more that will
likely be enshrined in Springfield in the near future.
Those coaches, Jim
Calhoun of Connecticut, Lute Olson of
Arizona, Bill Self of
Williams of Maryland, and Tom Izzo of
Michigan State joined coach Stan Heath
of Arkansas, Mark Few of
Gonzaga and Matt Mahar of host Chaminade for a
teleconference to discuss the upcoming
tournament and its implications for the season.
The conference call had
what you usually expect from these things – gushing respect for their
opponents, the tournament, and promoting their own players and chances for
the season. Calhoun touted Rudy Gay for Player of the Year. Bill Self
called this year’s squad his deepest and most athletic since he arrived in
Lawrence. Olson said his team may be the deepest in school history.
However, the biggest
question looming over the event was one that was asked over and over again
in some form or another: Why are you here?
It’s a question that
invokes a heated debate every year at this point in the season. If you are
a head coach of a Division I program, what are the benefits of playing a
tough early season schedule? Why not play three cupcakes in November and go
3-0, as opposed to traveling to Maui - with a field where every singe team
except Chaminade (Chaminade is a Division II school) will likely be playing
on CBS in mid-March – and risk going 1-2 or even 0-3?
The answers the coaches
gave were telling:
“We’ll play anybody,
anyplace, anytime. It doesn’t matter, morning, noon or night, and it
doesn’t matter who it is.” - Tom Izzo
“It’s a great way to kind
of get a barometer of where your team is at and where they need to be
relative to the national caliber of play that you’re going to see over there
(Maui).” – Mark Few
“I feel very strongly
that every team is going to come out of that tournament with some positives
to build on. They’re going to know a lot more about their team….I’d rather
lose by one or two than win by 40 because you don’t learn anything from the
40-point win.” – Lute Olson
“We’ll all come out of
there (Maui) with a heck of a lot better feel about who we are and what we
are.” - Jim Calhoun
Most of the participating
schools are very young, particularly Arizona and Kansas. UConn will have
two freshmen running the point. It’s no wonder these coaches talk about
finding their identity in Maui. Considering these freshmen have never
played at the college level before, how can coaches know what they’ve got
until they play against the toughest competition? Clearly, a program cannot
learn the strengths and weaknesses of their young players by playing teams
that allow them to score at will.
But even more seasoned
teams will benefit from the competition in Hawaii. Strength of schedule is
a major factor for the NCAA Selection Committee in determining who goes to
the Dance. Also, these great coaches all understand that they belong to
elite conferences, and that if their team isn’t ready to play come January,
their season is in big trouble. Put simply, you don’t get ready to play
Duke or Texas by playing East Delaware State.
However, not all great
coaches subscribe to this philosophy. The most obvious, and frequently
mentioned, is newly minted Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim of Syracuse, who
rarely leaves the state of New York in November and December. In fact, the
only tough competition the Orange(men) usually face comes from the Coaches
vs. Cancer tournaments Boeheim has been so influential in supporting. Yet
he has over 700 wins, and has been in the national championship game three
times in the past 20 years, winning it all in 2003.
Even last year’s North
Carolina Tar Heels had their share of gimmees. Outside of a game against
Kentucky, the toughest early season match-up came against unranked
Tennessee. The pre-ACC schedule also included such luminaries as Cleveland
State, William & Mary, Loyola-Chicago, UNC Wilmington, Santa Clara and BYU.
However, they more than made up for the cupcakes with their ACC schedule and
a win against UConn.
So a case could be made
that a school does not necessarily need to play tough competition early to
be ready to play come March, so long as they play quality teams after the
New Year. In fact, many coaches treat these easy games in the fall merely
as practices - giving the reserves more minutes, experimenting with new
defenses, etc – all while compiling a 15-0 record that helps them steadily
move up in the polls.
It is certainly far less
risky than “playing anybody, anywhere” as Tom Izzo did in 2004, when he saw
his team start the season 5-6, and lose five of seven before the start of
Big Ten play. Winning the first three games of the season by 45 points may
also be preferable to the 1-2 record that will befall a very good team
coming out of Maui.
But, overall, the
important thing to remember is this: Coaches do not make college basketball
what it is today, fans do. And as far as I can tell, fans do not wait
anxiously by their televisions for Duke to obliterate Seton Hall by 53, or
to watch Texas hold Samford to 33 points for the entire game.
Fans want to see great
match-ups all year long, and that is why the EA Sports Maui Invitational is
so refreshing. Fans will be able to watch Final Four-caliber games before
Thanksgiving. It’s not only better for the schools involved, but for
college basketball fans and the NCAA as a whole.
So to the eight teams who
will fight it out next week, and to the folks who put this tournament
together, hats off from us fans on the mainland. Here’s to many great
tournaments to come.