NCAA Basketball leagues Conference USA and the Sun Belt are trying some unconventional scheduling to improve their teams’ profiles. Will it work?
Conference USA and the Sun Belt are both implementing a form of flex scheduling in hopes of improving the overall profiles of its members, and in the case of Conference USA getting multiple teams into the NCAA Tournament. The Sun Belt, which will implement the scheduling for the 2019-20 season are doing so to put their best teams in the best situation in terms of seeding for the tournament.
Both conferences will play a set amount of conference games. C-USA will play 14 and the Sun Belt 16, after that the teams will be grouped based on standings so that teams will finish the season playing the teams closest to them in the standings.
There are some differences in how the flex scheduling will work. In C-USA the teams in each group will play each other once, while the Sun Belt teams will play a home-and-home series with the other two teams in their group to finish the season. A major difference is how the Sun Belt will handle seeding for its conference tournament. The seeding will be based on the results during the flex scheduling, which means the three teams in the first pod can be seeded no lower than third.
The theory behind this scheduling is that teams will be playing other teams ranked closer to them in metrics like the RPI, theoretically removing the chance at a resume-damaging loss at the end of the season or conference tournament.
While in theory, this idea should work in keeping both conferences’ top teams as strong as possible. There are a couple of issues with it, however. First, the flex scheduling may help in avoiding bad losses, but it’s also unlikely to improve a team’s seed line by more than a line, if at all, and that is something that could happen through bracketing procedures anyway. Secondly, in terms of giving top teams a bump in the metrics that would only work if a conference isn’t top heavy in those metrics.
For example, if the top team has a top-50 RPI but the 2nd and 3rd place teams have sub 100 and 150 RPI’s respectively, the new system could still do more harm than good to the top team. Lastly, concerning Conference USA, they are moving to flex scheduling in hopes of having a better chance at multiple tournament bids. The conference hasn’t seen multiple bids since 2012. Even if the flex scheduling improves the metrics of the 2nd and 3rd place teams, the teams from power conference they will be compared with will have inherently better numbers due to the conference they play in.
The only way for a conference to really have a shot at multiple bids is to have a strong and successful non-conference schedule, by the time league play starts, the number of games against top conference foes will unlikely move the needle enough to get into an at-large bid conversation.
The conferences seem to be trying to frame this scheduling change as trying to improve their profiles as a whole. It seems more a case of these two conferences trying to protect itself against the unpredictability of March and nothing does that more than winning games and avoiding bad losses, no matter who you play.