The non-conference schedule can be the most pivotal part of the basketball season. Non-conference play can sometimes impact a team’s chances of making the postseason. However, there are some exceptions.
If a team has a difficult strength of schedule — games against tough opponents — in non-conference play, it has better odds of making the postseason even if it doesn’t perform well in those games. But if a team has a weak non-conference schedule, the team still may not make the NCAA tournament even if it wins the majority of its non-conference games, according to Nicole Auerbach, a college basketball analyst for USA Today.
“In recent years, coaches have seen more and more teams get rewarded with NCAA bids after taking on challenging non-conference schedules,” said Auerbach in a USA Today article. “There’s no longer a magical win total that will get you in; it’s who you played, where you played and how you played them — in that order.”
The idea behind a 12-game non-conference schedule is to prepare teams for conference play. Non-conference games are intended to allow coaches to determine what works best for their teams by switching up the lineups and trying various strategies.
Coming off the College Basketball Invitational championship last year, Loyola’s men’s basketball team came into this season with high expectations. But a rocky performance in non-conference play resulted in frustration, which surrounded the team heading into conference play.
Loyola went 7-4 in non-conference play this year. The Ramblers’ strength of schedule ranked No. 299 in the country and No. 8 in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC), according to the 2016 Ken Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings. In the MVC, only the University of Evansville and Southern Illinois University — ranked at No. 311 and No. 347, respectively — played easier schedules.
Last season, the Ramblers went 10-2 in non-conference play, with their schedule ranked No. 252 in the country, according to Ken Pomeroy. Last year, their non-conference strength of schedule ranked No. 6 in the MVC.
This season, Loyola faced a variety of teams ranking from No. 9 to No. 326 in the preseason rankings, Ken Pomeroy’s ratings show.
The Ramblers beat Creighton University — a nationally recognized mid-major team — at home in early December. But that was the single highlight of Loyola’s non-conference schedule. Before and after the win against the Bluejays, the Ramblers struggled mightily in unexpected situations.
The Ramblers’ first real test of the season came against the University of New Mexico in the third game of the year. The Lobos were ranked No. 145 in the preseason, Ken Pomeroy’s ratings show. Although Loyola was considered an underdog in the game, it was actually ranked above New Mexico at No. 129 in the nation. New Mexico blew out the Ramblers 75-51, leading by as many as 29 points in the second half.
A week later, Loyola fell to the University of Toledo in the Ramblers’ second matchup of the season against the Rockets. Loyola had beaten the Rockets one week earlier at home, despite being ranked No. 94 in the national preseason rankings.
The Ramblers also faced Notre Dame, which was ranked No. 9 in the Ken Pomeroy preseason rankings. Although Loyola lost by 20 points, Notre Dame led by only six at the end of the first half.
Despite four losses, Loyola won seven games this year in non-conference play. The Ramblers beat the University of Texas at Austin, San Diego University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Cleveland State University and the University of Western Illinois, which ranked anywhere from No. 99 to 326, according to the Ken Pomeroy’s preseason ratings.
While some of the teams the Ramblers faced were ranked lower than Loyola, there were competitive matchups within these games. Loyola’s drop in schedule strength was due to the fact that the bulk of its wins — with the exception of the Creighton University win — were all against similarly built mid-major teams. While that didn’t hurt the team, it affected their strength of schedule, which played a small role in missing a post-season tournament bid.
The non-conference schedule for 2016-17 is expected to be released in September.