Larry Keating has been a schedule-maker for 45 years now, and one of the most important keys, he says, is understanding your own circumstances.
Earlier in his career, Keating once told a tennis coach not to worry about how good or bad his team was going to be; he was going to help the coach’s record that year by only using his pencil. Keating then proceeded to research all the programs in the area, carefully selecting ones that were struggling to help boost his own team’s wins.
Now the special assistant to the athletic director at Kansas, Keating has found himself in a different situation when scheduling for the ultra-successful KU men’s basketball team over the last 15 years.
Keating isn’t trying to get KU into the NCAA Tournament. His goal is to help the Jayhawks once they earn their spot.
“We schedule to seed,” Keating said. “But scheduling to seed and being seeded are two different things. You’ve got to play the schedule and be successful at it.”
Almost every year, KU has flourished with both.
In coach Bill Self’s 15 seasons, KU has been an NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed eight times and a 2 seed three other years. In that span, Keating has used his experience to craft a smart slate for KU, hand-selecting nonconference opponents who are likely to help KU’s RPI totals when the season ends.
So one question immediately arose following the NCAA’s announcement Wednesday that the NCAA men’s baskeball committee was replacing the RPI and moving to its own “NCAA Evaluation Tool” ranking system: Will KU change its scheduling strategy because of these new changes?
The short answer, Keating says, is no.
“I don’t see what’s going into that (ranking) as being a lot different,” he said.
For now, questions remain about the exact formula for the NCAA’s new “NET” system. The NCAA has said it will rely on “game results, strength of schedule, game location, scoring margin, net offensive and defensive efficiency, and the quality of wins and losses” but hasn’t released the weights of how each will be considered.
The belief, though, is that these numbers will match up more closely with rankings like Sagarin and KenPom, which have proven to be better predictive measures over time than RPI because they use additional data like margin of victory and points per possession.
For Keating, this potentially could mean more of a guessing game when it comes to scheduling future KU opponents.
In the past, he’s kept a steady and effective formula: When playing lower-level teams, schedule the top teams in the lower conferences.
There’s good reason for this. While those teams have little chance of beating KU at Allen Fieldhouse, they are likely to rack up a decent winning percentage thanks to their conference schedule. And because a team’s RPI is 50-percent determined by a team’s opponent’s won-loss record ... KU often could win a blowout and get the advantage of a schedule bump.
An example from last year: KU played South Dakota State at Allen Fieldhouse and was favored by 21 1/2. The Jayhawks won, 98-64.
Then, on its NCAA Selection résumé, KU received a “Quadrant 2” victory for the win, thanks to South Dakota State’s 28-7 final record ... which resulted in a No. 37 RPI ranking.
Keating, for his part, says RPI wasn’t the only ranking used when selecting teams to play. When trying to predict which teams will be strong the next season, he says one of his preferred methods has been averaging the team’s RPI and KenPom rankings.
“RPI is not the end-all, be-all of what we try to do,” Keating said.
There’s no doubt, though, that KU’s pumped-up RPI numbers have helped the team’s seeding in the past.
One only needs to look back to last season to see how it can help. KU fans, following a road loss to Baylor, were mostly shocked when an NCAA bracket reveal in February still had KU as a No. 2 seed and the sixth team overall.
What was the reason for that? Selection committee chairman Bruce Rasmussen cited KU’s combined 13 Quadrant 1 and 2 victories, saying those “overbalanced the losses they have.”
KU later ended up with a No. 1 seed, posting 21 combined Quadrant 1 and 2 victories — the most in the nation.
Keating has had a personal goal lately to keep Quadrant 3 and 4 games (considered non-quality victories) off his team’s schedule altogether. By doing that, every game can potentially help KU’s case for a top seed.
The Jayhawks’ schedule appears strong no matter the measure this season, as it includes nonconference games against Michigan State, Villanova, Kentucky, Arizona State and potentially Tennessee.
“We’re going to play more Quadrant 1 and 2 teams than anyone else again,” Keating said. “We did last year. We’ll do it again.”
That’s the belief even with the new NCAA measures in place. Though the ranking formula might change, Keating doesn’t envision it making a large impact.
“I’d be shocked if all of a sudden five of these teams are Quadrant 4 teams because they play in leagues that are deemed to be bad,” Keating said. “These teams are going to play good schedules relative to who they are, and they’re going to do well in their league.”
Moving forward, Keating will continue to work in the situation he’s in. With KU, that means leveraging a strong program and a near-NCAA Tournament guarantee into a schedule that is likely to favor the team down the line.
“I don’t think it’s taking advantage,” Keating said. “I think it’s looking at the field of potential opponents and understanding where your program is.”