Nov. 12—LAWRENCE — Typically the go-to source for all things Kansas basketball, Bill Self instead deferred to a colleague Friday when asked about the top-ranked Jayhawks’ grueling nonconference schedule.
“The guy to your right is responsible for that stuff,” responded Self, gesturing toward special assistant to the athletic director and KU schedule-maker Larry Keating. “It’s ridiculous.”
A collegiate scheduling guru for four-plus decades, Keating came to KU in 2003 and is the man behind the nonconference slates for football and men’s and women’s basketball. He served as the primary author of another demanding non-Big 12 docket, a 13-game schedule that continues at 8 p.m. today against Vermont at Allen Fieldhouse.
Before scoffing at the words “demanding” and “Vermont” appearing in the same sentence, consider the following: The Catamounts are far from the typical nonconference cupcake, going 27-7 last season and winning the American East Conference’s regular-season title in a campaign that included a four-point defeat at Kentucky. Picked to repeat in the AEC, Vermont is one of 11 opponents on KU’s likely nonconference schedule that topped or finished second in their conference’s preseason poll, with two — Marquette and potential NIT Tip-Off opponent No. 6 Tennessee — picked second behind other teams on the Jayhawks’ schedule (No. 9 Villanova and No. 2 Kentucky, respectively).
Every one of KU’s nonconference opponents could realistically be an NCAA Tournament participant, a scenario Self said he isn’t sure has happened in his 15-plus-year tenure.
“Going into the season, we have as tough a nonconference schedule as there is in the country,” Self said. “But what makes our nonconference schedule the hardest is, the games that are even the ‘buy’ games are games you’re going to have to sweat to win.”
Keating discussed his scheduling philosophy in a recent conversation with The Topeka Capital-Journal. While it may seem obvious to onlookers of a program that hasn’t missed an NCAA Tournament since 1989, Keating said his approach is to schedule for seeding rather than to simply make the postseason, and that strategy has paid off — across the last 12 seasons, KU has been a one- or two-seed 11 times.
When evaluating potential opponents for so-called “buy” games — contests where KU pays the opposition to come to Allen Fieldhouse — Keating said his primary aim is finding smaller-conference foes that nevertheless are projected to or have a history of winning their leagues. It’s a process completed nearly a year in advance — “I’m almost done with next year’s schedule,” Keating said Sunday — and done via a combination of thorough scouting and, admittedly, a little bit of luck.
“This year, you’re talking about an exceptional year after the first game in the schedule,” Keating said. “If all of a sudden South Dakota and Louisiana and Vermont and even some of the major games we have (such as) Stanford, if all of a sudden they have down years or finish in the bottom half or halfway down, it doesn’t quite look as good at the end.”
Perhaps the best example of Keating’s touch when it comes to this sort of thing is Eastern Michigan, whom the Jayhawks play at 1 p.m. Dec. 29 in their final game ahead of Big 12 play.
The Eagles finished an uninspiring 22-13 and 11-7 in league play a season ago, but through his connections with the program, Keating discovered EMU had strung together back-to-back successful recruiting years, creating enough confidence to deem the Mid-American Conference squad a worthy KU opponent.
If preseason prognostication is correct, the decision may pay off — the Eagles were picked to finish first in the MAC’s West Division.
“So some of it is again projection and knowing a little bit about who’s coming up and who’s going to be good,” Keating said, “and quite honestly, some of it is just making the right guess.”
When he reflects on successful nonconference slates at the end of a season, Keating admitted he does get a small sense of satisfaction — though, at this point, it’s becoming a bit of an old-hat exercise.
“Probably (felt pride) more so 20 years ago,” Keating said with a laugh.
While college basketball is in its first year replacing RPI with its own “NCAA Evaluation Tool” (NET) in determining postseason berths and seeding, Keating doesn’t expect the switch to affect his own scheduling philosophy, which has always relied on a combination of tools like RPI and KenPom rankings to evaluate the merit of a potential opponent. NET will use game results, strength of schedule, game location, scoring margin, net offensive and defensive efficiency and quality of wins and losses in its formula, with three of those already existing in RPI.
If anything, Keating said, KU will be better off under the new system.
“If you play good teams year-in and year-out and you win year-in and year-out, it’s all going to come out the same,” Keating said. “... If Kansas goes 30-5 and plays teams that are all in the top half of their league, there’s no system that’s going to say, ‘These guys should be a 10th seed.’ We’re going to be a one- or a two-seed.”
Despite the Jayhawks’ long string of success in positioning themselves favorably for the NCAA Tournament selection committee, Keating deflected credit for the accomplishment.
“I don’t mean to demean it, but what I’m saying is it’s not me really as much as people might say it might be. It’s the team,” Keating said. “I mean, we have a great program. If I was with the team that’s eighth place in our league and I put this schedule on them and we only win 50 percent of our games, we’re not going to be a one-seed. We’d be lucky to get in the tournament. A lot of it is the program I work with happens to be one of the top two or three programs in the country every year.”
Perhaps the biggest part of the formula is Self, whom Keating said never vetoes any suggested opponent. Keating is responsible for the “buy” games and Self helps narrow down the list of potential Power Five-conference foes, and for the most part, the two are in lockstep when it comes to churning out tough slates.
“I also know after 15 years what he’s good with and what he’s not,” Keating said. “There might be a couple guys he doesn’t want to play, although there aren’t many, to tell you the truth. So he’s always, to me, just trusted me with that.”
Overseeing a team full of first-year faces, Self sees more benefits to a taxing nonconference slate than simply positioning his team better for a deep NCAA Tournament run.
“You would think that may not be the best formula with young kids,” Self said, “but you could also flip it and say, ‘How better a way to get them prepared than to have to play every minute of every game as opposed to your mistakes not being magnified?’ It is a hard schedule.”