This past week has just been one schedule critique after another on message boards, in water cooler discussions and intercollegiate debates. Are the critics of Indiana's scheduling correct that the Hoosiers are hurt by its weakness?
Indiana over the Crean era has been notorious for very weak non-conference scheduling (NCS). In the last four years (Crean didn't have complete control over year one scheduling) the Hoosiers have played a non-conference schedule ranked 309th, 325th, 154th. This year with two to play their strength of schedule is ranked 254th in the nation and likely falling hard in the last two games. There is very little doubt that the schedules are soft, but the main argument that has arisen since the lost to Butler is that because of this soft schedule the Hoosiers aren't prepared to face tough opponents when they run into them. Is this true?
First of all, Crean does deserve to be defended here a bit. Under the attempted makeup of the NCS the Hoosiers were trying/expecting to play a supposed to be very good UCLA instead of a good Georgetown, a Final Four contender in North Carolina instead of one primed to be on the bubble, and a defending national champion in Kentucky at their house instead of Central Connecticut. Crean expected/tried to considerably beef up the schedule but things didn't fall correctly in that manner.
On the other end, Crean was still very much in control of most of the schedule that didn't fall to chance. In this instance he scheduled Mt. Saint Mary's and the like. None of which can be considered real competitive teams on the national stage. North Dakota State, of all the cupcakes, is likely the only tournament team. However, is this really a problem for the Hoosiers outside of fans being upset that they don't get to watch good teams? The numbers suggest no.
First of all, let's take a look at the past. Of last year's Final Four teams only Kansas played a NCS that faced more than 4 teams ranked in the top 100 of Pomeroy's final ratings. Indiana is set up to play 4 teams as well (5 if Georgia can eek back into double digits). The difference truly being that all 4 teams also played a title contender in the process. Instead, IU has played G'twn, ND St, UNC and Butler. None of which can be considered title contenders at this moment. All 4 were tough competition but nothing special. So certainly, IU isn't truly that far behind what last year's team's did.
How about this year? How do the Hoosiers compare to the other top flight teams in the nation at this point? Well, only the 10 of the top 50 teams have played anything close to a super competitive schedule at this point. Those 10 are the only ones that in the top 100 in the nation at current strength of schedule. Of the top 20 teams only three have seen a double digit SoS. So if I must use a cop out phrase here, everyone is doing it.
As it turns out most programs use the preseason as extensions of practice. This is an opportunity for the teams from the top conferences to get extended practice against players who don't know what they're trying to do. Essentially what we've seen from IU and from most of the nation to this point is controlled scrimmages to gear up for grueling conference schedules. It is much easier to learn and execute plays against guys that can't cheat than it is against guys who know the entry pass is going there. They're tune up games for the real season that starts on December 31st.
Indiana last year had NCS that averaged a Pomeroy .5209. Translation on average the Hoosiers played a team the average quality of Drake night in and night out. Even then, the schedule improved greatly as some cupcakes got into their own poor conferences and started cleaning up. That artificially inflated their schedule to be that good. In the end, the Hoosiers played the 154 best NCS and ended up after conference with the 9th toughest strength of schedule in the nation. The Big Ten is big, bad and scary and the Hoosiers will not lack for quality opponents by the end of the year. Does anyone believe that IU was ill prepared for their Sweet Sixteen run last season?
In the end, these games just aren't all that important for the Hoosiers. They're pretty safely a tournament team. They aren't a Butler or a Gonzaga who have to prove themselves out of conference in case of a hiccup within it. Indiana doesn't need resume builders. They'll get them in the Big Ten. What the Hoosiers need is to find some identity within their style of play. They need practice feeding the post. Yogi needs to gain a game type feel to the Hoosiers' intricacies. Every perimeter player needs to figure out communication issues on defense. The Hoosiers are tuning up for a title run, not trying to impress the commentariat of their performance against a grueling schedule.
Would I like to see a tougher NCS? You bet, but that's because I'm a selfish fan who wants to see how IU stacks up against their potential April foes. Unfortunately for myself, that isn't what Tom Crean and Indiana are trying to do. They're trying to prep themselves to be playing that game at the first week of April. That entails working out a lot of kinks. They'll still get the big game atmospheres at Michigan St, Ohio St and Michigan this year. There will be no shortage of competition or hostile environments. There however is a limit on the number of low pressure opportunities to try and tweak lineups and styles. Perhaps the Hoosiers messed up by not scheduling a blue blood in place of UK. If that game had happened I don't think you hear anyone complain. Unfortunately it didn't. For the fans we missed out. For the coaches and players, they just get one more opportunity to practice perfecting some issues that will be pertinent in a title run in March.