Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Tough non-league skeds beneficial

The Siena men's team plays on Wednesday (Dec. 17) at Pittsburgh, the No. 3-ranked team nationally in the most-recent USA Today/ESPN coaches' poll. Canisius plays the same night at Syracuse, rated No. 11 (prior to its Monday night loss to Cleveland State).
Fairfield played at Memphis (losing, 90-63), last year's runner-up in the NCAA national championship tournament. So did Marist (losing to Memphis, 100-61).

And, on it goes. Almost every MAAC team has at least one game, if not more, scheduled against a team that traditionally inhabits the annual Top 25 national polls.

Does it help?

It does in one sense. MAAC teams get sizeable "guarantees" to take those games.
Big-time teams pay, usually in the mid-to-high five-figure range, to bring in teams to play non-conference games.
Siena has two such games this year, not only playing at Pitt but also at defending national champion Kansas on Jan. 6.
The money helps. Siena makes no pretense that a good portion of the money it will take in from those two games helps pay for the two-week trip the team took for a series of games in Italy this past August.

The other question is does it help competitively?

There might be mixed feelings on that. Does it help a team to suffer a 40-point loss?
Maybe. Conventional wisdom says that playing better opponents makes you better.

Does it?
Definitely. Exactly a week after losing at Memphis, Marist played at Siena.

Siena, with its uptempo style of play, is a mid-major version of how Memphis plays.

"Playing Mempis first definitely helped us prepare for Siena," said Marist coach Chuck Martin who, coincidentally, was an assistant on the Memphis staff prior to this season.

"You see that type of pressure from Memphis and, then, the pressure you see from Siena becomes a little easier to deal with. As a coach, you don't mind having one or two tough games early. That experience helps prepare you for the MAAC season."

Marist, picked to finish last in the MAAC in the preseason poll of league coaches, played well against Siena and even holding a lead midway through the second half until the Saints finally took over.

Teams benefitting most from tough opponents, though, are likely to be ones that will face that level opponent later on.

Siena had one of its most-difficult non-conference schedules ever last season, playing games gainst Syracuse (losing, 97-89), hosting Stanford (winning, 79-67), and playing at Memphis (losing 102-58).

Did it help? Probably. The Saints didn't seem awed by the level of competition after it won the MAAC's post-season tournament and advanced to the NCAA event. There, Siena had no problem posting a first-round victory over Vanderbilt (83-62) before it fell to Villanova in the second round (84-72).

The only other Siena team to win a first-round NCAA game was its 1988-89 edition that played high-powered non-conference foes Pittsburgh (winning, 80-79) and Florida (losing, 71-67) early in the season. Later on it upset Stanford, 80-78, in the NCAA's.

Current Siena coach Fran McCaffery said playing strong non-league opponents not only prepares a team competitively, but helps set up a more-favorable first-round match if it does get to national post-season play.

"Those games help your RPI (Ratings Percentage Index), so if you are fortunate enough to get in to the (NCAA) tournament, it gets you a better seed," said McCaffery. "Or, if you have a good conference record and don't win the MAAC tournament there's a chance that it sets you up to be in position to be considered for an at-large berth.

"There's no question that our non-conference schedule helped us get a decent seed (a No. 13 in its 16-team region). last season. Our non-conference schedule was rated the 13th toughest nationally."

McCaffery points out that there are other benefits, too.

"The other big thing is exposure," he said. "In order to get on national TV you have to play good teams. The immediate impact of that type of exposure helps recruiting and name recognition of your program and your institution."

Siena will have been on national television plenty this season. All three of its early season tournament games in the Old Spice Classic in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., at DisneyWorld, were nationally televised. Its game against Pitt will be on ESPN2, and its game with Kansas is part of the full-court package of college basketball games.

"The other thing is that I believe strongly in scheduling up (playing better teams) to prepare you for conference play," added McCaffery. "Especially this year because the league is really strong. So many of our teams that had good years last year have a lot of people back. You look at it and say you almost have to schedule up to better prepare for the league season."

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