Mike Tranghese, then commissioner of the Big East, is the first NCAA selection chairman I recall touting non-conference strength of schedule. The year was 2001, and Tranghese's panel had not only included 16-14 Georgia in the bracket but also seeded the Bulldogs a solid No. 8 in the East.
Georgia's record matched the worst ever for an at- large team. But as measured by the Rating Percentage Index, the Bulldogs had played the No. 3 non-league schedule while also competing in the Southeastern Conference, ranked No. 1 on the RPI.
"Our committee felt very strongly about non-conference play," Tranghese said that Selection Sunday, "and I think you'll see us take an even stronger stance before next year's tournament. If you're 9-7 in the toughest-rated conference in the country and you play who we say you should play, and win some of those games, I don't see how we can say no. We spent more time discussing Georgia than any other team. …
"We just felt that if we were to say no to Georgia, even though they're 16-14, it would have been pretty hypocritical of us to stand here and talk about non-conference scheduling."
In the ensuing 12 years, little has changed. The selection committee continues to value non-conference strength-of-schedule, often more than other components.
Virginia Tech, among many, has learned the lesson, and Virginia could this season.
At last check, the Cavaliers' non-league schedule ranked 323rd among 347 Division I teams. That, combined with six losses to opponents below 100th on the RPI, clouds their tournament prospects, despite an 18-6 overall and 8-3 ACC record.
Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski, who takes over the same position at Georgia Tech following the season, chairs this year's 10-member committee, and during a media call Wednesday I asked him how the non-conference schedule element has evolved during his five years on the panel.
He described it as "your willingness in that non-conference portion of the season to challenge yourself and to give the committee evidence outside of the schools that you play year in and year out how strong you are relative to the rest of the teams around the country.
"I would tell you that I think we, as a committee, value that no more or no less than it has been in recent years. It's clearly a component and an important component as we're working right now through our conference monitor reports. I can tell you that it's something that every team that we speak about, it gets mentioned. It's on our radar.
"Personally, I do think it's important … for our ability to compare teams across regions and across different groupings across the country. If you go out and play a lot of people or a number of people that are strong around the country, we have more evidence. We have a better basis to judge teams and evaluate teams. So we consider it very helpful. It is by no means an all or nothing proposition, but it's an important part of our evaluation, for sure."
Teams with non-conference schedules in the 300s have received at-large bids, but it's rare.
Cincinnati's last season was 317th, but the Bearcats, a No. 6 seed, were an easy choice for the bracket thanks to a 5-3 record against the RPI's top 25. Virginia won its lone game against the top 25, against North Carolina State.
George Washington's was 323rd in 2006, but the Colonials were 26-2 and seeded eighth.
Teams with six sub-100 losses have received at-large bids, but again, it's rare.
Southern California in 2011 and Washington in 2004 are the most recent, and their respective non-conference schedules were 66th and 151st.
Translation: No at-large team has overcome the twin liabilities saddling Virginia, seeking its first back-to-back tournament seasons since 1994 and '95 under Jeff Jones.
So it appears imperative for the Cavaliers, 6-0 against the top 100, to win at least one, and perhaps two, of their three remaining marquee games: at No. 36 North Carolina on Saturday, at No. 2 Miami on Tuesday, and home against No. 1 Duke on Feb. 28.
One of the most influential committee voices on Virginia will be West Coast Conference commissioner Jamie Zaninovich. Each member is assigned several leagues to monitor, and the ACC is among his.
"So direct all your cards and letters to Jamie Zaninovich," Bobinski said.
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Some Twitter followers and emailers scolded me this morning for failing to mention some extenuating circumstances surrounding Virginia's non-conference schedule.
I addressed those in a Jan. 28 post.
Compounding the issue: losses to No. 187 Delaware at home and No. 323 Old Dominion in Richmond. Yes, [Jontel] Evans missed those games with a foot injury. No, that's not a viable excuse.
The Delaware defeat was doubly damaging since it dumped Virginia into a consolation bracket of the NIT Season Tip-Off, sentencing it to subsequent games against No. 256 North Texas and No. 321 Lamar. Had the Cavaliers won, they would have advanced to New York with probable games versus No. 37 Kansas State and No. 52 Pittsburgh.
Losses to K-State and/or Pitt would have been well worth the trade off: an immeasurable bump in non-conference schedule strength.