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March 6, 2013

Smart scheduling leads to OU NCAA promise

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Ask any college basketball fan what his or her criteria is for making the NCAA tournament, and it will undoubtedly vary.

After all, they're opinions. And everybody has an opinion.

However, most want to know who a team has played and where and how a team has played on the road. Amassing 20 wins in a season can mean next to nothing if all 20 have come against teams ranked low in the Ratings Percentage Index.

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The RPI is used to rank team's strength of schedule and has been an instrument used by the selection committee to help decide which teams are awarded seeds in the Big Dance since 1981. Oklahoma men's basketball coach Lon Kruger is aware of this and takes pains to avoid scheduling non-conference teams that could hurt the Sooners in March.

Scheduling matters.

"We like to play people that are not in the 200s and below for strength of schedule," Kruger said. "Of course, you don't know exactly what that's going to be going into the season, but you kind of anticipate. So we try to stay away from the ones that can actually hurt you from a strength of schedule standpoint."

Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione is among those on the selection committee. Kruger insisted Castiglione doesn't discuss the intimate details of the selection process with him.

"When they talk about Oklahoma in those committees, when they talk about Oklahoma, Joe's not in the room," Kruger said. "The committee's made up of however many -- What, 10? 12? -- and each of them kind of put different weight on different things.

"It's not like there's a blueprint for all 12 guys, or however many is on it, to think exactly the same way, so Joe's opinion about strength of schedule, last 10 ball games, whatever, may be totally different from the other people on the committee."

Coaches want to put the best possible body of work in front of the selection committee. Programs scour RPI reports to try and identify teams they can play each season to have a Herculean strength of schedule, and this season you might say the OU coaching staff crushed Antaeus.

The Sooners' strength of schedule is ranked sixth-best in country and the RPI has them ranked at No. 22 in early March.

"If you'd have said in October we'd be 22 at this point, we'd have been thrilled, sure," Kruger said. "I think anyone in the country would take that at this point. Again, I think those early road wins were key to that. The people that we beat on the road early are having good years."

Chalk one up for OU men's basketball director of operations Mike Shepherd. He's charged with scouting out non-conference opponents for the Sooners.

Shepherd said he looks for teams that are not only good opponents for the Sooners but will look good on their resume on Selection Sunday.

"You get very fortunate in some years, and this being one of those, in that all of those teams that are on our schedule have very good resumes of their own," Shepherd told SoonerScoop.com.

Oklahoma earned one of its last non-conference victories of the season against a team that finished last season with a 29-8 record. The opponent was Ohio, and OU's 74-63 defeat of the Bobcats notched another big win for the Sooners.

Perhaps it wasn't a windfall as large as Oklahoma's toppling of then-No. 5 Kansas last month, but it has been a large help. Ohio has an RPI ranking of No. 73 according to CBSSports.com, and the Bobcats have already won more than 20 games this season.

OU also won home and away games against Baylor, which is ranked No. 61 in the same RPI. The Sooners' 10-6 Big 12 record doesn't hurt either.

"Obviously, the Big 12 is extremely strong, so your strength of schedule is gonna be strong because you have such good opponents in the Big 12," Shepherd said.

And then there are OU's losses.

The Sooners have been fortunate not only beat teams with reputable NCAA tournament resumes but lose to them as well. Oklahoma's first loss this season came to No. 1 Gonzaga at a neutral site, and the Sooners have suffered just two losses at Lloyd Noble Center.

One of those losses came against Stephen F. Austin, which is ranked No. 63 in the RPI and owns a 24-3 record this season. The other came against No. 9 Kansas State, which is vying for the Big 12 title this season.

Only 13 of Oklahoma's 28 games have been played at home, but that's what it has taken for the Sooners to have an NCAA tournament bid square in their sights.

"We're not afraid to go on the road and play," Shepherd said. "Coach Kruger never has been."




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