Lancaster Bible: Go undefeated or go home

We have arrived at an interesting crossroads in Division III men’s basketball. Every year there are good teams who need to win their conference tournaments to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. But this year, we see a very good team who actually has to win their conference tournament just to make sure they go undefeated.

Over the last few seasons we have commented, argued, lamented, and even shaken our heads that Albertus Magnus would have to win their conference to get into the NCAA Tournament despite two or three losses. But we also understood it. Teams like Albertus Magnus, Southern Vermont, PSU-Behrend, St. Vincent, Northwestern (Minn.) and others who have been nationally ranked need to prove themselves outside of their conference and usually stumble at that task. These teams are all losing usually their third game in a conference tournament (or championship) which everyone tends to agree is the death nail.

But to lose your first game in the conference tournament and not get in? How did we get here?

I am not sure I know where to put a finger on it, but we can certainly start pointing at when the Strength of Schedule (SOS) numbers started to be trusted and more of the old guard who leaned heavily on win-loss percentage (WL) started to rotate off committees. After what had been a horrific experience with the Quality of Wins Index, the SOS was born and evolved, but it wasn’t trusted. Why would you trust another strength metric when the previous one had gone down in flames? But as the SOS evolved and people better understood how it worked and it more importantly proved to be consistent, those on committees started to buy in. The moment we should have realized the SOS was going to play a major role a few years ago when the men (and other committees around Division III) decided to add in a multiplier for home and away games.

The evolution of the multiplier was because some coaches either for a long time had been parking themselves at home, acting like a dictator, making sure anyone who wanted to play them out of conference came to their gym. Or coaches figured out that it would be easier for them to not travel and instead play at home to bolster their SOS – less risk. This resulted in a few years where the SOS wasn’t adding up to what everyone knew and felt about teams and schedules and it was giving some teams a major advantage to remain at home for both weekends of the NCAA Tournament (thanks to the inflated SOS they had built without leaving their gym in the first place). The multiplier was added and it quickly made an impact. Sure, it was heavy handed at first with 1.4 for road games and .60 for away games, but that was soon adjusted to 1.25 and .75. But no matter, the multiplier and thus the SOS shook up Division III basketball. (It also coincided with more games being counted as in-region and that helped bolster scheduling as well.)

As the SOS gained momentum and trust, it also started to take over conversations on Regional Advisory Committees (RAC) and on the national level. Soon we all could see teams seemed to be ranked higher more because of their SOS than their WL. But we also saw the internal fights not only on the RACs, but between RACs when one region might rank more heavily on SOS because those on the committee trusted it more and another region which clearly was leaning on WL because there were members who didn’t want the WL to lose importance. This was all seemingly without caring for the other criteria.

Then a few years ago we started hearing about a way that at least the national committee was trying to work to understand the differences between SOS and WL. What does it mean to be 20-2 with an SOS of .510 versus being 17-5 with an SOS of .570? There was no way to grade those two. The committees were left with trying to understand an SOS number they trusted but couldn’t truly breakdown across regions, between conferences, and head-to-head with teams. Thus the .030 SOS difference to 2-games ratio emerged. Groundbreaking. Criteria-shifting. An ah-ha moment in Division III basketball.

Now the committees had a measuring stick to compare teams with. Even if it didn’t give them a deciding factor, it did give them a way to lean if it was obvious. Now a team that was 20-2 with a .510 could be adjusted to roughly a 16-6 while the 17-5 team with a .570 could be adjusted to 21-1 when compared to the other team’s SOS. (20-2 w/.510 = 16-6 w/.570; 17-5 w/.570 = 21-1 w/.510).

At first they didn’t extrapolate out from .030=2 to .060=4 and beyond. We were told last year and years before that the math seemed to get fuzzy drawing that particular straight a line. But this year the committee seems to be clearly drawing that line.

And that’s how we have gotten to looking at Lancaster Bible who has a .422 SOS, being undefeated, and not even regionally ranked in the East (not one of the more difficult regions to be ranked). The SOS has taken on a significant role despite the fact none of the criteria is supposed to be prioritized. LBC’s SOS sticks out like a sore thumb. It is hard to ignore.

Lancaster Bible celebrated going 25-0, but will need to go 27-0 to make the NCAA Tournament. (Lancaster Bible athletics photo)

Lancaster Bible celebrated going 25-0, but will need to go 27-0 to make the NCAA Tournament. (Lancaster Bible athletics photo)

Just to get LBC regionally ranked in the first place means comparing them to SUNY Geneseo who sits sixth this week. Here is the breakdown (using data the RAC and national committee would have been looking at through Sunday):

LBC:                       21-0 or 1.000 (in-region/D3)                       1-0 vRRO             .422 SOS              24-0 (overall)
Geneseo:            17-7 or .708 (in-region/D3)                          2-4 vRRO             .536 SOS              17-8 (overall)

If we only go by the .030=2 ratio, we need to adjust to the .114 difference between the two teams’ SOS. To be fair, we will only draw the line to .090=6 because we don’t want to round up to the next break of .120=8. LBC now has the equivalent of a 15-6 (.714) in-region record while Geneseo is up to a 23-1 (.958) record. Ouch.

But is that fair? Should the line be that straight? Can anyone actually sit down and say that because .030=2 that means .060=4? Or .090=6? When working with metrics like this that is hard to say.

Now the D3 numbers guru, Matt Snyder, contends the ratio shouldn’t cross metrics. That a number like .030 shouldn’t be compared to a solid games number like 2. It should be more like .030=.080 (winning percentage).

If that is the case, let’s readjust the numbers. LBC now has a winning percentage of .760 when translated to a .536 SOS and Geneseo has a winning percentage of .948 translated to a .422 SOS. LBC’s winning percentage is actually better in this scenario and Geneseo’s doesn’t go up as high. However, it still leaves LBC out in the cold. And no, the vRRO isn’t helping and the committee probably isn’t getting far enough into the secondary criteria to give LBC credit for three more wins.

Lancaster Bible isn’t going to make the NCAA Tournament if they finish the season 25-1 or 26-1. It is obvious. And one could argue it isn’t fair.

Lancaster Bible has a number of things going against them. They play 18 conference games in a conference that arguably is one of the worst in the country. They have no choice but to play 18 games against teams whose own data is poor and they only can play seven games out of the conference to improve their situation. At some point, one would argue we shouldn’t be punishing teams like Lancaster Bible who are still winning no matter what their conference situation is. That straight line between SOS and WL probably should be more of a curve that eventually hits a point where too large of a discrepancy between SOS numbers can’t be easily measured in hard number of games or winning percentage adjustments. We can probably safely assume that SOS numbers on the extreme, like Lancaster Bible is on the low end, are rare. We can probably also safely assume that SOS numbers in the middle are far more common. So why would an extreme SOS be treated the same as those closer to the middle? I get that .030=2 when dealing those comparisons in the middle two-thirds, but it feels a bit extreme when dealing with SOS numbers well off the middle. It isn’t like a team in LBC’s situation can go and win MORE games to offset the SOS primarily affected by the conference. The same is true for teams like in the NESCAC last year who had extremely high SOS numbers; at some point how many games do they have to lose to bring their SOS back to the middle and more realistic a positioning?

That last example actually gets to what I think is an inadvertent double-standard. Last year North Central finished the season with an 18-8 record and a gaudy SOS of .587. In almost every criteria comparison against other teams using .030=2, North Central wins. You couldn’t overcome their SOS number. But they didn’t make the NCAA Tournament because the national committee basically said they lost too many games. In other words, great schedule, but you need to win more to qualify as an at-large.

The committee(s) seems to not be taking the same approach when it comes to Lancaster Bible. Instead of saying, they have done everything actually possible in this situation to overcome their SOS by winning every single game on their schedule, the committee(s) is saying, your SOS is so poor you can never overcome it. No chance.

No chance? So North Central puts together a ridiculously good schedule, but are not rewarded for that SOS because they didn’t win enough games. North Central actually could overcome the problem by winning one or two more games, something they have done this year. Lancaster Bible has a ridiculously bad schedule, but are not rewarded for the fact they at least went out and didn’t lose. They pretty much can’t do anything more if they are an at-large team and only lost their final game of the season.

Those previous examples we showed of teams who didn’t, or weren’t, going to make the NCAA Tournament without an automatic bid at least had lost two or three games to change the equation. LBC has lost none and at worst will have one. It seems strange you can ding a team and keep them from making the tournament based on the W-L not being good enough against a really good SOS, but then turn around and ding a team and possibly keep them out of the tournament based on a near-perfect W-L no matter the SOS.

There will be teams who make this year’s NCAA Tournament as at-large teams because of incredibly good SOS numbers, but lost five, six, seven, or more games. If the Chargers miss out, it will be simply because they lost their first game in their final game of the entire schedule. That really seems backwards. Wins and losses eventually trumps a really good SOS. Why can’t wins and a lack of losses also eventually trump a really bad SOS? We already know there is a line around three losses. Are we comfortable drawing a line at one loss?

Now, Lancaster Bible is not an innocent bystander. They have one of the worst SOS numbers in the entire country. They in fact have the worst SOS in their conference! But there is a reason they are at the bottom of the NEAC in terms of SOS. The NEAC is full of programs that other teams will either schedule to help improve their own team or to use as fodder for what might be an already difficult schedule. That or they want to warm up to the start the season or restart after the exam/holiday break with an easier opponent. Bryn Athyn has a .484 SOS. Do you really think that is because Bryn Athyn is able to schedule better in their third season of existence than Lancaster Bible can?

No, it’s because LBC has been good for several years now. They have lost in the conference finals the last few years, missing out on the NCAA Tournament as a result despite a 24-3 record last season. They ended up qualifying for the NCCAA Division II tournament and won the national title in a four-round tournament. They are no longer considered fodder for other teams around them in the Mid-Atlantic or Atlantic Regions nor in their own East Region. Teams don’t want to play them because they might actually lose! But because LBC can’t schedule tough opponents doesn’t let them off the hook.

The previous coaching staff put together a sub-par out-of-conference schedule in the eyes of SOS and regional opponents of significance. Of the seven games they scheduled, only one ended up being against a team that even enters the regional conversation, Franklin and Marshall. LBC played them thanks to the fact they went to Messiah’s tournament and the Falcons didn’t want to play F&M or New Jersey City in the opening round. Otherwise, the schedule was full of either have-beens or never-have-beens including one, Valley Forge, that doesn’t even count in the eyes of the NCAA (Valley Forge is in their second provisional year of the four-year Division III process; Valley Forge is the very definition of a fodder team in the Mid-Atlantic and Atlantic regions). Of the six out-of-conference opponents on LBC’s schedule this year that they could control (F&M being the exception), NONE of them have a winning record.

But the NEAC doesn’t help. Of the 12 conference opponents and 18 games in LBC’s schedule, only three have winning records. LBC played 14 games in conference against teams with a total record of 64-156 (.290). Playing against Morrisville State (18-7) once, SUNYIT (Poly) (14-12) once, and Gallaudet (18-7) twice only improved the conference opponents winning percentage to 114-182 (.385). You simply cannot overcome that when nearly three-quarters of your schedule is against opponents who can’t win even 40-percent of their games. Nor when half of your schedule is against teams who can’t win 30-percent of their games.

What is even worse? NEAC expansion from the outside and from within forces LBC to play teams like Bryn Athyn twice, who don’t even count towards the NCAA criteria (thus the difference of games between LBC’s in-region/D3 record and their overall). For LBC, it is a lose-lose-lose scenario: forced to play them twice; the wins essentially don’t count and they don’t help the SOS; and LBC certainly better not lose to those teams, either. The optics of that are even worse!

The NEAC’s playing schedule, make up of teams, institutional philosophies, and the fact many are fodder for better teams doesn’t help squads like LBC get into the NCAA Tournament. The conference has shown it can produce really good, top-notch programs like Morrisville State who took advantage of conference titles and marched themselves to the Sweet 16 (’13) and then the Elite 8 (’14) in back to back seasons. SUNYIT got to the Sweet 16 prior to that.

Other conferences, especially large ones have found ways to help their top teams. Whether it’s not forcing teams to play every single team in the conference twice or even once (divisional conferences sometimes only have a team play half of the other division) or they only allow a certain number of teams into the conference tournament (which the NEAC does). Some conferences will also protect the top seeds from taking on teams early in their conference tournaments that may further hurt their SOS or accidentally knock out the conference’s best hope in the post-season using a bye or double-bye system (the OAC women in the past and the CUNYAC this season used the double-bye system). The double-bye usually keeps the top seeds safe from a bad SOS hit and protects them from losing a game early that will certainly knock them out of the post-season discussion.

Some may ask if Lancaster Bible or others in their situation should consider moving conferences. I am sure the idea has crossed the minds of those at LBC, but it doesn’t help programs immediately (it is at least a two-year process) and with a team like LBC, where are they going to go? The MAC Commonwealth, CAC, Centennial, and Landmark (all of which surround LBC) aren’t looking to expand and LBC doesn’t necessarily fit into those conferences very well, other than possibly the CAC. If they aren’t going to fit into the MAC Commonwealth, then the Freedom in the Atlantic Region is out of the question and they certainly don’t fit the NJAC or the CUNYAC models. There is the Skyline, but would that conference want to add another long trip when they already have Sage in the mix? (Merchant Marine is leaving the Landmark and rejoining the Skyline because of scheduling problems. Can you imagine them being okay with a trip to central Pennsylvania every year?) Don’t look at the East Region, because the SUNYAC, Empire 8, Liberty League are not options for LBC. There is the AMCC in the Great Lakes Region, but I’m not sure that’s really being something the AMCC would be interested in doing.

So LBC is stuck in the bed they are in. They can only control their out-of-conference schedule which coach Zach Filzen admitted on Hoopsville on Thursday needs to be fixed moving forward (he inherited this season’s schedule when he took over in June). But the conference, and others similar, needs to look at how they can help as well whether it is changing the scheduling to allow more out-of-conference games or protecting the top seed to avoid catastrophe.

It also gets back to the selection and ranking criteria. There can’t be such a rigid line that a team who does everything it possibly can outside of winning a game against a conference opponent for possibly a third time can’t get into the NCAA tournament. How can the WL trump a really good SOS, but it can’t trump a really bad SOS?

Everyone you talk to who has seen Lancaster Bible in action says they are a legitimate Top 25 team. If they continue, they will certainly be a team that can repeat what Morrisville State did. They are good enough talent wise to compete with some of the best in the country. But they won’t get there unless they actually go perfect for the regular season. It almost seems better if they had tanked some of their games earlier in the season so we could look at their resume and say, “well, they have a poor SOS and they couldn’t even win against that schedule. Of course they have to win their conference title. With that many losses against that SOS, they stand no chance as an at-large.”

As it stands now, Lancaster Bible stands no chance at an at-large even if they only lose the final game of the season.