Georgetown released its full schedule on Thursday, announcing the Hoyas’ course to an inevitable Final Four trip to my hometown of Minneapolis. Thursday itself produced no great news, because the Hoyas had announced their non-conference schedule earlier in the week, and because the Big East has played a round-robin format since its 2013 reorganization. But now that we can see the entire schedule, we can assess its strength in context.
Better than Last Year
Georgetown has made a bit of progress from its relatively soft non-conference schedule last season. To recap, last year, the Hoyas played Syracuse, a couple of respectable mid-majors, and a the dregs of Division 1. Georgetown arrived at this light load, in part, by backing out of a commitment to play in the PK80-Phil Knight Invitational, which would have entailed facing a stacked field of fellow Nike schools. Head Coach Patrick Ewing justified this light scheduling by pointing out that he and his team needed time to ramp up for conference play. His players were learning his system and expectations, and he was learning their abilities. After non-conference play, Georgetown then played a fierce Big East schedule, playing each of its conference foes twice, including eventual national champion Villanova and five other Big East-ers that went dancing.
This season, Georgetown has made progress. Syracuse is no longer the only major-conference opponent, as the Hoyas will be facing the Orange again, and also Illinois and SMU (the last of which is major-ish). And instead of feasting on just low-majors, Georgetown also has peppered in some respectable mid-majors, including Liberty, Appalachian State, and Campbell. These aren’t exactly household names, but they’re a step up from the mostly sub-300 fare on last year’s schedule.
To put this in perspective, just using last season’s final KenPom ratings (an admittedly sloppy projection for the season ahead), here’s how this season’s non-conference slate stacks up against last year’s:
Georgetown’s Non-Conference Schedule
Is It Good Enough?
Georgetown fans are understandably excited about the coming season. An athletic, energetic, hungry group of freshman is arriving. The new crop includes James Akinjo, the best point guard recruit Georgetown has landed since at least Markel Starks in 2010, if not Chris Wright three years before that. Josh LeBlanc, a defensive menace and all-around athlete at forward, will push for minutes immediately from a coach who prizes toughness and energy. And there’s Mac McClung, who promises to be more than an Internet sensation. The returning Hoyas include Jessie Govan, a potential all-conference anchor at center; Jamorko Pickett, a rangy wing athlete with a sweet stroke, and a bunch of promising underclassmen. There’s reason to hope, without delusion, for a Tournament berth.
Georgetown’s schedule complicates those hopes. Most Dance invitations are discretionary, and increasingly depend on strength of schedule. Teams that stock up on cupcakes before the conference slate to boost their win totals can find themselves on the wrong side of the bubble, with nothing but early-season empty calories to blame. If you want more on this topic, I’d suggest the always-informed twitter feeds of Hoya die-hards and overall college basketball savants @BracketvilleUSA and Film Room master @NatwionwideNolan.
So how does Georgetown’s schedule rate in this regard? Below average, probably. As some context, last season six Big East teams made the tournament. In the non-conference, those teams, on average, scheduled 2.5 KenPom top-50 opponents, 2.5 more from the top 100, and 4 more from the 101-200 range. In short, these teams’ non-conference foes were mostly above-average teams. Turning to the bottom of the ratings, barely 1 opponent of the average NCAA Tournament qualifier from the Big East came from the wrong side of 300. None of these teams’ schedules were exactly world-beaters, either. Only Villanova (61) had a non-conference strength of schedule within the top 100.
Viewed in this context, Georgetown’s non-conference schedule might be a step forward when a leap was needed. The Hoyas are likely to have just one top-50 opponent, and potentially none in the top 25. Instead of stocking up on above-average opponents, Georgetown has scheduled mostly subpar foes from the 200s and 300s. While no NCAA Tournament team from the Big East played more than 5 non-conference games against sub-200 KenPom foes, Georgetown will play somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 such games this season.
I’ll digress for just a moment to point out that this schedule might come up a bit short by a couple of other measures as well. For example, season-ticket holders will see just SMU and Richmond as notable non-conference opponents, and a notable decline in big weekend conference games, which instead largely fall on weeknights. Similarly, apart from the annual game with Syracuse, there isn’t a notable television game on the non-conference schedule. That could negatively affect attendance and ratings.
The Conference Problem
While Georgetown’s non-conference schedule may be stronger than last season, its conference slate is likely to be less so. Last season, the Big East featured six NCAA Tournament teams, including two that ended up as top seeds in the NCAA Tournament. This was an impressive turnout for a ten-team conference, the best in this iteration’s short history. Unsurprisingly, early projections for this season are less rosy, with four or five Big East teams dancing and only Villanova forecast as better than a middling (6-11) seed. The Wildcats may come back to Earth a bit, while the other #1 seed, Xavier has both roster and coaching turnover, and fellow dancers Seton Hall, Creighton, Butler, and Providence are replacing key pieces. The Big East will still be a strong conference, and while some teams are falling, others — Marquette, maybe St. John’s and even your Hoyas — may rise. But the improvement in Georgetown’s non-conference schedule may be dampened by a somewhat softer conference slate.
Will this matter?
It’s hard to say what the practical implications will be. The Hoyas undoubtedly hope to improve on their .500 overall record, and their 5-13 conference mark. They’ll have their work cut out for them, integrating young guards while replacing their do-everything cornerstone, Marcus Derrickson. But given improved guard play, a year of seasoning for the youngins, and Georgetown’s bad luck in close games last year, the Hoyas could well improve to, say, 20 wins and a .500 conference record entering the Big East Tournament.
That may not be enough. For example, even with 5 other Big East-ers making the dance, Georgetown could get to 20 wins without beating a tournament team. While such an extreme scenario is unlikely, it does illustrate how few opportunities for high-quality wins Georgetown is likely to have. That might not matter if the Hoyas play themselves off the bubble one way or the other, but could also cause their bubble to burst.
I don’t want to oversell this point. It’s good to see Georgetown scheduling better than last season. Ewing may be taking a baby-steps approach to build up the schedule as he feels that his team is prepared for it. Two or three seasons from now, this may seem like a trivial point if Georgetown is back at the top of the conference and scheduling other big boys. Ewing certainly has earned our patience in that regard. That said, the schedule may leave fans, and the selection committee, wanting more, and so may leave Georgetown sweating out the second Sunday in March.