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Daniel Wilco | | January 16, 2019

Explaining college basketball's strength of schedule

College Basketball: March Madness Evolution

As March Madness approaches, there’s a term college basketball fans will hear over and over: strength of schedule.

RELATED: What is March Madness: The NCAA tournament explained

Whether you're extremely familiar with the term, or are seeing it for the very first time right here, we've got you covered with everything you need to know about strength of schedule.

What is strength of schedule?

At its core, strength of schedule measures the difficulty of a team’s schedule, based on the win percentage of that team’s opponents.

Since the 353 Division I teams play vastly different schedules, measuring success based on a team’s overall record alone would be insufficient. A team that played 10 teams ranked in the AP Top 25 and finished with a 20-5 record would be much more impressive than a team that played no ranked teams and finished with a 21-4 record.

RELATED: NCAA selection committee adjusts team sheets, emphasizing road/neutral games

Strength of schedule is often displayed in two ways. In some cases, it is measured in distance from the average. As such, approximately half of teams’ strength of schedules are positive numbers, and approximately half are negative numbers. The higher the number, the stronger the schedule.

In other places, a team's strength of schedule is just displayed as a rank among all 353 teams. In this case, the lower the number, the stronger the schedule.

So, does having the toughest strength of schedule help in March Madness?

We went through eight years of data to answer this question, and looking at the teams that entered Selection Sunday ranked in the top of strength of schedule that season shows a surprising trend: Make your schedule too tough, and you’ll likely be watching the later rounds of the NCAA tournament from home.

*Note: Strength of schedule rankings are based on official NCAA data

Here’s what we saw when we looked at the teams that finished in the top 5 SoS each year from 2010 through 2018.

NCAAT result Times Percentage
Didn't make tournament 4 10.0%
Lost in first round 12 30.0%
Lost in second round 7 17.5%
Lost in Sweet 16 5 12.5%
Lost in Elite Eight 8 20.0%
Lost in Final Four 3 7.5%
Lost in championship game 1 2.5%
Won championship 0 0.0%

Only four of the 40 teams made the Final Four, and just one (2014 Kentucky) made the championship game. And yes, without context, four of 40 teams making the Final Four is above average, but when you consider the expectations that come with a high strength of schedule, these teams are underperforming. What’s more, four teams didn’t even make the tournament.

In total, the majority of teams (57.5 percent) lost before reaching the Sweet 16. Not exactly a strong showing.

Compare these teams to teams with lower-ranked strength of schedules, and a theme becomes apparent:

SoS rank Final Fours Championship games Titles
1-5 4 1 0
6-10 6 2 2
11-15 8 6 4

Yes, you want a tough schedule, but not the toughest in the country. Teams with a strength of schedule ranked 6-15 have won six of the past eight national championships.

And when you look at the toughest of the tough, teams with the No. 1 strength of schedule, the slope gets even steeper.

Year Team SOS Record NCAAT seed NCAAT result
2010 Georgetown 1 23-10 3 Lost in first round
2011 Georgetown 1 21-10 6 Lost in first round
2012 Michigan St. 1 26-7 1 Lost in Sweet 16
2013 Duke 1 27-5 2 Lost in Elite Eight
2014 Kansas 1 24-9 2 Lost in second round
2015 Kansas 1 26-8 2 Lost in second round
2016 Oregon 1 27-6 1 Lost in Elite Eight
2017 Vanderbilt 1 19-15 9 Lost in first round

No team that finished the regular season with the hardest of strength of schedule in the past eight years has made it to the Final Four. Five of eight (62.5 percent) lost on the opening weekend.

So how should this affect how you fill out your bracket?

It’s easy to look at strength of schedule as a complex, telling factor in a team’s toughness, but don’t be tricked into thinking this one number can tell you everything you need to know. If recent history tells us anything, easier schedules don’t lend themselves to March Madness longevity, but the absolute toughest schedules always lead to early exits come tournament time.

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