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Just how tough is Marquette’s Non-Con Schedule?

Every once in a while I like to update my roundup of where pundits and predictors are projecting Marquette to finish in the Big East this upcoming season.

I think it’s more prudent to take a big-picture look than to focus on any one projection in particular (that means you, NBC Sports). But moments after Tweeting that on Monday, Jeff Goodman released his top-25 rankings.

And seeing Goodman’s rankings really solidified my belief that Marquette’s non-conference schedule was going to be something special. But it’s not enough to simply send out some hyperbolic Tweets and leave it at that. I had to do a little more research.

A lot of times when we discuss non-con schedules, we either focus too much on the top tier games, or, more accurately in my case, bottom of the barrel cupcakes. With the RPI 6-feet under and no real gauge for what its replacement, NET, will end up looking like, I figured I could poke around a bit at the top end of the schedule, using Ken Pom ratings as our standard to try and put this year’s level of difficulty in perspective.

Going off of Goodman’s rankings, Marquette is projected to play 6 top-50 opponents in the non-conference slate, so I decided to analyze the top-6 games for every non-con in the Ken Pom era, since 2002.

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And, with the caveat that Ken Pom’s ratings have not been released yet, the data backs up the assertion that this will be one of the most difficult non-con schedules in recent memory. Depending on whether Marquette ends up playing Tennessee or Louisville in the second game of the NIT Preseason Tipoff, the average rank of the 6 toughest non-con opponents will be 19.0 (vs Tenn) or 24.3 (vs Louisville). Either would still top the rankings in terms of average difficulty, beating out 2014’s average of 27.7 and 2002’s average of 34.3. The 17 year average is 65.9, so this year’s top-level competition projects to be 3 times tougher than an average year for Marquette.

And before I continue further spitting numbers out at you, I did want to touch on that 2014 number. That was Buzz Williams’ final season with Marquette, coming off of an Elite 8 season and bringing back loads of talented veterans (Davante, Jamil, Otule, Mayo) as well as a heralded freshman class (Burton,JJJ, Duane). However, it was missing a key ingredient as Vander Blue, as he declared for the NBA somewhat unexpectedly.

Buzz had a reputation for scheduling anyone, anywhere, and certainly lived up to it with challenging home and homes with a then-resurgent Vanderbilt and a streaky LSU. But in reality, the schedule dropped off fairly steeply after the top 2-3 games. Only once did MU play 3 top-30 teams (2014) and only 2 seasons saw more than 3 top-50 games on the docket. The average Ken Pom  rank for the 6th best non-con opponent was 123, and happened to be UWM all 4 years of the series. This is not a knock on Buzz or the program, just trying to show that even when coaches and teams have difficult non-con schedules, the difficulty level drops off sharply after the top 2 or 3 opponents. (And for the record, Tom Crean’s non-con schedule was positively frightening. The average KP rank by opponent: 4th, 88.7; 5th, 130.4; 6th, 152.6)

Going back to that 2014 season, not only did Vander never make it, Duane lost the season due to injury, Jameel McKay transferred the day after MU Madness and Steve Taylor’s knee never made a full recovery after summer surgery.

I bring this up for 2 reasons. The first is that a coaching staff has to be incredibly confident in its roster to schedule this way. A team that doesn’t have the mental or physical fortitude can see a full season wasted before conference play even starts. And while it is true that Marquette was somewhat fortunate/unfortunate to land in a loaded Thanksgiving tourney and get a very strong Gavitt opponent, making up half of the 3 games on the top-6 schedule, adding Kansas State gives the game away in terms of how confident the staff is in regards to this team.

Marquette could have, and I thought would have, scheduled a decent, top-75ish opponent for that home-and home slot like Georgia the previous years. This would get the team a high major opponent that would draw a decent crowd, but also a team that Marquette would be favored against. Instead, a loaded (and old) Kansas State will visit Milwaukee, in a game that could easily feature MU as a home dog. You don’t schedule this game in particular unless you have full faith in the team.

The second reason I brought up 2014 was to show that just because a team schedules well, doesn’t mean the results always follow. In 2014, what the staff believed was an experienced team loaded to take on a heavy load ended up turning into a disastrous 1-5 showing that ended up keeping Marquette even out of the NIT. Simply having a great, difficult schedule does not tell us much about a team or the success that team will have.

Over the last 17 years, Marquette has gone 59-43 against top-6 non-con foes, a 57.8 win percentage. During NCAA tournament years, that goes down to 36-30, a 54.5 win percentage.

In sum, Marquette will have a much tougher schedule than it has had in recent history, and going by that history, which includes 11 NCAA trips and and 4 Sweet 16s, will not come out unscathed. Brace yourselves accordingly.

Random Facts

  • Here’s the breakdown of opponent strength by coach, not including any 2019 numbers.
    Coach Top 50 1 2 3 4 5 6
    Wojo 2.5 12.5 23.8 49.5 71.3 91.0 117.8
    Buzz 3.3 9.2 17.2 44.2 69.3 81.3 123.0
    Crean 2.7 9.9 20.9 53.7 88.7 130.4 152.6
  • For all except 1 year, and including this upcoming season, the location of these games under Wojo has been 3 at home, 1 on the road, 2 neutral. Under Buzz, MU never played more than 2 of these top-6 games at home.
  • In the last 17 non-con years, Marquette only has 1 top-5 win, is 4-10 against top-10 foes, and 9-14 against top-20 teams. There will be 3, possibly 4 games against projected top-20 teams this season.
  • Marquette is 16-1 against the 6th best non-con opponent in the KenPom era, with the sole loss coming at UW-Green Bay in 2012, a season that ended in the Elite 8.
  • Marquette played at least 3 sub-100 teams as part of its top-6 in 3 seasons, making the NCAA Torunament 2 of those 3.
  • If Marquette ends up facing Tennessee in NY this November, it could end up with the toughest 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th games in MU’s Ken Pom era. Loaded.
    1 2 3 4 5 6
    Top 2 6 19 33 39 47
    W/ Tenn 2 9 12 20 31 40
    W/ UL 2 12 20 31 40 41
    1 2 3 4 5 6
    Average 10.235 20.2 49 78 104 134
    W/ Tenn 2 9 12 20 31 40
    W/ UL 2 12 20 31 40 41
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