Was the non-conference schedule as important to Clemson Men's Basketball as we were led to believe?

A weak non-conference schedule was cited as a reason why the Tigers failed to make the NCAA Tournament last season, but now some programs are fattening their resumes with poor non-con competition.

Nov 28, 2023; Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA;  Clemson Tigers  head coach Brad Brownell
Nov 28, 2023; Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA; Clemson Tigers head coach Brad Brownell / Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

When Clemson Men’s Basketball missed the NCAA tournament in 2023, more than a few fans believed the Tigers had been screwed by the playoff committee. I was not one of those people.

I certainly hoped Clemson was going to make the cut, but I understood why they were on the bubble and why they ultimately were on the wrong side of the bubble. I agreed with the two prevailing reasons cited why Clemson wasn’t dancing: 1) Their non-conference schedule wasn’t good enough and 2) they had too many bad losses to poor opponents.

I was pleased to see the Tigers had made an effort to improve their non-conference schedule for the 2023-24 season. They took action on the part they could address in the offseason. The rest was up to the team when they took the court.

The Tigers have improved their record against Quad 3 and 4 competition this season. They are 6-2 in Q3 and 5-0 in Q4. Last season, Clemson was 7-2 in Q3 and 9-3 in Q4. The improvement in strength of schedule and efficiency against the weakest competition has resulted in a 2023-34 squad that isn’t just in the NCAA projected field, but competing for a Top-4 seed by some estimations.

Now there appears to be a new trend that runs counter to our assumptions as to why the Tigers missed the tournament last year, at least in part. Some teams/conferences are being accused of getting fat on a relatively weak non-con schedule and getting into the tournament without being tested against better competition.

Clemson head coach Brad Brownell has alluded to this theory in his press conferences. Clemson alum Terrance Oglesby has been leading the charge.

This is what The Athletic said at the beginning of February:

"There is credence to these claims. Kansas, Houston, and Baylor played perfectly respectable nonconference schedules. But if you take BYU, Iowa State, Cincinnati, Oklahoma, Texas, Texas Tech, and TCU — all of which ranked in the top 36 of the NET and top 32 of KenPom as of Monday morning — the average NET nonconference strength of schedule is 292. (There are 362 Division I teams this season.) Those seven teams have combined to go 57-0 against Quad 4 opponents, each playing at least seven, and only a collective 1-10 in non-league Quad 1 games."

Justin Williams

If teams are working the system by fattening up on weak competition this year, why was it such a problem for the Tigers in 2022-23? Does this mean that we had it wrong about Clemson’s 2022-23 non-conference schedule being a reason why they were left out of the tournament?

It might seem that way at first, but the simple answer is that it was a combination of the two reasons. Clemson would have slid into the tournament if they had more quality wins in their non-con, even if they still dropped three Quad 4 games. Conversely, the absence of quality non-con wins wouldn’t have bumped them to the wrong side of the bubble had they not lost to South Carolina, Loyola Chicago, and Louisville.

Clemson could have played a similar non-con and gotten in this year, but they would probably be looking at an 8 or 9 seed. By addressing both factors, they are looking at a much better situation as a potential 5-seed (per Joe Lunardi).

The NET continues to be an imperfect system. It will be fascinating to see if the committee weeds out any of the bubble teams that have a good NET ranking but a poor non-conference ranking.