According to CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein, Florida will be playing Ohio in a non-conference game that is reportedly taking place on December 12th. It will be a neutral site game in Tampa at Amalie Arena.
This might sound like a regular announcement of a non-conference game but really, it represents a lot more.
When Todd Golden was hired at Florida he had a reputation as someone who is very into analytics. Hearing that, a lot of people are going to think of shot selection, lineup decisions, and in-game strategy, and while that is a huge way that analytics will be utilized in the Florida basketball program it’s far from the only way.
An area where analytics can be utilized for a major advantage is with scheduling, and doing everything possible to game the NCAA’s NET rankings–their official sorting tool for the NCAA Tournament. Given that the NET is algorithmically generated there are ways to position your team as positively as possible and the game that Florida just scheduled with Ohio shows that Golden is bringing the analytically savvy method of smart scheduling and gaming the NET to the Gators’ program. Here’s how.
There are various ways of predicting where teams will finish in the NET, both based on historical data of the league that team has come from, and how their roster looks going into the season. According to analytics tool T-Rank, Ohio is predicted to finish 163rd in the country.
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that T-Rank nails the prediction and Ohio ends up finishing the season 163rd in the NET.
If the Gators were to play this game in Gainesville, it would be a quadrant-4 game, the least valuable game to the NCAA Selection committee. That’s because for a true home game, the NET system values a game against a team ranked 161-353 as a quadrant-4 game.
However, the Gators didn’t schedule this game at home, they scheduled it for a neutral site. Because of that, if Ohio did finish 163rd, this would be a quadrant-3 game.
Despite playing the same team, playing Ohio at a neutral site inherently makes this game a whole lot more valuable. Of course, there is also a bit of gamesmanship with having this game in Tampa, far from a true neutral site location with Ohio. The NCAA used to use “semi-home” and “semi-away” distinctions for in-state “neutral” site games, but in the NET system the distinction isn’t so clear.
Targeting a team that is in the mid-100s range of projected finish and scheduling them for a neutral floor might be coincidence, but I have a very hard time believing that. This game has analytically savvy, game-the-NET-Ranking-system goodness written all over it and this has to be the first move by Golden to fully use data to put his team in the best situation to make the NCAA Tournament and have a good-seed.
Part of the reason San Francisco was able to make the NCAA Tournament last season under Golden with a solid seed was this exact type of intelligent scheduling. They played Davidson (46th in the NET), Towson (71st in the NET), UAB (49th in the NET), Grand Canyon (92nd in the NET), and Loyola Chicago (28th in the NET), which meant three quadrant -1 games and two quadrant-2 games, a very quality schedule boost even while playing exclusively mid-majors.
Florida last year, on the other hand, played largely teams in the mid 200s in the NET at home. If you’re a hardcore fan who follows the NET after every game, you’ll remember that the Gators won a couple of these games and still dropped in the NET afterwards, a sign of just little weight these games are given by the NET. Ultimately, this played a small part in the Gators not being close to the NCAA Tournament conversation.
We will continue to see the impact of Golden using analytics to help him lead the program and this game with Ohio on a neutral site is a shining example of how data can help a college basketball team with all elements, both on the floor and off of Item.