KANSAS CITY, Mo. — With less than a month left until Selection Sunday, the forecast in Lawrence is the same as it ever was: The Kansas Jayhawks (21-5, 10-3 Big 12) appear earmarked, at worst, for another No. 2 seed in the Big Dance, a journey that figures to start in Omaha.
But if KU should happen to creep into the conversation as a 1 seed — and it might have to win out in order to move up a peg — it’ll have its dance card to thank.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the Jayhawks rank No. 1 in the country in terms of opponent strength of schedule — by the Ratings Percentage Index, Ken Pomeroy, anybody with a calculator and a pulse. But KU hasn’t just played the toughest schedule in the country: According to at least one prominent database, it’s in the back nine of the single-toughest schedule in the last 35 years of the program — and the single-toughest slate in the short history of the Big 12, which opened for basketball business in the winter of 1995-96.
Sports-Reference.com keeps a running tab of Division I college basketball teams’ strength of schedule (SOS) dating back to 1979, assigning a numerical rating — 0.0 is considered average, and 2.0 through 8.0 are generally typical — relative to the quality of the opposition, with non-Division I foes being thrown out of the calculation. S-R.com rates the ’14-15 Jayhawks as having weathered a 12.4 strength of schedule so far, tops in the nation and the most challenging under coach Bill Self, besting the old mark of 11.4 set during the short-lived "Wiggins Era" of last winter, as well as the slate played by Roy Williams’ 1990-91 national runners-up (11.37).
If the modern NFL timeline starts with the AFL-NFL merger of 1970, the modern college basketball era coincides with the Bird-vs.-Magic, Indiana State-Michigan State national championship showdown of spring 1979. The Jayhawks’ 12.4 SOS rank is the second highest among Big 12/Big Eight programs dating to ’79-80, topped only by the 13.1 score posted by Johnny Orr’s Iowa State Cyclones in 1990-91.
Rating systems aren’t universal in their love for KU’s performances — lopsided losses to Kentucky and Temple tend to take a big bite out of the bytes — but they’re fairly uniform in their regard for the Jayhawks’ slate. Another useful metrics site, TeamRankings.com, tracks SOS for all games played between Division I opponents dating to 1997-98. KU’s .643 score this winter isn’t just the highest in the country — it’s the highest score of any Division I school over the past 18 seasons.
"A lot depends on how we do nonconference," Self offered up, almost prophetically, during Big 12 Media Day late last fall. "Let’s just face it: We need to play well nonconference, because that sets your RPI up for the entire year."
And it has. The Jayhawks hit the midweek ranked first in overall RPI, much to the annoyance of fans of, say, Kentucky (26-0) and Virginia (24-1). But the RPI — it’s just a tool, remember, one of many considered by the highbrows on the NCAA Tournament selection committee — puts its weight on the quality of the teams you’ve beaten and the quality of the teams those teams have beaten, regardless of the margin, with greater weight on road victories.
The top-ranked, unbeaten Wildcats, as of Wednesday, have faced six foes ranked 180th or lower in the RPI (including Missouri — ranked 189th — twice). The Cavaliers have played four, with one more (Virginia Tech, 222nd) coming up.
In fact, the worst RPI team on Self’s schedule is a league foe his squad has already beaten twice — Texas Tech (rank: 163). The Jayhawks played Kentucky (RPI rank: 2) and Michigan State on neutral courts, splitting the two contest; beat Utah (ninth) on a semi-home court (Sprint Center); and won at Georgetown (23rd).
The RPI doesn’t care that the Jayhawks fell by a combined 57 points to UK and Temple. It only cares that the ‘Cats and Owls keep winning. Ironically, Kentucky’s winning percentage (1.000) is doing more for the Kansas’ RPI than what beating the Jayhawks did for the ‘Cats. As far as the computers are concerned, a rising Big Blue tide lifts all boats — KU’s included.