In 2011, the year before Mark Gottfried arrived in Raleigh, NC State played an out of conference schedule that featured eight teams outside the RPI top 250 – including six teams outside the top 300.
A year later, they played none.
Gottfried understood how to play the RPI game, who to schedule and how to work a highly flawed formula that is nonetheless remains the standard for how the committee judges the quality of wins and losses. And he applied that understanding the moment he got on campus at NC State. Gottfried added a tournament that would pit the Pack against Texas and Vanderbilt while also adding a neutral court game with St. Bonaventure.
"We’re trying to make sure we strategically schedule our team," Gottfried said just a month after being hired. "You’ve got to make it attractive. Not kill your players, but help them get ready for the league."
The non-conference schedule was part of the final resume – helped by a late-season surge with the Pack winning four of its last five - that got the Pack into the tournament as an 11 seed in Gottfried’s first season. The Pack didn’t need the scheduling help as much in his second season, but Gottfried still managed to schedule just two teams – Miami (OH) and UNCG – with RPIs over 250.
But the schedule might have made all the difference on Sunday. The Pack got in over several teams with higher win totals but far worse non-conference SOS. SMU won 23 games but had a non-conference schedule that ranked 296th in the country compared to the 109th ranked schedule of the Pack.
Gottfried actually put together his softest schedule this season, largely by accident as teams that were expected to be small conference contenders – Appalachian State and Campbell, specifically – fell apart and ended the season as sub-300 RPI teams. But strong season by NC Central and Eastern Kentucky – along with playing UNG (RPI 297) on the ‘road’ in Greensboro helped to balance those missteps.
"We played a tough non-conference schedule for the very reason of sitting here today," Gottfried said on Sunday night.
Obviously the scheduling does no good if you don’t win some games as well, and Gottfried has been at or above .500 in league play for three straight years. He managed to get his team to recover from a brutal four-game losing streak in late February during his first year, winning four straight games before falling to North Carolina in the tournament semi-final. Two years later – and this might sound familiar – he got his team to recover from a brutal 1-4 stretch that included double-digit losses to Clemson and Miami. The Pack once again won four straight before falling in the tournament semi-final.
Gottfried is not a perfect coach – defense something something – but his ability to understand RPI scheduling and get his team to play its best basketball in the home stretch of the season has been enough to earn them three straight NCAA tournament appearances. And as Pack fans know better than anyone, once you’re in the Big Dance anything can happen.
"We were nervous but now we're ready to go," Kyle Washington told Pack Pride. "I am excited about it. It is time to show the whole nation what the Wolfpack can do."