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Badgers director of basketball operations dissects many variables when picking Wisconsin's opponents
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Badgers director of basketball operations dissects many variables when picking Wisconsin's opponents

From the Get ready for Wisconsin Badgers men's basketball season with the State Journal's annual preview series
Marc VandeWettering

Marc VandeWettering’s colleagues on the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball staff get a kick out of it when he goes into nerd mode.

VandeWettering, entering his third season as the program’s director of basketball operations, is in charge of putting together the schedule. Part of the reason it’s a perfect job for VandeWettering, a former valedictorian at Kaukauna High School who earned a business management degree from UW while serving as a student-manager, is because it involves crunching numbers.

“I’ve always loved the math and statistics side of this,” he said.

But it’s more than that to VandeWettering, who rarely stopped smiling as he described the schedule-making process during a 30-minute conversation in his Kohl Center office over the summer. By the end, you realize it’s less of a task to VandeWettering than it is, well, an experience.

VandeWettering talks about a 10,000-foot view to describe UW’s holistic approach to putting together an 11-game non-conference schedule. He mentions multiple times that, yes, while there’s science involved, it’s just as much an art form when connecting the pieces of the puzzle.

When he’s done explaining it all, it makes sense why UW is opening the 2019-20 season against No. 20 Saint Mary’s — a team the Badgers haven’t played in 43 years — at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Why the Badgers are playing a holiday tournament in Brooklyn rather than somewhere more tropical. Why VandeWettering was keeping close tabs on the offseason coaching carousel and how it might impact a home-and-home series that he’d worked hard to secure. And why even the non-conference finale against Rider, which seems like a throwaway “buy” game at first glance, was carefully selected.

When the calendar flips to 2020, the Badgers will turn their focus to the heart of the Big Ten Conference schedule. By that point, they will have completed a non-conference slate that includes at least four — and possibly five — games against opponents that finished last season in the top 40 of the NCAA’s NET rankings, a sorting tool used to seed the NCAA tournament field.

All but one of those games will be away from home, a huge factor considering how much value is given to neutral-site and road wins.

“How that impacts your potential to be in the tournament, your seeding, all those things are going to be so much more under a microscope as we put a schedule together,” UW coach Greg Gard said.

Add it up

VandeWettering is a smart guy. But for the science portion of the scheduling exercise, he relies heavily on someone who is considered one of the brightest minds in college basketball analytics.

That Kevin Pauga works for one of UW’s rivals makes the collaboration even more fascinating.

Pauga is an assistant athletic director for administration at Michigan State. The career paths of Pauga and VandeWettering are similar: The former was a student-manager for the Spartans prior to spending six seasons as the program’s director of basketball operations. Both have worked for the Big Ten Conference as well.

On the side, Pauga runs a website ( that includes his own evaluation system. The KPI Rankings, Pauga writes, “are meant to rank team résumés on a game-by-game basis.”

When VandeWettering took over UW’s scheduling in 2018, he immediately called Pauga for advice. Pauga mentioned he’d developed a program that he’d shared with others in the industry and offered it to VandeWettering to try.

At this point, it’s probably fair to ask why Michigan State would want to help UW, and why UW would want to accept help from Michigan State. It’s simple, really.

“You want the Big Ten to have a great non-conference (run) because that’s even more value added to your league,” VandeWettering said. “That’s when we’re cheering for the Big Ten the most. It’s helping us both by him giving us his insight and the program.

“It helps us when Michigan State is good in the non-conference and it helps Michigan State when Wisconsin is good in the non-conference.”

Last season was the debut of the NET rankings, which means there’s little in the way of historical data to use when determining the strength of a potential opponent. While metrics within the KPI and NET are weighed differently, the end result is similar and the former has years and years of data to examine.

The program Pauga shared with UW is an Excel spreadsheet with the KPI Rankings of every NCAA Division I team for the 2018-19 season and over a three-season span. Using a simple drop-down menu, VandeWettering can pick any program in the nation and see how it’s trending in the rankings and what kind of value that game would give to the Badgers.

The home-and-home series with Tennessee that begins this season was a no-brainer for UW. Winning that game in Knoxville on Dec. 28 would provide great value with minimum risk; a loss to the Volunteers would be as valuable as winning a home game over an opponent with a 200-plus KPI or NET ranking.

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Each of the 11 non-conference games, combined with the 20 Big Ten games, helps VandeWettering form a big picture that can be tweaked based on hypothetical results. He can change a win to a loss — or the other way around — in Pauga’s program and watch how it affects the Badgers’ NCAA tournament résumé: The result of a high-value game against Michigan State, for example, could be the difference between UW being on the 3/4 or the 5/6 seed lines.

“Obviously, this is all projections,” VandeWettering said. “There’s so much human element in this that you can’t account for and this is all based on past years. You’re looking at how they were last year and how they were the previous three years. You can’t really project how they’re going to be, but this is as close as you can get.”

Final pieces

Projections played a role in a change of plans for UW this season.

The Badgers take part in a multi-team event (MTE) every season and were strongly considering the Cayman Islands Classic in November. Instead, they’ll play in the Legends Classic in Brooklyn that same week.

As the field for the tournament in the Caymans began to fill in, it became obvious it wouldn’t provide as strong as competition as UW had hoped. Only two of the teams — New Mexico State (46) and South Florida (83) — finished last season in the top 100 of the NET rankings. The other five teams in the event finished between No. 101 and No. 202.

The tournament in New York is only a four-team event, but it includes a potential matchup with Auburn. The Tigers played in the Final Four last season, finished No. 13 in the NET rankings and, even though they have several key pieces to replace, have been trending up under the direction of Bruce Pearl.

Considering Auburn is on the other side of the bracket, there’s no guarantee the Badgers and Tigers will meet in Brooklyn. Still, the value of the other opponents — Richmond and New Mexico — is similar to what UW would have received from its games in the Caymans.

There are variables out of VandeWettering’s control in some cases. UW has no say in whom it gets matched up with in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The Badgers drew a road game at North Carolina State, which was No. 36 in the NET last season. That was good news for UW because it could have been paired with an opponent lower in the ACC pecking order, which would have put VandeWettering in the position of seeking more value from somewhere else on the non-conference slate.

VandeWettering admitted he was a little nervous when Tennessee coach Rick Barnes’ name came up in the opening for the UCLA job. Had Barnes left Knoxville for Los Angeles, it could have lowered the Volunteers’ value for the game this season and the matchup in Madison in 2020.

One variable VandeWettering could control, at least to some degree, was filling in the non-conference home schedule. Two of those games — McNeese State and UW-Green Bay — were assigned to UW because they fall under the umbrella of the Legends Classic. Another home opponent, Marquette, is part of a long-standing series between the in-state rivals.

But that left three “buy” games to fill as UW tried to hit the mark of 16 home games (17 counting an exhibition contest vs. UW-La Crosse) that help the revenue flow inside the athletic department. Eastern Illinois and UW-Milwaukee both finished around the 300 mark in the NET last season, but even those games add more value than a team such as Savannah State did in 2018-19. Plus, VandeWettering said putting together a home schedule that is as appealing as possible to fans is a factor in the decision-making process and having in-state and bordering state opponents on the docket is more enticing to UW fans than one from the Deep South.

UW’s non-conference finale, against Rider on New Year’s Eve, was one of the final pieces of the puzzle for VandeWettering. The Broncs finished No. 203 in the NET last season and necessarily won’t go down as a high-value result if the Badgers win that game. But the value is significantly higher than an opponent VandeWettering could have selected from a pool of teams around the No. 300 line, plus all it took was a little roster research for him to determine Rider might be better than it was last season and end up in the No. 150-175 range.

VandeWettering likes to fill in the high-major games and save the “buy” games for last. The most intriguing game in the batch might be the opener, which was added when UW examined what it had and decided it wouldn’t hurt to add one more game with significant value since it wasn’t participating in the Gavitt Games this season.

Saint Mary’s has gone 81-23 with two NCAA tournament appearances over the past three seasons and, according to VandeWettering, has an average KPI rank of No. 32 during that stretch. For the Gaels, the second-strongest program in the West Coast Conference behind Gonzaga, a game against UW is a potential résumé-builder. Ditto for the Badgers, especially considering Saint Mary’s is expected to be even stronger this season than it was in 2018-19.

“There’s a really good reward with a minimal risk of playing them, especially on a neutral court,” VandeWettering said. “It’s another opportunity for us to bolster that non-conference (résumé) and have that good reward with a minimal risk.”

Scheduling is a year-round deal for VandeWettering, who has a cabinet enclosed whiteboard on a wall in his office that includes two-year and 10-year outlooks. It’s when he’s shuffling back and forth between the whiteboard and his computer that Gard or one of the assistants might pop in and marvel at how VandeWettering is so organized and turns something so complicated into a science-filled art form.

From VandeWettering’s 10,000-foot view, it’s all about making sure he’s done his part to make Selection Sunday as stress-free as possible.

“If we have a really good team, we wanted to be rewarded for that and have a schedule strong enough to prove that we’re a really good team and get rewarded with a really good seed,” VandeWettering said. “But if we go through some injuries or have a more average year, we don’t want to be in the bubble conversation come Selection Sunday. We want to be securely in because we’ve built ourselves a strong enough schedule.

“Maybe we didn’t get the results we wanted, but we got enough. We don’t want to be in that conversation of, ‘Oh, they didn’t challenge themselves.’ We don’t want that to be the reason we’re left out.”

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