When we had a chance to talk to Mario Mercurio, he was gracious enough to answer more of our questions than just those regarding his recent efforts to extend the Butler series. We jumped in on Xavier's scheduling policy. One of the pivotal moments in the development of the strategy Mario uses was his meeting with bracketologist Joe Lunardi. "We saw number of non-BCS at-large bids shrinking," Mario said, "and we wanted to put every bullet in the gun - so to speak - to hold onto the opportunity to get that at-large bid."
He went on to say that Xavier "never really plays the RPI game or schedules trick games to inflate the [RPI] number." When Xavier schedules guarantee games at Cintas, Mario tries to get conference winners and avoid worthless games over 300-level RPI teams. In that case, he said, " it's almost better to not even play that game." The approach with guarantee games is to bring balance to the schedule and give the team opportunities at the right time in the right order.
Over the years Mario's been at Xavier - he graduated from X in '02 - he has seen a lot of things change. "One of the best things," he said, "is the transition to getting better opponents. When [Coach Mack] was doing the scheduling, he would struggle to get people to come in and play X; he was doing home-and-home scenarios with mid-major teams." With the team’s success and the level of players that come in to Xavier, Mario now feels like he can schedule just about anyone. When Florida played home-and-home with Xavier, they came in just ahead of UNC in the scheduling process.
Through the course of the past few years, 95% of the BCS teams have been available for Mario to schedule. "You have to credit winning and the level of players in the program for those opportunities," he said, "getting into the big dance every year, averaging 25 wins, and bringing in players like [Mark] Lyons, [Tu] Holloway, [Kenny] Frease and the guys who have come before them are big parts of making sure the program is in a good position."
The most imperative parts of the scheduling process are the dates and the way the falls in. According to Mario, "you can screw scheduling up very quickly if you just start throwing in your dream opponents. The most important thing is to really balance what you want: always open at home, always play UC, scheduling appropriate lead-up and follow-up games to the Shootout, scheduling around exam week." While almost every team in the nation is with the theoretical grasp of Xavier's schedule, Mercurio can’t and won't schedule games if the dates don’t fit.
"What sounds good on paper doesn’t always play out the best on the court," he said. "We're lucky to have great head coaches who have a great feel for players and human tendencies." In particular, he tries to keep the team from having to spend too many consecutive days on the road. "When you’re out there playing and travelling, it becomes a whole different thing. You can look at a two-game West Coast swing, but that can really start to drag on that fourth or fifth day out."
One thing he said that surprised me a little bit was how little recruiting plays into scheduling. "With TV and internet exposure," he explained, "playing in certain areas is not as important as it was ten years ago." There was a time when coaches at Xavier would look to get games in certain areas with the intention of expanding the program's footprint, but with every single game being televised, it’s not that big of a concern any more. In all his time in charge of scheduling, Mario has never scheduled a game with the intention of expanding recruiting influence.
The future for Xavier's program is bright with aggressive young leaders like Mercurio and Coach Mack at the helm. When we wrap this series up this Saturday, we'll tell you what Mario had to say about social media, the February non-conference game, and what makes the Xavier basketball program so special.