Strength of schedule.
Fans of college basketball hear that phrase repeatedly during this time of the year. It's one of the many metrics used by people who select teams for postseason basketball tournaments. Teams that play opponents with better records usually are rewarded. Teams that play weaker competition are penalized.
All teams are allowed to participate in most high school postseason tournaments in Illinois and Missouri, so strength of schedule isn't typically discussed for prep teams.
Its importance, however, shouldn't be ignored.
The hardest steel is forged in the hottest fires.
Take the Unity boys basketball team, for instance.
The Mustangs' schedule contains teams that it has played for decades, such as Payson Seymour, Liberty, Central, Southeastern, Western and Brown County. However, Unity also played teams this winter that weren't found on many local schedules -- Fort Madison (Iowa), Quincy Notre Dame, La Salette Academy and Peoria Quest. All four were either much larger than Unity or expected to have a very good team this season. The Mustangs defeated Fort Madison but lost the other three games by at least 16 points.
Unity is 24-7 before it plays in Tuesday's Class 1A super-sectional in Jacksonville against Okawville. Exposing weaknesses in the losses to QND, Quest and La Salette helped prepare the Mustangs for now.
"Without a doubt, those kind of losses will bring you back to earth," Unity coach Keith Carothers said. "But I'll play anybody any time."
Quincy Notre Dame has the same mantra.
The Raiders are 28-2 entering Tuesday's Class 2A super-sectional in Springfield against Monticello. They are undefeated in 15 games against Class 1A and Class 2A teams this season, and they've played 15 games this season against teams that have won at least 18 games. By comparison, Monticello is 21-3 against Class 1A or Class 2A teams, and it has played 14 games against teams that won at least 18 games.
The Raiders' strength of schedule, however, is shown in its 10-0 record against Class 3A teams and a 3-2 record against Class 4A teams. QND's only losses were to Quincy High School, which won 20 games, and St. Mary's, which has won 25 games. Monticello lost two of three games against Class 3A competition.
Seven teams on QND's schedule are still alive in postseason play. None of Monticello's opponents are still alive.
Does a strong schedule ensure winning? Of course not, but it's evident that neither QND nor Unity were afraid of losing in the pursuit of improving.
"You learn far more from a loss," Carothers said. "When you lose and you get spanked, you find out real fast what the problem is."
Ask QND coach Kevin Meyer about his team's 18-point loss to QHS, and he'll likely tell you his team learned more in that game than any other it played all season.
Ask Eric Orne about how his QND girls powerhouses got better playing the best of the best in three states. Several Carthage/Illini West girls teams often started their seasons losing more than they won in the Galesburg Tournament at Thanksgiving before finishing them with a trophy at the state tournament.
Unity played Quest on Jan. 27 and lost 77-57. Carothers said his team was ill-prepared for the Gators' quickness and pressure.
"We waited for that pressure all night long, and we knew it was going to come," he said. "Then it came, and we paid down and panicked, and the lead went from 2 to 12 in about a minute."
Unity trailed 30-12 early in the second quarter in its 78-58 loss to QND on Feb. 7, but it played evenly with the Raiders for three quarters.
"They intimidated us," Carothers said. "But when we played the way we should, we felt OK about how we played."
When Unity and Quest met again last Friday in Mount Sterling for the regional championship, the Mustangs were prepared.
"When their pressure came, instead of folding, we got two or three layups," Carothers said. "Had we not gone (to Peoria in January), we wouldn't have done that. We'd already seen them. We knew what they brought.
"People don't like 20-point losses, but without a doubt, that Quest game helped us."
Take note, coaches and athletic directors. Think you'll have a good team next year? Find a couple of teams that you will lose to. Don't allow your season to end and then you're saying to yourself, "Wow, we didn't see anyone like that all season."
Instead, remember this comment from Carothers.
"We'll take a whipping in January to help us get a victory in March," he said.