Who Has The Toughest Non-Conference Schedule In The SEC?
Who Has The Toughest Non-Conference Schedule In The SEC?
Non-conference scheduling is an essential part of any schedule. You have to find the right balance of tough opponents and mix in a few cupcakes to get the best results. The SEC, as a whole, took a large step back last year, with only three teams making the NCAA Tournament field. Florida was the cream of the crop last year, winning the SEC Regular Season title and earning a No. 3 seed in March. The Gators went on to their third straight Elite Eight appearance. Missouri squeaked into the filed as a No. 9 seed and fell in the first round. Ole Miss was invited to the big dance due to their run to the SEC Tournament title. The Rebels earned a No. 12 seed and made a little noise by upsetting No. 5 seeded Wisconsin in the second round. They fell to No. 13 LaSalle the following game in a two point loss.
Missouri was definitely fortunate to earn one of the last at-large bids entering the NCAA field. Teams like Alabama and Tennessee have recently been shut out of the big dance, due to their poor non-conference scheduling. Specifically with the Tide, they have made it a habit to always be on "the bubble" right before Selection Sunday. Most of their problems stemmed from surprising losses or very close wins to weak non-conference opponents. In the eyes of the selection committee, they want to know who you have defeated and where you defeated them. Along with finishing in the middle of the pack in a weak SEC, the Tide had no chance to prove themselves worthy of a tournament invite.
On the other side of the spectrum, teams like Kentucky may take their non-conference schedule a little too far. The Wildcats opened up last season with Maryland at the Barclay's Center. Then, their young group had to face Duke in Atlanta. They finished off the slate with games at Notre Dame, at eventual national champion Louisville, and Baylor at home. Yikes.
Who has the toughest non-conference slate this year? We'll start with the weakest of the bunch and work our way up.
Brian Lewis is an SEC Basketball Writer for RantSports.com. You can add him to your network on Google for more of his work.
The Aggies non-conference slate is deplorable at best. They obviously didn't learn from last year's disappointing collection of non-conference opponents. Texas A&M lost Elston Turner and Ray Turner, but that's not an excuse for their toughest game being against an Oklahoma team that probably won't make the NCAA Tournament. Buffalo will also come to town, but that's hardly a consolation prize. They will begin the season by participating in the Corpus Christi Challenge. If they advance past Missouri State, they will take on Virginia in the next round. The possible match-up with the Cavaliers is nowhere near enough to make this slate seem respectable.
Head coach Rick Ray had a very barren bench to work with last season. Due to injuries, suspensions and defections, the Bulldogs suffered tremendously in Ray's first season. Mississippi State was so depleted they needed to use a graduate assistant for practices, until he tore his ACL. As they take on the challenges of another trying season, I can't really bash them for not giving themselves a murder's row of opponents. Realistically, this team is not going to get to the NCAA Tournament anyway. A win against Florida Gulf Coast and a road win against Utah State could go a long way for this program. If they beat South Florida in the first round of the Las Vegas Classic, UNLV will be waiting for them. Besides a possible matchup with the Runnin' Rebels, last year's bracket busters will be the best opponent on this year's non-conference slate.
Continuing the trend of teams that don't learn from scheduling too many cupcakes is Auburn. While the Tigers are not the worst in the whole league, they are still pretty far down. Their toughest matchup looks to be a meeting with Iowa State. They also have Illinois and Boston College coming to them in December. I don't know how to justify this schedule. Auburn is not going to be dead last in the SEC, so they could have an outside shot of getting some kind of postseason bid. I'm not saying NCAA Tournament, but they should at least leave the door open for an NIT possibility. I don't believe they can go undefeated in the non-conference slate and still receive a postseason offer even if they blow out every opponent, because their non-conference is just that bad.
With the departures of B.J. Young and Marshawn Powell, the Arkansas Razorbacks will be in serious rebuild mode for this coming season. This team will have to learn to compete with 35.1 points per game disappearing from last season's roster. The only thing that really keeps their non-conference schedule better than Auburn is their possibilities in the Maui Invitational. The Hogs will face California in the first round, and will most likely face Minnesota and then Chaminade or Dayton on the final day. Anything else out of the state of Hawaii will not impress anyone. Larry Brown's SMU squad will come to Bud Walton Arena in November, but they are probably a season away from competing for an NCAA Tournament birth.
Do it all point guard Phil Pressey is now gone from the Tigers, along with three other key contributors from last season's squad. If they are going to pick a year to rebuild, it might as well be this one. The young Missouri Tigers will not face any huge hurdles before entering conference play. Their toughest challenge will come from UCLA, but the Bruins will come to Columbia. The Tigers will also face Illinois at home, but they have a brand new roster and will not pose much of a challenge nationally. Missouri will travel to North Carolina State, where they might get their second toughest game before SEC play. The Wolfpack will be very young, but they could have the talent to make a formidable opponent. Veteran players Earnest Ross and Jabari Brown will mix in with a nationally ranked recruiting class and try to make the NCAA Tournament again. The Tigers need to gel fast and convincingly take care of their weak non-conference slate to have any shot of returning to the big dance.
Head coach Johnny Jones goes into his second year in Baton Rouge after a 19-12 season. The Tigers missed out on the NCAA Tournament, but they have a better chance this season. Jones has recruited Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey into the front court, making it one of the best in the nation. Along with the nationally ranked duo, Johnny O'Bryant III returns to school. LSU will have a real shot at an NCAA Tournament birth, but their non-conference slate will not aid them.
LSU's schedule is a small step above Missouri's, due to their potential matchups in the Old Spice Classic. The Tigers will face Oklahoma State and Memphis if they win their opening round game. The Tigers will also travel to UMass, but that's all that's worth mentioning. If LSU stumbles in their opening game, that could come back to haunt them when March comes around.
Mark Fox will be looking for a lot of answers after Kentavious Caldwell-Pope left the program for the NBA. The Georgia Bulldogs look to be rebuilding, and have at least one impressive matchup in the non-conference. Unlike the previous SEC teams, Georgia has a formidable opponent on their hands in Colorado. The Buffaloes could make a run for the Pac-12 title and take the spotlight away from UCLA and Arizona. Georgia will also have to travel to Colorado, which will make the meeting that much harder to win. The Bulldogs also have their rivalry game with Georgia Tech, who returns most of their top players from last season. Georgia will be participating in the Charleston Classic. If they pass their opening round test, they could add some RPI points with wins over Temple and New Mexico.
Andy Kennedy's time at Ole Miss was running out before Marshall Henderson transferred into the program. Henderson was an immediate spark and became the SEC's leading scorer last season. With Henderson's offseason riddled with bad decisions involving alcohol and drugs, not much has been made about the team coming back to Oxford. The Rebels will lose Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner on the low block, which means Henderson may have to play even better than last season. If he gets to play at all, that is. Ole Miss' toughest non-conference game involves the Oregon Ducks coming to the Tad Pad. The Rebels will have to face Kansas State, Georgia Tech and maybe St. John's in Brooklyn. None of those games will really make a difference for the Rebels on Selection Sunday, so they better win and blow out Oregon.
Head coach Kevin Stallings will have a ton of work to do with this essentially brand new team. At least four of Vanderbilt's players will not be available this season, including last season's leading scorer Kedren Johnson. Stallings will now have to rebuild and replace with unproven pieces. To make matters worse, they have a competitive non-conference slate that could rob them of any sliver of confidence they have about the upcoming season. Vanderbilt will welcome Atlantic 10 contender Saint Louis into Memorial Gym in late December. I wouldn't be surprised to see Saint Louis do a little damage on SEC land, and they have a great shot of walking away with the win. The Commodores will also do some traveling to Butler and Texas. Despite the losses of head coach Brad Stevens and top player Roosevelt Jones, Hinkle Fieldhouse will not be an easy place to walk in and get a win. Even though Texas hasn't been up to par in recent memory, the Longhorns are perfectly capable of guarding their yard against a depleted Vandy squad.
The Tide will be bringing in a couple of Top-100 recruits and they still have guardTrevor Releford. However, head coach Anthony Grant lost starting point guard Trevor Lacey to North Carolina State and Devonta Pollard removed himself from school amid legal issues. The Tide will participate in the NIT Season Tip Off, which could match them up with Duke if they get past their first round opponent. If the Blue Devils are not daunting enough, Alabama has Final Four participant Wichita State coming to town in December. Then, they will take on UCLA in a newly renovated Pauley Pavilion. Other matchups include games against Oklahoma and Xavier at home, but will still be a real challenge for a depleted Alabama squad.
When Frank Martin was hired at South Carolina, the pantry was pretty barren. The Gamecocks were rarely feeling "cocky" about anything on the basketball court. Now that Martin is in town, he is looking to bring some of that cockiness back. He has yet to make a lot of improvement, but the competitiveness is there. Martin's squad will need a lot of competitiveness to deal with his gauntlet of a non-conference schedule. With seven brand new freshmen on the roster, let's send them to play Baylor in their first true road test. Welcome to college basketball, eh? To prove they are not even safe at home, Martin has Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State coming to Columbia in early December. The Diamond Head Classic also brings more RPI boosting matchups for the Gamecocks if they make it past their opening game.
Cuenzo Martin has done a great job building a program in Knoxville, but they have yet to take the next step. This season, they have a chance to take the next step into a real contender for the SEC title and a deep run in March. With Memphis transfer Antonio Barton on board, the Volunteers have a little more size and toughness than last year's squad. Jordan McRae returns to Knoxville and could become the early SEC Player of the Year. As far as the non-conference goes, it will be a decent challenge. Contingent upon them reaching the Battle 4 Atlantis title game, they could face Kansas for the crown. Tennessee would have to travel to UTEP and then play either Iowa or Xavier before the potential battle with the Jayhawks. Iowa is a major sleeper in the Big XII, and going to Xavier and escaping with the win will be a serious challenge in it's own right. The rest of the slate includes an away game at Wichita State, followed by a loaded Virginia squad comes into Knoxville in late December. Keep in mind, the Shockers will be looking for a little revenge after the Vols beat them in last year's matchup. There are plenty of cupcakes sprinkled in there that are not worth mentioning, but the teams I've mentioned will give the Volunteers a major test before SEC play.
Along with Kentucky, Florida will be representing the SEC as a Top-10 team when the season starts. The Gators will once again be a contender for the SEC crown and a deep run in March. They are also looking to break a three year trend of losing in the Elite Eight and finally get back to the Final Four. Billy Donovan has a lot of question marks when it comes to some of his players being available to play this season. In regards to their non-conference schedule, Donovan has made it almost the most challenging in the conference. The Gators will travel to Wisconsin and UConn before welcoming Kansas and Memphis into Gainesville within a week of each other. Add in the rivalry game with Florida State, and you have the first gauntlet of teams that will really challenge an SEC school and help them on Selection Sunday. The Gators are good enough to win all of those games. If they are healthy and fully staffed, they could climb into the Top-5 with ease.
John Calipari looks to rebound in a major way from their opening round loss in the NIT last season. The Kentucky Wildcats have the best recruiting class in the history of college basketball (on paper) coming to Lexington. Along with Michigan State, Kentucky will fight for the No. 1 ranking when the season begins. The Big Blue Nation is dreaming of a 40-0 season, but they may not make it out of their non-conference schedule without a loss. Let's start off with a nationally televised game in the United Center against Michigan State.
Then, the Wildcats will play Providence at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and Baylor in Arlington, Texas. The Bears snapped Kentucky's 54-game home winning streak last season. Ready for more? Let's pack up all those freshmen and introduce them to life on the road in college basketball with a game at North Carolina. To finish off the calendar year, Kentucky will welcome defending champions and arch rival Louisville into Rupp Arena. UNC returns to the schedule, Michigan State could be No. 1, and Louisville just won the title. That is the most challenging non-conference slate in the SEC, hands down.