Evaluating Big 12 Non-Conference Schedules: The Good, Bad & the UglyPosted by Nate Kotisso on November 5th, 2013
It’s safe to say that the three teams in the Big 12 that should feel somewhat good about making the NCAA Tournament this season are Kansas, Oklahoma State and Baylor. Outside of that, who can tell? That’s what make non-conference schedules so vital to Kansas State, Iowa State or another possible surprise team. My definition of a strong non-conference schedule is one where a team is in a preseason tournament with at least two NCAA-level teams, one or two true road games in difficult environments, and a minimum of one home game against a likely Tournament team. I’m more lenient toward home games because most of them need to be gimme games or are set apart for smaller schools within a state. So from the teams that matter to the teams that won’t, here they are: the good, the bad and the ugly non-conference schedules in this season’s Big 12.
- Kansas: They have the most talented team in the Big 12, but perhaps more importantly, the most difficult non-conference schedule to boot. Luckily for the fifth-ranked Jayhawks, they will participate in a Champions Classic where they will face Duke, ranked one spot ahead of them in the preseason AP poll. A surprising low point on the schedule is the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament. That tournament’s championship game gave us Louisville-Duke last year, a precursor to their eventual Elite Eight match-up. But looking at this year’s field gives the impression that it’s Kansas’ event to lose. The greater litmus test for this team will come between December 7-14. In that span KU will face Colorado, Florida in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, and New Mexico — all away from Allen Fieldhouse. There may not be a more demanding week in non-conference action for any team in America. And on top of that they’ll play Georgetown and San Diego State in the Phog before league play begins. Wouldn’t it be great if all big-time coaches were as ambitious with their scheduling as Bill Self?
- Baylor: The first thing that jumps out immediately is the Bears’ season opener against Colorado. This is an incredible get considering the Buffaloes could very well be the best team Tad Boyle has had in Boulder as well as the fact that it’s an on-campus game. During the week of Thanksgiving, the Bears participate in this year’s EA Sports Maui Invitational, usually perceived as the preseason’s most prestigious tournament. Assuming it wins the whole thing, Baylor would presumably have to go through the likes of Gonzaga and Syracuse to do so — two teams ranked in the AP Top 25. They wouldn’t have much time to regroup, because a little more than a week later, they’ll have a date with top-ranked Kentucky on December 6 in Arlington. After winter break, the Bears will face Northwestern State, a team that won its conference tournament last season and led the nation in scoring. Baylor ends its slate with a game against an Oral Roberts program that has won 20+ games in three of its last four seasons. The Bears make a good case for the toughest non-Big 12 schedule but a lack of true road games hurts them.
- Texas: We’ve all heard about the rumors swirling around about the future of Rick Barnes, but one thing he has maintained since arriving in Austin is that his non-league schedules are challenging regardless of who is on his roster. The competition ramps up when the Longhorns open up the CBE Classic in Kansas City versus BYU in mid-November. Provided they take out the Cougars first and Wichita State beats DePaul, Texas will play the 2013 Final Four participant in the championship game. Their three toughest games after that are at Temple, at #12 North Carolina, and home for second-ranked Michigan State. Will any of these games be kind to our eyes? Probably not considering that 11 players on this roster are a mix of freshmen and sophomores, but if Barnes is going to go down this year, he’s going down swinging.
- Oklahoma State: 2013-14 has the makings of a special season in Stillwater but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the Cowboys’ non-conference slate. They host Memphis on November 19, which is sure to grab lots of scouting requests from NBA teams to see guards like Marcus Smart, Joe Jackson and Michael Dixon. The home games don’t offer up anything interesting besides that. To their credit, though, the Cowboys will play three true road games. Sounds great, right? Well… those three teams are South Florida, Purdue and Louisiana Tech. USF made the third round of the NCAA Tournament in 2012 and proceeded to go 12-19 a season later. Purdue hasn’t been the same program since Robbie Hummel graduated. So that leaves Louisiana Tech as their toughest road opponent. The Old Spice Classic is a tournament they should win but otherwise doesn’t have any resume-builders until the championship game. Colorado is a worthy neutral floor adversary but overall the schedule is not great. This is a top 10 team on paper and their schedule should reflect that. It’s a shame.
- Kansas State: The Wildcats won 27 games in 2012-13, their coach won National Coach of the Year, and their non-conference schedule for the very next season has zero road games. That’s right, but it’s not all bad. Their best guaranteed game is on a neutral floor against Gonzaga and their next best game is at home versus the Marshall Henderson-led Ole Miss Rebels. If they were to go on a run at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, K-State would have to beat Georgetown and Michigan or VCU in the title game. There’s a potential for some sexy match-ups to develop but the home schedule is so bad (including no true road games) that it drags everything else down.
- Iowa State: I’ve learned that there are three schools of thought for coaches when it comes to non-conference schedules: scheduling easy regardless of talent roster; scheduling hard regardless of roster talent; and scheduling for an at-large bid. When you’re Fred Hoiberg and your roster is practically a brand new squad each season, the Cyclones typically schedule for the latter. The opportunities to build a portfolio aren’t many but they are there for the taking. Remember when Iowa State played at Michigan two years ago? You probably don’t but this year the Wolverines pay a return visit to Ames on November 17. Michigan has a top 10 preseason ranking and is coming off a national title game appearance. If there wasn’t enough pressure already, ISU has a true road game at BYU’s loud and raucous Marriott Center three days later! (No pressure guys, but where you play in March could come down to two games in mid-November). Their annual rivalry game against Iowa, also at Hilton Coliseum, has heightened importance with the Hawkeyes pegged as a fringe Top 25 team in the preseason. The Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii is basically made up of teams that could make the NCAAs like ISU but none of them would qualify as a signature win by themselves. Watch how shocked we’ll be when they’re rewarded with a #11 seed in four months.
- Texas Tech: Here’s another squad like Texas with a difficult schedule for a roster not built to win now. Last season the Red Raiders were fortunate enough to play every single one of its non-conference games at home. But Tubby Smith is in for some ugly return games in his first season in Lubbock. Tech has the pleasure of playing both Arizona and Arizona State on the road in what purport to be bloodbaths. They’ve got Alabama on the road as well after a season in which their Tournament bubble burst. LSU is a team most are forecasting to finish in the top half of the SEC so that won’t be a cakewalk when they invade Lubbock on December 18 either. Simply put, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
- West Virginia: It’s crazy to think that it was three years ago when Bob Huggins led his predominantly New York-area club to a Final Four appearance. Last season was Huggins’ first sub-.500 record dating back to his first year as a Division I head coach at Akron. As far as the schedule is concerned, the two road games against Virginia Tech and Missouri will be difficult environments for his inexperienced team. The Mountaineers have a return home game versus Gonzaga mixed in there somewhere so there’s that too. The rest of the slate is largely unimpressive, but at the same time WVU is expected to struggle again in the Big 12. You hate to see this from a program and head coach with such a rich history.
- Oklahoma: When he was putting together the schedule this season, Lon Kruger must have had one prevailing game plan: He would try to schedule a bunch of Texas schools. North Texas, Texas A&M, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Texas-Arlington will all suit up against the Sooners this season, and frankly, it doesn’t make any sense. Did someone not tell Kruger how many schools from Texas made the NCAA Tournament last season? (None of them did.) And then you have that awkward moment when you realize Oklahoma actually made the NCAA Tournament itself in 2012-13! Only tallying guaranteed games for 2013-14, the Sooners aren’t scheduled to play any NCAA Tournament teams from last year. Yeah… good luck with building off of last season.
- Texas Christian: As you might have guessed, the Horned Frogs are pulling in the rear in non-league action. They’re still trying to find their way in the Big 12 as they are picked to finish dead last in the league for a second straight season. Their opponents are so painful that trying to pick out their most difficult game will give you a migraine (or start to give you one). If you really study the schedule, it’s one terrible team playing another. They’re participating in the Great Alaska Shootout this season, which would have been awesome if the year were still 1998. Be patient, TCU fans. This’ll take some time.