Boost or Bite: Evaluating Non-Conference Schedules in the SEC Middle TierPosted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on November 6th, 2013
It was lean times for the SEC on Selection Sunday last year, with only three teams invited into the NCAA Tournament field. This was the fewest of the “power” conferences and two fewer than the Mountain West and Atlantic 10. Had Ole Miss not won the SEC Tournament, the number very well could have been two. The bubble would have been dangerous territory for the Rebels because of a weak non-conference schedule. With that in mind, let’s take a look at several SEC teams that could find themselves on this year’s bubble (if things break a certain way), and whether their respective non-conference schedules will boost them or bite them. Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee and LSU are assumed as either locks or solid bubble teams for the purposes of this article. As discussed with Texas A&M yesterday, the expected middle tier of the SEC is wide open this season. Teams like the Aggies, Alabama, Missouri, Arkansas and Ole Miss all have question marks, and there are plenty of SEC wins to be had for the teams that emerge from this scrum.
Helpful Games: Oklahoma (neutral), Wichita State, Xavier, @UCLA
Outlook: It’s quality over quantity for Anthony Grant’s team this season. The games against Wichita State and UCLA (in Los Angeles) would be marquee parts of any non-conference schedule. Oklahoma isn’t a Big 12 power at the moment but should continue to improve under Lon Kruger. It’ll be a minor challenge beginning the season against the Sooners and following it up six days later against rebuilding Texas Tech. The Crimson Tide have a true road game against South Florida, but the Bulls fell to 12-19 last season after a nice run in the 2012 NCAA Tournament. If Grant can split the Wichita State/UCLA games and not trip up too badly elsewhere, the Tide will be in good shape at the beginning of conference play.
Helpful Games: Southern Methodist, Maui Invitational (California, Syracuse/Minnesota, TBA)
Outlook: The Razorbacks will need a dynamite conference record if Mike Anderson wants to make the Tournament for the first time since returning to Arkansas. Ryan Higgins at Arkansas Fight pointed out that the Razorbacks could end up with a lofty win total but still find themselves in the NIT because of their weak schedule. There just isn’t much meat to this schedule, especially if the Hawgs don’t win their first game in Maui against Cal. The Razorbacks won’t play a true road game until January 8 against Texas A&M in College Station, and although this could be a good thing or bad thing given Anderson’s road struggles at Arkansas, but it certainly won’t help his team’s profile. There is a home game against Clemson, but the Tigers are a rebuilding ACC team at the moment. Without a few wins in Maui, which would have to include Syracuse and a team like Baylor or Gonzaga, Arkansas may need to bank a sterling SEC record with multiple statement wins.
Helpful Games: UCLA, Illinois (neutral), @North Carolina State, Long Beach State
Outlook: The highly-sophisticated and expressive word “meh” is what comes to mind when looking at Missouri’s non-conference schedule. UCLA has maturing talent in Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson and Tony Parker, and although a home win against the Bruins wouldn’t be as impressive as Alabama winning at Pauley Pavilion, it would still be something to hang the Tigers’ hat on. The true road game at NC State also presents a challenge, but the Wolfpack were inconsistent a year ago and have lost a lot of talent since then (e.g., C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown). Northwestern, Nevada and West Virginia are all on the schedule too, but in each of those games it will be expected if Missouri wins, and troubling if it loses. Long Beach State’s trip to Columbia in January should be interesting as a solid 49ers program will already be tested after games against Arizona, Michigan, Washington and Creighton. Frank Haith cannot rely on non-conference success to make up for a lackluster conference record, but the slate shouldn’t hold the Tigers back.
Helpful Games: Georgia Tech (Barclays Classic), Oregon, Middle Tennessee State, @Kansas State, @Western Kentucky, Dayton
Outlook: At first glance the lineup looks vanilla, but Andy Kennedy took the selection committee’s message about tougher non-conference scheduling to heart. This is a much more respectable slate than the Rebels faced a year ago. Although only one team (Oregon) is ranked, there are plenty of games that will help the Rebels’ overall profile. Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky were NCAA teams a year ago, and while Dayton was down it is still a historically strong A-10 program. The Kansas State game will be a good road test as Bramlage Coliseum is a difficult environment, and the Rebels will also have another power conference game against Penn State or St. John’s in the Barclays Classic. This schedule won’t do wonders for Ole Miss, but it certainly won’t hold the team back.