Murderers’ Row: Five of the Most Ruthless O26 Non-Conference SchedulesPosted by Tommy Lemoine on December 26th, 2013
Both Long Beach State’s Dan Monson and Oakland’s Greg Kampe are on record in saying that their philosophy of building extremely difficult non-conference schedules, among other things, helps with recruiting—players jump at the chance to play on the biggest stages against schools that never gave them a look. Other cited reasons include: checking player egos, identifying team weaknesses early in the season, and, of course, the influx of revenue those games produce. And while all of those interests appear legitimate—it’s hard to argue with two guys who have made multiple NCAA Tournament appearances apiece—there reaches a point, whether it’s in Rupp Arena or the Dean Dome or during a trip to the McKale Center, when one has to beg the question: Is it worth the agony? With that in mind, let’s examine the five most brutal O26 non-conference slates this season.
Oakland. Kampe’s schedules have been reliably absurd over the last decade, and this year is no exception. How about this for a road trip to start the season: games at North Carolina, UCLA, California and Gonzaga… in a 10-day span. The Golden Grizzlies ended up losing all four, with only the California tilt being close, and two players—starting point guard Duke Mondy and forward Dante Williams—were arrested during the west coast trip and forced to miss several games as a result. A couple of neutral court contests and a game at Western Michigan later, Oakland was heading home for Thanksgiving with a dismal 0-7 record. Now sitting at 4-10, the good news for the Grizzlies is that they are back to full strength and demonstrating a level of resilience, even pushing Michigan State for 40 minutes in the Palace of Auburn Hills last weekend. Travis Bader, the most prolific three-point shooter in college basketball, has also begun heating up; the senior hit 21 shots from behind the arc over his past three games.
Notable non-conference games: @North Carolina (L), @UCLA (L), @California (L), @Gonzaga (L), Ohio (W), @Indiana (L), N-Michigan State (L).
Long Beach State. Monson probably did not expect he would have to dismiss two key contributors before the season started when he created this non-conference deathtrap. But that’s exactly what happened when Tony Freeland and Keala King, who combined for 20 points per game last year, were kicked off the team last May. Perhaps the 49ers coach would have avoided the trip to San Juan for the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic or backed out of agreements with Arizona or Missouri or another (or two) of LBSU’s talented non-conference opponents. But then again, probably not. The man loves facing elite competition, and his team’s 3-9 record so far this season is clear evidence of that. By the time the Niners enter conference play in January, they will have played eight KenPom top 100 foes, including five in the top 50. That seems like a recipe for a lot of losses, especially after the graduation of star forward James Ennis. One positive note for Monson’s club, however, is that UCLA transfer Tyler Lamb became eligible to play last Thursday night just in time for a home tilt against USC, in which he scored 20 points and helped snap the team’s nine-game losing streak. Brighter days are ahead.
Notable non-conference games: @Arizona (L), N-Michigan (L), N-Virginia Commonwealth (L), v. Creighton (L), @North Carolina State (W), @Missouri (January 4).
Davidson. Imagine graduating the majority of your starting five and dropping from the 11th-most experienced team in the country to 218th. Think of the adjustments and adaptations and lessons learned that would entail. Now pretend enduring those growing pains against the likes of Duke, Virginia, New Mexico, North Carolina and Wichita State. Oh, and don’t forget about your best player going down with an injury for four weeks during the meat of that schedule. Pretty rough scenario, right? Well, that is the exact situation Bob McKillop and Davidson have faced in the first month-plus of the season. The Wildcats have encountered a brutal non-conference slate so far, starting 4-9 and playing six of the games without preseason SoCon Player of the Year De’mon Brooks, who hurt his knee in a 31-point loss to Clemson—a team I did not even mention above—at the end of November. Things were beginning to look rather grim for McKillop’s bunch up until last Saturday, when Brooks returned to the court and they nearly upset North Carolina in Chapel Hill. With Wichita State still remaining, Davidson has a chance at another confidence-building upset bid before it enters league play.
Notable non-conference games: @Duke (L), N-Virginia [game in Charlotte] (L), N-Clemson (L), N-New Mexico (L), @Charlotte (W), v. Drexel (L), @North Carolina (L), @Wichita State (December 29).
Northeastern. Another Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic participant, the Huskies actually beat Georgetown handily in that tournament back in November, crashing the boards and pounding the ball inside on their way to a seven-point victory. It was an impressive early season win that evened the team’s record at 2-2 and turned many heads around the country. Then a string of stiff competition and bad luck hit, and Bill Coen’s club all of a sudden found itself losers of six straight heading into last weekend, a stretch that included three games against KenPom top 40 opponents. The results, though, did not necessarily match the nightly effort—four of the losses were by five points or fewer and only the VCU loss was by double digits. The Huskies entered Saturday ranked 340th in the ‘luck’ metric, making them one of the 15 least lucky teams in college basketball and perhaps indicating that an outcome would go their way sooner or later. And then wouldn’t you know it, Coen’s team overcame a 20-point second half deficit on Saturday to beat Milwaukee by three and return to the win column for the first time in a month. Sure, it turned around and lost by three the next night to Tulane, but at least Northeastern remembers what winning feels like again as CAA play nears.
Notable non-conference games: @Stony Brook (L), N-Georgetown (W), N-Charlotte (L), N-Virginia Commonwealth (L), v. Harvard (L), v. UAB (L), @Vanderbilt (January 4).
Eastern Michigan. Rob Murphy—a Jim Boeheim disciple—has done a great job with the Eagles so far this season, employing Boeheim’s 2-3 matchup zone defense and leading his transfer-laden squad to a 7-3 record. Among the losses was a trip to Kentucky in which EMU hung around with the Wildcats for 25 minutes, and among the wins was an impressive home victory over Green Bay. The team even played UMass tough before fading towards the end. Unfortunately for Murphy, the hardest might still be yet to come. Just a few days after his Eagles take on Duke in Cameron Indoor on December 28, the third-year coach must face Boeheim, his former boss and mentor, in the Carrier Dome on New Year’s Eve. That’s two road games in four days against two of the greatest coaches in college basketball history. Good luck, guys.
Notable non-conference games: @Kentucky (L), v. Massachusetts (L), @Purdue (L), v. Green Bay, @Duke (December 28), @Syracuse (December 31).