Ed. Note: for all of the posts in the RTC 09-10 Class Schedule series, click here.
The primary debate throughout college basketball this offseason is not who should claim the top spot in the polls in early November. It’s fairly evident Kansas is the near-unanimous choice and the most talented team in the land on paper. Instead, the serious discussion will surround which team should hold the rights to the #2 spot in the country after the Jayhawks. Some will say Kentucky and their immense talent, or Villanova and their elite backcourt. Some will argue Duke or North Carolina or Michigan State deserve the nod. My money is on Kansas’ main Big 12 foe: the Texas Longhorns.
Losing the all-time Big 12 leader in three point field goals, a 16.6 points per game scorer and a guard who played over 35 minutes per contest the last three seasons will be an adjustment for coach Rick Barnes. Consistency wasn’t always A.J. Abrams’ forte, but the constant threat he posed from outside would stretch defenses and help teammates find easier lanes to the basket. Even with Abrams gone, the backcourt looks strong led by holdover Dogus Balbay, a tremendous passer, and Florida transfer Jai Lucas, an elite guard that played thirty minutes per game for Billy Donovan just two seasons ago and shot 44% from deep. The #1 recruit in the entire nation according to ESPN, Avery Bradley, also joins the backcourt as an attacking wing that can hit mid-range jumpers and defend like a senior. Talented guard J’Covan Brown also joins the fray after missing last season due to academics.
The frontcourt also looks strong, bolstered by the return of Damion James for another campaign in Austin after testing the NBA Draft waters. James nearly averaged a double-double as a junior and could very well accomplish said feat in 2009-10. Another top-ten recruit, small forward Jordan Hamilton, has the potential to be a huge scoring force for Texas. Hamilton is an exceptional shooter with a long wingspan that can finish at the rim with equal prowess. Dexter Pittman and Gary Johnson, two monsters inside, both return as double-digit scorers a year ago. Justin Mason and Varez Ward are the glue guys on the perimeter defending and contributing when needed. This team is loaded and could challenge Kansas for the top spot in the country at some point.
How does the schedule play out for my #2 team in the nation? Let’s examine:
Non-Conference Schedule Rank: 8.5. The Longhorns non-conference slate features two top-ten teams in a span of four days right before Christmas. On December 19, Texas will face defending champion North Carolina in Arlington at Jerry Jones’ new monstrosity and take on Michigan State at home in Austin on December 22. Rick Barnes is never one to dodge challenging non-conference schedules and this year is no different. Still, the Longhorns don’t leave the state of Texas for an entire month (November 28 vs. Rice in Houston to December 29 vs. Gardner-Webb at home). Their neutral floor games in Kansas City are against Big Ten bottom-feeder Iowa and a rebuilding Pittsburgh team who will be without Gilbert Brown for the fall semester (assuming they beat Wichita State). They’ll also take on a talented Connecticut team in late January. Barnes put together this schedule in brilliant fashion. He’ll pick up neutral floor wins against moderately big names and brings two highly ranked schools to his home state, surely boosting his RPI and SOS with the chance to pick up quality wins in hopes of grabbing a #1 seed in March.
Cupcake City: Barnes did schedule his fair share of cupcakes, but nothing excessive to the point of being embarrassing. I count seven games against “cupcakes” (including Long Beach State, the Big West preseason favorites) in Austin with two to begin the campaign as part of the CBE Classic and the others sandwiched around the North Carolina and Michigan State games, which makes perfect sense. I never understood why coaches schedule weaker opponents 8-9 games in a row during the season. Sprinkling in serious challengers in the middle portion, as Barnes did, is the best strategy to keep his Longhorns motivated and focused.