Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma and Texas finalized their non-conference schedules this week, and the rest of the league is expected to follow suit soon. Let’s take a look at what we know already.
12. Why do non-conference schedules matter? Ask Oklahoma State.
If the NCAA selection committee just looked at teams’ performances in January and February, there would’ve been no argument from anyone as to whether Oklahoma State should’ve been in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. They should have. Thrashing Kansas twice, topping West Virginia on the road and beating Texas Tech – that’s enough to get them seated.
But big picture wise, Oklahoma State played just one road non-conference game. They played three neutral site games and the rest of their non-conference schedule came at home against teams that were, with the exception of Wichita State and Tulsa, from low mid-major conferences that were not tournament teams.
It’s why even though the eye test told us OSU deserved it more than its rival Oklahoma, the Sooners got the edge because their non-conference schedule was simply tougher and better. Oklahoma had the fifth toughest schedule in college basketball last season according to Kenpom. Oklahoma State was 38th, and that’s mostly because of the Big 12 slate. Oklahoma State’s non-conference schedule was ranked No. 311. OU was No. 96.
Big 12 games matter more, but non-conference schedules are used as a dividing tool in March.
11. Who usually schedules the toughest?
Three programs consistently schedule monster non-conference games: Kansas, Texas and West Virginia.
Kansas does basketball better than everyone in the Big 12, so it’s almost more newsworthy when the Jayhawks have a weaker – at least on paper – non-conference slate like last season. Even with a perceived “weak” non-con schedule, Kansas still played six NCAA Tournament teams and two NIT teams in their 13 non-conference games. Kansas’ strength of schedule was No. 2 in the nation. Its non-conference schedule was No. 70. Another thing Kansas does with it schedule is play mid-major programs they should “walk over” at home that are expected to do well in their conference – like Texas Southern and South Dakota State.
West Virginia is as much a basketball school as any other sport, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the Mountaineers schedule big-time games every season. Especially when they put more East Coast programs on the docket than centralized Big 12 schools. The the strength of schedule stats don’t always support this, but last year WVU played Virginia, Texas A&M and Missouri.
Since the Rick Barnes tenure, Texas has consistently created challenging schedules every year, playing home-and-homes against North Carolina, Michigan State and others in the past while also almost always participating in some sort of classic tournament in November or December. Last year Texas played Duke, Gonzaga, Butler and Alabama. Their schedule was the third toughest in the nation and their non-conference was No. 99.
10. Last year’s Kenpom non-conference rankings
Here’s were Kenpom ranked every team’s non-conference schedule last season:
No. 70 Kansas
No. 96 Oklahoma
No. 99 Texas
No. 178 TCU
No. 252 Iowa State
No. 282 Baylor
No. 299 West Virginia
No. 309 Texas Tech
No. 311 Oklahoma state
No. 324 Kansas State
9. Intriguing game: Oklahoma State vs. Nebraska in Sioux Falls, S.D.
It’s certainly a curious neutral court location. Nebraska and coach Tim Miles are in a make-or-break season where Miles’ 22-11 record and NIT berth last season was enough to warrant this upcoming season in Lincoln, but he needs to make the tournament in 2019 to secure another season. He’ll have a decent team to do it. OSU should have enough talent to beat some teams, whether they can make the tournament is another issue.
8. Intriguing game: Texas Tech vs. Memphis in Miami
Texas Tech has not released its full schedule, but in June they did announce a juicy non-conference game. Memphis, who fired former Texas Tech coach Tubby Smith after two seasons in March following a 21-13 year, has a new coach in former NBA All-Star Penny Hardaway and has a lot of momentum in recruiting. Both teams are in transition seasons for different reasons, but many expect Memphis to be competitive next season. Tech could have a rebuilding year next season, but it wouldn’t surprise me if coach Chris Beard re-tools his lineup and Jarrett Culver emerges as an All-Big 12 player.
MORE: Big Ten, Big East and Dan Majerle highlight remainder of Texas men’s basketball non-conference schedule
7. Intriguing game: TCU vs. USC in Los Angeles
Like Texas Tech, TCU hasn’t release its full schedule, but they do have one Power 5, non Big 12/SEC Challenge game they’ll play. For the second year in a row TCU is headed to the Basketball Hall of Fame Classic at Staples Center in Los Angeles. They’ll face USC, a team that is definitely rebuilding after missing the tournament. Meanwhile, it’s not a stretch to say that this TCU team has the talent and depth to be a program-best type of team.
6. Intriguing game(s): Iowa State at the Maui Invitational
The Cyclones haven’t released a full schedule, but we do know they’re heading to Hawaii for Thanksgiving. They’re part of a field that includes San Diego State, Gonzaga, Duke, Auburn, Arizona, Illinois and Xavier. Any one of those games will be fun to watch. Iowa State is the darkhorse of the Big 12 next season and could do what Texas and Oklahoma did last season – go from the bottom of the league standings to the tournament.
7. Best non-conference, non SEC/Big 12 Challenge game we know of so far?
Kansas plays Villanova at Allen Fieldhouse on Dec. 15. It’s probably the best game college basketball we’ll have in the month of December.
4. What I like/don’t like about Texas’ schedule
Things I like:
Texas may be a year or two too late to scheduling Purdue, a squad that could be retooling after finishing second in the Big 10 last season. But the Boilermakers should have an NCAA Tournament caliber team returning with Atascocita native Carsen Edwards back along with 7-foot-3-inch Matt Haarms. This is probably the premier game on the non-conference schedule that won’t take place in Las Vegas and certainly the top home game in December.
Arkansas will feature a possible NBA Lottery pick in Daniel Gafford and, with that game being played on a neutral court in Texas but nowhere near Austin in El Paso, it has the makings to be a good one. It’s going to be the first game of the season, so who knows how good both teams will look.
The best part of Texas’ schedule is the tournament, the Las Vegas Invitational, that will feature North Carolina, UCLA and Michigan State. Both games Texas will play in Vegas will be their top non-conference games of the season, including the Big 12/SEC game against Georgia.
Thing I don’t like
Texas won’t play a true road game until the Big 12 schedule starts. They play six home games in December and two in November. The only true non-conference road game is Georgia. I’m not sure how much this matters in the big picture. Almost every team in the Big 12 will do or be close to doing this type of schedule. But hey, that doesn’t meant it’s right.
It seems that with such a big season approaching for coach Shaka Smart, he’d want his team to play on the road once or twice before entering Big 12 play, where he is 6-21 in Big 12 road games at Texas.
3. What I like/don’t like about Oklahoma’s schedule
Things I like:
With so many Power 5 teams staying at home in November and December, coach Lon Kruger and the Sooners hopefully will be rewarded in March if they are on the bubble by leaving Norman in the non-conference season. It’s not as though they’re leaving to play Kentucky or Duke, but agreeing to play two mid-majors on the road, like University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg, is rare. OU hasn’t started the season on the road since 1977. Three days later they play University of Texas at San Antonio in San Antonio – this is something most programs who have been to a Final Four in the last five years aren’t doing.
OU also travels to Evanston, Ill. for the return game in a home-and-home series with Northwestern. Neutral site games in New York at the Jimmy V Classic against Notre Dame and Southern California in Tulsa are difficult games – especially for an OU team that is going to start the season unranked and likely slotted in the bottom half of the Big 12 preseason poll.
On top of all this is Oklahoma’s trip to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. They join Virginia (a likely top 10 team next season), Butler, Dayton, Florida, Wisconsin, Stanford and Middle Tennessee.
Throw in the tough home games against Wichita State, Creighton and Vanderbilt and OU may have one of the toughest schedules in the country next season.
Things I don’t like:
In terms of the schedule, there’s nothing I don’t like. In terms of OU helping its NCAA chances, I don’t like it. Oklahoma doesn’t play a single back-to-back home game in their non-conference schedule. If Buddy Hield and Trae Young were on this team, this would be one the best non-conference schedule’s in a long time.
Oklahoma could struggle next season. Unlike what Kansas State coach Bruce Weber did last season – schedule down, get a lot of wins and enter conference season with a winning record and confidence – OU’s potentially difficult slate could have the team sub .500 before Big 12 play.
Some teams can enter conference season with terrible records and be fine. They’re called Texas Southern. Oklahoma isn’t playing in the SWAC. While it’s great that OU is playing this kind of schedule, all teams need to schedule with the tournament in mind. Texas Southern has scheduled some of the toughest non-conference slates in the nation (No. 1 last season), but that’s only because it knew they were still going to compete for the league title and the auto bid.
If you just look at the departures and the last three months of the 2018 season, it’s easy to think OU will be dreadful next season. But the Sooners could be a little underrated entering the season with the experienced pieces back and a forward like Jumani McNeace. However, if the team is something like 4-8 entering the Big 12, it could be deflating and lead to a long conference stretch.
Bottom line: more teams in the Big 12 should schedule like OU just did, but they won’t.
2. What I like/don’t like about Kansas State’s schedule
One of the reasons why I think so many national writers are taking Kansas State top-10 preseason aspirations with some skepticism is because of the Wildcats’ schedule from last season. Kansas State played the worst non-conference in the Big 12, but won big games in conference play and withstood some let-down games and injuries to squeak into the tournament, where they reached the Elite Eight. But even that path is marked because they avoided playing the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, Virginia, by way of the biggest upset in college basketball history.
I don’t chide Weber’s scheduling practice last season. He knew he needed to win for his job and he knew he had a roster that with the right development could be what they became, but also had the chance to really collapse. Kansas State entering the Big 12 season with a 10-2 record did a lot to boost its confidence moving forward.
Things I like:
Kansas State should enter Big 12 play undefeated. The toughest game will be against Vanderbilt in Kansas City just before Christmas on Dec. 22.
Things I don’t like:
Everything about this schedule is a joke.
For a team that enters the year with big time expectations, Kansas State’s biggest challenge is going to be a Vanderbilt team that will have NBA Lottery talent on its roster, but a Vanderbilt team that wasn’t great last season.
Marquette and Tulsa are the two other tough games on the schedule. While Kansas State travels to Milwaukee and Tulsa for those games, it’s lost in the muck of games against Denver, Lehigh, Eastern Kentucky, Georgia State and Southern Miss. There is no better example of why Kansas State is Kansas State and why Kansas is Kansas.
Even the preseason tournament the Wildcats are going to is laughable. Eastern Kentucky, Northern Iowa, Penn, Missouri, Old Dominion and Oregon State are teams at the Paradise Jam.
If Oklahoma was playing Kansas State’s schedule, I’d understand. But for a team with a legit AP top 10 preseason rankings case to have just three potentially watchable games in November and December is ridiculous.
1. The best conference schedule is: Kansas
This should be no surprise as we’ve already mentioned Kansas usually plays a difficult non-conference schedule because they do basketball better than every program in the league.
All last year it looked as if Kansas was in a gap year. They weren’t rebuilding, but the roster was weird and instead of pursuing more immediate help, gave three scholarships to transfers who couldn’t play. Part of this was that the staff must have felt confident in the pieces it had – and they were right, Kansas reached the Final Four last season. Another part was the staff looking at this year and knowing that without those transfers, the program could be facing a challenging season.
But last year’s non-conference schedule showed that maybe Kansas was “watering down the schedule a bit.” That schedule proved to be the second most difficult schedule in the nation.
This year’s even more of a gauntlet.
Kansas, who last week announced the return of senior LaGerald Vick, will open the season with Big 10 power Michigan State at the Champions Classic. Then the Jayhawks play a Vermont team that dominated its league last season before being upset in its conference tournament by UMBC – the team that beat Virginia.
Kansas will play at the preseason NIT tournament in Brooklyn that includes Louisville, Marquette and likely top-10 team Tennessee.
They’ll host Stanford, Wofford and New Mexico State before welcoming defending NCAA champion Villanova in a Final Four rematch. That will be a home-and-home game with Kansas heading to Philadelphia in 2019.
After that the Jayhawks play two more 2018 tournament teams in South Dakota State – an overwhelming favorite to win its league and return to the tournament, and Arizona State, who beat Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse last season.
The final non-conference game will be against Kentucky, possibly the No. 1 team in the nation when the first poll comes out.
While Kansas can get criticized for playing just one, non Big 12/ SEC challenge road game on this slate – a trip to Tempe – you can’t fault a program that knows it should be playing a schedule like this every year because of where they stand in the echelon of the sport’s hierarchy.
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