College Basketball Nation: Ole Miss Rebels
The pairings for the 2014 SEC/Big 12 Challenge were announced Wednesday afternoon.
In the event’s second year, it will again offer a variety of intriguing matchups. The Big 12 won the first Challenge last year by a 7-3 margin, and the Big 12, a league that sent seven teams to the NCAA tourney last season compared to the SEC’s three, has the edge again.
Here’s a ranking of the 10 games in this year’s SEC/Big 12 Challenge (Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Alabama and Georgia will not participate this season):
1. Texas at Kentucky: Call your friends. Get your popcorn ready. This will be phenomenal. Well, at least it appears that way right now. When Myles Turner, the nation's No. 2 prospect in the 2014 ESPN 100, picked Texas, he transformed the Longhorns into a Big 12 title contender and potential national power. The Longhorns had a solid stable even before Turner's decision. Cameron Ridley and Jonathan Holmes helped the Longhorns orchestrate one of the most surprising runs to the NCAA tourney in the country last season, considering all the departures from the previous season’s team. It’s fitting that Texas' ridiculous frontcourt will face the “Voltron” of college basketball frontcourts. Kentucky will be a problem for the rest of the country. Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee would form the nation’s top frontcourt without any help. Add blue-chip recruits Trey Lyles and Karl Towns Jr. and, well, you can see this is a rare pool of NBA prospects in one frontcourt. Plus Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison are back. And a couple McDonald’s All Americans will come off the bench. Is Texas a legitimate contender? Is Kentucky the top team in America and the national title favorite? This matchup could answer both questions.
2. Florida at Kansas: Bill Self just lost two players, Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins, who could be the top two players selected in this summer’s NBA draft. But this is Kansas. Hit reset and continue to win Big 12 titles. That’s just what they do in Lawrence. The Jayhawks will reload with Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre, a couple McDonald’s All Americans who will fill the voids. Wayne Selden, Perry Ellis and a starting-point-guard-to-be-determined will be on the floor too. Point guard is not an issue for the Gators with Kasey Hill returning. They have lost the senior crew that helped the Gators beat the Jayhawks in Gainesville during last season’s Challenge, though. That is an issue. But this is a good barometer for both programs, which will each rely on youth. Billy Donovan’s 13th-ranked recruiting class, per RecruitingNation, will have to mature fast and help Dorian Finney-Smith, Michael Frazier II, Chris Walker and the rest of the roster challenge Kentucky at the top of the SEC next season. Walker will have to be a primary piece of the offense, not a sub at the end of the bench. But Kansas’ edge in experience and overall talent could be the difference. Look for Selden to have an All-America moment or two in this matchup.
3. Arkansas at Iowa State: Fred Hoiberg signed former UNLV star Bryce Dejean-Jones to play for the Cyclones. Add him to a squad that also features Monte Morris, Naz Long, Dustin Hogue and Georges Niang and the Fighting Hoibergs should be Big 12 contenders again. Arkansas swept Kentucky last season, but the Razorbacks struggled on the road. And Hilton Coliseum gets rowdy. Can Arkansas handle that environment? Bobby Portis is one of three top scorers from last season returning for the Razorbacks. Four-star point guard Anton Beard could make an immediate contribution too. This should be a solid matchup, especially as both squads are figuring things out early in the season.
4. LSU at West Virginia: Prior to last season, both LSU and West Virginia looked like programs that would turn the corner in 2013-14. Although both improved, they still missed expectations. So this is a statement game. If they are serious about securing NCAA tourney bids, then they have to win games like this. Juwan Staten anchors a West Virginia team that returns most of the talent from a season ago. On the other side, Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey will be joined by four-star recruit Elbert Robinson in a strong frontcourt that must carry LSU this season. This is one of those matchups that might mean a lot more on Selection Sunday than it will in December.
5. Oklahoma State at South Carolina: Travis Ford and Frank Martin are in similar positions. They both need one player on their respective rosters to have a breakout season. The Cowboys are deeper than the Gamecocks, but there is a lot riding on Le'Bryan Nash. If South Carolina plans to make a move in 2014-15, talented sophomore Sindarius Thornwell will have to orchestrate that evolution.
6. Baylor at Vanderbilt: Two teams with interesting outlooks. Scott Drew lost every meaningful member of last season's Sweet 16 squad other than Kenny Chery, Rico Gathers and Royce O'Neale, and he didn’t sign a stellar recruiting class. But he does have a bunch of reserves who have been waiting to prove themselves. For Vanderbilt, Kevin Stallings will get Kedren Johnson, who missed a year due to suspension, back in the mix and add a recruiting class ranked 28th nationally by RecruitingNation. This could be the season Vandy rises in the SEC. Johnson vs. Chery will be one of the best matchups in the Challenge.
7. Missouri at Oklahoma: Ryan Spangler and three other starters return for Lon Kruger’s Oklahoma squad. Plus, he will add a couple top-100 recruits. New Missouri coach Kim Anderson will need youngsters Johnathan Williams III and top recruit JaKeenan Gant to step up after the Tigers lost their top three scorers from last season.
8. Kansas State at Tennessee: Marcus Foster should be the early favorite to win Big 12 player of the year honors. He’s the reason Bruce Weber’s team shouldn’t be dismissed as a threat in the conference. Donnie Tyndall doesn’t really have a roster right now, so this one is difficult to gauge. But if the young men who have requested releases from their scholarships come back to Knoxville, then this one will be more intriguing than it appears to be right now.
9. Auburn at Texas Tech: This game won’t feature the most talent from either league. But this will be Bruce Pearl’s first season at Auburn, where he’s blessed with great facilities and an administration that seems determined to make a stand in the SEC. Tubby Smith didn’t turn the Red Raiders into world beaters during his first season in Lubbock, but a few surprises -- upsets over Baylor, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Texas -- were promising. Nothing wrong with a matchup between a couple of veteran coaches who are trying to rebuild in unique locations.
10. TCU at Ole Miss: The Marshall Henderson era is over, so Andy Kennedy will try to rebuild around Jarvis Summers, incoming young players and junior college transfers. TCU coach Trent Johnson lost talented guard Jarvis Ray. Both squads will start at the bottom and probably stay there all season. This isn’t the Challenge’s sexiest matchup.
The three SEC programs that did, however, thrived. Tennessee began in the First Four and made a run to the Sweet 16. Florida, the top team in the country for a chunk of the season, was the favorite to win the national championship but fell to Connecticut in the Final Four. Kentucky, after a turbulent season, rode a postseason burst all the way to the national title game.
Only three of the league's 14 members secured NCAA tourney bids and all three were fabulous.
What about the other 11, though?
That's the challenge here. The NCAA tournament is the ultimate chapter of each college basketball season. Because the bulk of the attention the game attracts each season arrives in March, its postseason is largely viewed separately from the regular season. The latter means little to most because so many squads -- 19 percent of the 351 Division I teams -- have a chance to win it all.
If that's true, then the SEC had a banner year. But it's also not that simple.
The late-season highs were impressive. But the overall SEC picture was rarely pretty.
What we saw this season: Everything about the SEC was connected to Kentucky before the season began. John Calipari signed six McDonald’s All Americans. Kentucky was ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls, but the Wildcats didn't live up to the hype until the NCAA tournament began. They faced multiple Top-25 teams in the nonconference season but beat only rival Louisville.
Their finish, however, was remarkable. Somehow, this young Kentucky team defeated Kansas State, undefeated Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin to reach the national championship matchup. Yes, the Wildcats lost. But they recorded one of the season's most impressive finishes in college basketball.
Florida, the first 18-0 team in SEC history, didn’t experience those struggles. The Gators were unstoppable once they got healthy. They dealt with injuries and suspensions at the start of the season, but won 30 consecutive games as a mostly complete unit, even though McDonald’s All American freshman Chris Walker didn't play most of the season. They didn't capture the crown but Billy Donovan's fourth Final Four appearance is worthy of kudos. For most of the year, Florida was the only program that made SEC basketball worth watching.
Georgia matched Kentucky’s 12-6 SEC record, a year after Kentavious Caldwell-Pope left the scene and Mark Fox made an argument for coach of the year.
It all got worse from there, though.
Tennessee's conclusion belied its overall season. Cuonzo Martin returned most of the standouts from a 2012-13 team that missed the NCAA tourney, but Jarnell Stokes, Jordan McRae and a healthy Jeronne Maymon weren't supposed to stumble into the NCAA tournament through a First Four matchup with Iowa. That's what happened, though.
Stumble was the theme of SEC basketball in 2013-14.
In all, four squads cracked the RPI's final top 50. Seven finished in the 90s or higher. Auburn (165) and Mississippi State (243) were at the bottom.
Every league has a basement. But the SEC's was difficult to identify because of the heap of seemingly average squads in the conference.
Missouri, with Jabari Brown leading the way, had some talented players, but a late 2-5 stretch that included road losses to Alabama and Georgia helped knock them off the bubble. Arkansas swept Kentucky but couldn’t manage any other impressive road wins. Johnny O’Bryant III led a talented LSU frontcourt, but the Tigers couldn’t play their way into the tourney either. Same for Marshall Henderson (19.0 PPG) and Ole Miss.
The rest of the league -- Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Alabama, Texas A&M, Auburn, South Carolina -- all finished with sub-.500 records in conference play.
Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee definitely helped the league, but they were anomalies in a subpar conference.
What we expect to see next season: Things could be similar next year.
Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison are back for Kentucky. They’ll join Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein along with another elite recruiting class (see Trey Lyles, Karl Towns).
Florida could also be a national title contender if Kasey Hill and Walker continue to develop. Michael Frazier II and Dorian Finney-Smith are back, too. But Patric Young, Casey Prather, Will Yeguete and Scottie Wilbekin are not. That’s a major blow. But five-star recruit Devin Robinson is the anchor of another strong recruiting class in Gainesville.
The rest of the league is filled with question marks.
Things are fluid at Tennessee, Missouri and Auburn. All three programs have new coaches who have to persuade current players to stay on board and find ways to boost their talent pools for next year in the ninth hour.
Tennessee lost its entire recruiting class -- all four prospects requested and received their releases -- after Martin left for Cal and Southern Miss' Donnie Tyndall replaced him. Bruce Pearl is working the phones now that he's back in the game at Auburn. It's too early to know how the hiring of former Central Missouri head coach Kim Anderson on Monday will affect Missouri’s future, but he won’t have Brown or Jordan Clarkson, who both declared for the NBA draft.
Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey return for LSU. That duo along with 6-foot-11 incoming freshman Elbert Robinson will lead one of the league’s top frontcourts. The Tigers should make a push for an NCAA tourney slot. Anthony Grant lost Trevor Releford, who will be hard to replace at Alabama, but Levi Randolph returns. Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls helped Arkansas beat Kentucky twice last season and could help Mike Anderson’s program earn an NCAA tourney bid next year.
Georgia's Charles Mann & Co. will give Fox the same talents he had on a 12-6 SEC squad last year. If his youngsters grow, the Bulldogs could finish near the top of the conference again.
The return of Kedren Johnson from a year-long suspension would help Kevin Stallings' cause at Vandy. Billy Kennedy has a solid nucleus at Texas A&M. The Marshall Henderson Era is over at Ole Miss. And South Carolina and Mississippi State will try to turn the corner. Again.
Still, Kentucky and Florida will be the teams to watch in the SEC. The rest of the conference? As always, it's difficult to say.
Game Plan is our new Monday morning primer, designed to give you everything you need to know about games that were and the games that will be in college hoops this week. Send us feedback and submissions via email and Twitter.
It's been five years. God, five years already? Five years! Five national champions, five teams of five All-Americans, five draft classes, thousands of college basketball games, hundreds of injuries, and more minutes than I'd like to even attempt to count have passed between the two best games of Maurice Creek's career.
You might remember the first. It was Dec. 12, 2009. Creek was one of Tom Crean's intriguing freshmen then, but no one had any illusions about the fixture at hand: First-year Kentucky coach John Calipari was bringing John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson and Eric Bledsoe to town, and Indiana was going to get rocked.
Finally, mercifully, the next great game in Creek's career came Sunday night against Maryland.
The injury-plagued road that Creek traveled between that 31-point Indiana night and Sunday's 25-point, 11-shot clinic against the Terps has been well-documented in this space. The short version is that no player in the past five years -- not even Purdue's famously unlucky Robbie Hummel -- suffered a more brutal string of injuries than did the one-time blue-chipper at IU.
Now Creek is playing efficient minutes -- he'd hit 21 of 46 from 3 entering Sunday night, with a 122.4 offensive rating -- and hitting step-back game-winners for a GW team that has already upset Creighton this season. I'm sorry, friend, but if that doesn't warm your heart, you may want to see a doctor.
ICYMI: TOP STORIES
1. Oregon and Ole Miss score ALL OF THE POINTS (box score): Some fun facts from last night's 115-105 OT Oregon win in Oxford, Miss. (and I won't put parenthetical exclamations behind any of this, but assume their liberal application throughout):
- The Ducks scored (about) 1.3 points per possession in an 87-possession game. They shot 58.5 percent from the field, 61.1 percent from 3.
- Mike Moser had 24 points and 10 rebounds; Johnathan Loyd had 23 points and 15 assists and made 14 of 16 from the free throw line.
- Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson shot 23 -- yes, 23 -- 3-point field goals. He made 10. He scored 39 points. The Rebels still lost.
In closing, here is the link to the WatchESPN replay. That is all.
2. Askia Booker cashed in on Colorado's karmic debt and downed a much-better-but-still-deeply-flawed Kansas team in the game of the weekend, and one of the best of the season to date. Booker also (probably) created the first-ever euro-step buzzer-beater. Productive afternoon, that.
3. Baylor won Friday's "Basketball Showdown" over Kentucky 67-62. Baylor was good. Kentucky's defense was kind of a mess; its flaws were pushed to the fore. Also: Jerryworld was morbidly quiet. You'd think something called "Basketball Showdown" that isn't an original Nintendo cartridge would be more exciting. Hmph.
STAT OF THE WEEK: Wisconsin's 48-38 win at Virginia on Wednesday wasn't just about two teams playing slow: The Cavaliers scored 38 points in 57 possessions, an average of 0.67 points per trip. They also shot just 3-of-22 at the rim and made three shots total outside the paint. OK, OK, I know that's more than one stat. But jeez. (Hat tip: Synergy, via Luke Winn)
THE GAMES YOU NEED TO SEE
Tuesday: Kansas at Florida, 7 p.m. ET [ESPN]: Florida point guard Scottie Wilbekin was cleared to practice and will play Tuesday, according to the Gainesville Sun, and boy, is that good news for Florida. Even a banged-up Wilbekin is a massive improvement on whatever (literal) five-player configuration Billy Donovan would have cobbled together. Kansas, meanwhile, continues Bill Self's march of doom: The Florida date is the second of two consecutive true road games, and it will be fascinating to see how Andrew Wiggins and the young Jayhawks respond to the challenge ahead. Also: Casey Prather is really good. That too.
Friday: Iowa at Iowa State, 9:30 p.m. ET (ESPNU): It's been a while since both flagship Iowa teams faced each other as members of the Associated Press Top 25; frankly, the last half-decade has been pretty rough. But Fran McCaffery's Hawkeyes are 9-1, Fred Hoiberg's Cyclones are 7-0, both teams are not only rebuilt but playing exciting, up-tempo basketball, and my friends have been arguing for weeks over which team is better. You probably have to be from Iowa to get how big this game is but yeah. Big game.
Saturday: Arizona at Michigan, 12 p.m. ET (CBS): Michigan's three losses do little to diminish this circled-since-September matchup with Arizona, now arguably the nation's best and most well-rounded team. The Wolverines will be starving for a big win in front of a frenzied crowd. Arizona's size, offensive spacing and elite rim protection would almost certainly be too much for Mitch McGary & Co. on a neutral court. But in Ann Arbor? So you're telling me there's a chance
Saturday: Tennessee at Wichita State, 2 p.m. ET (ESPN2): It's still early in the season, but we're rapidly approaching put up-or-shut up time for Tennessee, which entered the season with the returning SEC Player of the Year (Jordan McRae), a bruising front line (Jarnell Stokes, Jeronne Maymon) and SEC title contention buzz. The Volunteers have already lost to Xavier and UTEP. That's hardly an irreparable situation, and I'm not saying a win at Wichita State is required (harsh, man) but we need to see something, you know?
Saturday: Kentucky at North Carolina, 5:15 p.m. ET (ESPN): North Carolina has lost to Belmont and UAB, and beaten Louisville and Michigan State -- the latter of which came Wednesday in
Ann Arbor East Lansing. It's enough to make a college basketball analyst's brain turn into mush. But if the likely explanation is that the Tar Heels struggle to lock in except against obviously good opponents, Roy Williams should have no problem getting his team ready for Julius Randle, James Young and the rest of the occasionally brilliant, occasionally unglued Kentucky Wildcats.
PHOTO OF THE WEEK
Enjoy the basketball, everyone.
LONG BEFORE HE suited up for Ole Miss, Marshall Henderson was a rebel. He admits he never liked following rules, whether set by his father or the police. Arrested in high school for using counterfeit money to buy marijuana, Henderson avoided jail but violated his probation while in college by testing positive for pot, cocaine and alcohol. A standout at L.D. Bell High School in Hurst, Texas, where he played for his dad, Willie, Henderson cycled through three colleges -- a freshman year at Utah, a transfer to Texas Tech, where he never played a game, and then a transfer 30 miles west to South Plains junior college -- before landing in Mississippi at the start of last season. Now entering his senior year, he has racked up impressive stats (20.1 ppg last season), a reputation for showboating and a lengthy rap sheet. Last season he led the Rebels to an upset over 5-seed Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament, but he was suspended indefinitely in July after receiving a citation for driving without insurance. (Police found marijuana and cocaine in his car but said it wasn't enough to prosecute.) Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy isn't sure when he'll reinstate his star guard, but Henderson says he's ready -- and has sworn off drugs and alcohol for the season.
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Here are previews for each team in the SEC:
Alabama Crimson Tide
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Ole Miss Rebels
South Carolina Gamecocks
Texas A&M Aggies (FREE)
2. Ole Miss got two injured players back but lost another. Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said sophomore Terry Brutus is done for the season with a torn ACL, suffered last week in practice. But the Rebels do have forward Aaron Jones back from his ACL injury, which occurred against Kentucky on Jan. 29. Forward Demarco Cox is also back after missing all but seven games last season with a stress fracture in his foot. The depth can still be there for the Rebels up front, despite the loss of Brutus. But the Rebels will go as far as Marshall Henderson can carry them. He is currently suspended but the SEC's top scorer is expected to be back in the good graces by the heart of the season, giving Ole Miss a potent offensive option.
3. The NIT Season Tip-Off is supposed to release its long-awaited bracket Tuesday. This is what we know for sure: the four hosts are Arizona, Duke, Rutgers and Alabama. And you can lock in Arizona and Duke will be on opposite sides of the bracket so they can meet in a potential final at Madison Square Garden the day after Thanksgiving on Nov. 29. If that occurs then you'll get a treat of seeing two of the top freshmen in the country in Arizona's Aaron Gordon and Duke's Jabari Parker. Both of these teams should be considered Final Four contenders. The NIT bracket has been "the best secret in college sports,'' according to Arizona coach Sean Miller. That's called sarcasm and he's right. The bracket has taken way too long to be revealed.
We’ve officially judged and juried every nonconference schedule.
Kudos to the teams that had the nerve to schedule bravely. Your just rewards could come in March, when the selection committee recognizes the merits of playing tough opponents, even if there’s a risk of a loss.
And shame on those who scheduled meekly. Enjoy the NIT.
Now, it’s time to play Armchair Scheduler -- or King/Queen of the Basketball Universe, whichever title floats your boat -- and offer up 15 nonconference games that won’t be played this year, but we wish would be:
Kansas vs. Missouri: Let’s just file this under an annual request. One of the greatest rivalries in college basketball ought to be played this year, next year and every year. We don’t care who left what conference. We don’t care who’s angry. This is like two divorcing parents sparring over the china with the kids stuck in the middle. Here the two schools’ fan bases and fans of the game in general are the kids. So hire a good mediator, work this out and play ball.
Georgetown vs. Syracuse: See Kansas-Missouri argument above. The two teams here at least have agreed that continuing the rivalry at some point is a good idea and it appears a multiyear contract is imminent, but there’s nothing yet on the schedule. Let’s fix that. Soon.
Kentucky vs. Indiana: Ibid. Or is it op. cit.? Whatever, reference the Kansas-Missouri, Georgetown-Syracuse arguments cited above. Two states separated by a river. Great rivalry. Lousy excuses. Figure it out.
North Carolina vs. Raleigh News & Observer: The Tar Heels’ crimes, misdeeds and lack of punishment have been well documented in the news media, but nowhere as thoroughly and as well as at the local newspaper. The staff at the N&O has been relentless and thorough in its coverage. We suggest a game of H-O-R-S-E (with the African-American studies department excused from judging) at the Newseum to settle this once and for all.
Harvard vs. Duke: Smart school versus smart school. Mentor versus mentee. Easy storylines for reporters. What’s not to like about this matchup? Not to mention it would feature two top-25 teams and give the Crimson a chance to show how good they really are.
Kansas vs. Kentucky: Yes, we will get to enjoy Kansas (Andrew Wiggins) versus Duke (Jabari Parker) in Chicago, but we’re selfish. We’d like to see Wiggins go up against Kentucky, one of the schools he spurned. Not to mention it might be fun witnessing what could essentially be a freshman All-American game, with Wiggins, the Harrison twins, James Young, Julius Randle and Joel Embiid together on one floor.
Florida Gulf Coast vs. Georgetown: Let’s see if the slipper still fits when last season’s Cinderella goes rematch against its Madness victims, the Hoyas. Georgetown doesn’t have Otto Porter anymore and Greg Whittington is hurt, but hey, Dunk City lost its drum major when Andy Enfield headed to USC. Seems about even.
Michigan vs. Notre Dame: No one would dare call Mike Brey a chicken, would they? The two schools called the football rivalry quits this year amid acrimony and an endgame Wolverine chicken dance, but maybe the basketball schools can extend the olive branch and play for the first time since 2006.
Michigan State vs. Duke: Tom Izzo may not want to see the Blue Devils very often -- he’s 1-7 against Duke in his tenure -- but this game never disappoints. The two schools have met nine times and only twice, in 2003 and in 1958, has it been a blowout. The two have gone head-to-head over top recruits, including Jabari Parker, and come into the season as top-10 locks.
Memphis vs. Arizona: Josh Pastner revisits his coaching roots in a game that will answer the biggest question facing the Wildcats -- how good is point guard T.J. McConnell? If the Duquesne transfer can handle the Tigers’ onslaught of Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson, Chris Crawford and Michael Dixon, he can handle everything.
Louisville vs. Oklahoma State: You like good guard play? Imagine this one. Russ Smith, Chris Jones, Terry Rozier (and maybe Kevin Ware) against Marcus Smart, Markel Brown and incoming freshman Stevie Clark. The coaches would be miserable -- with Rick Pitino going up against his own beloved point guard, Travis Ford -- but the rest of us would enjoy it tremendously.
Oregon vs. Creighton: This game stacks up on merit, not just on the storyline of Dana Altman facing his old squad. With Doug McDermott back in the fold, the Bluejays are legit. Their schedule is less so, a sort of meandering plunder of nonconference nothingness. Adding the Ducks, a team Altman has reconstructed, and his impressive backcourt would be helpful. And OK, old coach/old school is fun.
New Mexico vs. Florida: The Gators already have a pretty impressive nonconference slate, but hey, what’s one more? This one would be a nice tussle between pretty skilled, albeit different, big men in Alex Kirk and Patric Young. Kirk enjoyed a breakout season last year, but facing Young would be a real test of the 7-footer’s abilities.
Toughest: NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 18-19, Nov. 27/29), Wichita State (Dec. 17), at UCLA (Dec. 28)
Next toughest: vs. Oklahoma (Nov. 8 in Dallas), Xavier (Dec. 21)
The rest: Texas Tech (Nov. 14), North Florida (Dec. 4), at South Florida (Dec. 7), Charleston Southern (Dec. 14), Robert Morris (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- Trevor Releford will have to carry a lot of weight for Anthony Grant’s program this season, even though the Crimson Tide will add a couple of top-100 recruits. His backcourt mate Trevor Lacey transferred to NC State during the offseason. So the turbulence could come early for this program. The NIT Season Tip-Off presents a variety of challenging possibilities. Final Four contender Wichita State will be a handful even though the Shockers travel to Tuscaloosa in mid-December. A road game against Pac-12 contender UCLA in renovated Pauley Pavilion will be difficult for this rebuilding program, too. And the matchups with Oklahoma and Xavier could also be interesting challenges for Bama.
Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 25-27)
Next toughest: SMU (Nov. 18)
The rest: SIU-Edwardsville (Nov. 8), Louisiana (Nov. 15), Southeastern Louisiana (Dec. 3), Clemson (Dec. 7), Savannah State (Dec. 12), Tennessee-Martin (Dec. 19), South Alabama (Dec. 21), High Point (Dec. 28), Texas-San Antonio (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- Arkansas could have been an SEC contender, but BJ Young and Marshawn Powell turned pro. Now, the program will rely on a roster that lost 35.1 PPG from last season. The Razorbacks are young and could feel the fire early. But not often. The Razorbacks open the Maui Invitational against Cal. From there, they could play Syracuse, Baylor or Gonzaga. But it’s more likely that they’ll be matched up against Minnesota in the second round and Dayton or Chaminade on the final day of the tournament. There’s really nothing else here. Larry Brown is building something at SMU, but the Mustangs probably aren’t ready for the Big Dance yet. Only thing holding up this nonconference schedule are a few unlikely matchups in Hawaii.
Toughest: at Iowa State (Dec. 2)
Next toughest: Illinois (Dec. 8), Boston College (Dec. 22)
The rest: Nicholls State (Nov. 8), Northwestern State (Nov. 15), Jacksonville State (Nov. 19), Murray State (Nov. 23), Tennessee State (Nov. 26), Clemson (Dec. 19), Arkansas Pine-Bluff (Dec. 30), Florida A&M (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- Did a bunch of SEC teams get together and wager on who could assemble the ugliest nonconference schedule? Seems like it. Tony Barbee’s program certainly doesn’t have the worst nonconference slate in the league, but it’s still not great. It’ll be tough to get out of Ames with a win when the Tigers travel to Iowa State in early December and Illinois is rebuilding but John Groce’s team should be tough in his second season. The matchup against Boston College in December will be interesting. Maybe. Auburn is not expected to be a top-half team in the SEC. So perhaps this nonconference arrangement makes sense. To someone.
Toughest: at Wisconsin (Nov. 12), at UConn (Dec. 2), Kansas (Dec. 10), Memphis (Dec. 17)
Next toughest: Florida State (Nov. 29)
The rest: North Florida (Nov. 8), Arkansas-Little Rock (Nov. 16), Southern (Nov. 18), Middle Tennessee (Nov. 21), at Jacksonville (Nov. 25), Savannah State (Dec. 9), Fresno State (Dec. 21), Richmond (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- This nonconference schedule is a beast. Billy Donovan’s program might be the only legitimate obstacle in Kentucky’s path to the SEC crown and the Gators will face a variety of contenders before they collide with Kentucky and the rest of the league. The Kansas matchup could move Florida into a top-five ranking or higher if it gets the win. And it won’t be much fun to play at UConn, a team that boasts one of the nation’s top backcourts. Josh Pastner reloaded at Memphis. And Wisconsin and Middle Tennessee shouldn’t be overlooked in another difficult nonconference slate for a national title contender.
Toughest: Charleston Classic (Nov. 21-24)
Next toughest: at Colorado (Dec. 28)
The rest: Wofford (Nov. 8), Georgia Tech (Nov. 15), Appalachian State (Nov. 29), Chattanooga (Dec. 2), Lipscomb (Dec. 14), Gardner-Webb (Dec. 19), Western Carolina (Dec. 21), at George Washington (Jan. 3)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- If Georgia beats Davidson in the opening round of the Charleston Classic, the Bulldogs could move on to face Temple then New Mexico in the championship. But that’s far from a guarantee for a team that lost lottery pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to the NBA. The possibility, however, certainly helps. A road game against a Colorado squad that could steal the spotlight from Arizona and UCLA in the Pac-12 will be a challenge for Mark Fox’s squad in late December. Georgia Tech (Nov. 15) returns most of its top players from last season. Not exactly a gauntlet but enough challenges for a team hoping to stay out of the SEC’s basement.
Toughest: vs. Michigan State (Nov. 12 in Chicago), at North Carolina (Dec. 14), Louisville (Dec. 28)
Next toughest: Baylor (Dec. 6 in Arlington, Texas), vs. Providence (Dec. 1 in Brooklyn, N.Y.), Boise State (Dec. 10)
The rest: UNC-Asheville (Nov. 8), Northern Kentucky (Nov. 10), Robert Morris (Nov. 17), Texas-Arlington (Nov. 19), Cleveland State (Nov. 25), Eastern Michigan (Nov. 27), Belmont (Dec. 21)
Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- Is there a rating higher than 10? John Calipari is not going to bring his highly touted recruiting class to Division I basketball with an easy introduction. Just the opposite, in fact. If Kentucky gets through this slate, then the Wildcats will more than justify the hype. They’ll face Michigan State, a team that’s certainly in the national title preseason conversation, in Chicago in early November. They play at Chapel Hill in mid-December. And then, the reigning champ, Louisville, comes to Lexington on Dec. 28. Oh, Baylor and Boise State -- who should both be in the preseason top 25 -- will be thirsty for an upset. The only knock against this lineup is that it features only one true road game. Still, good luck, youngsters.
Toughest: Old Spice Classic (Nov. 28-Dec. 1)
Next toughest: at UMass (Nov. 12)
The rest: Northwestern State (Nov. 16), New Orleans (Nov. 19), Southeastern Louisiana (Nov. 22), UL-Monroe (Dec. 14), at Texas Tech (Dec. 18), UAB (Dec. 21), McNeese State (Dec. 28), Rhode Island (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- In his first season, Johnny Jones went 19-12 with an LSU squad that should be much better this season. Johnny O’Bryant III (15 double-doubles) is back and nationally ranked recruits Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey will give the Tigers one of the best frontcourts in the SEC and, possibly, the nation. LSU’s opening slate, however, is only so-so. Too many subpar opponents. The Old Spice Classic, however, could change that. The Tigers could face both Memphis and Oklahoma State if they get past Saint Joseph’s in the opening round. But those matchups aren’t guaranteed. A road game against Atlantic 10 contender UMass in early November is worth mentioning. The rest of the nonconference schedule? Not so much.
Toughest: at Utah State (Nov. 23), Florida Gulf Coast (Dec. 19)
Next toughest: Las Vegas Classic (Dec. 22-23)
The rest: Prairie View A&M (Nov. 8), Kennesaw State (Nov. 14), Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 19), Jackson State (Nov. 27), Loyola-Chicago (Dec. 1), TCU (Dec. 5), Southeastern Louisiana (Dec. 13), Florida A&M (Dec. 17), Maryland Eastern Shore (Jan. 2)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- Last season, Rick Ray’s program was so depleted by injuries, suspensions and departures that he had to use a graduate assistant in practice. And then, the G.A. tore an ACL. It was an unlucky debut for the rookie head coach. Well, the Bulldogs’ early challenges will be limited in 2013-14. A December meeting with last season’s Cinderella, Florida Gulf Coast, could be their toughest nonconference game. It’s never easy to steal a win on the road against Utah State and UNLV might be waiting for the Bulldogs -- if they beat South Florida in the first round -- in the Las Vegas Classic. Not breathtaking but that might be the right fit for this program as it prepares for another challenging season.
Toughest: UCLA (Dec. 7)
Next toughest: Illinois (Dec. 21), at NC State (Dec. 28)
The rest: Southeastern Louisiana (Nov. 8), Southern Illinois (Nov. 12), Hawaii (Nov. 16), Gardner-Webb (Nov. 23), IUPUI (Nov. 25), Las Vegas Invitational (Nov. 28-29), West Virginia (Dec. 5), Western Michigan (Dec. 15), Long Beach State (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- Frank Haith’s program lost four key players from last season’s underachieving squad, including point guard Phil Pressey. Once again, Haith’s team will have to rebuild chemistry with veterans (Earnest Ross, Jabari Brown) blending with newcomers (a nationally ranked recruiting class). Well, they won’t face much adversity early in the process. Their toughest nonconference opponent, UCLA, travels to Columbia. Rival Illinois will enter 2013-14 with a brand-new roster and limited experience. Other than that? Not much. Games against Northwestern and Nevada in the Las Vegas Invitational are lackluster. Perhaps NC State’s young studs will make a Dec. 28 clash against the Tigers interesting. Not much to get excited about, though.
Toughest: Oregon (Dec. 8 )
Next toughest: Barclays Classic (Nov. 29-30 in Brooklyn, N.Y.), at Kansas State (Dec. 5)
The rest: Troy (Nov. 8), at Coastal Carolina (Nov. 16), Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 22), North Carolina A&T (Nov. 26), Middle Tennessee State (Dec. 14), Louisiana-Monroe (Dec. 18), Mercer (Dec. 22), at Western Kentucky (Dec. 30), Dayton (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- Ole Miss’ offseason has been all about Marshall Henderson, who was suspended indefinitely for reportedly failing a drug test. He could return at some point this season, and if he does, he might have to be better than he was a year ago with Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner gone. The good news for the Rebels is that they won’t have many tests before SEC play. Oregon is probably their toughest nonconference matchup and the Ducks have to replace some talented players from last season. Games against Georgia Tech and (potentially) St. John’s in Brooklyn probably won’t help much on Selection Sunday and a road game against Kansas State would be more interesting if Angel Rodriguez hadn’t transferred to Miami.
Toughest: at Baylor (Nov. 12), Oklahoma State (Dec. 6)
Next toughest: Diamond Head Classic (Dec. 22-25)
The rest: Longwood (Nov. 9), at Clemson (Nov. 17), Florida International (Nov. 24), Manhattan (Dec. 17), USC Upstate (Dec. 19), Akron (Dec. 28), Marshall (Dec. 30), South Carolina State (Jan. 3)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- When he’s not listening to the latest Pitbull hit, Frank Martin is trying to enhance the South Carolina program. That task seemed nearly impossible prior to his arrival, but he’s building. The Gamecocks will take a multitude of losses with seven freshmen on the roster in 2013-14, but a year from now, they could surge up the SEC standings. As for this season a road game against Baylor could be an unpleasant “Welcome to college basketball” moment for South Carolina’s youngsters. Oklahoma State might beat Martin’s squad by 30 or more in early December. The Diamond Head Classic features some talented potential opponents (Iowa State, Boise State), but the Gamecocks might not move past Saint Mary’s in the opening round.
Toughest: Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 28-30), at Wichita State (Dec. 14)
Next toughest: at Xavier (Nov. 12), NC State (Dec. 18), Virginia (Dec. 30)
The rest: USC Upstate (Nov. 16), The Citadel (Nov. 18), Tennessee State (Nov. 22), Tennessee Tech (Dec. 7), Morehead State (Dec. 23), Tusculum (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- Cuonzo Martin will guide one of the league’s -- and nation’s -- sleepers in 2013-14. Yes, the Vols could contend for the SEC title. But a win over something called Tusculum in early January won’t prove much. Ditto for matchups against The Citadel and USC Upstate. But the Vols could meet Kansas in the Battle 4 Atlantis title game. To get there, however, they’ll have to go through UTEP and then they’ll have to beat either Xavier or fellow sleeper Iowa. They’ll also travel to Xavier prior to the tournament. And it’s never easy to get a win over the Musketeers in Cincy. Virginia is stacked. And a road game against a Wichita State squad seeking revenge from a loss in Knoxville last season will be a major challenge for Martin’s program.
Toughest: Corpus Christi Challenge (Nov. 29-30), vs. Oklahoma (Dec. 21 in Houston)
Next toughest: Buffalo (Nov. 8)
The rest: Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 11), Rice (Nov. 15), Prairie View A&M (Nov. 19), Sam Houston State (Nov. 24), Arkansas Pine-Bluff (Nov. 26), Houston (Dec. 4), McNeese State (Dec. 14), North Texas (Dec. 31), UTPA (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 1 -- This is just bad. Again. The Aggies didn’t have many obstacles during their nonconference season in 2012-13. That trend will continue in 2013-14. Ugh. An Oklahoma squad that probably won’t make the NCAA tournament is their toughest scheduled nonconference game. No. 2? Probably a matchup against a Buffalo team that will be led by new coach Bobby Hurley. Sure, the Aggies -- who lost standouts Elston Turner and Ray Turner -- could earn a game against Virginia in the Corpus Christi Challenge if they survive an opening-round meeting with Missouri State. That, however, is not enough to save this disappointing nonconference slate.
Toughest: Saint Louis (Dec. 30)
Next toughest: at Butler (Nov. 19), Paradise Jam (Nov. 22-25), at Texas (Dec. 2)
The rest: Georgia State (Nov. 12), Lipscomb (Nov. 15), Marshall (Dec. 5), Austin Peay (Dec. 17), Georgia Tech (Dec. 21), Northeastern (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- The bad news is that Vanderbilt is a mess right now. Top scorer Kedren Johnson and three other players from last season’s squad will not be available for the 2013-14 season. Even worse? The Commodores could enter the SEC campaign with multiple losses and little confidence. Atlantic 10 contender Saint Louis could do a lot of damage when it visits in late December. Butler has a new staff and no Roosevelt Jones, but Hinkle Fieldhouse will still be a crazy atmosphere that the Commodores will be asked to overcome in mid-November. They’ll open the Paradise Jam against Providence and subsequent matchups against La Salle and Maryland/Northern Iowa are possible. Texas lost a chunk of its roster, too. But the Longhorns can certainly beat this incomplete Vandy team at home. This could be an ugly nonconference season for Kevin Stallings’ program.
2. UCLA coach Steve Alford said during our ESPNU college basketball podcast Monday that he was willing to play his old team, New Mexico, and best friend Craig Neal sometime in the future. But Alford wouldn't commit to a year. Alford should get the game done while his son Bryce and Neal's son Cullen are still in school. The two had a budding rivalry to go along with their close friendship when they were Albuquerque scoring studs. This is a new era out West. In the past, UCLA wouldn't play New Mexico for fear it wasn't a quality game. But now the Lobos are as much of a high-profile game as any game beyond the traditional powers. Playing New Mexico at the Pit -- where Alford said he would be willing to play for a true home-and-home -- would be arguably a better game for the Bruins then their recent series with Missouri. Playing UCLA for the Lobos would be a big deal and another sign the program has arrived on a larger stage.
3. The Super Tuesday schedule was released with two interesting side notes: The amount of exposure for LSU in the SEC and Iowa in the Big Ten. LSU got two high-profile home games against Tennessee (Jan. 7) and Kentucky (Jan. 28). This is a golden opportunity for the Baton Rouge faithful to show their true spirit and ensure the Tigers are a feared road spot. LSU enters the season as a bit of a sleeper in the SEC. Win one or both of those home games on a night when it will be the featured game could give the Tigers shelf-life NCAA-type wins. Iowa is a trendy pick in the Big Ten and was rewarded with three games -- two at home against Michigan State (Jan. 28) and Ohio State (Feb. 4) and one on the road at Indiana (Feb. 18). Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said he has an NCAA team. The Hawkeyes won't be short chances with an opportunity to produce advantageous home crowd situations against a few of the top teams in the league.
2. Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy, who said he's feeling great now nearly two years after being diagnosed with early stages of Parkinson's, would love to rekindle the rivalries from the Big 12. He said he wants to play Texas but the interest is not reciprocal. He said he wanted to play Baylor in Dallas to start the season but the Bears didn't want to play the Aggies. The SEC's Aggies are playing one former Big 12 school -- Oklahoma -- in a game in Houston next season. Kennedy said he could play eight of the 10 Big 12 schools if the schedule permitted, but the resistance from long-time rivals Texas and Baylor is still too strong. He said he's hopeful that he can one day get the Aggies to play their tradition-rich schools.
3. Air Force coach Dave Pilopovich was on our Katz Korner show as well, but off-air repeated what the NIT told the Falcons last March. The Falcons were deserving of an NIT bid, but their best player Michael Lyons (45 points in a game against Colorado State) was done for the postseason with a knee injury. Pilopovich said the NIT asked him if Lyons could play. He said no. And the NIT then didn't invite the Falcons. They were then forced to go to the CIT. Air Force deserved better and as Pilopovich said the entire Falcons team was punished because of Lyons' injury. The Falcons finished in sixth place at 8-8 in the MWC, one spot behind Boise State. Pilopovich said he thinks the Falcons would have had a shot with a healthy Lyons to earn an NCAA berth. Air Force knocked off UNLV and New Mexico during the regular season. In the CIT, the Falcons won at Hawaii before losing at Weber State. The NIT has to a tough job to field the event, especially with taking automatic qualifiers that didn't win their conference tournaments. But the Falcons deserved a rare NIT berth, even with Lyons being out. I'm not a fan of the selection committee asking if a player can play, an honest answer being given and the rest of the team being relegated to a lower-level tournament.