Since most of next season's non-conference schedules have finally been released, it's a good time to assess whose slates are the most daunting and who didn't challenge themselves enough. The Dagger will go league-by-league the next two weeks. Up next: The American Athletic Conference.
Toughest non-league schedule: UConn
Even though Shabazz Napier, DeAndre Daniels and several other standouts from last season have moved on, UConn coach Kevin Ollie has still assembled a schedule befitting the defending national champion. The Huskies could play as many as six NCAA tournament teams from last season before league play begins, several of which should be formidable again.
The marquee game on UConn's schedule is a Dec. 18 neutral-court date with Duke, a preseason top-five team featuring an array of perimeter talent and the nation's top recruit Jahlil Okafor manning the paint. The Huskies will also host Big 12 power Texas, visit SEC heavyweight Florida and Pac-12 contender Stanford and participate in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off along with the likes of Dayton, New Mexico and West Virginia.
This is a formidable non-league slate even for a program accustomed to challenging itself in November and December, but UConn's strategy is shrewd. Since the Huskies can no longer count on the schedule strength boost that came with playing in the powerful Big East, they're making up for the weakness of the bottom half of the American Athletic Conference by beefing up their non-league schedule.
Easiest non-league schedule: Central Florida
Since UCF lost its three leading scorers from a team that went 4-14 in its inaugural AAC campaign, expectations are low for the Knights next season. Therefore it's hard to blame coach Donnie Jones for assembling a cushy non-league schedule for a young team that must groom three new starters and find a way to replace the scoring punch provided by Isaiah Sykes.
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Only twice will UCF even leave Orlando prior to the start of league play — a Dec. 6 game at Florida State and a Dec. 11 visit to Illinois-Chicago. The matchup with the Seminoles is the lone game against a power-conference foe that the Knights will play. The rest of the schedule is littered with little-known programs like Stetson, Southeastern Louisiana, Bethune-Cookman and South Carolina-Upstate, though Davidson does provide at least a bit of name recognition.
With only one senior on its roster, UCF could be poised for a good season in 2015-16. Next year is all about building for that, and the Knights' schedule reflects that.
Team that scheduled too hard: Temple
Playing one of the nation's most challenging non-league schedules has traditionally benefited Temple by boosting the Owls' RPI and giving them the confidence they can compete with anyone in the NCAA tournament. With Temple now playing in a stronger league and coming off a disastrous 9-22 season, however, Fran Dunphy's team might have benefited from a non-league schedule that doesn't include quite as many heavyweights as usual.
The Owls' tough non-conference slate features games against three likely preseason top 15 teams: a home date with Kansas, a Big Five road matchup with Villanova and a neutral-court game against Duke as part of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. Temple will also face either UNLV or Stanford in that tournament. Even the second-tier games on Temple's schedule are tough as the Owls will visit St. Joseph's and Delaware and host potential NCAA tournament teams Louisiana Tech and American.
Temple has hope for a bounce-back season with standout guards Will Cummings and Quenton DeCosey both returning, forward Daniel Dingle coming back from injury and highly touted freshman Obi Enechionyia and transfers Jaylen Bond (Texas), Jesse Morgan (UMass) and Devin Coleman (Clemson) providing added depth. A less loaded non-league schedule might have given Temple more time to tinker with the rotation and build chemistry and confidence, but alas the Owls don't have that luxury.
Team that scheduled too soft: Houston
For Houston to contend for the NCAA tournament in future seasons under new coach Kelvin Sampson, the Cougars are probably going to have to upgrade their schedule. This year's non-league slate is light on marquee games and heavy on small-conference cupcakes.
The best team on Houston's non-league schedule this season is probably Harvard, which hosts the Cougars on Nov. 25. A pair of Las Vegas games against upper-echelon Mountain West team Boise State and Big 12 also-ran Texas Tech aren't bad, but beyond that there's not much to like about Houston's schedule. The Cougars will fatten up on the likes of Morgan State, Abilene Christian, Houston Baptist, Arkansas Pine Bluff, South Carolina State and Mississippi Valley State.
The worst part for Houston is that it has enough talent on its roster that by March it could potentially regret such a weak schedule. Sampson's starting lineup could include four former top 100 recruits — returners Chicken Knowles and L.J. Rose, junior college transfer Torian Graham and Alabama transfer Devonta Pollard. As their schedule reflects, the Cougars are probably a year away from making any real noise, but if the newcomers contribute and Sampson gets the team to put forth more effort on defense, who knows?
Three AAC non-conference games to watch:
1. UConn vs. Duke, Dec. 18: Two teams with a surprising amount of NCAA tournament history will meet on a neutral floor in New Jersey. Duke handed UConn a crushing overtime loss in the Elite Eight in 1990 on a Christian Laettner buzzer beater. The Huskies got revenge with two of their biggest wins in program history, the 1999 national title game and the 2004 national semifinals.
2. SMU at Gonzaga, Nov. 17: How good is Larry Brown's team? This should be an ideal early litmus test. Even with top prospect Emmanuel Mudiay skipping college, the Mustangs are a league title contender thanks to the return of stars Nic Moore and Markus Kennedy and the breakout potential of former top 30 recruit Keith Frazier and a healthy Yanick Moreira.
3. Memphis vs. Wichita State, Nov. 18: The most appealing game of Memphis' early-season slate will take place in Sioux Falls, S.D., of all places. The Tigers boast their usual array of blue-chip talent, but they'll be challenged by a Shockers team featuring one of the nation's best backcourts in Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton.
Game that should have been scheduled but wasn't: Ohio State-Cincinnati
Ohio State's frustrating refusal to schedule any in-state opponents has precluded this potential rivalry from ever getting off the ground. Since the Bearcats won back-to-back national title games at the expense of the Buckeyes in 1961 and 1962, the two programs have met just once in the regular season, a 72-50 Ohio State rout on a neutral floor in December 2006.
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