Memphis basketball's path to a third straight NCAA tournament could be a wild, challenging ride.
Penny Hardaway's Tigers will be tested early and often, as it navigates a daunting nonconference schedule that could feature as many as nine games against Power Five opponents. But things could get a little tricky after that.
The 2023-24 season will be the AAC's first without national power Houston, as well as Cincinnati and UCF. The Cougars finished last season ranked first in the NCAA's all-important NET rankings, while the Bearcats and Knights were both in the top 70.
The expanded AAC, which released its conference schedule Friday, has added six new programs ahead of the upcoming season. But few of them (if any) measure up to what Houston or Cincinnati consistently brought to the table. Sure, FAU is coming off a Cinderella run to the Final Four and returns pretty much all the key ingredients that got it there. And, yes, FAU, North Texas and UAB each finished top-40 in the NET (13th, 30th and 39th, respectively). The only other AAC teams that could claim that last season are Houston and Memphis (22nd).
But Charlotte (98th), Rice (188th) and UTSA (284th) could make an already lopsided league even more top-heavy. Which makes the Tigers' nonconference success vitally important.
Here are the most important games on Memphis' schedule this season.
Missouri (Nov. 10)
Mizzou took its fanbase on a ride this offseason. The Tigers, at one point, were considered the favorite to snag former North Carolina guard Caleb Love after he decommitted from Michigan. That didn't work out, as he landed at Arizona. Dennis Gates and Co. were also thought to be a lock to land Jamarion Sharp, the nation's No. 1 shot-blocker for Rick Stansbury at WKU last season. No dice, as he's now at Ole Miss.
That was after Mizzou (25-10 last season and a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament) lost its top three scorers and five of its top six rebounders. So the Tigers aren't loaded, but they're a nice test early in the season for Memphis − a Power 5 opponent on the road with Hardaway not even in the building (remember, the sixth-year coach is suspended for the first three games of the season due to a recruiting violation).
Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 22-24)
These MTEs (multi-team events) can do wonders for a team's postseason resumé. Two seasons ago, even though it lost the game, Memphis' NET benefited from facing a great Iowa State team in Brooklyn.
MTEs can also be a hindrance. For example, last season in Orlando, none of the teams in the field were as good as some anticipated.
Odds are, though, the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas will be a key measuring stick for Memphis and a chance to jump into the early March Madness conversation. The Tigers will face Michigan first, then either Arkansas or Stanford. The third game will be against either North Carolina, Villanova, Texas Tech or Northern Iowa.
Texas A&M (Dec. 10)
The Aggies have reached the SEC tournament championship game each of the past two seasons under Buzz Williams, and they've got the majority of last season's roster back.
Memphis beat Texas A&M at FedExForum in 2022. That win turned out to be one of its best, even though the Tigers didn't exactly need it to get into the NCAA tournament.
The game in College Station will almost certainly be a Quad 1 opportunity. Possibly even a high-Quad 1 shot. There won't be many of those on the schedule.
Vanderbilt (Dec. 23)
MEMPHIS MEN'S BASKETBALL SCHEDULE: Late-season games vs. FAU highlight 2023-24 AAC slate
Jerry Stackhouse brings his Commodores to FedExForum. It's the last game of a monster six-game stretch that goes like this: at Ole Miss, at VCU, at Texas A&M, followed by home games versus Clemson, Virginia, then Vandy.
An in-state, SEC opponent (with two of its top four scorers returning in Tyrin Lawrence and Ezra Manjon) on your home floor? Hardaway vs. Stackhouse televised on CBS right before Christmas? Sign me up.
And, if Vandy (which reached the SEC tournament semifinals last season and won two NIT games) takes a step forward, it could be even more important.
FAU (Feb. 25 and March 9)
Apart from the revenge storyline (the Owls, if you'll remember, upset the Tigers at the NCAA tournament), these games are easily the most important AAC games this season. They may be the most important overall, considering it's likely the league championship will be decided by who comes out on top.
FAU comes to FedExForum first, then the Tigers travel to Boca Raton for the regular-season finale.
Reach sports writer Jason Munz at email@example.com or on Twitter @munzly.
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Memphis basketball schedule: Most important games for Penny Hardaway