Let's Plan a Robbery
Last week, ESPN.com's Andy Katz wrote an article on the nonconference schedules of many top NCAA teams and how they could influence the proceedings on Selection Sunday. The Memphis Tigers occupied his top spot (in terms of both schedule quality and his pre-preseason Top 25), and for good reason. In a word, their schedule is just about perfect. Katz gave them a well-deserved A and detailed many of the reasons for that grade, but I'd like to go into more depth to show exactly why this slate of games fits their team so well.
The amount of big-name teams on the schedule is striking. The Tigers open the year with the 2K College Hoops Classic, a regional/NYC tournament that features Kentucky, UConn, and Oklahoma as the other preliminary hosts and logical opponents at Madison Square Garden. While those names all carry some weight, none of those teams is a potential worldbeater, meaning that Coach Cal will have time to bring Derrick Rose along against quality competition without fear of having in over his head right off the bat.
The game against USC in MSG a few weeks later is an absolute master stroke. While it won't be as big a challenge as it might have looked when Calipari scheduled the game (i.e. before the Trojans lost Nick Young and Gabe Pruitt to the NBA), a win over a solid Pac-10 team will carry a lot of weight this year. Perhaps most importantly, though, the Rose/Mayo matchup will undoubtedly bring a lot of attention to both programs, ensuring that Memphis's recruiting pipeline of freak athletes will not dry up any time soon.
As Katz mentions in his article, Memphis has some unbelievable home games on the schedule, including Arizona, Tennessee, Georgetown, and Gonzaga. I have no idea how the Tigers managed to work that slate out, but it ensures that they'll have at least two high-profile wins -- honestly, I'd be shocked if they don't get three or four from that group -- at hand when it comes time to assign #1 seeds.
Now, in looking at Memphis's schedule, it's important to realize that they must play a large number of quality nonconference opponents because of the general putridity of Conference USA. What looks like an incredibly tough schedule now will likely look as difficult as that of every major conference leader by the end of the season. Yet that's exactly what makes the location of the home and neutral games so important to the Tigers' chances of getting a #1 seed; it's as if Calipari knew exactly how many big wins they needed and acted accordingly.
If there's one hole in the nonconference schedule, it's that there's only one true road game, a likely win at Cincinnati in mid-December. However, even that criticism seems unimportant given Memphis's situation in C-USA. Essentially, preconference road games are only important insofar as they prepare a team for their toughest conference games away from home. Memphis, though, will be such an overwhelming favorite in every C-USA game that home and road designations won't even make much of a difference. Memphis's nonconference schedule is in place to win them a high seed and to prepare them for the grind of the tournament. The neutral games in New York do exactly that. The road game is just there for posterity.
Random site news: Things might be a bit spotty over the next week; I just started grad school today and don't want to screw anything up in the first week. However, I'm in the middle of writing a giant post (in terms of both length and importance to this blog) on the systems of college programs, so expect that some time soon.