The Kansas men’s basketball team — on paper — is going to play its second-easiest opponent of the season on Monday.
Easy, right? Get the sharpie out and mark down a win?
Not exactly ... at least not with the non-conference schedule that KU has compiled.
“It’s ridiculous,” KU coach Bill Self said.
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Let’s start with just looking at Monday. KU takes on Vermont, which is 128th in Ken Pomeroy’s advanced rankings. The Catamounts have won at least 20 games in each of the last seven seasons under coach John Becker and are preseason picked to win the America East conference.
It sure doesn’t seem to be the same type of “gimme” game that most blue-blood programs are playing this time of year.
“I don’t know that we’ve ever played a schedule like that,” Self said, “where you’re looking at playing a non-conference schedule where every team is a postseason team.”
Self could be right. The “worst” school on KU’s schedule, according to the numbers, is 139th-ranked South Dakota; the Coyotes were picked second in the Summit League and probably would have been the frontrunner had South Dakota State big man Mike Daum not surprisingly returned for his senior season.
Eastern Michigan, meanwhile, is the favorite to win the west division of the MAC. Wofford was picked as the Southern Conference’s second-best team, while Louisiana placed in a tie for second in the Sun Belt’s preseason poll. It wouldn’t be a shock for any of these programs to win their league tournaments to earn NCAA bids.
And all of these five qualify as KU’s “buy” games, meaning the school pays those squads to come to Allen Fieldhouse without a return contest. Usually, these give teams much-needed breathers; Self says these dates, though, will qualify as ones his guys are “going to have to sweat to win.”
What KU is facing this year, in that regard, is nearly unprecedented.
For help with the research, I went to Bart Torvik’s advanced stats site. KU’s “basic” non-conference schedule ranking — which looks at the average strength of each opponent played — ranks first nationally. Another way to look at it: The average power rating of KU’s non-con foes is .6933 — a number that would be about 93rd nationally in Torvik’s system.
That .6933 number is impressive. Torvik’s data goes back to 2007-08, and in that time, only two Power Five teams have had tougher “basic” non-conference schedules than that.
Perhaps you know where this is going already.
The only two Power Five teams in the last 10 years that have faced a more daunting pre-conference challenge than this year’s Jayhawks ... were also coached by Self.
KU’s 2013-14 team had a rating of .7239, while the 2014-15 Jayhawks were right behind at .7233.
Just to repeat for emphasis: In the last 10 years, according to Torvik’s measures, the three toughest non-conference schedules have belonged to Kansas, Kansas and Kansas.
So what does that mean for this year’s team? Self has a talented roster, but perhaps won’t get to experiment with rotations as much as he’d like because of the difficult non-conference path.
“You would think that may not be the best formula with young kids,” Self said, “but you could also flip it and say, ‘Well how better way to get them prepared than have to play every minute of every game?’ as opposed to your mistakes not being magnified.”
So ready or not, here the Jayhawks come, marching into a two-month stretch that only Self — among his peers — is crazy enough to take on.
There will be some losses along the way, though that should come with an understanding of the bigger picture too.
KU’s record, at least this year, will not be fattened by cupcakes.