You probably saw that Kansas released its upcoming nonconference basketball schedule on Thursday. First impression: It will be a rigorous slate, with the usual mix of marquee games and mid-major tests that are more onerous than it first appears. Second impression: It should be slightly more forgiving than the brutal schedules from the last two seasons.
For the last two years, you might recall, Kansas has finished the season ranked either first or second in strength of schedule, according to KenPom.com. One reason: The “guarantee” games that Kansas has scheduled at Allen Fieldhouse — the one-off home games against smaller schools that Bill Self likes to call “buy” games — have not quite been “guarantees”, from a competitive standpoint.
In the last two years, for instance, KU played home games against UC Santa Barbara, Kent State, Iona and Toledo — all teams ranked in the top 115 of KenPom’s rankings. None of these games was particularly difficult, of course, but each opponent was just hard enough that Self couldn’t experiment with lineups or give younger players more minutes. In other words, the last couple of schedules featured tons of major tests and few breathers.
That could change in 2015-16. The Jayhawks will play just one true road game, and depending on the opponent in the Big 12/SEC Challenge (Kentucky?), the home schedule figures to be slightly less daunting. Why? Let us explain. Here’s a five-minute look at what awaits Kansas in 2015-16.
▪ Friday, Nov. 13: vs. Northern Colorado
2014-15 Record: 15-15
KenPom ranking: 257
Breakdown: The opener. The Bears finished 10-8 in the Big Sky conference in 2014-15. Head coach B.J. Hill is entering his sixth season at Northern Colorado — his tenure includes a conference title in 2010-11 — and the program returns its second- leading scorer in guard Cameron Michael.
▪ Tuesday, Nov. 17: vs. Michigan State at United Center in Chicago (Champions Classic)
2014-15 Record: 27-12
KenPom ranking: 15
Breakdown: The Spartans, of course, are coming off another Final Four under Tom Izzo. Michigan State lost seniors Branden Dawson and Travis Trice, but it returns Denzel Valentine, Lourawls Nairn and KC native Marvin Clark Jr. The Jayhawks can even the all-time series between the two schools. Michigan State leads 6-5 — though Kansas won last season at the Orlando Classic.
▪ Monday, Nov. 23: vs. TBD (Maui Invitational at Lahaina, Hawaii)
▪ Tuesday, Nov. 24: vs. TBD (Maui Invitational at Lahaina, Hawaii)
▪ Wednesday, Nov. 25: vs. TBD (Maui Invitational at Lahaina, Hawaii)
Possible opponents: Chaminade, Indiana, St. John’s, UCLA, UNLV, Wake Forest, Vanderbilt.
Breakdown: For now, the bracket for the Maui Invitational has not been unveiled. But, hey, possible storylines! A first-round game against Wake Forest and head coach Danny Manning would add some genuine intrigue. Indiana should be greatly improved next season. St. John’s will be breaking in first-year coach Chris Mullin. The Jayhawks played UNLV last season and will travel to Las Vegas next year. Vanderbilt is still coached by former KU assistant Kevin Stallings. And UCLA is still UCLA — sort of.
▪ Tuesday, Dec. 1: vs. Loyola (Md.)
2014-15 Record: 11-19
KenPom ranking: 310
Breakdown: This is the type of game that was not on the schedule the last couple years. Loyola (Md.) finished last season ranked outside the top 300 in KenPom. The Greyhounds compete in the Patriot League alongside Bucknell and Lehigh. The Jayhawks beat Loyola 90-60 during the 2007-08 season. This should provide a nice rear buffer after what could be a grueling three days in Maui.
▪ Saturday, Dec. 5: vs. Harvard
2014-15 Record: 22-8
KenPom ranking: 73
Breakdown: This should be a game that can help the RPI. The Crimson have reached four straight NCAA Tournaments and notched six straight 20-win seasons. Harvard was 22-8 last season before losing its opening game in the NCAA Tournament. The Crimson’s leading returning scorer is guard Siyani Chambers (9.9 points per game).
▪ Wednesday, Dec. 9: vs. Holy Cross
2014-15 Record: 14-16
KenPom ranking: 240
Breakdown: Another Patriot League opponent. Former Northwestern coach Bill Carmody will be entering his first season as head coach of the Crusaders. These two programs met up in the 2002 NCAA Tournament and again at Allen Fieldhouse on Nov. 19, 2002.
▪ Saturday, Dec. 12: vs. Oregon State at the Sprint Center
2014-15 Record: 17-14
KenPom ranking: 117
Breakdown: The Beavers appear to be a program on the ascent. Oregon State, under second-year coach Wayne Tinkle, will return its top five scorers from last season, including star guard Gary Payton II. The Jayhawks also faced Oregon State at the Sprint Center in 2012, picking up an 84-78 victory.
▪ Saturday, Dec. 19: vs. Montana
2014-15 Record: 20-13
KenPom ranking: 160
Breakdown: A rare meeting. Kansas hasn’t faced Montana since 1962. The Grizzlies were co-champions of the Big Sky last season and earned a bid to the NIT. Head coach coach Travis Decure is in his second season after replacing the aforementioned Wayne Tinkle, who is now at Oregon State.
▪ Tuesday, Dec. 22: at San Diego State
2014-15 Record: 27-9
KenPom ranking: 27
Breakdown: In 2013-14, San Diego State came into Allen Fieldhouse and handed Kansas a rare home loss. Two years later, the Aztecs will welcome the Jayhawks into Viejas Arena. The only true road opponent on Kansas’ nonconference schedule, San Diego State won the Mountain West last season and earned a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Aztecs fell to eventual champion Duke in the round of 32. Senior forward Winston Shepard will be back for his senior season.
▪ Tuesday, Dec. 29: vs. UC Irvine
2014-15 Record: 21-13
KenPom ranking: 90
Breakdown: This should be enjoyable. The Anteaters will feature 7-foot-6 center Mamadou Ndiaye, who averaged 10.5 points, 5.1 rebounds and shot 63 percent from the field last season. Ndiaye helped UC Irvine to a 21-13 record and its first ever NCAA Tournament, where it fell to Louisville.
▪ Saturday, Jan. 30: vs. TBA in Big 12/SEC Challenge
Breakdown: Finally, there has been constant speculation that Kansas and Kentucky will begin a home-and-home series with a matchup at Allen Fieldhouse. Nothing is set at the moment, officials say, and if the Kansas-Kentucky matchup doesn’t come to be, the Jayhawks could perhaps be matched up with someone like LSU or Arkansas.