With the conference challenges and Thanksgiving tournaments and showcases behind us, most teams have assembled their non-conference resumes, for better or worse.
Thanks to the holidays and finals, the December schedule lets up for many teams around the country, but a handful of squads are facing must-win situations during the next three weeks as they build NCAA Tournament resumes.
Here are 10 teams that need big-time Ws before the calendar flips and conference games begin in January…or be forced to win their conference outright in order to make a run in March.
After the tournament selection committee snubbed SMU last season for lack of quality non-conference opponents, Larry Brown scheduled back-to-back road games against No. 9 Gonzaga and Indiana and played Arkansas at home. Rather than a weak non-conference schedule, SMU has non-conference losses. SMU lost all three contests. The pressure is on as SMU heads to Ann Arbor on the Dec. 20 to play Michigan. The Wolverines would certainly qualify as a quality win, which is more necessary as the Mustangs won’t get much help with the AAC schedule. To pile on, SMU is without big man Markus Kennedy for the rest of the semester. The Mustangs, ranked in the preseason AP top 25, have been without top point guard prospect Emmanuel Mudiay, who bypassed NCAA questions to play professionally in China.
The Tigers’ big non-conference games have come and gone, and they were disastrous. While losing to No. 11 Wichita State is nothing to fuss about, losing to Baylor by 24 and Stephen F. Austin at home are black eyes. Josh Pastner and Co. have an opportunity to improve their resume slightly with a win over Oklahoma State on the Dec. 13. But with one of the country’s worst offenses, ranking 270th in points per game (62.8), 277th in assists per game (10.8), 228th in field goal percentage (.421), and 125th in KenPom’s offensive efficiency rating, and the Tigers could be another reason that the AAC becomes a one-bid league come March.
NC State will face Tennessee, No. 22 West Virginia, Louisiana Tech and Cincinnati in a row, with three of those games being played in Raleigh. That stretch of games provides the Wolfpack ample opportunity to improve their resume and avenge a loss to Purdue in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge before taking on the depth and refined offenses of the ACC once January rolls around. Mark Gottfried must be creative to get looks for players other than junior guard Trevor Lacey, who is carrying the offensive load thus far.
The reigning national champions are reeling after a shocking 45-44 loss to Yale last weekend in Storrs. The AAC won’t be doing the Huskies any favors in terms potential quality wins in conference. UConn has two more chances for solid non-AAC wins when they play No. 2 Duke in the Meadowlands and travel to Florida. Outside of Ryan Boatright, UConn’s offense is struggling, ranking 279th in points per game (62.0), 302nd in assists per game (10.2), and 217th in field goal percentage (42.6).
K-State’s best chances for a significant non-conference victory are long gone. Two of the Wildcats early losses are to .500 teams who won’t make the tournament (Long Beach State, Tennessee), and another by 23 to an average Pitt squad. Luckily for K-State, the Big 12 is flush with adequate teams that could beat up one another in January and February, giving a tournament bid to the Wildcats in March. Wins against Texas A&M (Dec. 20) in Kansas City, and Georgia (Dec. 31) in the Octagon will lightly polish a rusty non-conference performance thus far for K-State.
Things won't get much easier for the Orange after losing two in a row to Michigan and No. 24 St. John’s when they host Louisiana Tech (Dec. 14) and travel to Philly to play old Big East rival No. 7 Villanova (Dec. 20). By the time ACC conference play starts, Jim Boeheim’s team could have five losses on its resume already. Boeheim will have to work his magic to kick start his lackluster offense that boasts just two players scoring in doubles figures. With the addition of Louisville, the new ACC will be unforgiving this season. A win against Jay Wright’s Wildcats could be just the spark the Orange need.
The 83.9 points per game Illinois is scoring thus far is deceiving. According to KenPom, Illinois has the 279th worst non-conference schedule, which stings considering they lost to the only ranked team on their schedule thus far (Miami). The Illini's biggest challenge comes tonight in Madison Square Garden when they play No. 7 Villanova, followed by two “neutral” court games in Chicago against Oregon (Dec. 13) and in Kansas City against Missouri (Dec. 20). The two games on the back end are winnable for the Illini, but if they want to go dancing in March, Illinois will have to do some damage in the Big Ten.
The Bruins lost three players to the NBA in June and return just three players that provided any significant minutes last season. So far, that inexperience has hurt UCLA as the Bruins have lost their only two games against Power Five conference teams (Oklahoma, North Carolina). Things get tougher when No. 9 Gonzaga comes to Pauley Pavilion (Dec. 13) and when the Bruins travel to Chicago to play No. 1 Kentucky. UCLA is likely to make the Big Dance, but wins against top ranked non-conference teams could make a noticeable difference in seeding, especially since the Pac-12 will be tougher to navigate than in recent years.
It’s still too early to say the Havoc hasn’t lived up to the hype, but VCU finds itself in an interesting position. Losing to No. 7 Villanova on a neutral court and No. 6 Virginia aren’t bad losses, but losing to Old Dominion is. Going forward, the ball is in VCU’s court as they host No. 23 Northern Iowa (Dec. 13), and Belmont (Dec. 16), before traveling to Cincinnati (Dec. 20). These are all winnable games for the Rams. If VCU can’t capitalize, it could spell trouble if they don’t win the Atlantic 10 outright. How would the committee view a VCU team with no major out of conference wins, with six or more losses, and didn’t win the A-10? Probably not too favorably. It’s a long shot but still capable of coming to fruition. Shaka Smart had better have his team on point for the next couple of weeks.
The Athlon preseason No. 10 Gators were talked about as a possible challenger to Kentucky. That seems like crazy talk at this point as Florida hovers at .500. After losing to Miami, Georgetown, North Carolina and Kansas, Florida could be entering conference play without a significant non-conference win. As of now, Florida isn’t scheduled to play a ranked team until they host No. 1 Kentucky on Feb. 7. Billy Donovan’s Gators play Wake Forest (Dec. 20) in Sunrise, Fla., then travel to Tallahassee for a meeting with Florida State (Dec. 30) and then back home to host UConn (Jan. 3). None of which would be a true signature win, but the Gators may need to sweep those games to salvage the non-conference schedule.
-By Jacob Rose