...the more things change, the more Rick Barnes stays the same.
As Andy Katz notes, the Longhorns will have a murderous schedule in 2008-9, but most of the premiere match-ups won't occur in the Erwin Center. In fact, the non-conference home schedule can accurately be described as "UCLA and the Six Dwarfs." In looking at the totality of the schedule (check after the jump), the 'Horns will be tested early and often. Outlined below, the non-conference schedule contains a healthy dose of excellent, very good, and creampuff teams, while the conference schedules remains front and back loaded, with a much-needed lull in the middle. With the Longhorns near the top of the field in a mediocre Big 12, the grueling non-conference schedule bodes well for our postseason hopes.
For those of you lucky enough to have already purchased the Stampede pass (if not, do so now), then we are slightly over one month from the opener at the Erwin Center against Stetson. Let's break this down...
As mentioned earlier, the non-conference schedule at the Erwin Center could very easily be called "UCLA and the Six Dwarfs." In addition to hosting the Bruins, the 'Horns will host the basketball juggernauts of Stetson, Tulane, Rice, Texas State, Texas Southern, and Appalachian State. However, far from allowing the team to play multiple of these little-sister games in a row, Rick Barnes has intermixed a monster slate of road games against major conference opponents.
After opening at home against Stetson and Tulane, Texas will play in the 2008 Maui Invitational. This tournament has the potential to produce two marquee match-ups. Texas opens the tourney against St. Joseph's, setting up a likely second-round matchup against Big East (basketball) power Notre Dame and last year's Big East POY Luke Harangody. The Irish return four starters to a consensus Top-10 team. This will be a huge early season test for Texas, but an even bigger test looms in the Championship Round. Unless the winner of Oregon/Alabama pulls a massive upset, then Preseason #1 North Carolina (and their FIVE returning starters) will be waiting for the winner of ND/Texas. Even if Texas fails to get past Notre Dame, they will play in the Consolation game against Oregon/Alabama, both of whom are mediocre major conference teams. Alabama does have some upside, though, and could be a sneaky test. Ultimately, the barometer game against Notre Dame makes this a worthwhile trip for Texas by itself, with the potential showdown against UNC serving as a chance for UT to make a statement like they did against UCLA last season. Or to get beat down by 30+ points, like they did against Duke in 2005-6.
Following Maui, the 'Horns return home to play Rice as one of the tasty cupcakes on the home schedule. After Rice, the UCLA Bruins come to Austin on December 4th (right before one of my law school finals--I'll be there, though) as part of the Pac-10/Big 12 Hardwood Challenge. UCLA is once again favored to win the Pac-10, and I can only hope the Erwin Center crowd is ready to take Texas to a higher level during two-plus hours of insanity. Far from getting a post-UCLA respite, Texas immediately heads to New York to face yet another potential Top-25 team in Villanova.
After the trip to New York, Texas snacks on two Lone Star Cupcakes (Texas Southern and Texas State) before taking on two of the Big Ten favorites in Michigan State and Wisconsin. The Michigan State game will be played in Houston, while the Wisconsin game is a return trip to Madison following our heartbreaking loss to the Badgers last-season. Michigan State is getting some love as another Top-10 team, while Wisconsin is also in the Top-25 hunt. Texas concludes their non-conference schedule against Appalachian State and the hated Arkansas Razorbacks. Much like their football team, Arkansas has been devastated by graduation and dismissals and will likely finish in the bottom of the SEC.
To recap, Texas will face at least three Top-10 teams in their non-conference schedule, and will add a fourth against North Carolina if they get past Notre Dame in Maui. All in all, Barnes has scheduled a minimum of five games against potential Top-25 opponents, with only one of them coming to the Erwin Center. To me, the most staggering item about the non-conference schedule is that Texas could play the eventual champion of four different major basketball conferences (Big Ten, Pac-10, ACC, and Big East). That's quite a schedule, especially in a fourteen-game span...
By the start of conference play, we'll know a lot more about the Big 12. Texas is predicted by many to be the class of the conference. While many teams have huge question marks, the top portion of the Big 12 (Oklahoma, Baylor, Kansas) are all interesting teams loaded with talent who will push Texas for the conference championship. The bottom portion of the conference will be terrible, especially Iowa State and Colorado. While it doesn't appear to be a banner year for the Big-12, there are frisky teams in the middle of the conference (Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, and Missouri) who could be tough match-ups for Texas, especially on the road.
Considering how the team will be extremely battle tested by the non-conference games, the conference schedule looks very favorable to Texas. After opening at home against Iowa State, Texas plays three of their five hardest conference road games against OU, Texas Tech, and Baylor, with a home game against A&M sandwiched in-between Tech and Baylor. The road games against OU and Baylor will be treacherous, but not any more difficult than the previous road or neutral-site games against ND, Nova, Wisconsin, and Michigan State. Texas should be well-prepared for these three road battles, which will set the tone for the conference slate.
After this opening stretch, Texas plays five extremely winnable games in perhaps their easiest portion of the entire schedule. During this stretch, Texas gets Kansas State, Missouri, and Oklahoma State at home, while traveling to Nebraska and Colorado. This literally might be the easiest portion of the entire schedule, and Rick Barnes will have to keep the team focused for potential trap games against Nebraska, Missouri, and Oklahoma State.
In the final six games of conference play, Texas bookends their other two tough road games around several marquee match-ups at home. Texas begins this portion of the schedule by traveling to Texas A&M in a game we've lost four consecutive years. That streak really needs to end this year. Following the trip to College Station, Texas sandwiches a road game against Oklahoma State with home games against Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and Baylor. Texas concludes the regular season by heading to Lawrence in a game that could potentially determine the conference title. I'm actually excited to see Texas play Kansas at the end of the season, as the Jayhawks young roster should mature into a very dangerous team. Instead of picking them off early, Texas will face the Baby Hawks right when they start to peak.
No one can question Rick Barnes' willingness to throw his team into the fire. This is an absolutely brutal schedule, regardless of whether or not the middle teams in the Big 12 round into form.
Unlike the non-conference schedule, which is continuously sprinkled with Top-25 teams, the conference schedule is definitively front and back loaded. The middle stretch of games should help the 'Horns rack up a string of wins and build up their confidence heading into the final six-game stretch.
The amount of tough road and neutral site games on the schedule is staggering, and the 'Horns should be comfortable walking into any road site during the NCAA Tournament. Especially Ford Field...