The 2019-2020 Tennessee basketball non-conference schedule is almost unprecedented in how brutal it is. Here is a look at the Volunteers’ slate.
It’s hard to base a schedule’s difficulty on a previous season’s success. But if you’re going to do that, you’re not going to find one more difficult that what Tennessee basketball has put together in the non-conference slate for 2019-2020.
Released on Monday, the Vols’ out-of-conference schedule was already brutal with the Emerald Coast Classic and the Kansas Jayhawks in the SEC/Big 12 challenge. That guaranteed them three games against NCAA Tournament teams, and if the Purdue Boilermakers beat the VCU Rams, it will be three against teams who made it to the second round and one against en elite 8 team.
But the full slate shows just how rough it can get. On top of those games, Tennessee basketball has to face the Washington Huskies in Toronto, the Wisconsin Badgers at home, and the Cincinnati Bearcats on the road. A Group of Five game they have is against the Murray State Racers, who also made the NCAA Tournament last year.
That makes seven of their 13 games, or seven of 12 when you look at what the RPI will count, against teams that made the NCAA Tournament last year in their non-conference slate. There’s a chance five of them, but certainly four of them, will be against teams who advanced in the Big Dance.
Oh, and then they have this game against the Memphis Tigers, who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament last year but had a strong finish to the season and just got the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation under Penny Hardaway. So that’s an eighth quality team.
If you want to put this all in perspective, Tennessee basketball has not played more than six teams in a year out of conference who made the NCAA Tournament since Bruce Pearl was fired. And that was once, in 2016-2017.
Two other times, with Cuonzo Martin, they had five of 12 non-conference games against such teams. The other five times, they only played three or four non-conference games against NCAA Tournament teams.
Even dating back to the Pearl years, when they made a habit of playing brutal non-conference schedules, they only played seven or more non-conference teams who made NCAA Tournaments three of his six years: seven in 2007-2008, eight in 2008-2009 and nine in 2010-2011.
However, in that 2010-2011 season, they only played six games against Power Five-caliber programs. They only played By the way, we count schools in the American and the Big East as Power Five-caliber along with the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
This year, they are playing seven. That’s the number they had in 2007-2008 and 2008-2009, making them the only years comparable to this one. And both times, they had the No. 1 ranked strength of schedule. They had it despite the SEC being horrible both years.
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Now, the SEC is much tougher. In 2008-2009, only three teams made the NCAA Tournament, none above a No. 8 seed or advancing past the second round, and only one advancing past the first round. The conference was better in 2007-2008, with half the league making it, but only three made the second round and the Vols were the only team to make it to the next weekend.
Next season, meanwhile, the conference will be coming off a year in which half the league made it again, five made it to the second round, four made it to the next weekend, two made the Elite 8 and one made the Final Four. Since UT was able to have the No. 1 strength of schedule during the Pearl years of the SEC with its non-conference slate, what does that mean for this year?
Simply put, Tennessee basketball’s slate is as brutal as any they have ever played on paper. Rick Barnes has built the program into a national brand, and he’s taking advantage by scheduling as tough as possible. It will definitely help the Vols come tournament time, and with a young team, Barnes is smart enough to know that they develop well by being thrown to the wolves.