This year's non-conference schedule will differ from years past in that it has far fewer automatic wins, but the possibility still exists of a non-con sweep as I would put no game below the 50/50 mark in terms of chance of victory. Here is how I would categorize the games in order of difficulty, from least difficult:
CUPCAKE WINS (Yes, just one cupcake in my view!)
1. IUPUI --- 6-26 (1-15) -- WIN
This team is truly the only awful team we face, a dramatic change from year's past and a nod to the new scheduling philosophy.
2. SE Louisiana -- 13-18 (10-8, 4th) - WIN
13-18 was certainly not a good record, but the Lions improved throughout the year and earned a 4th place, 10-8 finish in a decent Southland Conference.
3. Southern Illinois -- 14-17 (6-12, last) -- WIN
It's nice we're playing the Salukis instead of SIUE, who we have scheduled in year's past. Though SIU was in last, they did win 6 league games in the Missouri Valley and a few of those losses were tight. So definitely towards the easier part of our schedule but a step up from the SIUE's of the world.
4. Nevada (game is in Vegas)-- 12-19 (3-13) - WIN
Nevada was last place in the extremely difficult Mountain West, which produced five tournament teams. Rarely embarrassed but rarely successful, it will be interesting to see if the Wolf Pack are improved at all. I put this as more difficult than SIU because it's neutral and the difficulty of the Mountain West schedule overall.
5. Gardner Webb -- 21-13 (11-5, 2nd) -- WIN
This is an example of a mid major team that is not a cupcake and could present a challenge. The Bulldogs gave Illinois a 1 point fight, beat DePaul and were competitive with Iowa. A game we should win but not one that won't be competitive.
WINS, BUT IT'S TOUGHER
6. Northwestern (in Vegas) -- 13-19 (4-14, 11th) --- WIN
Well, it's too bad this tournament in Vegas is so crappy and that we don't want to play UCLA twice, as this game and Nevada are not going to challenge us much, at least one wouldn't think. It's still a neutral site game so you have to be careful, but we'll win this one.
7. Western Michigan -- 22-13 (10-6, 1st in div) -- WIN
Western Michigan is exactly who we should be scheduling. They weren't Ohio and Akron (who each had 14 wins in conference) but they did win their division, go 22-13 overall and reach the semis of the CBI. This is the type of opponent that we should win but will challenge us and help prepare us better for the conference season.
8. Hawaii (in KC) -- 17-15 (10-8, 5th) - WIN
I like this game and again fits nicely into the scheduling model that we should be using. You'd prefer a tougher team for a game at Sprint Center, but it's not a cupcake either. The Big West, at the top, plays some good basketball so to finish 5th is respectable. Still, we will win.
9. Long Beach State -- 19-14 -- (14-4, 1st) -- WIN
You have to credit Long Beach State. Year in and year out they play an absolutely brutal schedule in the non-con, and it sets them up well for their league. They lose those games, by in large (note the 5-10 non con record), but you can't sleep on these guys. Still should be a win.
10. West Virginia -- 13-19 -- (6-12, 8th) -- WIN
I wish we would have been handed someone else for the challenge series with our old friends from the Big 12, but this still an interesting game and it will be fun to have Huggins back in Columbia. This is a game we should win, and win handily, but certainly not a gimme by any means as I suspect WV will be improved.
11. Illinois (in St. Louis) -- 23-13 -- (8-10, 7th) -- WIN
I put this game as 11th simply because half the crowd will be our fans and though it's neutral, Illinois is not as good as UCLA. It will be interesting to see if we can keep our streak alive in St. Louis, but I suspect we will.
12. at NC State -- 24-11 (11-7, 4th) -- LOSS
This is the sole true road game on our schedule and I think will prove to be difficult for the Tigers. However, NC State lost 5 of its top 6 scorers from a year ago and are probably an NIT level team. They do have some incoming and returning talent so this is a 50/50 game in my mind. I actually think the UCLA game is more difficult but I think we will stumble at Raleigh.
13. UCLA -- 25-10 (13-5, 1st) -- WIN
This game is certainly going to be a challenge as UCLA is going to be a Top 20 team. It's also great to see a team of this caliber and name ID come to Columbia. I think the crowd will be fired up and I think we get it done and it sets the tone for the year.
So, there you have it. I see 10-3 as the real floor but 13-0 is possible as well. Going with 12-1. What say you?