Breaking down Tennessee’s 2013-14 non-conference schedule

PHOTO BY CHAD GREENE  Tennessee's Jordan McRae, left, fouls Xavier's Justin Martin as he takes a shot in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game on Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012, in Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee defeated Xavier 51-47. The Vols and Musketeers could meet as many as two times during the 2013-14 season.

PHOTO BY CHAD GREENE Tennessee’s Jordan McRae, left, fouls Xavier’s Justin Martin as he takes a shot in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game on Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012, in Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee defeated Xavier 51-47. The Vols and Musketeers could meet as many as two times during the 2013-14 season.

The release of the Battle 4 Atlantis bracket on Monday offered the final brush strokes to Tennessee’s 2013-14 non-conference schedule. The following is a team-by-team look at the entire schedule with some thoughts on how each game can impact the Vols’ high NCAA tournament hopes this season.

First, here is an overview of the schedule. The Vols will host N.C. State, Virginia, Morehead State, Tennessee State, Tennessee Tech, USC-Upstate, The Citadel (part of Battle 4 Atlantis) and Tusculum College. Road trips include dates at Xavier and Wichita State and three neutral court games at the Battle 4 Atlantis, beginning with an opening-round game against UTEP.

Now, here’s the breakdown …

HOME GAMES

N.C. State
Last five years
Record: 16-14, 20-16, 15-16, 24-13, 24-11
RPI: 110, 88, 126, 36, 37

Analysis: The Pack loses Lorenzo Brown (declared early, selected second round of NBA draft), C.J. Leslie (declared early, undrafted), Rodney Purvis (transferred to UConn), Richard Howell (graduated) and Scott Wood (graduated) from a team that considerably underperformed after being ranked No. 6 last preseason. Picked to win the ACC, coach Mark Gottfried’s team instead finished fifth and lost to Temple in its opening NCAA tournament game. The above players were five of the six leading scorers from that team, accounting for 61.1 points per game. 

In a summer press conference, Gottfriend said, “If I had to walk in my mind through the league and who has what coming back, we’re going to be near the bottom, probably, to start off with.”

I concur. 

Yes, freshmen Anthony Barber, BeeJay Anya and Kyle Washington are all top 100 recruits. No, I don’t think they will make that big of a difference. 

The good news for the Vols is that even if N.C. State finishes in the ACC basement (which it will), the Pack won’t damage UT’s strength of schedule. Why? Because the top of the ACC is damn good and Duke, Syracuse, North Carolina, Virginia, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Florida State could all finish in the top 50 of the RPI. That directly helps N.C. State, which indirectly helps Tennessee. 

I recently said during the News Sentinel Sports Page that in a perfect world, UT would have played at N.C. State this season (to gain RPI points by playing a very winnable true road game) instead of next year when State is (presumably) better. It didn’t work out that way, but a home win over N.C. State in 2013-14 will at least look good, even if the Pack is not. 

The Vols are 3-5 all-time against N.C. State.

Virginia
Last five years
Record: 10-18, 15-16, 16-15, 22-10, 23-12
RPI: 117, 127, 138, 59, 83

Analysis: Unlike the above Wolfpack, the Cavaliers bring the best of both worlds — a good team from a good league. UVA boasts ACC Player of the Year candidate Joe Harris and a potential all-conference frontcourt of Akil Mitchell and 6-11 center Mike Tobey (Caution Vols: matchup problem). 

A win over UVA last year might have pushed UT into the NCAA tournament. The Vols would be well advised to take advantage this time. I view this as one of the three or four most important games on the schedule. UT didn’t capitalize on key non-conference games last season (UVA, Georgetown, Memphis) and needs to flip that script in 2013-14. 

The Vols are 4-7 all-time against Virginia.

Morehead State 
Last five years
Record: 20-16, 24-11, 25-10, 18-15, 15-18
RPI: 135, 90, 76, 168, 178

Analysis: Under coach Donnie Tyndall, Morehead made two NCAA tournament appearances from 2009-2012, winning 50 Ohio Valley Conference games over the four-year stretch. Tyndale departed to Southern Miss (went 27-10 last year), though, and Morehead took a step back under first-year coach Sean Woods (of Kentucky “Unforgettables” fame). 

The Vols will hope Morehead can climb back toward the top of the OVC this year. If anything, staying out of the sub-200 RPI range will suffice.

The Vols are 3-0 all-time against Morehead. 

Tennessee State
Last five years
Record: 12-18, 9-23, 14-16, 20-13, 18-15
RPI: 269, 260, 237, 112, 108

Analysis: Belmont (24) and Eastern Kentucky (69) were the lone OVC schools to finish with top-100 RPIs last year, but Tennessee State barely missed. That’s the good news.

The bad news is the reason for that success, Robert Covington and his 1,749 career points, is on the Houston Rockets’ summer league roster. Covington averaged over 17.0 ppg the last two season and TSU (not coincidentally) posted respectable RPIs. 

Now that the star is a Rocket, look for those numbers to wane. The question is, how far will TSU drop?

The Vols are 3-0 all-time against TSU. 

Tennessee Tech
Last five years
Record: 12-18, 15-17, 20-13, 19-14, 12-17
RPI: 272, 198, 193, 141, 242

Analysis: Yet another OVC team. The Golden Eagles took a step back last year after coach Steve Payne went 19-14 in his first season. They went 5-11 in league play, including a 31-point home beat down against Belmont. 

Now TTU loses all-league point guard Jud Dillard but returns SMU transfer point guard Jeremiah Samarrippas. 

This and the following two games are the potential strength of schedule leeches on the Tennessee slate. 

The Vols are 20-1 all-time against TTU.

USC-Upstate 
Last five years
Record: 9-21, 6-23, 5-25, 21-13, 16-16
RPI: 287, 307, 311, 133, 215

Analysis: Coach Eddie Payne at least has things going in the right direction after winning 11 games combined in 2009-10 and 2010-11. Upstate finished fourth in the Atlantic Sun last year, but lost six of its last eight league games after starting 7-3 in conference. 

The Vols should easily handle the Spartans, then turn around and cheer for them to make a run in the Atlantic Sun.


The Citadel (part of Battle 4 Atlantis)

Last five years
Record: 20-13, 16-16, 10-22, 6-24, 8-22
RPI: 172, 197, 293, 325, 331

Analysis: An average two-year RPI of 328 is cringe-worthy. I’m under the impression that UT didn’t have a say in who its on-campus opponent would be in the Battle 4 Atlantis and the tournament did the Vols no favors here. The Citadel has been woeful the past two seasons. How woeful? Well Yemi Makanjuola scored 16.2 percent of his 111 career points in one night against the Bulldogs. 

The Citadel went 5-13 in the SoCon last year. Could coach Chuck Driesell’s team be better, I don’t know. What I do know is Driesell is 24-68 in three years at the helm.

The Vols are 4-0 all-time against The Citadel.

Tusculum College (Division II)
Last five years
Record: 20-11, 16-12, 12-18, 11-16, 6-21
RPI: N/A

Analysis: To understand the logic of scheduling a Division II opponent, look directly at the Mountain West Conference last season. MWC teams played 14 non-DI opponents this season and, as Sports Illustrated’s Andy Glockner points out here, “The RPI benefit (in terms of strength of schedule) from playing those teams (which don’t count in the RPI) instead of Division I minnows, was significant.”

Essentially, Division II opponents count as a win on the schedule, but not as a canker on the strength of schedule rating. As the MWC proved, playing these games is far more advantageous than scheduling, say, The Citadel and its potential sup-300 RPI.

The Vols are 10-2 all-time against Tusculum. The two haven’t met since 1944.  

AWAY GAMES

Xavier
Last five years
Record: 27-8, 26-9, 24-8, 23-13, 17-14
RPI: 15, 17, 25, 38, 95

Analysis: The numbers say Xavier’s seventh-place Atlantic 10 finish last season was a mirage. Coach Chris Mack’s team is moving to the revamped Big East this season, joining Georgetown, Villanova, DePaul, Marquette, St. John’s, Providence, Seton Hall, Butler and Creighton. While DePaul, St. John’s and Seton Hall are still scuttering to find success and stability, the rest of the league is ripe with strong programs and robust RPIs. Looking far, far ahead, I imagine five or six Big East teams landing in the NCAA tournament, with Xavier being right in the four-to-seven range in the league standings. 

The Muskies will be led by A-10 freshman of the year Semaj Christon (15.2 ppg), who carried much of the load after Xavier lost its top five scorers from 2011-12. Xavier adds transfer center Matt Stainbrook, who averaged 11 points and nearly seven rebounds as a sophomore at Western Michigan, and highly touted freshmen Brandon Randolph, Jalen Reynolds and Myles Davis.

As mentioned above, key non-conference games will weigh heavily on Tennessee’s NCAA tournament hopes. The Vols play only two true road contests. In my opinion, winning at Wichita State will be harder, making this trip to Xavier potentially the most valuable game on the schedule.

The Vols are 11-4 all-time against Xavier.

Wichita State
Last five years
Record: 17-17, 25-10, 29-8, 27-6, 30-9
RPI: 160, 49, 35, 18, 18

The Shockers lose Carl Hall and Malcolm Armstead from last year’s Final Four team, but return Cleanthony Early, Tekele Cotton and Ron Baker.

Early was a non-factor when UT and Wichita met last December, a victory that ended up being the Vols’ non-conference highlight of the year. Early scored just two points and fouled out in 17 minutes that night. Early, though, is one of the most highly regarded players returning to college basketball this year. An outstanding 24-point, 10-rebound performance in the national semifinals against Louisville being a major reason why. I’m expecting to see loads of NBA scouts joining me courtside in Wichita to see Early and Jarnell Stokes battle in this one.

As for the Vols’ non-conference picture, this meeting with coach Gregg Marshall’s team is a gem. A loss doesn’t hurt. A win is a major boost. 

The Shockers will be the preseason favorite in the Missouri Valley, a possible preseason top-25 team and should again produce an impressive RPI and strength of schedule. They will play at Alabama and Saint Louis in non-league play, host Tulsa and Western Kentucky, and participate in the CBE Classic in Kansas City with BYU, Texas and DePaul. 

The Vols are 1-2 all-time against Wichita State.

NEUTRAL COURT (Battle 4 Atlantis, Bamahas) 

UTEP
Last five years
Record: 23-14, 26-7, 25-10, 15-17, 18-14
RPI: 82, 42, 65, 146, 97

Analysis: The Vols have to get past UTEP and into the tournament winner’s bracket. That’s mandatory as far as RPI/NCAA tournament concerns go. Read more about UTEP in today’s News Sentinel’s story on the release of the Battle 4 Atlantis bracket. 

The Vols are 0-1 all-time against UTEP.


Game 2 TBD (Iowa or Xavier)

Iowa
Last five years
Record: 15-17, 10-22, 11-20, 18-17, 25-13
RPI: 124, 208, 189, 125, 61
The Vols are 1-2 all-time against Iowa. 

Xavier
see above


Game 3 TBD (Kansas, USC, Villanova or Wake Forest)

Kansas
Last five years
Record: 27-8, 33-3, 35-3, 32-7, 31-6
RPI: 11, 1, 1, 5, 5
The Vols are 1-1 all-time against Kansas.

USC
Last five years
Record: 22-13, 16-14, 19-15, 6-26, 14-18
RPI: 39, 116, 73, 265, 122
The Vols are 4-3 all-time against USC.

Villanova
Last five years
Record: 30-8, 25-8, 21-12, 13-19, 20-14
RPI: 8, 16, 44, 120, 54
The Vols are 1-2 all-time against Villanova. 

Wake Forest
Last five years
Record: 24-7, 20-11, 8-24, 13-18, 13-18
RPI: 20, 31, 256, 182, 171
The Vols are 7-2 all-time against Wake Forest.