Since arriving in Knoxville for the 2005-06 season, Bruce Pearl has given Tennessee one of those most challenging non-conference schedules in college basketball every season. Each of Pearl's first four teams played one of the six most difficult schedules of each season, according to the RPI rankings. In 2010, as some of UT's opponents did more poorly than anticipated (Memphis playing in the NIT, Northern Iowa losing in the Paradise Jam to DePaul), the Vols' strength of schedule took a hit: UT finished with only the 19th most difficult schedule this season. When the Vols were given a six seed in the NCAA Tournament, Pearl remarked that he wanted to pick up one additional marquee non-conference opponent for 2011.
Under Pearl, the Vols have played home-and-home series with Texas, Oklahoma State (with games in Oklahoma City and Nashville), Ohio State, Gonzaga, Temple, and Kansas. As Tennessee's basketball pedigree continues to improve, more traditional powers are willing to come to Knoxville.
Looking ahead to the 2010-11 schedule, we're working with several assumptions - we know Memphis will come to Knoxville, and we know the Vols will go to UConn to open another home-and-home series. We also know Tennessee will return to the Preseason NIT Tournament, with a field that's rumored to include Villanova and UCLA as well, and will pick up one additional marquee team in hopes of getting all four of them to NYC.
Southern Cal is set to come to Knoxville for the return date from this year's game in LA, but I'm unable to find whether or not that's in 2010-11 or later. And finally, we know the SEC-Big East Invitational will include Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Seton Hall and Rutgers from the Big East side as the four teams yet to participate in it; the SEC representatives have not been announced yet, but Mike Hamilton alluded to the possibility of the Vols playing at Pittsburgh.
So, let's assume all of that happens. Tennessee's 2010-11 non-conference basketball schedule would then include:
- Preseason NIT (with UCLA, Villanova, one additional marquee team in NYC)
- at Pittsburgh (SEC/Big East Invitational)
- at UConn
- vs Southern Cal
- vs Memphis
When you add all that together with the regular 16 game SEC schedule, do the Vols really need to add another marquee non-conference game to help their strength of schedule? The SEC has been significantly down the last two years, getting only 3 and 4 teams in the NCAA Tournament. NBA departures will make a difference across the board, but while the bottom of the league may be getting better, with new coaches making an impact at Georgia and Alabama (and perhaps Auburn)...the top of the league, on paper, won't be as good next year. The league's two Elite Eight teams, Kentucky and Tennessee, both lose their core identity: the Cats are going to lose a significant percentage of their talent to the NBA, and the Vols must say goodbye to Chism, Prince, and Maze. You could make an argument for Vanderbilt and Florida being the two best teams in the league in 2011 - the Dores lose only Jermaine Beal, and the Gators had no senior starters - but even then, are the 2011 versions of those teams going to be as good as 2010 Kentucky and Tennessee?
At the time, I didn't agree with Pearl - even with the selection committee shafting the Vols this year, I didn't think we could hang our hat on strength of schedule, simply because that 2008 team won 28 regular season games against the most difficult schedule in the nation, and still wasn't rewarded for it by the selection committee. Adding one game won't be a cure-all...but I think now that it will help, both in terms of growing the team together, and giving Tennessee an extra chip on the table if we need it.
So...considering everyone the Vols have already played, and those currently on the schedule for next year...who would you like to see Tennessee pick up in a home-and-home series? Pearl said he wants to play a top-ten program...given that the Vols have already played several schools that would be in that group, which team of the following would you like to see us face?