Whether through luck or planning, Mike Montgomery's Bears have faced an unusually tough non-conference schedule over the last two years. 2010-11 included eventual top seeds Kansas, Notre Dame and San Diego State. In 2009-10 Cal had Ohio St., Syracuse, Kansas and New Mexico. Both sets of tough schedules were mixed blessings - Cal generally had solid RPI and strength of schedule numbers, but they also suffered a number of early losses that seemed to damage Cal's national reputation - for whatever that's worth.
For better or worse, that almost certainly won't be the case next year. UNLV, an NBA-defection-weakened San Diego St., and their opponents in the CBE Classic in Kansas City will be intriguing games. Beyond that? I think a compelling argument could be made that UC Santa Barbara might be the best opponent left on the schedule. After the jump you'll find a quick breakdown of the schedule and what it might mean for the Bears.
Cal's 2011-12 non-conference schedule (Last year's kenpom rankings in parenthesis)
Cream of the Crop: vs. Georgia (55), vs. Missouri (44) or Notre Dame (15), at San Diego St. (8), at UNLV (27)
The good news is that Cal will have four games against solid to above average teams. The bad news is that they will all be on the road or neutral locations. And should Cal face Missouri in the 2nd round of the CBE Classic they'll essentially be facing a home crowd. These will be the games that determine success or failure prior to the start of Pac-12 play. Taking two out of four would be solid, and anything better would be a great sign going into the conference season.
Solid mid-majors: vs. UCSB (145), vs. George Washington (162), vs. Austin Peay (129), vs. Weber St. (180)
UCSB, Austin Peay and Weber St. are all relatively veteran teams with aspirations of winning their league and an NCAA tournament automatic berth. George Washington probably won't contend in the Atlantic 10, but the A-10 is just a small step below the BCS conferences and the Colonials are usually a solid team. Still, if Cal fancies themselves a Pac-12 title contender they shouldn't lose any of these games at home.
Victory Fodder: UC Irvine (224), Denver (212), McNeese St. (204), San Jose St. (176), Jackson St. (286)
The type of games that can harm your strength of schedule and RPI just by being on the schedule. The type of games that only Oregon St. will ever lose. The type of game where, if Cal falls, it's time to seriously re-evaluate our expectations for the season.
What does it all mean? Well, if you're a season ticket holder this might be the weakest home slate in quite a long time. Not a single major conference team is coming to Haas Pavilion. On the other hand, if you like watching Cal win you should see ample reason to renew your season tickets. With seniors Jorge Gutierrez and Harper Kamp leading this team, anything less than a perfect home run in the non-conference would be a disappointment, I think.