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Grading The '09-'10 Cal Basketball Schedule

Last week, Cal released their 2009-10 men's basketball schedule. My initial reaction? I'm actually quite excited. While still flawed, especially the lackluster non-conference home schedule, the overall level of both the competition and the opportunities for exposure is a big step up from previous schedules. Last year, I gave the non-conference schedule a disappointing 'C+' grade; this year's slate is a significant upgrade.

Before we get to the grading, I'll recap my own personal scheduling preferences, which inform my grading rubric:

As a fan, I have certain scheduling preferences, which may or may not agree with the philosophy of the coach actually doing the scheduling. I of course like home games, but I like them against interesting opponents. Nationally-recognized opponents are of course great, but local mid-majors are also fun to have on the schedule. Tournaments are great, especially when they lead to some nationally-televised games on ESPN. I like to see a challenging (though not brutal) non-conference slate, something that will prepare our team for the rigors of the Pac-10. I don't like playing terrible teams just to get a guaranteed win, and I'm not interested in seeing Cal beat up on a team I've never heard of. A quick rule of thumb: if I don't know what state a team is from, I'm probably not interested in seeing Cal play them.

Now, on with the judging!

*all Ratings listed here come from Ken Pomeroy .

Nov. 9 - Murray State Racers (19-12 last year, 13-5 in the Ohio Valley Conference (2nd); PomRating last year : 137; Avg. PomRating last 4 years : 160)
Nov. 11 - Detroit Titans
(7-23 last year, 2-16 in the Horizon League (10th); PomRating last year : 279; Avg. PomRating last 4 years : 213)

The Cal Bears open their season at home with a couple games that open the Coaches v. Cancer Classic. These games, however, are hardly likely to be classic. The Bears open against a school that you very well may never have heard of. The first red flag that went off for me? "Murray" is not a State (unlike Kentucky, where the school is actually located). Then, two days later, they take on Detroit, whose team is about as bad as the rest of the news coming out of Detroit lately. We're entering Chump City, folks.

Actually, the Murray State Racers' record last year was actually pretty decent (and they lost @ Missouri by just 11, a far better showing that the Bears put up), so it might be a mistake to overlook these guys, almost all of whom are coming back this year. If Cal is truly ready to contend for the Pac-10 title, Murray State shouldn't present an overwhelming challenge, but if the Bears aren't careful...well, it'd be a disastrous way to start the season. Other than the fact that I've never really heard of these guys, this seems like a good mid-level opponent to start off the season, and since this game comes as part of the Coaches v. Cancer package, I'm even more in support of it.

The Detroit game? Not so much. The Titans are almost certain to be anywhere from bad to awful next season, and I'm anticipating a lot of playing time for the Bears' bench in the second half. But rather than bore you with talk about this team, I'll use this space to rant about how shady it is that this tournament includes a number of teams that have absolutely no chance to win this event -- not only that, but they're not even mentioned anywhere on the event's website! From the official site:

New Format

- The 2009 tournament will include a 12-team field with games at four regional sites (Syracuse, North Carolina, Ohio State and Cal) between November 9-13. Championship Round games will be played on November 19 & 20.

- The four regional hosts will play two games at home and then automatically advance to the Championship Rounds in New York City, regardless of the regional results.

- All other participants will automatically advance to play a round-robin series at one of two other sub-regional sites. Thus, every participating team will be guaranteed four games.

- Thus, every participating team will be guaranteed four games, regardless of the regional results.

Lame!! Anyway, to get the good games with the exposure in New York City, you gotta accept a couple of chumps beforehand. Oh well, I guess I can live with it. My grade might be higher if Detroit didn't suck so much, but they do, so... Grade: B+

Nov. 19-20 - Coaches vs. Cancer Classic - North Carolina Tar Heels (34-4 last year, 13-3 in the Atlantic Coast Conference (1st); PomRating last year : 1; Avg. PomRating last 4 years : 3) -- or -- Syracuse Orange (28-10 last year, 11-7 in the Big East Conference (6th); PomRating last year : 15; Avg. PomRating last 4 years : 35) -- or -- Ohio State Buckeyes (22-11 last year, 10-8 in the Big Ten Conference (4th); PomRating last year : 37; Avg. PomRating last 4 years : 22)

I absolutely love these games; there's basically no downside. Big-time exposure in New York and on TV, quality, big-name opposition...even if the Bears don't win a game, as long as they don't embarrass themselves in front of a national audience, nobody will hold it against them.

And on the upside? If the Bears can win this tournament, they could solidify a Top 10 ranking and mark the coming-out party of a national basketball power. It won't be easy -- North Carolina may not repeat as national champions, but they're hardly going to fade into obscurity, and both Syracuse and Ohio State will be tough matchups as well. Regardless of the outcome, this tournament is exactly the kind of thing that past Golden Bear schedules have lacked, and exactly the kind of non-conference preparation that a team picked to contend for the Pac-10 title will need. Grade: A+

Nov. 24 - Jacksonville Dolphins (18-14 last year, 15-5 in the Atlantic Sun Conference (1st); PomRating last year : 127; Avg. PomRating last 4 years : 233)

Competition-wise, Jacksonville is a decent opponent (other than their leading rebounder, they return basically everyone from a team that won the Atlantic Sun last year), but in terms of fan interest, it could really hardly be lower. I wouldn't necessarily say I'm the most knowledgable college basketball fan out there, but if I've never heard of Jacksonville University, I'd be willing to bet most other Cal fans haven't either. Just as the Coaches vs. Cancer games in New York offer the Bears nothing to lose, a game like this offers them virtually nothing to gain. A win, and nobody is surprised (or even notices, really), whereas a loss looks poorly on their record. Assuming the Bears win without too much trouble, this game offers a chance to get a bunch of players some work, but don't expect too many fans to show up. Grade: C+

Nov. 29 - Princeton Tigers (13-14 last year, 8-6 in the Ivy League (2nd); PomRating last year : 260; Avg. PomRating last 4 years : 270)

I can't help but think that Cal's frustrating inability to defeat the less-talented Oregon State Beavers and their Princeton offense last season led Coach Mike Montgomery to schedule a practice game against the original article, the Princeton Tigers. Princeton hasn't been very good these last few years, but perhaps returning nearly everyone from last year's team will allow them to master a complicated offense. This game should draw at least some mild fan interest, though I don't know if the level of competition will match it. However, if the practice helps the Bears to finally beat the Beavers, it will have been more than worth it. Grade: B-

Dec. 2 - at New Mexico Lobos (22-12 last year, 12-4 in the Mountain West Conference (1st); PomRating last year : 39; Avg. PomRating last 4 years : 79)

Playing at "The Pit" is never an easy proposition, even moreso when the defending Mountain West champs are playing well. While New Mexico does lose a number of important seniors, and so will be rather young next year, this still won't be an easy road game. I like this game, as it not only should be a good test for our Bears, but it gets Cal a return home game for the 2010-11 season. Grade: A-

Dec. 5 - Iowa State Cyclones (15-17 last year, 4-12 in the Big Twelve Conference (10th); PomRating last year : 112; Avg. PomRating last 4 years : 102)

I'm a big fan of the Big XII / Pac-10 Hardwood Challenge, as it gets schools from both conferences home-and-home series with tough BCS conference schools. However, whoever scheduled this series has done a disservice to both Cal and Iowa State, creating the biggest mismatch of the series. Cal, widely picked to finish either first or second in the Pac-10, gets and Iowa State squad that won just 4 conference games last year, and will struggle to crack the top half of the conference. Overall, I like the series, but am disappointed in this particular opponent. What's more disappointing? This is probably the best home game the Bears will get this year before the conference season begins. Grade: B

Dec. 9 - at Pacific Tigers (21-13 last year, 10-6 in the Big West Conference (2nd); PomRating last year : 113; Avg. PomRating last 4 years : 135)

Last year, Pacific gave the Bears a bit of a test before losing by 12 to open the season. This year, the Bears return the game to Stockton, though they'll face a Tigers squad that has lost a number of important seniors, including players who scored 34 of the 56 points Pacific scored in losing at Haas last year. Not a great game, by any means, though it should be another decent road test for the Bears in front of what I can only assume will be a pretty amped-up crowd in Stockton, one that ought to contain at least a fair number of Cal fans. If the Bears are going to play mid-majors, I'd much prefer they be local ones that garner at least some interest within the Bay Area. Grade: B

Dec. 22 - at Kansas Jayhawks (27-8 last year, 14-2 in the Big Twelve Conference (1st); PomRating last year : 10; Avg. PomRating last 4 years : 5)

Fresh off of final exams, the Bears will travel to Lawrence, Kansas to face a much bigger test: a road game against the consensus preseason favorite to win it all next year. I expect some good TV expsoure for this game, and win or lose, the experience should pay dividends down the road. As a added bonus, the Bears get a return visit to Haas from Kansas in 2010. Grade: A+

Dec. 28-29 - Golden Bear Classic - Furman Paladins (6-24 last year, 4-12 in the Southern Conference (11th); PomRating last year : 325; Avg. PomRating last 4 years : 263) -- and -- UC Santa Barbara Gauchos (16-15 last year, 8-8 in the Big West Conference (4th); PomRating last year : 169; Avg. PomRating last 4 years : 158) -- or -- Utah Valley Wolverines (17-11 last year; PomRating last year : 159)

Finally, the Bears wrap up the non-conference season with the annual Golden Bear Classic, and just like the last however many years, I once again struggle to care. UC Santa Barbara is at least somewhat local and not completely awful (though they did lose their best player to graduation), but Utah Valley is both miscelaneous and new to Division I, and until TwistNHook told me, I didn't even know what state Furman was in! (South Carolina, in case you were interested.) Furman (whom I'm assuming will be Cal's opening round opponent) is also one of those teams that is so bad (one of the 20 worst teams in Division I last year) that just by playing them, the Bears will do harm to their RPI.

I've railed about the uselessness of this tournament before, but it obviously hasn't improved anything. At best, this tournament gives these kids a chance to play two games in two days; at worst, they'll lose a game, drawing embarassment and damage to their NCAA tournament résumé. Coming after the Kansas game, these games will be both a letdown in competition and a poor tune-up for Pac-10 competition. Meh. Grade: C-

Overall, it's a big improvement over last season's schedule, but there's still some weak spots. Specifically, the home non-conference slate is pretty much devoid of interesting games (Iowa State and Princeton are the headliners, and neither game is inducing this fence-sitter to finally pony-up for season tickets), and the Golden Bear Classic once again fails to be worth of the name "Classic". But the road/neutral schedule offers plenty of challenges, and I expect this team to be battle-tested (with a decent RPI to boot) come the beginning of Pac-10 play, hosting Stanford on January 2, 2010. Though the non-conference schedule was close to earning a B+, I'm giving it a final mark (go ahead, add up the GPA!) of a solid Grade: B