Every aspect of Cal’s 2012-13 basketball schedule has how been revealed. Avinash covered the bulk of the news earlier, but the Anaheim Classic has unveiled the bracket, so we can now begin to speculate about Cal’s likely opponents.
Unfortunately, the draw is pretty mediocre. The two teams Cal would most like to face (St. Mary’s and Xavier) are both on the other side of the bracket, leaving Cal to face mid-majors and a Georgia Tech squad in the middle of a deep rebuild.
Still, if the rest of the Pac-12 holds up their end of the bargain the schedule should be plenty strong enough. What it lacks in traditional major conference powers it makes up for with some of the most successful smaller conference teams over the last few years. From a purely aesthetic perspective the home schedule is miles more attractive than last year. Anything that might help fill the seats sounds good to me. But let's break it down using the most important NCAA metric: the dreaded RPI.
For all of the following, last season’s RPI will be in parenthesis. Potential opponents at the 76 Classic are italicized.
Cream of the Crop
The following are teams very likely to have above average RPI numbers and as a result will boost Cal’s strength of schedule:
At Wisconsin (15), UNLV (21), Creighton (27), St. Mary’s (32), Xavier (41), Harvard (38)
If Cal’s non-conference schedule ended up including five RPI top-50 opponents that would be a major boon. I think Wisconsin is the only team on this list that is very likely to stay in the top-50 however, as the other five teams all play in non BCS conferences. Will Harvard duplicate what might be the best season in their modern history? Maybe, maybe not. But I also doubt that any of these teams will plummet all the way out of the RPI top 100, so there’s a certain level of certainty.
Three wins over teams in this group would be really, really sweet. Beating Wisconsin would give the team instant validation just like last year’s game against Missouri would have done. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t consider that very likely, especially on the road. Taking two of three at home against UNLV, Creighton and Harvard would put Cal in pretty solid position. Unfortunately, it’s impossible for Cal to face both Xavier and St. Mary’s, and possible that Cal will face neither since both teams are on the opposite side of the bracket in Anaheim.
A group of teams are likely to neither hurt nor help Cal’s strength of schedule. One of these teams will probably have a better-than-expected year and move into the top 100, while one will probably struggle and fall into the 200s. Such is life on the margins:
At Denver (93), Drake (134), Drexel (64), Georgia Tech (184), Rice (167), UC Santa Barbara (128)
No, Georgia Tech isn’t technically a mid-major, but they played like one last year. You could argue that Drexel and Denver should be in the Cream of the Crop based purely on their RPIs, but I think it’s likely that both will regress back into the 100s after banner years in 2011-12. UC Santa Barbara is likely in line to regress as well after losing Orlando Johnson to the Sacramento Kings. On the other hand, Georgia Tech had a year like USC, ASU and Utah last year, so you would expect them to get better, if only somewhat. A team with five NCAA tournament appearances between 2001 and 2010 can’t stay that bad for long, right? Cal’s 2nd round game in Anaheim will be against either Georgia Tech or Ben Braun’s Rice Owls. Tech will probably be the better opponent, for whatever that’s worth.
These are teams that, in my opinion, Cal shouldn’t schedule - or at least schedule sparingly. I get the idea that not every game can be against elite opposition, and that a few stress-free wins can be of value. But the last few years have given us stark evidence of how important the RPI is, and Cal needs to do everything they can to inflate their number:
Cal State Bakersfield (224), Pepperdine (273), Pacific (284), Prairie View A&M (296)
At least three of the teams are local California schools, and Pepperdine and Pacific have been decent enough in the past that they might sneak their way into the ‘Solid Mid-major’ category. It feels a bit odd to put Pacific in this category since for years the Tigers were one of the best mid-major programs in the country. But a sexual assault scandal destroyed the program and they haven’t recovered. They got drawn into the opposite side of the bracket in Anaheim anyway, so it’s pretty unlikely that Cal will face them anyway. Prairie View A&M is this year's 'huh?' match-up.
But what about the Pac-12?
That’s a pretty important question. Cal’s non-conference schedule was solid last year, and that was the difference between a spot in the play-in game and getting left at home. But if Cal really wants an NCAA tournament spot it would be in their best interests for the Pac-12 to get significantly better. So what’s the prognosis?
Better, if only because it can’t get much worse. And that statement applies most of all to Arizona St., USC and Utah. Those three teams were unbelievably bad prior to Pac-12 play and as a result finished the season with RPIs of 251, 265 and 267. Even a year later I have a hard time believing that those numbers happened. Even moderate improvement from all three teams would make a huge difference. It’s unlikely that ASU and USC will be so unhealthy, and Utah was clearly an improving team towards the end of the season.
Meanwhile, Arizona and UCLA added crazy talent to their squads, so anything less than a top 50 season would be a massive disappointment. Perhaps more importantly, I only see one or two teams likely to get meaningfully worse.* Oregon St. and Washington both lost critical players to the draft and both might struggle. Washington at least has the talent to potentially replace players like Terrance Ross. I’m not really seeing how the Beavers are going to replace Jared Cunningham.
Will the conference immediately climb back to the same level as the Big 10 and the Big East? Probably not. But I’d like to think that the gap won’t be nearly as obvious as it was last year.
*I suppose the losses of Jorge Gutierrez and Harper Kamp might mean Cal falls into this category, but since the Bears don't play themselves that's a debate for a different day.