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Basketball

WILLIAMS: Ranking the non-conference hoops schedule

It can often times be difficult to watch, but there is a certain charm about the non-conference college basketball season that I absolutely adore. 

What’s not to like about random teams matching up on random nights at bizarre times of the day (the ESPN college hoops marathon is one of my favorite days of the year)?

Iowa State’s 2015-16 non-con is above average, but not spectacular by any means. It is challenging but not sexy, which is probably the best way to describe this slate. It lacks the presence of a blue blood but when you dig deep, does possess some real substance.

What I’ve done below is ranked every game on Iowa State’s non-conference schedule (that begins on Friday vs. Colorado at 4 on ESPN2) from easiest to most difficult.

I’ve also divvied the schedule up into three different tiers.

Let’s get started with the gimmies.

The cupcakes

13 – Monday, Nov. 16 vs. Chicago State (Emerald Coast Classic) – This WAC program is traditionally one of the worst in all of college basketball. Chicago State lost 11 players from last year’s team that went 8-24 and is being picked to finish dead last in a really bad league.

12 – Wednesday, Dec. 30 vs. Coppin State – The top three scorers are gone from a MEAC team that went 8-23 (6-10) last season.

11 – Sunday, Dec. 13 vs. Arkansas-Pine Bluff – At the low-major level, this program struggles to score and prides itself on defense. Good luck with that formula vs. this group of Cyclones inside of Hilton Coliseum.

10 – Monday, Dec. 7 vs. Buffalo – This one would have been in my next tier if not for the dismissal of last season’s MAC Player of the Year, Justin Moss, in August. Under then head coach Bobby Hurley (now at Arizona State), the Bulls (Buffalo, not Chicago) made the first NCAA Tournament in program history in 2015. Without Moss and under the leadership of Nate Oats (the high school coach of former Cyclones Will Clyburn and Dominique Buckley if that means anything to you), Buffalo was recently picked fourth in the MAC East division. This game looked much more difficult when it first showed up on Iowa State’s schedule. Now, it shouldn’t be much of a problem. 

These games are tricky in their own ways

9 – Monday, Nov. 23 vs. Chattanooga (Emerald Coast Classic) – With four starters returning, the Mocs are the popular pick to win the Southern Conference this year after going 22-10 (15-3) a season ago. Former Chattanooga coach, Will Wade, left to take over for Shakka Smart at VCU. For the low-major level, this team is loaded with two all-league performers in Casey Jones (combo) and Justin Tuoyo (F).

8 – Tuesday, Dec. 1 vs. North Dakota State – The Bison have found themselves in the NCAA Tournament two years in a row now and are being picked to finish second in the Summit League behind rival South Dakota State. NDSU lost the Summit’s Player of the Year in Lawrence Alexander but even so, a wealth of experience returns. Sans UAB and UNI, this is the scariest low-to-mid-major game on Iowa State’s schedule.

7 – Friday, Nov. 27 vs. Virginia Tech in Niceville, Fla. (Emerald Coast Classic) – The Hokies have finished last in the ACC four seasons in a row. Year two of the Buzz Williams (below) era should show better results as far as competitiveness goes, however it might not seem like it at the end of the year when you look at the ACC standings. This program is still rebuilding but should be significantly better than what Hokie fans saw a year ago.

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6 – Friday, Nov. 13 vs. Colorado in Sioux Falls, S.D. – I’m not sure what to think of this team, nor are most people. After leading Colorado to three straight NCAA Tournaments, Tad Boyle’s team slipped up and went 16-18 (7-11) last season. The Pac-12’s media recently picked the Buffs to finish third, which seems optimistic for a program that really appears to be lacking momentum. A 6-foot-10 forward named Josh Scott will give everybody Colorado plays trouble. This is a frontcourt-oriented team that lacks pop around the perimeter. This is an experienced team that does return four starters and in the first game of the season on a neutral floor, deserves to be taken seriously. 

5 – Saturday, Nov. 28 vs. Illinois or UAB in Niceville, Fla. (Emerald Coast Classic) – I’ll take a stab here and guess (hope) that Iowa State will pay UAB in the championship game of the Emerald Coast Classic. Those blasted Blazers are a near unanimous pick to win Conference USA (receiving 11 votes while Old Dominion did snag three as well). Illinois is being projected as a middle of the pack Big Ten team.

Last season UAB was the third-youngest team in all of college basketball so that means that pretty much everyone is coming back for the program that upset the Cyclones in the NCAA Tournament. 

Ask yourself this: How jacked up would this veteran Iowa State team be with a chance at some revenge? Opportunities like this – to play pretty much the exact same team that embarrassed you in March – don’t come around very often in college basketball, or life in general. Georges Niang and company would be ready this time, one would think. 

Illinois on the other hand brought in three transfers this offseason and like the Cyclones, took a well-timed offseason trip to Europe.

Illinois or UAB, whomever Iowa State plays in this game will be a formidable opponent.

BELOW: UAB head coach Jarod Haase.

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4 – Thursday, Dec. 10 vs. Iowa – The Hawkeyes mysteriously lost to a Division II team last Friday in an exhibition game. Still, there’s plenty of talent and experience returning here to make the 2015 installment of the Cy-Hawk game an interesting one. Jarrod Uthoff is Iowa’s best player, but there are still questions out there if he is capable of being “the man” at this level and not just “one of the guys,” if that makes any sense. I feel like at this point, Mike Gesell and Adam Woodbury are who they are – solid but not great players in the Big Ten. Having said that, offseason reports state that Woodbury has made great strides in the offseason, which would make sense, as many 7-footers tend to be late-bloomers. Fran McCaffrey has a handful of newcomers to work into the mix and this team should be at the very least on the bubble come NCAA Tournament time. Most publications have Iowa in the NCAA Tournament for the third year in a row.

3 – Saturday Dec. 19 vs. Northern Iowa in the Big 4 Classic in Des Moines, Iowa – Throw recruiting rankings, matchups and anything that has happened previously in the year out the window. When is a game against Northern Iowa ever easy for the Cyclones? Despite UNI losing Seth Tuttle to graduation, this one will be anything but a Sunday walk in the park for the Cyclones. Only two starters return from last year’s team that won 31 games. UNI is being picked to finish third in the Missouri Valley behind Wichita State and Evansville. Still, Ben Jacobson is an elite coach and a backcourt trio of seniors consisting of Matt Bohannon, Paul Jesperson and Wesh Washpun make the Panthers a scary matchup for anybody. 

A league of their own  

2 – Saturday, Jan. 30 at Texas A&M in College Station, Texas – The good news here is that thanks to the awkward Big 12/SEC Challenge scheduling, Deonte Burton will be eligible to play in what I’ve ranked as Iowa State’s second-toughest non-conference game. There’s all sorts of intrigue that comes with this game considering A&M head coach Billy Kennedy (below) is the best friend and mentor of new Iowa State head coach Steve Prohm. It will be an emotional contest. Texas A&M won 21 games a year ago and is a Tournament team this year, according to pretty much everybody. Kennedy’s team returns the most talent of his four years at A&M along with a top 10 recruiting class.

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1 – Tuesday, Dec. 22 @ Cincinnati – Picked to finish fourth in the American, all five starters return from a Cincinnati team that boasted one of the top defenses in the country and went to last year’s NCAA Tournament. Pretty much every key player from last year’s team is back – including head coach Mick Cronin who missed much of last season due to health concerns. This is a brutal place to travel to against a program that physically attempts to manhandle every opponent in its path. Luckily, the Cyclones get eight days off after this one. They’ll likely need it. 

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