Buzz & Battles: A 2-part breakdown of Kansas basketball's 2020-21 nonconference schedule

Kentucky head coach John Calipari and Kansas head coach Bill Self have a joint meeting with an official after a double technical foul during the first half, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari and Kansas head coach Bill Self have a joint meeting with an official after a double technical foul during the first half, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

The Kansas men’s basketball program’s nonconference schedule was released Wednesday and, as usual, it was packed with notable names and high-profile games.

While that has become rather common around the program since head coach Bill Self's arrival in Lawrence 17 years ago, it has resulted in KU routinely playing one of the toughest schedules in the nation year in and year out.

Whether all of the 2020-21 nonconference games are played as scheduled remains to be seen, as colleges and universities continue to move through the planning stages of how to handle the COVID-19 pandemic moving forward.

But, at least for now, they’re all on the schedule and they're all worth analyzing.

With that in mind, here’s a two-part breakdown of KU’s nonconference slate for the 2020-21 season.

The first list analyzes the non-con slate in terms of which games will be the toughest for Kansas. And the second list breaks things down from a hype perspective and looks at which matchups have the best stories attached to them.

Toughest Games

1 – Nov. 26-27 vs. Virginia in Anaheim, Calif., at the Wooden Legacy Tournament

Even if these weren’t two of the top five teams in many preseason polls, this would be a monster matchup for the Jayhawks.

If it happens.

The guess here is that Virginia and Kansas will each be paired up with Georgetown and UCLA in the opening round of the Wooden event and therefore would both have to win or lose to face each other.

If that’s the way it goes down, we’re talking Bill Self vs. Tony Bennett and two defenses that will be among the best in the country during the 2020-21 season.

In other words, neither team will be able to bring the weak stuff in this one.

2 – Dec. 3 vs. Creighton

The Bluejays were a sleeper pick to make a run to the Final Four in 2020 and return a good chunk of their team from last season.

Creighton finished the season ranked No. 7 in the AP poll at 24-7 overall. But it’s the Bluejays’ style of play and not just its recent success that will make this one a serious challenge.

With veterans all over the floor who can shoot it and get hot from anywhere, it’ll be crucial for Kansas to have its defense in order when Greg McDermott’s team comes rolling into town for its first ever game at Allen Fieldhouse.

3 – Nov. 10 vs. Kentucky in Chicago at the Champions Classic

No matter who’s on the roster or where the game is played, it doesn’t get any bigger than KU-Kentucky.

The Jayhawks have won three of the last four meetings between the two winningest programs in the history of college hoops, but the Wildcats lead the series 22-9 overall and 2-1 at the Champions Classic.

Both sides will have elite players and prospects, and the United Center will be bumping.

4 – Dec. 22 at Colorado

Tad Boyle’s team has been consistently solid for the past few seasons. And like their head coach (a former Jayhawk) during his playing days, the Buffs love to compete for a full 40 minutes against whoever and wherever.

CU showed that last year in a tough loss at Allen Fieldhouse and this one should go down as one of the biggest games in Boulder in a long time, which could turn that arena into a tougher place to play than it was for the Jayhawks when these two were in the same conference.

5 – Jan. 30 vs. TBD in Big 12/SEC Challenge

We don’t yet know who the SEC opponent will be for Kansas in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, but we do know who it won’t be.

It won’t be Kentucky. It won’t be Missouri. They’re both already on the schedule.

The options that appear most likely at this point — and we still don’t even know where the game will be played — are Tennessee, in Knoxville, Auburn, home or away, and possibly Florida.

Two of those three finished in KenPom.com’s Top 33 last season, and all of them have had some solid moments in recent years.

Add to that the fact that the game may be on the road, considering that KU hosted Tennessee in the challenge last year, and you’re looking at another tough January road game for a team in the middle of its conference grind. That’s tough no matter who it’s against.

6 – Dec. 12 vs. Missouri at Sprint Center

The Tigers showed signs of life down the stretch last season and are led by a coach, in Cuonzo Martin, who knows how to push his players and get the best out of them.

Beyond that, Martin knows what this rivalry is all about — and respects it — even if his only real experience in it came during an exhibition game for hurricane relief.

Kansas will be the better team on paper. But the pressure associated with renewing the rivalry for the first time in eight years brings this game into the top half of KU’s nonconference slate.

7 – Nov. 26-27 vs. UCLA in Anaheim, Calif., at the Wooden Legacy Tournament

These two almost met in Maui last season, but BYU got in the way. So now Mick Cronin will have had a full year under his belt before having to face off with Bill Self and the Jayhawks.

Cronin might not have been UCLA’s first choice, but he has a good track record and typically coaches tough teams who compete.

Considering UCLA’s home gym — Pauley Pavilion — isn’t much of a home-court advantage any more, it’s hard to say playing at a neutral site in Anaheim will benefit the Bruins too much.

Like the Virginia game, there’s no guarantee, as of today, that this game will happen. But if it does, the Bruins may have what it takes to push Kansas, at least for a while.

8 – Dec. 19 vs. USC

The Trojans were 22-9 last season and finished third in the Pac-12 Conference. While those numbers sound like they belong to a team that could give Kansas some trouble, the Jayhawks shouldn’t be worried.

Not only will Kansas be playing USC at home, but it also will have a full week to prepare for Andy Enfield’s team and also will have plenty of time to come down from the emotional blitz that comes from playing Missouri.

Beyond that, four of the Trojans’ top players from the 2019-20 season were seniors.

9 – Nov. 26-27 vs. Georgetown in Anaheim, Calif., at the Wooden Legacy Tournament

This one would’ve been a couple of notches higher had the schedule come out a week ago.

But now that we know that standout Hoyas guard Mac McClung has entered the transfer portal, Patrick Ewing’s team does not look quite as formidable.

In addition to the blow of losing the athletic and electric guard, the way it all went down adds an element of chaos to Georgetown’s current reality.

Ewing said on a podcast that McClung was coming back to school. McClung said they never finalized that. And now he’s transferring.

10 – Dec. 29 vs. Harvard

I don’t blame you if you think Ivy League and automatically think back-cuts and ball movement.

That’s the style that wins in that league, and few programs have executed it as well as Harvard.

Add to that the fact that the team is coached by Tommy Amaker, of Duke (as a player), Michigan and Seton Hall fame and you know one thing about this matchup — the Crimson will come to Lawrence well prepared and ready for the opportunity.

Harvard finished at No. 110 in last year’s KenPom rankings and also endured a three-game stretch of games against power conference foes Maryland, Texas A&M and USC.

11 – Nov. 13 vs. Southern Utah

Scheduled as the home opener for the 2020-21 season, just three days after playing Kentucky in Chicago, the Jayhawks have been known to fall on both sides of the coin in this game in the past.

For one, there’s the hype and excitement that comes with a real game being back in Allen Fieldhouse.

But coming with that are the expectations from fans and the need from the players to knock off a little of the rust before they get rolling.

Southern Utah finished 161st overall in the 2019 KenPom rankings, but had a defense that ranked in the Top 100.

The Thunderbirds’ strength of schedule ranking of No. 200 makes that a little less impressive, but the uncertainty of it being the home opener makes this the toughest of the four lowest ranked games on this list.

12 – Nov. 20 vs. Stony Brook

Stony Brook won 20 games and finished second to Vermont in the America East Conference a season ago.

That was with a roster that had zero seniors and the Seawolves should be getting their core back for another run in 2020-21.

Last season also marked head coach Geno Ford’s first season in charge, which means things should run even smoother in Year 2.

13 – Dec. 8 vs. Omaha

Although Omaha’s KenPom ranking was No. 219 overall, the list of opponents on the Mavericks’ 2019-20 schedule illustrates their willingness to schedule tough teams.

Wichita State, Arizona, Dayton, Washington State and St. Mary’s were all on the Mavericks’ slate a season ago, and they’re not going to make life any easier on themselves next season by adding KU to the docket.

KU and Omaha played for the first and only time ever in 2017, with Kansas cruising to a 45-point win.

14 – Nov. 16 vs. Eastern Illinois

Ranked No. 238 in Division I last season, with a strength of schedule ranking of 342nd, this one should be the easiest game on KU’s entire schedule.

The Panthers were just barely above .500 for the season last year (17-15) and finished at 9-9 in the Ohio Valley Conference.

Making matters worse is the fact that the team is losing seven seniors from last season’s roster.

Best Storylines/Buzz Factor

1 – Dec. 12 vs. Missouri at Sprint Center

The first KU-MU game in eight years, at Sprint Center a month into the season? That’s enough to earn this game top billing in the buzz factor rankings. But don’t forget that this one will also be a battle of the Braun brothers, as KU sophomore Christian Braun and older brother Parker will battle for family bragging rights. Should be a blast.

2 – Nov. 10 vs. Kentucky in Chicago at the Champions Classic

If you’ve ever been to an event featuring Kansas and Kentucky, you know exactly how this goes. Hall of Fame coaches, rabid fan bases, future NBA stars and the eyes of the entire college basketball world fixed on the matchup. Chicago will be the stage for this round, and these two will also help usher in another season of college hoops in the process.

3 – Nov. 26-27 vs. UCLA in Anaheim, Calif., at the Wooden Legacy Tournament

Come on, right? Kansas potentially playing UCLA in an event named for legendary Bruins coach John Wooden? That alone provides storylines for days. But there are more. KU recently broke UCLA’s record of consecutive conference titles, and KU assistant Kurtis Townsend’s older brother Raymond once played for Wooden. There’s no guarantee that these two will meet up at this event, but it’ll be a shame if they don’t.

4 – Dec. 3 vs. Creighton

Two of the best teams in the Midwest, separated by just four hours in the car, makes for an exciting matchup. But for Eudora High graduate Mitch Ballock, this matchup means way more than that. Ballock, who has enjoyed a solid career at Creighton, nearly committed to Kansas on a number of occasions in high school. And now he’s coming home to play an official game in Allen Fieldhouse during his senior season. How cool is that?

5 – Nov. 26-27 vs. Virginia in Anaheim, Calif., at the Wooden Legacy Tournament

Like the UCLA matchup, KU and Virginia aren’t guaranteed to play in Anaheim, but if they do it’ll be epic. Self vs. Bennett is a made-for-pay-per-view coaching matchup and when you throw in the fact that Virginia is technically still college basketball’s defending champ, the matchup becomes a battle between the No. 1 team at the end of the 2018-19 season and the No. 1 team at the end of the 2019-20 season.

6 – Dec. 22 at Colorado

Big Eight and Big 12 memories run wild and CU coach Tad Boyle takes another stab at taking down his alma mater and picking up a signature win at Colorado.

7 – Jan. 30 vs. TBD in Big 12/SEC Challenge

If it’s KU-Tennessee, it’s a rematch of last season’s game. And, hey, Peyton Manning might be there again. If it’s KU-Auburn, it’s a rematch of the second-round NCAA Tournament game from two seasons ago that did not go well for the Jayhawks. And if it’s KU versus any other SEC program, there are a few other sweet storylines, as well. KU-South Carolina delivers a reunion with former K-State coach Frank Martin. KU-Arkansas brings current KU Athletic Director Jeff Long back to Fayetteville for a showdown with the Razorbacks. Regardless of which team it faces, KU will look to improve to 6-2 in the Big 12/SEC Challenge in late January.

8 – Nov. 26-27 vs. Georgetown in Anaheim, Calif., at the Wooden Legacy Tournament

Whether you're talking about Juwan Howard at Michigan, Penny Hardaway at Memphis or a handful of other still-young coaches leading their alma maters, there's something cool about the idea of a former star on the floor now calling the shots in a suit and tie on the sideline. That's exactly what the Hoyas have with the legendary Patrick Ewing (now in his fourth season) and if the matchups fall right for KU and Georgetown to do battle, the Jayhawks will get an up-close look at how Ewing's teams play.

9 – Dec. 29 vs. Harvard

Some (not many) have referred to KU as “Harvard on the Kaw,” but that doesn’t make for a very mean cheer so don’t expect to hear too much about that leading up to KU’s last game of 2020. Still, there’s something cool about an old school program like Harvard playing in a classic venue like Allen Fieldhouse.

10 – Nov. 13 vs. Southern Utah

It’s the 2020-21 home opener, the final Allen Fieldhouse season debut for seniors Marcus Garrett and Mitch Lightfoot and the first ever meeting between these two programs. There’ll be plenty to highlight here.

11 – Dec. 19 vs. USC

Unless you want to reeeeeacch to make the connection between current USC coach Andy Enfield and former KU assistant coach Joe Dooley and their time as coaches at Florida Gulf Coast, there’s not a whole lot here. KU leads the series 11-5 and has won seven in a row, including a 16-point win in the last meeting in 2011.

12 – Dec. 8 vs. Omaha

The Jayhawks host Creighton, which calls Omaha, Neb., home, and then head north for a battle with the other basketball team in Creighton’s hometown five days later. I wonder if the Mavericks and Bluejays will share scouting tips in the interest of helping their city get the upper hand.

13 – Nov. 16 vs. Eastern Illinois

Take a deep breath to follow this one. EIU coach Jay Spoonhour is the son of former Missouri State, Saint Louis and UNLV coach Charlie Spoonhour. Jay grew up in Springfield, Mo., and was a four-year letter winner at Pitt State from 1990-94. He just missed playing a game in Allen Fieldhouse (the Jayhawks and Gorillas played an exhibition game in December of 1995) and now he gets his chance.

14 – Nov. 20 vs. Stony Brook

The Seawolves might have the best name on the schedule, but there aren’t meaningful storylines associated with this matchup. Even the fact that the two programs will be meeting for the first time in history is downplayed by the fact that Stony Brook will be the third of three consecutive teams facing Kansas for the first time in school history.

Comments

Len Shaffer

A few thoughts:

It's an unusual year when a game against Kentucky is considered only the THIRD toughest non-conference matchup on the schedule.

There's something missing at the end of the second paragraph of the description of how tough the game against Omaha is.

For a team that was as bad as Eastern Illinois, I'm not sure if losing seven players would make them WORSE.

3 weeks, 2 days ago

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Matt Tait

Thanks, Len. This thing got a little long on me and even I lost track of where I skipped around a time or two. It's fixed now. Nothing earth-shattering, though.

As for the Kentucky thing, that definitely is weird, but Cal's club is dealing with MASSIVE roster turnover this offseason. I know that's how it goes a lot of years at Kentucky. And they'll definitely still have plenty of talent. But KU should have the more experience, more together team when these two square off to open the season. The timing of the game definitely helps make it less daunting.

Good point about Eastern Illinois. I've always been a big fan of that logic!

3 weeks, 1 day ago

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Michael Maris

Not related to this article, but interesting to Jayhawk Nation as a whole.

https://collegebasketball.nbcsports.c...

3 weeks, 2 days ago

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Dane Pratt

In a weird sort of way the conversation between Townsend and Adidas might end up screwing Duke. But it's also screwing us.

3 weeks, 2 days ago

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Robert Brock

The tap stuff with Townsend should be thrown out for being silly “salesman jive.”

3 weeks, 1 day ago

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