As noted earlier, there are very few gimmes on Idaho State's non-conference basketball schedule again this season, but... a quick glance at the slate that was officially released yesterday shows it's not quite as brutal as last year's. Here's a very rough rundown:
Last year's non-conference, Division I opponents finished with an average RPI of 88, a mean RPI between 80 and 89, and a winning percentage of 62.5 percent. The highest ratest team at the end of the season was Utah at No. 14, and there were a total of five teams (the Utes, Arizona State at 24, Utah State at 28, BYU at 37 and Wisconsin at 42) ranked in the top 50.
By contrast, if you look at last year's numbers and project to this year (which is sheer folly, I admit, but it's the only basis of comparison we have right now), the number for this year's opponents are: average RPI: 122; mean RPI: 94; winning percentage: 55 percent. Only four teams -- Utah, BYU, Utah State and USC (at 39) -- finished in the top 50 last year.
Here are a few other factors that will likely make next year's schedule not quite so tough: USC lost its coach and two NBA draft picks in the off-season, and didn't have a great recruiting year; Missouri-Kansas City (RPI of 309) and Cal-Bakersfield (RPI of 300) replace Hawaii -- at Hawaii (No. 246) and Long Beach State (155) as the lowest rated teams on the ISU schedule. And Utah, the highest-rated team from last year's slate (and one of the two D-I non-conference teams the Bengals beat) lost 7-foot center Luke Neville to graduation.
Frankly, I don't worry a lot about Ws-Ls in the non-conference. ISU is over-scheduled on the road for money (they're playing $380,000 in guarantee games this year), and very few teams in the West can get decent home-and-homes with other comparable D-1 teams. (Boise State fans complain all the time about the lack of marque home games at Taco Bell Arena -- the Broncos would have given a left saddle horn to have Utah, Utah State and BYU all play at their place last year, like the Bengals did.)
Where the Bengals need to get more serious, however, is on the road in Big Sky play. There has been a lot of complaining about the league's decision to go to Friday-Saturday road trips this year (and, for the record, I think it's a dumb idea), and ISU gets two of those: the Montana-Montana State trip (Feb. 5 and 6); and the Portland State-Eastern Washington excursion on the last weekend of the season (Feb. 26-27). Those will be extra challenges, but the truth of the matter is that Idaho State hasn't been a good road team for a long time, even with normal travel time. Over the last three seasons, ISU has won back-to-back road games exactly once--on Jan. 4 and 6 of 2007, when they beat Weber State and Sacramento State. If the Bengals really want to contend for their first regular season conference championship since 1994, they need to ignore any excuses about travel challenges and compete consistently away from home.
It looks like Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson has settled in on senior Danny Sullivan as his starting quarterback when the Sun Devils host Idaho State in the season opener Sept. 5. Sullivan has put up rather pedestrian numbers in his three years as a backup, and there has been some clamoring for his two young backups, but it appears he's going to get first shot at running the offense against the Bengals.
Meanwhile, over in Norman, Okla., the Sooners continue to roll in the pre-season honors. OU All-American defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and defensive end Jeremy Beal were both named to the Nagurski Award watch list. The award honors the nation's best defensive player. The Sooners held a 50-play scrimmage Tuesday night and, despite the presence of such rugged defensive linemen, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops was very pleased with the play of his offensive line. That's not good news for Sooner opponents, because the O-line was supposed to be one of the few pre-season question marks for OU.
And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.