The fires will be burning white hot for some WAC teams right away.
None more so than Utah Valley, which begins a historically brutal back-to-back on opening day. The Wolverines kick off their season at Kentucky, and then tip off the following night 468 miles away at Cameron Indoor against Duke.
The foray against two top five opponents, of course, has a purpose (other than catching some brief national attention). UVU coach Mark Pope knows it’ll be difficult, but sees it as an investment in his team’s season.
“Our non-conference schedule is impossibly hard but it’s going to challenge us and break us and wear us out, and somewhere in the middle of the season we’re going to flat line and be frustrated, but we’ll put the pieces back together and by the end of the season be a really good basketball team,” he said earlier this offseason. “I really do believe that even though I’m sure we’ll take hits in the middle season because we’re exhausted, at the end of the day we’ll be the best team we can be.”
Running through that type of gauntlet may make particular sense with Pope’s veteran-laden team. The transfer-heavy Wolverines return five players that averaged at least 21.3 minutes per game last year, and add several more transfers with Div. I experience.
Pope said that senior point guard Brandon Randolph (3.9 APG/3.2 TOV) has made great strides with his decision making over the summer, as has senior forward Isaac Neilson with his defensive mobility. Right away, both will get to test their offseason work against plenty of NBA talent.
UMKC enters its own loaded opening week in a different spot.
The Roos begin the season at Wichita State, before traveling to Kansas State on Nov. 14. The Shockers were No. 7 in the AP’s initial poll and figure to be the AAC favorite, while the Wildcats are coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance (and win).
For his part, Kareem Richardson must replace five starters from an 18-win team that had its best Div. I season largely on the backs of seniors. New players — like freshmen Brandon McKissic and Marvin Nesbitt Jr. — and players moving into larger roles — like senior Broderick Robinson and sophomore Xavier Bishop — will get tested right away. The Shockers had the country’s 13th best defense per KenPom last season, and will almost certainly have a packed house eager to kick off the program’s new era in the AAC.
Richardson said that isn’t necessarily how he’d design it in an ideal world. But like Pope, he sees the challenge paying off down the line.
“We would prefer to ease into it a little more with the inexperience we have. That’s where we’re going to find out quickly how we handle the fires. They’re going to be thrown into it and we have to deal with it,” he said. “That’s why you play these types of games in those types of environments this time of year. When we go to Grand Canyon, where it’s going to be a sold out crowd, and go to Bakersfield, where it’s going to be a great crowd in conference play, hopefully we’re not unnerved and ready to go.”
Two other league teams also have daunting starts to the season. CSU Bakersfield opens against Div. III Whittier, but then travels to Sun Belt contender Georgia Southern (Nov. 13) and makes a stop at Arizona (Nov. 16). Chicago State will play at Iowa, Purdue and Notre Dame all before the season is a week old.
Like with UVU and UMKC, lumps will almost certainly be taken during the first week. But whether they’ve got experience or not, each coach is hoping that being put to the fire right away will make his team better come conference play.