The non-conference season in college basketball is long and a bit unwieldy, dragging on for six weeks before the real action of conference play begins. Tucked into the Texas schedule are a lot of games against teams like Saint Francis and Lipscomb, which are apparently colleges that play high-level basketball, although I couldn't point them out on a map if my life depended on it. There's only so much you can discern from games against teams like that - it's all about how you fare against other high-major teams.
So if you don't have Longhorn Network, don't worry too much about missing some of these games. As a fan, the games you really need to watch over the next six weeks are all on national TV. Here's a look at the four biggest opponents that Texas will face in non-conference play and what the games could tell us about this team.
1) Iowa in NYC (Thursday, November 20)
The Hawkeyes put themselves back on the national map last season, ending a seven-year NCAA Tournament drought in Fran McCaffery's fourth season in Iowa City. They were a really solid team - they played a disciplined brand of basketball, they had players at every position and they had a legitimate college star in Roy Devin Marble, who was drafted in the second round by the Orlando Magic. With RDM gone, it's unclear how the pecking order will shake out, but they still have enough talent to be competitive.
This isn't your father's Iowa basketball team - they will get into you on defense, run the ball back at you the other way and drop alley-oops on your head. The leading returning scorer is Aaron White, a deceptively athletic 6'9 combo forward who can play above the rim. He averaged 13 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists and 1 steal a game on 58% shooting and he should provide an interesting match-up challenge for Jonathan Holmes, as those guys can play at the 3 or the 4, depending on how coaches set up their line-ups.
Iowa also features a legitimate 7'0 center in Adam Woodbury, a junior whom they have been patiently bringing along for two years and are expecting big things from this season. They have enough size and athleticism upfront so that Texas shouldn't be able to just overwhelm them, so this should be the Longhorns first real challenge of the season. Iowa is probably an NCAA Tournament team, so a neutral floor win in NYC would be a nice early feather in the cap for Texas when it comes to seeding.
If they win, they play the winner of Cal - Syracuse on Friday. It would be a good opportunity to steal a win from talented teams who will dealing with a transition process at the start the season, as Cuonzo Martin is taking over from Mike Montgomery at Cal while Syracuse is trying to recover from losing Tyler Ennis, CJ Fair and Jerami Grant to the NBA.
2) at Connecticut (Sunday, November 30)
An ambitiously scheduled game features Texas going up against the defending NCAA champions on a Sunday afternoon at the tail end of the NFL season, so there's probably not going to be a ton of buzz about this one. As you would expect, UConn got hit hard by attrition and early exits to the NBA. The Huskies were a top-heavy team who lost three of their five top scorers from last season, so it's pretty hard to project how good they will be at this point, although Storrs is always a tough place to play.
With Shabazz Napier in the NBA, this is Ryan Boatright's team now. He's a four-year senior with a wealth of experience and a ton of athleticism - he should provide the best non-conference test for Isaiah Taylor. The Huskies were able to take things to another level in March thanks to the relentless ball-pressure of Boatright and Napier, so you will likely see Kevin Ollie attempt a similar tack in order to speed up the tempo of the game and keep the gigantic Texas front-line from getting into a comfort zone around the rim.
If UConn is relevant on the national scene this season, it will likely be through the development of sophomore 7'0 Amidah Brimah, who is on the same developmental path as Prince Ibeh. He should be a really interesting match-up for guys like Cam Ridley and Myles Turner, as he will be the first guy they face all season who is just as big as them and who can out-run and out-jump them. To me, you know you have a good team when you can beat other good teams on the road, so this should be a good test for Texas.
3) at Kentucky (Friday December 5)
Get the popcorn because this is the game you are definitely going to want to see. The whole country will be watching this one - if Texas can pull out a win in Lexington, it would put the program on a whole different level. Everyone knows about the machine John Calipari has going in Kentucky and this year's team should be no different - just about every guy in the rotation is an NBA prospect and there are guys at the end of their bench who will get looked at by NBA scouts. It's almost unfair how much talent they have.
The good news, though, is you want to get Calipari's teams early in the season, when they are still figuring out their identity and what their pecking order will be. Scott Drew has actually got them twice in recent years, so don't buy into this notion that Kentucky is an unbeatable juggernaut. Cal has had five teams in Kentucky and only two - the DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall and Eric Bledsoe team in 2010 and the Anthony Davis, MKG and Terrence Jones one in 2012 - would straight blow other teams off the court.
Calipari has even said he will be using five-man platoons this season in order to get everyone minutes, but I will believe it when I see him do it in a big game. Cal has always been a guy with a short rotation, which makes sense when you have multiple future NBA players in a 40-minute game. They have two guys who should be lottery picks - Karl Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein - and a bunch of guys who are playing for a shot at the next level - Dakari Johnson, Trey Lyles, Alex Poythress, Marcus Lee, the Harrisons.
They actually have a lot of the same issues as Texas, in terms of having an imbalanced team with an over-stocked front-court and not a lot of shooting on the perimeter. So while the NBA scouts will be watching Ridley vs. WCS, Towns vs. Turner and Holmes vs. Poythress, the game will probably be won or lost on the perimeter, where Texas will have the edge in speed and athleticism while Kentucky will have the clear edge in size. If I had to guess right now, turnovers and three-point shooting tell the tale of this one.
4) Stanford (Tuesday, December 23)
If you are a season ticket holder, Texas isn't giving you much in non-conference, as this is the only home game against a BCS team before the start of Big 12 play. Stanford is another school in a bit of a transition season, as they had everything line up perfectly to make the Sweet 16 last year. They had two guys drafted by the NBA - Josh Huestis and Dwight Powell - and that's a really tough blow for a school which doesn't instantly reload with McDonald's All-Americans, although they do have one this season.
Johnny Dawkins isn't a terribly imaginative coach, but he has found a style that suits him - big teams that hold the ball, control tempo and try to squeeze you on the defensive end. This year's team is all about two guys who are getting looks from the NBA in Anthony Brown, a 6'6 junior wing, and Stefan Nastic, a 7'0 senior center. Brown's combination of size, speed and shooting ability should be an interesting challenge for the undersized Texas guards while Nastic is big enough to man-up the Texas big men.
The Cardinal don't play a particularly tough schedule before the Texas game, which tells you something about how Dawkins is feeling about this year's team. They are probably going to have their hands full making the NCAA Tournament this season, so this is not a game you want to blow on your home floor.
If you are reading the tea leaves, you probably want to see the Longhorns go 3-1 over this stretch of games, which would put them in a great position to make a run at a high seed in the Tourney.