The Tennessee men's basketball schedule has gone from difficult to downright daunting.
The Vols, who must replace four starters under first-year coach Cuonzo Martin, open the EA Sports Maui Invitational in Hawaii on Nov. 21 against national powerhouse Duke.
It will be Tennessee's first meeting with the Blue Devils in more than 30 years. The Vols beat Duke in the teams' most recent meeting, 90-69, on Dec. 29, 1980, in the Sugar Bowl Classic in New Orleans. The series is tied at 7-7.
Depending on how UT does against the Blue Devils, it will meet either Michigan or Memphis on Nov. 22, according to the tournament schedule. All eight teams at the Maui Invitational will conclude the tournament with games on Nov. 23.
"It's an honor to play against one of the best coaches in the history of the game, and we're excited about that opportunity,'' Martin said about the matchup against Duke and coach Mike Krzyzewski. "As a player, you couldn't ask for better opportunities than our schedule presents.''
As part of the Maui Invitational, UT will play UNC Greensboro on Nov. 11. That game will be played in Thompson-Boling Arena and serve as the Vols' regular-season opener.
The UT schedule also includes non-conference games at home against defending national champion Connecticut (Jan. 21) and Big East heavyweight Pittsburgh (Dec. 3), and road games at dangerous mid-major conference opponents Memphis, College of Charleston and Oakland (Mich).
UT's SEC schedule doesn't offer much relief; the Vols play home-and-away series with fellow SEC Eastern Division members Florida, Vanderbilt and Kentucky, all of which have been projected as top-15 teams in the offseason polls. UT's SEC Western Division road opponents are Mississippi State, Alabama and LSU.
"This is one of those schedules where there are no nights off, and that should provide a high level of focus for our players in our preparations,'' said Martin, who is in Colorado Springs, Colo., serving as an assistant coach with the USA Basketball Men's Junior National Team. "It's hard to imagine a more challenging schedule.''
Tennessee's strength of schedule ranked as the second most difficult in the nation last season according to RealTimeRpi.com and has ranked among the top six in the nation five of the past six seasons, including No. 1 in 2008 when the Vols finished the regular season as the No. 1 team in the RPI rankings.
There's a good chance Tennessee's schedule will rank in the top five this season once again, provided the majority of the preseason projections prove accurate.
The SEC doesn't typically release its schedule until all of the games have been finalized, usually by mid-August.
Other non-conference game dates that have been released are: at Oakland (Nov. 28), home vs. Pitt (Dec. 3), home vs. East Tennessee State (Dec. 23) and home vs. Connecticut (Jan. 21).
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men's basketball and can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32