- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Editor's Note: This week, ESPN.com broke down the nonconference schedules of each and every team in a dozen of the nation's top leagues. On Monday, we began in the South with the ACC, SEC and C-USA. On Tuesday, we focused on the East with the A-10, Big East and CAA. Wednesday was all about the West with the Mountain West, Pac-12 and WCC. Today we focused on the Midwest with the Big Ten, Missouri Valley and Big 12. We also analyzed the schedules of 10 prominent mid-majors from outside those 12 conferences.
A quick note: You may notice that many of the below schedules come from unsurprising places. When ranking and grading nonconference schedules, we try to take into account the relative strength of a team, if a program is rebuilding, and so forth. But for the purposes of this post, such distinctions were difficult to parse.
I understand many of these schedules are constructed in order to help teams along in their development, and also -- let's just be honest about it -- inflate win totals. Even so, these are all high-major teams. They could all do better. In the end, I tried to find the 10 worst high-major schedules, with only minimal (but not zero!) consideration for program context. OK, let's begin (in alphabetical order):
Toughest: Cancun Challenge (Nov. 20-21)
Next-toughest: at Arizona State (Dec. 12)
The rest: UC Riverside (Nov. 9), Gardner-Webb (Nov. 15), Austin Peay (Nov. 17), Fairfield (Nov. 27), at Auburn (Nov. 30), at Chicago State (Dec. 5), Milwaukee (Dec. 9), Northern Illinois (Dec. 16), UMBC (Dec. 22), Loyola-Chicago (Dec. 29)
DePaul is getting better under third-year coach Oliver Purnell, especially compared to where the Blue Demons were (hint: in the absolute talent cellar) when he took over. Unfortunately, the schedule is not following suit. The Cancun Challenge is the only thing worth noting here, and it features Wichita State (which is also a rebuilding program) and either Iowa or Western Kentucky. If that's Iowa, great -- the Hawkeyes are a trendy Big Ten sleeper pick. That said, when Iowa is your best possible opponent, sorry, your schedule is bad.
Toughest: South Florida (Dec. 5), Gonzaga (Dec. 31)
Next-toughest: Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 15-18), at Virginia Tech (Dec. 1)
The rest: UC Davis (Nov. 9), Portland State (Nov. 25), Missouri State (Dec. 8), Central Arkansas (Dec. 16), UT-Arlington (Dec. 19), Tennessee Tech (Dec. 22)
This schedule is not as bad as some of the others you'll see on this list. However, it is the worst of any team you'll see that also has two McDonald's All-Americans on its roster. There are no true road challenges, the Puerto Rico Tip-Off field is good but not great, and Gonzaga is the only top-25 team anywhere near the slate if the Pokes fall flat in San Juan. This isn't a great nonconference schedule by any metric, but when you take into account Oklahoma State's talent level -- and their chances of playing spoiler in the Big 12 this season -- it is rather blasé.
Toughest: Diamond Head Classic (Dec. 22-25 in Honolulu)
Next-toughest: at Middle Tennessee (Dec. 8), at Loyola Marymount (Dec. 19)
The rest: Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 9), Coastal Carolina (Nov. 13), Arkansas-Little Rock (Nov. 16), McNeese State (Nov. 20), Lipscomb (Nov. 23), Rutgers (Dec. 1), ETSU (Dec. 14), Fordham (Jan. 4)
There are some who believe Ole Miss will be an NCAA tournament team in 2012-13. Others claim the Rebels can hang near the top -- or at least in the middle of the pack -- in the SEC this season. That may or may not be true, but we won't really find out until SEC play begins. Other than a possible matchup with San Diego State on a neutral court, and a road game at Middle Tennessee -- points for that, but not too many -- Ole Miss has absolutely nothing on its schedule. With a few exceptions, most of the teams on this list are rebuilding, and their schedules say so. Andy Kennedy's team is supposed to be rounding into form, but you wouldn't know it from the above schedule.
Toughest: NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 12-23)
Next-toughest: Detroit (Dec. 1)
The rest: Mount St. Mary’s (Nov. 9), Fordham (Nov. 12), Oakland (Nov. 17), Howard (Nov. 27), vs. Duquesne (Dec. 5 at Consol Energy Center), North Florida (Dec. 8), Bethune Cookman (Dec. 15), Delaware State (Dec. 19), Kennesaw State (Dec. 23)
It's hard to fault Jamie Dixon for his scheduling philosophy. As SI.com's Luke Winn wrote last month, Dixon is the nation's best RPI exploiter; he slips in every crevice of the NCAA's crude metric, all while rarely putting his team at risk. And with due praise out of the way, sorry, but this schedule is really ugly. Pitt is likely to play Michigan and either Virginia or Kansas State in the NIT Season Tip-Off, but even if those games were guaranteed they're not enough to keep the Panthers off this list. Besides, sure, Pitt was bad last year, but let's not forget that this is still Pitt, one of the most comprehensively consistent programs of the past decade. Their scheduling sights should be set much higher.
Toughest: Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 15-18)
Next-toughest: Mississippi State (Dec. 1), at Boston College (Dec. 22)
The rest: NJIT (Nov. 10), Bryant (Nov. 12), Fairfield (Nov. 23), Holy Cross (Nov. 27), Rhode Island (Dec. 6), Colgate (Dec. 18), at Brown (Dec. 28)
The differences between what this schedule could be, and what it is, are stark. For example, had the Friars got Mississippi State in any of the past five years -- rather than this one -- that would be a quality opponent. And if Boston College wasn't undergoing its own rebuilding project, and if PC were to topple UMass in the first round in Puerto Rico (opening up possible games against NC State and Tennessee), then we may be talking. Alas, the schedule as it is is downright brutal, with Mississippi State and BC and then a bunch of really cupcake-y low majors (NJIT, Bryant) rounding out the badness.
Toughest: at Ole Miss (Dec. 1)
Next-toughest: at Princeton (Nov. 16), vs. Iona (Dec. 8 in NYC)
The rest: St. Peter’s (Nov. 9), Sacred Heart (Nov. 12), Boston U (Nov. 20), UNC Greensboro (Nov. 25), George Washington (Dec. 11), UAB (Dec. 16), Rider (Dec. 28)
As medium-to-low mid-majors go, Princeton and Iona are pretty solid. As the lynchpins of the schedule you create -- that game at Ole Miss is part of the Big East/SEC Challenge, so minimal points are awarded -- they are not exactly beasts. And ... that's pretty much it! Most of the schedules on this list at least have a token mediocre early-season tournament to their credit. Rutgers doesn't even have that. Gross.
Toughest: at St. John’s (Nov. 29)
Next-toughest: Hoops for Hope Classic (Nov. 24-25 in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico), Clemson (Dec. 2)
The rest: Milwaukee (Nov. 11), Morgan State (Nov. 16), Rider (Nov. 19), Elon (Nov. 21), Jacksonville (Dec. 7), Appalachian State (Dec. 19), vs. Manhattan (Dec. 22 in Brooklyn), Presbyterian (Dec. 29), South Carolina State (Jan. 5)
You'll have to forgive South Carolina: It's going to take some time to get used to this whole "basketball being important" thing. That's the promise of coach Frank Martin's hire, and there's every reason to believe Martin will get the Gamecocks and their fans there eventually (by dragging them kicking and screaming, if needed). But this schedule still reflects the old South Carolina, where the Gamecocks would routinely (attempt) to feast on early-season cupcakes in the hopes of inflating their win totals and getting to the NCAA tournament. It never really worked. The game at St. John's is a must, thanks to the Big East/SEC Challenge. Other than that, yikes.
Toughest: South Padre Island Invitational (Nov. 23-24)
Next-toughest: Houston (Dec. 4), at Tulsa (Dec. 9)
The rest: Cal Poly (Nov. 9), Centenary (Nov. 12), SMU (Nov. 15), Prairie View A&M (Nov. 18), Navy (Nov. 20), Southern Utah (Nov. 29), Southern (Dec. 18), at Rice (Dec. 22), Mississippi Valley State (Dec. 30)
Look, it's hard to fault TCU -- and especially first-year coach Trent Johnson -- for having one of the worst schedules in the country. Of course the Horned Frogs are scheduling soft. They've been rebuilding for ... forever, basically. But still, we're in high-major territory now. Let this be a friendly reminder that it's time to start scheduling like it.
Toughest: Arizona (Dec. 1), Alabama (Dec. 19)
Next-toughest: Arizona State (Dec. 22)
The rest: Prairie View A&M (Nov. 9), Nebraska-Omaha (Nov. 14), Grambling State (Nov. 20), Jackson State (Nov. 26), Northern Kentucky (Dec. 4), McNeese State (Dec. 16), North Carolina A&T (Dec. 28), Florida A&M (Dec. 31)
Perhaps this is now-deposed Texas Tech coach Billy Gillispie's final legacy at the school: The strategy of somehow getting away with not scheduling any road games whatsoever. Arizona is a quality opponent (if young), and Alabama is fundamentally solid (if somewhat retooling), but other than those two "highlights," most of this schedule comprises low-major guarantee games and few real challenges. Oh, and Arizona State. You get the point.
Toughest: at BYU (Dec. 8 )
Next-toughest: at SMU (Nov. 28), Boise State (Dec. 5)
The rest: Williamette (Nov. 9), Sacramento State (Nov. 16), Idaho State (Nov. 21), Central Michigan (Nov. 23), Wright State (Nov. 24), at Texas State (Nov. 30), SMU (Dec. 18), Cal State Northridge (Dec. 21), College of Idaho (Dec. 28)
The Utes went 6-25 last season. They were historically bad in the nonconference and nearly as bad during conference play. (Though somehow not as bad as USC. That still boggles the mind. How do you perform worse than Utah in last year's Pac-12?! How is that possible?) The point being, no one would expect Utah to be loading up on a Texas-esque nonconference slate. Unless you're actively trying to set new school win total lows, there doesn't seem to be much point. And having said all that ... with the exception of the long-standing rivalry game at BYU, this schedule is atrocious.