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Thursday, October 11, 2012
Nonconference schedule analysis: Big Ten

By Eamonn Brennan

This week, ESPN.com is breaking 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 Conference USA. On Tuesday, we focused on the East with the Atlantic 10, Big East and Colonial Athletic Association. Wednesday was all about the West with the Mountain West, Pac-12 and West Coast Conference. Today we focus on the Midwest with the Big Ten, Big 12, Missouri Valley and the best of the rest.

ILLINOIS

Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 19-21), at Gonzaga (Dec. 8) vs. Missouri (Dec. 22 in St. Louis)
Next-toughest: Georgia Tech (Nov. 28)
The rest: Colgate (Nov. 9), St. Francis-NY (Nov. 12), at Hawaii (Nov. 16), Gardner-Webb (Nov. 25), Western Carolina (Dec. 4), Norfolk State (Dec. 11), Eastern Kentucky (Dec. 16), Auburn (Dec. 29 in Chicago)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- The first season of new coach John Groce's tenure kicks off with a pretty standard Illinois schedule, but with a twist -- it isn't often the Illini have chosen to play buzzsaw road games quite like their date at Gonzaga on Dec. 8. And the Maui Invitational is a nice field, too, one that begins with USC and features Texas, North Carolina, Butler and Marquette as possible opponents.

INDIANA

Toughest: Legends Classic (Nov. 19-20 in Brooklyn, N.Y.), North Carolina (Nov. 27)
Next-toughest: Butler (Dec. 15 in Indianapolis)
The rest: North Dakota State (Nov. 12), Sam Houston State (Nov. 15), Ball State (Nov. 25), Coppin State (Dec. 1), Central Connecticut State (Dec. 8), Mount St. Mary's (Dec. 19), Florida Atlantic (Dec. 21), Jacksonville (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- If Indiana prevails over first-round opponent Georgia at the Legends Classic, it will face either UCLA or Georgetown -- both of which would be quality neutral-site opponents. But because the Crossroads Classic is in friendly territory, and the ACC-Big Ten Challenge brings North Carolina to Bloomington, the Hoosiers' nonconference schedule sets up the likely preseason No. 1 with a very plausible path to an undefeated pre-New Year's record.

IOWA

Toughest: Iowa State (Dec. 7), Northern Iowa (Dec. 15 in Des Moines)
Next-toughest: Cancun Challenge (Nov. 20-21 in Cancun, Mexico), at Virginia Tech (Nov. 27)
The rest: Texas-Pan American (Nov. 9), Central Michigan (Nov. 12), Howard (Nov. 15), Gardner-Webb (Nov. 17), Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (Dec. 1), South Dakota (Dec. 4), South Carolina State (Dec. 19), Coppin State (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- The emergence of Iowa State and a neutral-site game with Northern Iowa provide nice dates, but the Cancun Challenge's best teams are DePaul and a rebuilding Wichita State, and Virginia Tech was hollowed out in the wake of coach Seth Greenberg's offseason firing. There's simply not a lot here.

MICHIGAN

Toughest: NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 12-20 in Ann Arbor, Nov. 21-23 in New York), NC State (Nov. 27)
Next-toughest: Arkansas (Dec. 8), West Virginia (Dec. 15 in Brooklyn, N.Y.)
The rest: Slippery Rock (Nov. 9), at Bradley (Dec. 1), Western Michigan (Dec. 4), Binghamton (Dec. 11), Eastern Michigan (Dec. 20), Central Michigan (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- The NIT Season Tip-Off comprises early-round games against mid-majors at the Crisler Center before presumably taking its show -- which will offer some combination of games against Virginia, Kansas State and/or Pittsburgh -- to Madison Square Garden. There are quality opponents available there, and both West Virginia and Arkansas will present challenges, but other than NC State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, there are no elite teams on this projected title contender's docket. Good schedule, not great.

MICHIGAN STATE

Toughest: vs. Connecticut (Nov. 9 at Ramstein Air Base, Germany), vs. Kansas (Nov. 13 in Atlanta)
Next-toughest: at Miami (Nov. 28), Texas (Dec. 22)
The rest: Texas Southern (Nov. 18), Boise State (Nov. 20), Oakland (Nov. 23), Louisiana-Lafayette (Nov. 25), Nicholls State (Dec. 1), Arkansas Pine-Bluff (Dec. 5), Loyola-Chicago (Dec. 8), Tuskegee (Dec. 15), at Bowling Green (Dec. 18)
Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- Connecticut might not be Connecticut this season, but playing on an air base in Germany is never going to be easy -- especially when you follow it up four days later with a game against Kansas in Atlanta. Talk about travel. The ACC-Big Ten game at Miami is no slouch either, and Texas will be improved when it comes to East Lansing.

MINNESOTA

Toughest: Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 22-24 in Bahamas), at Florida State (Nov. 27)
Next-toughest: at USC (Dec. 8)
The rest: American (Nov. 9), Toledo (Nov. 12), Tennessee State (Nov. 15), Richmond (Nov. 18 in St. Paul, Minn.), North Florida (Dec. 1), South Dakota State (Dec. 4), North Dakota State (Dec. 11), Lafayette (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale (1-10): 9 -- From Nov. 22 to Nov. 27, there are few teams in the country with a schedule as tough as Minnesota's. The Battle 4 Atlantis is this season's premier tournament. Minnesota will play Duke, then Memphis or Virginia Commonwealth, and some combination of Louisville, Missouri, Northern Iowa and Stanford just a few days before stopping off at Florida State for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Harsh stuff -- and a trip to USC in December is no cakewalk, either.

NEBRASKA

Toughest: Creighton (Dec. 6), at Oregon (Dec. 15)
Next-toughest: Valparaiso (Nov. 15), at Wake Forest (Nov. 27), USC (Dec. 3)
The rest: Southern (Nov. 11), Nebraska-Omaha (Nov. 18), Tulane (Nov. 21), Kent State (Nov. 24), Jacksonville State (Dec. 18), Sun Bowl Invitational (Dec. 22-23), Nicholls State (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- The only marquee opponent on this schedule is Creighton, and Nebraska is lucky enough to get Doug McDermott and Co. at home (even if a number of Jays fans are likely to invade Lincoln). A trip to Oregon won't be easy, but when your next-toughest games are home dates with Valpo and USC, your schedule isn't going to rate that highly. And in a rebuilding year, that's OK.

NORTHWESTERN

Toughest: at Baylor (Dec. 4)
Next-toughest: Maryland (Nov. 27), Butler (Dec. 8), Stanford (Dec. 21)
The rest: Texas Southern (Nov. 13), Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 15), Fairleigh Dickinson (Nov. 18), Delaware State (Nov. 20), South Padre Island Invitational (Nov. 23-24), Illinois-Chicago (Dec. 1), Texas State (Dec. 17), Brown (Dec. 23)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- Northwestern's only road test before conference play comes at Baylor, and it will be a significant test. But the other highlights are limited to good-but-not-great teams, all of which come to Evanston. This isn't as bad as some of Northwestern's recent schedules, but it isn't among the toughest in the Big Ten.

OHIO STATE

Toughest: Marquette (Nov. 9 in Charleston, S.C.), at Duke (Nov. 28), Kansas (Dec. 22)
Next-toughest: Hall of Fame Tip-Off (Nov. 17-18 in Uncasville, Conn.)
The rest: Alabany (Nov. 11), UMKC (Nov. 13), Northern Kentucky (Dec. 1), Long Beach State (Dec. 8), Savannah State (Dec. 12), UNC Asheville (Dec. 15), Winthrop (Dec. 18), Chicago State (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 9 -- The Marquette game will be on board an aircraft carrier, and you never know what'll happen on one of those things. Combine that with a trip to Duke in the Challenge (the Blue Devils will surely be looking for revenge for last season's smackdown in Columbus) and a home date with Kansas, and the end result is a pretty strong schedule, all things considered.

PENN STATE

Toughest: Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 15-18)
Next-toughest: vs. La Salle (Dec. 5 at the Palestra)
The rest: St. Francis-Penn. (Nov. 9), Bucknell (Nov. 23), Boston College (Nov. 28), Penn (Dec. 1), Army (Dec. 8), Delaware (Dec. 15), New Hampshire (Dec. 23), Duquesne (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- I thought about going lower, but the Nittany Lions get a little toughness scale boost for a couple of reasons. For one, the Puerto Rico Tip-Off bracket has Tim Frazier and Co. taking on NC State in the first round. For another, this team is still very much in the throes of rebuilding, at a school where the athletics programs have faced (and are facing) some of the most dire times in NCAA history. A so-so schedule is forgiveable, I'd say.

PURDUE

Toughest: 2K Sports Classic (Nov. 15-16 in New York), vs. Notre Dame (Dec. 15 in Indianapolis)
Next-toughest: at Clemson (Nov. 28), Xavier (Dec. 1)
The rest: Bucknell (Nov. 9), Hofstra (Nov. 11), UNC-Wilmington (Nov. 21), Lamar (Dec. 4), at Eastern Michigan (Dec. 8), Ball State (Dec. 18), William & Mary (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- The 2K Sports Classic features a game vs. Villanova and either Alabama or Oregon State. And the neutral-court Crossroads Classic matchup with Notre Dame is going to be a tough one. But with Xavier being down for this return home-and-home trip, and Clemson rebuilding under Brad Brownell, the schedule doesn't have much of an edge to it. It's merely OK.

WISCONSIN

Toughest: at Florida (Nov. 14), Las Vegas Invitational (Nov. 23-24), at Marquette (Dec. 8)
Next-toughest: Virginia (Nov. 28), Cal (Dec. 2)
The rest: Southeastern Louisiana (Nov. 11), Cornell (Nov. 18), Presbyterian (Nov. 20), Nebraska-Omaha (Dec. 4), Green Bay (Dec. 12), Milwaukee (Dec. 22), Samford (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 9 -- Now this is a tough schedule. It features road trips to Florida and Marquette (plenty of Badgers fans will be in the building Dec. 8, but still), as well as the Las Vegas Invitational, which offers an opening-round game against Creighton and a possible matchup against Arkansas. Virginia and California are solid opponents, while Milwaukee and Green Bay are nothing to overlook. But the real strength of the slate comes in those road tests, which many of the Big Ten's top schedules can't boast.