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 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 focus on the Midwest with the Big Ten, Missouri Valley and Big 12. Now, in conclusion, let's take a look at 10 prominent mid-majors from outside those 12 conferences ...
Toughest: Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 15-18), at Creighton (Dec. 9)
Next-toughest: Middle Tennessee (Dec. 2), at Detroit (Dec. 15), Princeton (Dec. 30)
The rest: at Coastal Carolina (Nov. 9), John Carroll (Nov. 12), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (Dec. 18), Cleveland State (Dec. 23), Texas Southern (Dec. 27), Coppin State (Jan. 2)
Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- The Zips could theoretically face Oklahoma State, Tennessee and NC State in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. But Zeke Marshall & Co. have a guaranteed matchup at Creighton in early December. That road trip to Detroit a week later will pit the favorite in the MAC against the favorite in the Horizon League. MTSU and Princeton are also strong mid-majors. It’s a strong start for an Akron team that upset Mississippi State in its season opener a year ago.
Toughest: at New Mexico (Nov. 12), vs. Duke (Jan. 2 in Charlotte)
Next-toughest: Old Spice Classic (Nov. 22-25), at Drexel (Dec. 22)
The rest: Emory (Nov. 9), at Milwaukee (Nov. 17), at Chattanooga (Dec. 1), Charlotte (Dec. 5), Wofford (Dec. 8), UNC Wilmington (Dec. 15), at Richmond (Dec. 29), UNC Greensboro (Jan. 5)
Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- The core of a team that topped Kansas on a neutral site in 2011 returns this season. Can De'Mon Brooks, Jake Cohen and the rest of the Wildcats pull off another Top 25 upset against Duke in early January? It’s possible. The Old Spice Classic field is lukewarm, which gives Davidson a legitimate chance to win its first two games and meet Gonzaga in the final. Solid schedule for a team that’s built to make noise in March.
Toughest: at Syracuse (Dec. 17)
Next-toughest: at St. John's (Nov. 13), at Miami (Nov. 24), at Pittsburgh (Dec. 1), Akron (Dec. 15), at Temple (Dec. 28)
The rest: Northern Michigan (Nov. 9), Drake (Nov. 17), at Bowling Green (Nov. 27), Toledo (Dec. 5), Rochester (Dec. 8), Alabama State (Dec. 10), at Alcorn State (Dec. 19), Canisius (Dec. 30)
Toughness scale (1-10): 9 -- Detroit’s mid-December meeting with Syracuse is the toughest game on its nonconference slate. But the Horizon League favorite earns a 9 based on their “next-toughest” matchups. The Titans will play three teams (Pitt, Temple and Miami, all on the road) that could finish top-five in their respective leagues and earn NCAA tournament bids. Legitimate shots at top-50 RPI wins for Ray McCallum Sr.’s squad.
Toughest: at Saint Joseph’s (Nov. 20), at Memphis (Jan. 19)
Next-toughest: at UMass (Nov. 13), at Connecticut (Dec. 7), at Cal (Dec. 29), at Saint Mary’s (Dec. 31)
The rest: MIT (Nov. 9), Manhattan (Nov. 16), Vermont (Nov. 27), Fordham (Dec. 1), at Boston College (Dec. 4), Boston U (Dec. 11), Holy Cross (Dec. 22), Rice (Jan. 5)
Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- Last season, Harvard finally broke its NCAA tournament drought (the Crimson hadn’t made an appearance since 1946). Thoughts of a return, however, have been subdued by the losses of top scorer Kyle Casey (11.4 ppg) and standout guard Brandyn Curry (4.9 apg), who were both implicated in a cheating scandal during the offseason. Tommy Amaker’s squad travels to Cal, Memphis, UConn, St. Joe's and Saint Mary’s -- barometers for this team’s chances of returning to the Big Dance. If Harvard's confidence can survive that stretch, the Crimson will enter Ivy League play with an argument for an at-large berth. But those personnel hits dramatically reduce expectations for the program.
Toughest: at Baylor (Nov. 9), NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 12-23), at VCU (Jan. 5)
Next-toughest: at North Texas (Dec. 20)
The rest: at Sacred Heart (Nov. 25), at Quinnipiac (Nov. 27), Fairleigh Dickinson (Dec. 1), Fordham (Dec. 4), at St. Francis-Pa (Dec. 8), Bryant (Dec. 29), Muhlenberg (Jan. 8)
Toughness scale (1-10): 9 -- C.J. McCollum passed on the NBA to return to Lehigh for his senior season. After leading the 15-seed Mountain Hawks to an upset against Duke in March, Lehigh is ready to turn more heads with a respectable nonconference menu that will feature multiple NCAA tournament-caliber squads. The Mountain Hawks kick off the year with a tough road trip to Baylor. They will play at Pitt with a trip to MSG on the line if they knock off Robert Morris in the NIT opener. And then two big tests at North Texas and VCU around the holidays. Last year’s upset against the Blue Devils elevated Lehigh’s stock. The program will earn even more credibility if it’s successful in the opening months of 2012-13.
LONG BEACH STATE
Toughest: North Carolina (Nov. 16), at Arizona (Nov. 19), at Syracuse (Dec. 6), at Ohio State (Dec. 8), at UCLA (Dec. 18)
Next-toughest: at USC (Nov. 13), BracketBusters (TBA)
The rest: North Alabama (Nov. 10), at Fresno State (Nov. 25), at Loyola Marymount (Nov. 29), Fresno State (Dec. 3), BYU Hawaii (Dec. 15), Pacific (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- They've done it again. In recent years, Dan Monson’s squad has topped the nonconference strength of schedule ratings. Long Beach State should maintain that status with a slate featuring five teams that could be ranked in the top 15 of the preseason polls (UNC, Arizona, Syracuse, Ohio State, UCLA). But the foursome that carried the program in recent years -- Casper Ware, Larry Anderson, T.J. Robinson and Eugene Phelps -- is gone. So Monson will rely on multiple transfers and his 2012 recruiting class to battle through one of the toughest opening stretches in the nation.
Toughest: Charleston Classic (Nov. 15-18)
Next-toughest: at Dayton (Dec. 22), Valparaiso (Dec. 29), BracketBusters (TBA)
The rest: Brescia (Nov. 9), Old Dominion (Nov. 24), at Lipscomb (Nov. 26), Bethel (Dec. 4), at Evansville (Dec. 8), Western Kentucky (Dec. 16), at Arkansas State (Dec. 19)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- The Racers should enter the season as a Top 25 team after winning their first 23 games last season and achieving a national ranking throughout the season. After opening with Auburn and then getting St. John's or Charleston, Isaiah Canaan could lead Murray State to a Charleston Classic title game matchup against Baylor or Colorado. Those are the only two nonconference foes that pose an obvious threat for the Racers. Always-tough ODU and Horizon co-favorite Valpo travel to Murray, and the Racers are sure to be given a tough BracketBusters opponent. Still, given the accomplishments last season and the return of Canaan, the Racers can’t get too much credit for this schedule. Then again, high-major programs probably dodged this mid-major powerhouse.
Toughest: at Creighton (Nov. 9), NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 12-23), at Saint Louis (Dec. 5)
Next-toughest: Lehigh (Dec. 20)
The rest: Cameron (Nov. 16), Texas-Arlington (Nov. 28), Louisiana-Lafayette (Dec. 1), Jackson State (Dec. 8), Southeastern Louisiana (Dec. 16)
Toughness scale (1-10): 9 -- Tony Mitchell could lead the Mean Green to a regional round upset of Kansas State in the NIT Season Tip-Off. And if that happens, a matchup with Virginia at MSG could happen, with Michigan or Pitt waiting in the wings. Even if the program stumbles, however, road trips to Creighton and Saint Louis , a pair of Top 25 squads, will boost its nonconference schedule in Tony Benford’s first season as head coach. C.J. McCollum and Lehigh come to Denton five days before Christmas for a meaningful mid-major matchup. No complaints for this slate.
Toughest: at Memphis (Dec. 5)
Next-toughest: at UMass (Dec. 19), at Oklahoma (Dec. 29), Marshall (Jan. 5)
The rest: Portland (Nov. 10), UNC-Wilmington (Nov. 16), Wofford (Nov. 18), Hampton (Nov. 20), Richmond (Nov. 24), St. Bonaventure (Nov. 28), at Robert Morris (Dec. 1), Oakland (Dec. 8), Winthrop (Dec. 15), Maryland Eastern Shore (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- D.J. Cooper is back to help Ohio build off last season’s Sweet 16 run. Memphis is the only team on the Bobcats' nonconference schedule that could stifle the team’s effort to extend that momentum. Marshall will be tough, and UMass and Oklahoma are sleepers in their respective conferences, but the rest of the schedule is simply average, especially for a squad that nearly toppled North Carolina in the NCAA tournament. But remember, that run didn’t make scheduling any easier.
Toughest: at BYU (Dec. 5)
Next-toughest: Saint Mary’s (Nov. 15)
The rest: Idaho State (Nov. 10), Texas A&M Corpus Christi (Nov. 17), Weber State (Nov. 24), at Santa Clara (Nov. 28), Western Oregon (Dec. 8), at Utah Valley (Dec. 15), Nicholls State (Dec. 20), UC Davis (Dec. 21), Southern Illinois (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale (1-10): 4 -- Before Utah State takes its talents to the Mountain West, it will finish its tenure in the WAC vying with New Mexico State for the conference championship. If the Aggies can win at BYU, and win home games versus SIU and Saint Mary's, they’ll certainly be prepared for another run to the WAC title. But one or two additional matchups against high-major opponents wouldn’t have hurt.