The 10 best nonconference schedules

October, 11, 2012
10/11/12
11:45
AM ET
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.

A quick note: I limited this list to teams from the top 12 conferences, i.e. the ones we covered in detail during this week's scheduling analyses. For a list of teams from outside these leagues with notably difficult schedules (hello, Long Beach State), see Myron Medcalf's "Others" piece here.

10. MARSHALL

Toughest: at Villanova (Nov. 11), vs. West Virginia (Dec. 5 in Charleston, W.Va.), vs. Cincinnati (Dec. 15 in Charleston, W.Va.), at Kentucky (Dec. 22), at Ohio (Jan. 5)
Next-toughest: vs. South Dakota State (Nov. 17 in Hempstead, N.Y.), Nevada (Nov. 24)
The rest: Longwood (Nov. 9), vs. District of Columbia (Nov. 16 in Hempstead, N.Y.), at Hofstra (Nov. 18), Morehead State (Nov. 28), UNC-Wilmington (Dec. 1), Coppin State (Dec. 8), Savannah State (Dec. 19), Delaware State (Jan. 2)

Not only is this schedule brutally tough, it's also smart. Why? Because even if Marshall comes away from that Dec. 22 visit to Rupp Arena with a loss -- and it almost certainly will -- it is the perfect embodiment of a no-risk/all-reward, RPI-driven scheduling trick. Loss? Who cares? Marshall's RPI won't take a hit. If anything, it will improve. Anyway, that's beside the point. On balance, this is a deep, strong schedule, with a variety of challenges on the road, on neutral courts, and at home. Perfect for a possible bubble team.

9. NORTH CAROLINA

Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 19-21), at Indiana (Nov. 27), at Texas (Dec. 19), UNLV (Dec. 29)
Next-toughest: at Long Beach State (Nov. 16)
The rest: Gardner-Webb (Nov. 9), Florida Atlantic (Nov. 11), UAB (Dec. 1), ETSU (Dec. 8), East Carolina (Dec. 15), McNeese State (Dec. 22)

Before digging into this stuff, I wouldn't have thought a UNC schedule that didn't include Kentucky could still be this difficult. But the Tar Heels drew the short ACC/Big Ten Challenge straw, landing a trip to raucous Bloomington, Ind., and the Maui Invitational includes either Butler or Marquette in the semis and then likely Texas if the Heels get to the finals. UNLV is going to be fearsome come late December and a date in Long Beach on the way to Maui is plenty tricky, too. Oh, and a potential Round 2 with the Longhorns awaits. Carolina will travel far and wide this season; we'll see if ol' Roy's talented young squad is up to the task.

8. BUTLER

Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 19-21), at Northwestern (Dec. 8), vs. Indiana (Dec. 15 in Indianapolis), Gonzaga (Jan. 19)
Next-toughest: at Xavier (Nov. 13), at Vanderbilt (Dec. 22)
The rest: Elon (Nov. 10), Hanover (Nov. 27), Ball State (Dec. 1), IUPUI (Dec. 5), Evansville (Dec. 22), Penn (Jan. 2), New Orleans (Jan. 5)

Even when Xavier and Vanderbilt are in rebuilding mode -- as they decidedly are this season -- you'd prefer not to play in either building. Butler will play in both this season, and those aren't even the toughest games on the schedule. Maui features an opening game against Marquette, and with a win, likely North Carolina a day later. Meanwhile, Butler got Purdue last season in the Crossroads Classic, so it's the Bulldogs' turn to take on the Hoosiers -- just in time for Cody Zeller and Co. to turn into a juggernaut. And for what it's worth, I love that Gonzaga-Butler fixture in Indianapolis on Jan. 19 with College GameDay in town. Perfect.

7. TEMPLE

Toughest: vs. Duke (Dec. 8 in East Rutherford, N.J.), vs. Syracuse (Dec. 22 in New York), at Kansas (Jan. 6)
Next toughest: at Kent State (Nov. 13), at Villanova (Dec. 5), Detroit (Dec. 28)
The rest: Rice (Nov. 17), Delaware (Nov. 25), at Buffalo (Nov. 28), Wagner (Dec. 1), Towson (Dec. 12), Alcorn State (Dec. 17), Canisius (Dec. 19), Bowling Green (Dec. 31), Penn (Jan. 23)

As Andy wrote in his original breakdown of Temple's schedule, you won't find too many teams slated to play three opponents as good as Duke, Syracuse and Kansas. One is a true road game (KU), the other is ostensibly so (Syracuse at MSG), the third is in Jersey (Duke), but the Blue Devils' fans swarm East Rutherford as though it were adjacent to Durham. There isn't as much heft in the middle portions of this schedule as, say, Marshall, but the strength at the top is a distinguishing factor.

6. KANSAS

Toughest: vs. Michigan State (Nov. 13 in Atlanta), at Ohio State (Dec. 22)
Next-toughest: CBE Classic (Nov. 19-20 in Kansas City), Colorado (Dec. 8), Belmont (Dec. 15), Temple (Jan. 6)
The rest: SE Missouri State (Nov. 9), Chattanooga (Nov. 15), San Jose State (Nov. 26), vs. Oregon State (Nov. 30 in Kansas City), Richmond (Dec. 18), American (Dec. 29)

This may not be a vintage Kansas schedule -- you could certainly argue that last season's was tougher overall -- but it is nonetheless robust. There are the two marquee events against Michigan State and at Ohio State, and the CBE Classic could include a game against a tough defensive squad in Saint Louis. That's solid enough. But then you pepper in games like Colorado (where Andre Roberson could morph into a stud), Belmont (one of the nation's best mid-majors) and Temple (hardly an easy out), and you end up with an even tougher schedule than might initially be apparent.

5. FLORIDA

Toughest: Wisconsin (Nov. 14), at Florida State (Dec. 5), at Arizona (Dec. 15), Kansas State (Dec. 22 in Kansas City)
Next-toughest: vs. Georgetown (Nov. 9 in Jacksonville), UCF (Nov. 23), Marquette (Nov. 29)
The rest: Alabama State (Nov. 11), vs. Middle Tennessee (Nov. 18 in Tampa), Savannah State (Nov. 20), Southeastern Louisiana (Dec. 19), vs. Air Force (Dec. 29 in Sunrise, Fla.), at Yale (Jan. 6)

When your "next-toughest" category lists Marquette and Georgetown, your schedule is downright brutal. The Gators host Wisconsin and Marquette, play the Hoyas on an aircraft carrier in Jacksonville and travel to FSU, Arizona and Kansas State (in Kansas City). There may not be a top-five team in that mix (though let's keep an eye on Arizona), but there are a lot of Top 25 teams to deal with. Oh, and let's not forget Middle Tennessee, which returns much of a team that finished 27-7 overall and ranked No. 60 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency in 2011-12.

4. MEMPHIS

Toughest: Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 22-24), Louisville (Dec. 15), at Tennessee (Jan. 4)
Next-toughest: Harvard (Nov. 19), Ohio (Dec. 5), Loyola-Maryland (Dec. 30), at Xavier (Feb. 26)
The rest: North Florida (Nov. 12), Samford (Nov. 17), Tennessee-Martin (Nov. 29), Austin Peay (Dec. 8), Lipscomb (Dec. 20), Oral Roberts (Dec. 28)

The Battle 4 Atlantis is this season's best nonconference tournament, hands down, and by "best" I mean "most obviously loaded." Memphis will open with VCU, play either Duke or Minnesota in the second round, and then face possible matchups with Louisville, Missouri, Northern Iowa and/or Stanford. There is no escape from tough games in that field. And that's just the start of the Tigers' season. They'll also travel to Tennessee -- a game Vols fans will be amped for, given coach Josh Pastner's desire to end the rivalry series -- host Final Four favorite Louisville on Dec. 15, travel to Xavier in the middle of the conference season and host two other potential at-large tournament teams in Harvard and Ohio. This schedule is excellent. The question is whether Memphis -- which stumbled out of the gate last season and never really regained the reputation squandered during early-season losses -- can take advantage from the start.

3. UCLA

Toughest: Legends Classic (Nov. 19-20), vs. San Diego State (Dec. 1 in Anaheim, Calif.), vs. Texas (Dec. 8 in Houston), Missouri (Dec. 28)
Next-toughest: Long Beach State (Dec. 18)
The rest: Indiana State (Nov. 9), UC Irvine (Nov. 13), James Madison (Nov. 15), Cal Poly (Nov. 25), Cal State Northridge (Nov. 28), Prairie View A&M (Dec. 15), Fresno State (Dec. 22)

If UCLA beats Georgetown in the semifinals of the Legends Classic, it will likely play the Indiana Hoosiers. When you picture that next to the rest of that schedule, which reads "Georgetown, Indiana, San Diego State, Texas (in Houston), and Missouri," well, it's hard to do much better than that, noncon-scheduling-wise. The only problem with this schedule is what happens if stud freshman forward Shabazz Muhammed isn't cleared by the NCAA Eligibility Center in time to take the floor in November and early December. We're still waiting for definitive answers.

2. DUKE

Toughest: vs. Kentucky (Nov. 13 in Atlanta), Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 22-24), Ohio State (Nov. 28)
Next-toughest: Delaware (Dec. 1), Temple (Dec. 8 in East Rutherford, N.J.), vs. Davidson (Jan. 2 in Charlotte)
The rest: Georgia State (Nov. 9), Florida Gulf Coast (Nov. 18), Cornell (Dec. 19), Elon (Dec. 20), Santa Clara (Dec. 29)

A few years back, the Blue Devils were often criticized for not playing true nonconference road games. I joined this chorus a time or two. Lamentable though it may be, as we see Kentucky's John Calipari and other coaches more frequently eschew campus sites for nonconference venues, it's safe to say Coach K and his staff were merely ahead of their time. In any case, there's no reason to criticize Duke for this slate. The Blue Devils have a load of difficult tests ahead -- a game against Kentucky in the heart of SEC country, the aforementioned loaded Battle 4 Atlantis field, a trip to Columbus at the end of November, and a second-tier group of teams that includes experienced Davidson and Delaware and a tough Temple on a neutral floor in East Rutherford.

1. TEXAS

Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 19-21), vs. Georgetown (Dec. 4 at the Jimmy V Classic in New York), vs. UCLA (Dec. 8 in Houston), North Carolina (Dec. 19), at Michigan State (Dec. 22)
Next-toughest: Fresno State (Nov. 9)
The rest: Coppin State (Nov. 12), Sam Houston State (Nov. 27), UT-Arlington (Dec. 1), Texas State (Dec. 15), Rice (Dec. 29)

Here it is, folks -- your toughest schedule of 2012-13. Maui has quality opponents, as mentioned above, but the Longhorns' schedule is so much more than Maui. Georgetown is a quality neutral-court opponent, UCLA with a full roster is arguably a top-5 team, North Carolina won't be easy to host, and Michigan State is nearly impossible to take down in the confines of the Breslin Center. What's especially interesting about this schedule is where Texas sits in relation to most of the other teams on this list. Duke, UCLA, Memphis, Florida, Kansas -- these are teams expected to contend for (or win) conferences titles, teams with designs on deep tournament runs, teams with tons of talent. The Horns are talented too, of course, but probably not as much as we've grown accustomed to. They're also very young, and few expect them to contend on the national stage this season. But Rick Barnes didn't noticeably lighten the load for his young team. Indeed, this baptism will come by fire.

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