- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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A quick and standard disclaimer: I limited this list to teams from the top nine conferences, i.e., the ones we covered in detail in this week's scheduling analyses. For a list of teams from outside these leagues with notably difficult schedules (we should start calling this the Long Beach State Memorial Subdivision), see Myron Medcalf's "Others" piece here.
10) NORTH CAROLINA
Toughest: Hall of Fame Tipoff (Nov. 23-24), at Michigan State (Dec. 4), Kentucky (Dec. 14)
Next-toughest: Texas (Dec. 18)
The rest: Oakland (Nov. 8), Holy Cross (Nov. 15), Belmont (Nov. 17), at UAB (Dec. 1), UNC Greensboro (Dec. 7), Davidson (Dec. 21), Northern Kentucky (Dec. 27), UNC Wilmington (Dec. 31)
This schedule's overall strength hinges on the Hall of Fame Tipoff. If the Tar Heels meet Louisville in the "championship" of that two-game event at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn., their nonconference schedule will thus include what seem sure to be, in some order, the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 teams in the country to start the season -- national title favorites (or co-favorites) all. Without that Louisville game, though, the Heels still have to go to the Breslin Center for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge; they still have that massive matchup with Kentucky on Dec. 14; and they still have some very good mid-major programs (Oakland, Belmont, Davidson) lying in wait on the rest of the docket. It's a good schedule, with a strong chance to be great.
Toughest: vs. Baylor (Nov. 8 in Dallas), Harvard (Nov. 24), Kansas (Dec. 7), vs. Oklahoma State (Dec. 21 in Las Vegas)
Next-toughest: Wyoming (Nov. 13), at Colorado State (Dec. 3), Georgia (Dec. 28)
The rest: UT Martin (Nov. 10), Jackson State (Nov. 16), Arkansas State (Nov. 18), UCSB (Nov. 21), at Air Force (Nov. 30), Elon (Dec. 13)
In relatively short order, Tad Boyle has turned Colorado into a program that expects to play NCAA-tournament-level basketball on a yearly basis, and with that improved status, the ability -- and a willingness -- to build tough schedules has followed. (Boyle surely took heed in 2011, when his otherwise worthy squad was left out of the tournament thanks to its atrocious nonconference schedule.) The result is what you see above, which is highlighted by huge games against former Big 12 foes Kansas and Oklahoma State, complemented by games against a talented Baylor group and the loaded, experienced Crimson. (Which, yes, is a really weird phrase to write.) The good news, at least in real-world wins and losses terms, is that none of those games is a true road visit, plus almost all of the second-level opponents Colorado will face (Wyoming, Air Force, Colorado State, Georgia) are retooling.
Toughest: at Wisconsin (Nov. 12), at UConn (Dec. 2), Kansas (Dec. 10), Memphis (Dec. 17)
Next-toughest: Florida State (Nov. 29)
The rest: North Florida (Nov. 8), Arkansas-Little Rock (Nov. 16), Southern (Nov. 18), Middle Tennessee (Nov. 21), at Jacksonville (Nov. 25), Savannah State (Dec. 9), Fresno State (Dec. 21), Richmond (Jan. 4)
Wisconsin's vaunted home advantage took a bit of a hit last season when Virginia beat the Badgers at their own deliberate game in Madison. But no matter: The Kohl Center is still an especially difficult place to play, particularly for nonconference visitors, and Dec. 2's trip to UConn won't be all that much easier. Florida State looks likely to be down, but Richmond could prove a quality second-tier opponent. Memphis' experienced backcourt could be a particularly tricky matchup. And of course there is the gem of the schedule, that Dec. 10 date against Kansas, that gives much of its heft.
Toughest: vs. Michigan State (Nov. 12 in Chicago), at North Carolina (Dec. 14), Louisville (Dec. 28)
Next-toughest: Baylor (Dec. 6 in Arlington, Texas), vs. Providence (Dec. 1 in Brooklyn), Boise State (Dec. 10)
The rest: UNC Asheville (Nov. 8), Northern Kentucky (Nov. 10), Robert Morris (Nov. 17), Texas-Arlington (Nov. 19), Cleveland State (Nov. 25), Eastern Michigan (Nov. 27), Belmont (Dec. 21)
John Calipari's skill at assembling and unleashing brilliant young ensembles will meet its toughest test this season, as his certifiably insane freshman class -- which, by way of reminder, boasts five of the top nine, and six of the top 25, players in the 2013 class -- will have exactly two tuneups (UNC Asheville and Northern Kentucky) before facing Tom Izzo's vastly more experienced national title contender at the Champions Classic on Nov. 12. The Wildcats also have to travel to UNC, and to Jerryworld for Calipari's much-touted "event" versus Baylor. But by far the biggest game on UK's schedule -- and the biggest game of the season, period -- against hated rival and defending national champion Louisville, comes in the comfy old confines of Rupp Arena.
Toughest: at San Diego State (Nov. 14), NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 27-29 in New York), at Michigan (Dec. 14)
Next-toughest: UNLV (Dec. 7)
The rest: Cal Poly (Nov. 8), Long Beach State (Nov. 11), New Mexico State (Dec. 11), Southern (Dec. 19), Northern Arizona (Dec. 23)
The NIT Season Tip-Off is not like most early-season events, where the marquee teams' participation is guaranteed no matter what happens in the early preliminary pods. But assuming the supremely talented Wildcats handle business at their own host site and get through their semifinal matchup (over Alabama or Rutgers) in New York, they're likely to square off against Duke on Nov. 29 in Madison Square Garden. Sean Miller also nets some bonus points for picking up two good old-fashioned straight-up noncon road games -- no preseason event affiliation required. The trip to San Diego State means going up against The Show, which, no thanks; the journey to Ann Arbor means a date with the reloaded national runners-up.
Toughest: Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 21-24), at Duke (Dec. 3), Arizona (Dec. 14)
Next toughest: at Iowa State (Nov. 17), vs. Stanford (Dec. 21 in Brooklyn)
The rest: UMass Lowell (Nov. 8), South Carolina State (Nov. 12), Coppin State (Nov. 29), Houston Baptist (Dec. 7), Holy Cross (Dec. 28)
With Kansas State, VCU, Georgetown (and even Charlotte and Long Beach State) in the field, the Puerto Rico Tip-Off is one of the stronger nonconference events this season. The aforementioned fixture against Arizona in Ann Arbor is highly intriguing, and Hilton Coliseum is never a particularly inviting place to play. And then there's that trip to Duke -- as tough a road trip as any in the country.
Toughest: vs. Kansas (Nov. 12 in Chicago), NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 27-29), Michigan (Dec. 3), vs. UCLA (Dec. 19 in New York City)
Next-toughest: Davidson (Nov. 8)
The rest: Florida Atlantic (Nov. 15), UNC Asheville (Nov. 18), East Carolina/Norfolk State (Nov. 19), Vermont (Nov. 24), Gardner-Webb (Dec. 16), Eastern Michigan (Dec. 28), Elon (Dec. 31)
Duke's 2013-14 nonconference slate could have ranked even higher on this list were it not for the fact that the Blue Devils don't have an actual road game in the mix. Even so, the fact remains they'll play Kansas, Michigan, UCLA and possibly Arizona before the new year, which is as deep a docket of high-end matchups as any schedule in the country.
Toughest: vs. Oregon (Nov. 8 in South Korea), at Kansas (Dec. 21), vs. Michigan State (Feb. 1 in New York)
Next-toughest: Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 21-24)
The rest: Wright State (Nov. 13), Lipscomb (Nov. 30), High Point (Dec. 5), Colgate (Dec. 7), Elon (Dec. 17), Florida International (Dec. 28)
"Short of matching up with Kentucky in Kabul," our own Dana O'Neil wrote Monday, "I’m not sure how John Thompson III could have made his schedule much more daunting." I'll co-sign that statement. Georgetown's participation in its landmark Armed Forces Classic game against Oregon in South Korea (the first regular-season college basketball game to be played in Asia since 1982, when Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon took their talents to Tokyo) is brutal for sheer logistical reasons alone. The Puerto Rico Tip-Off offers potential matchups against VCU and Michigan; the Hoyas travel to Kansas before the holiday break; and they save a nonconference appearance for Feb. 1, Super Bowl Sunday, against Michigan State in Madison Square Garden.
Toughest: at Oklahoma State (Nov. 19), Old Spice Classic (Nov. 28-Dec. 1 in Orlando, Fla.), vs. Florida (Dec. 17 in New York), Gonzaga (Feb. 8)
The rest: Austin Peay (Nov. 14), Nicholls State (Nov. 23), Northwestern State (Dec. 7), Arkansas-Little Rock (Dec. 13), Southeast Missouri State (Dec. 21), Jackson State (Dec. 28)
Ranking these schedules is always a bit of a subjective exercise. Much of the perceived strength comes from our educated guesses about the season ahead, guesses that prove incorrect as often as they come true. It also asks us to weigh entire early-season tournaments and the matchups therein, and hey, how are we supposed to know whether Memphis will meet Oklahoma State in the Old Spice Classic final? We can't. But I'm awarding credit to the Tigers for a schedule that could include two matchups with the Cowboys, the first in Stillwater on Nov. 19, the second just two weeks later, on Dec. 1. That requires both teams to advance that far, sure, but the potential is too intriguing to consider an alternative. If you have to play Marcus Smart twice in two weeks, your schedule is hard, man. End of story.
Toughest: vs. Duke (Nov. 12 in Chicago), at Colorado (Dec. 7), at Florida (Dec. 10), New Mexico (Dec. 14), Georgetown (Dec. 21), San Diego State (Jan. 5)
Next-toughest: Iona (Nov. 19), Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 28-30 in Nassau, Bahamas)
The rest: Louisiana-Monroe (Dec. 8), Towson (Nov. 22), Toledo (Dec. 30)
Kansas is the lone exception to the rule governing this list. How do I mean? The other nine schedules you see are different by degrees, and subtle ones at that -- a road trip vs. a neutral site event, a quality second tier, that sort of stuff. Kansas stands apart. No one else makes the most of the two months preceding conference play: The Jayhawks have just two true cupcakes on their docket (Iona and Towson are plenty talented, and you likely will see them in March). The rest of the slate is populated by a combination of elite fixtures (the Andrew Wiggins-Jabari Parker matchup at the Champions Classic just needs to get here already, please), brutal road games (at Colorado, at Florida), very solid home fixtures (New Mexico, Georgetown, San Diego State) and a high-quality exempt tournament (the Battle 4 Atlantis) which contains Tennessee, Villanova and Iowa among its potential upset threats.
Especially interesting? This is not a normal Kansas season. Most years, Self would unveil a schedule like this (though rarely this tough) to a crop of veteran, experienced, developmentally ripened veterans. This year, he will lead an almost entirely new batch of young players -- featuring Wiggins, yes, but also classmates Wayne Selden, Joel Embiid, Brannen Greene and Conner Frankamp -- into the breach. Watching how that team develops and congeals in the early months is going to be highly intriguing, far more so than any argument about who has the best schedule in the country. That debate should be settled.