Commentary

The toughest and easiest schedules

Originally Published: November 10, 2010
By Eamonn Brennan

It's that time of year. The nonconference portion of the season -- that thrilling eight-week stretch when we begin to figure out just how good everyone is -- began Monday night. That means it's also time, with apologies to Stephen Colbert, to hand out tips of the cap and wags of the finger to the schools with the toughest, and softest, nonconference schedules in the country.

One note: Most mid-major teams weren't included in the exercise, primarily because most mid-major teams don't have the same level of efficacy in choosing their schedules as teams from the power six conferences. So you won't see Oakland, Savannah State or any other tiny mid-major that spends most of its nonconference slate playing a murderer's row of guarantee games listed below. (Still, give 'em hell, Golden Grizzlies! That schedule is brutal.)

That said, I did include ostensible mid-majors that really aren't mid-majors for all intents and purposes. The Xaviers, Temples, Butlers, Gonzagas and Memphises of the world are treated as big boys in nearly every other hoops discussion, and they can control their schedules to some degree, so they were considered here, too.

One other note: Unless otherwise denoted, all "vs." games are at home. And now … drum roll, please …

THE TOUGH NONCONFERENCE SCHEDULES

[+] EnlargeMark Few
Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesThe nonconference schedule for Mark Few and the Zags is relentless this season.

Gonzaga

Notable games:
Nov. 16 vs. San Diego State
Nov. 22 vs. Kansas State (CBE Classic, Kansas City)
Nov. 23 vs. Duke or Marquette (CBE Classic)
Dec. 4 vs. Illinois (in Seattle)
Dec. 8 at Washington State
Dec. 11 at Notre Dame
Dec. 18 vs. Baylor (in Dallas)
Dec. 22 vs. Xavier
Dec. 31 vs. Oklahoma State
Jan. 1 at Wake Forest
Feb. 5 vs. Memphis

Get all that? Gonzaga is notorious for scheduling anyone and everyone during its nonconference season, and 2010-11 is no different. The reason Gonzaga was included here is because these days the Bulldogs are so well-respected -- and their league has received enough of a boost in profile in recent years -- that this sort of scheduling is no longer necessary to keep them in the national conversation. Before November is out, the Zags will have played at least two, and possibly three, top-25 teams and conference title favorites (San Diego State, Kansas State and potentially Duke). In December and January, Mark Few's team will confront strong conference contenders (Illinois, Xavier, Baylor, Memphis) solid high-major programs (Oklahoma State, Notre Dame) and unappetizing road dates (at Washington State, at Wake Forest). Plenty of these games are winnable, and you can understand why Gonzaga feels the need to prove itself against the best before WCC play begins. But at this point in the program's life, a slate this gruesome is borderline unnecessary -- yet it sure is going to be fun to watch. Hats off, Zags.

Georgetown

Notable games:
Nov. 12 at Old Dominion
Nov. 18 vs. Coastal Carolina (Charleston Classic)
Nov. 19 vs. Wofford or USC Upstate (Charleston Classic)
Nov. 20 vs. NC State, ECU, George Mason or Charlotte (Charleston Classic)
Nov. 30 vs. Missouri (in Kansas City)
Dec. 4 vs. Utah State
Dec. 9 at Temple
Dec. 12 vs. Appalachian State
Dec. 23 at Memphis

Georgetown won't have any time to figure out life after Greg Monroe. The Hoyas' nonconference schedule is littered with a handful of the best mid-major teams in the country: Utah State, UNC Asheville, Appalachian State and the Charleston Classic slate all offer conference title contenders at every turn. And then there are the trips to Old Dominion (the favorite in a tough CAA and winner of back-to-back games against the Hoyas), Temple (the favorite in the A-10) and Memphis (the young but immensely talented favorite to win Conference USA). In each of its toughest nonconference games, Georgetown either plays on the road or at an unfavorable "neutral" site. (Guess how many Missouri fans know the way to Kansas City?) The rigors of the Big East conference schedule shouldn't be as tough as in years past, and … yeah. That's about the only encouragement you can offer a team facing such a relentless nonconference slate. Good luck, Hoyas.

South Carolina

Notable games:
Nov. 16 at Michigan State
Nov. 27 at Western Kentucky
Dec. 5 vs. Clemson
Dec. 11 vs. Wofford
Dec. 18 at Ohio State
Jan. 1 vs. Boston College

Can anyone explain South Carolina's schedule? The Gamecocks are a rebuilding (or maybe just "building," if that) SEC program that just lost its best player (Devan Downey) from a team that finished 15-16 overall. Nor is South Carolina, wedged in among five probable NCAA tourney teams in the SEC East, hurting for chances to prove itself. But games at Michigan State and Ohio State are almost guaranteed losses, Wofford is the best team in the Southern Conference, and the visit to Western Kentucky -- one of the most consistent mid-major programs in recent years -- is extremely treacherous. If you're not particularly ungenerous, you could predict Darrin Horn's team to lose at least five of the above six games. Kudos to the Gamecocks for confidence, I guess, but those away games might be the three toughest any high-major team will play in the nonconference slate this season. Brutal.

Texas

Notable games:
Nov. 18 vs. Illinois (2K Sports Classic, NYC)
Nov. 19 vs. Pittsburgh or Maryland (2K Sports Classic)
Dec. 5 at USC
Dec. 18 vs. North Carolina (Greensboro, N.C.)
Dec. 22 at Michigan State
Jan 4. vs. Arkansas
Jan. 8 vs. Connecticut

That's a rough start for the Longhorns' young talent. It's especially rough for freshman point guard Cory Joseph, who will face off against point guards like Demetri McCamey (Illinois), Larry Drew II (UNC), Kalin Lucas (Michigan State) and Kemba Walker (UConn) -- and maybe Pitt guard Ashton Gibbs, too -- before the conference season starts in January. As a team, the Longhorns are charged with playing at least three, and possibly four, teams ranked inside the top 15 in the Associated Press preseason poll, and none of those games are in Austin.

Kentucky

Notable games:
Nov. 19 at Portland
Nov. 22 vs. Oklahoma (Maui Invitational)
Nov. 23 vs. Washington or Virginia (Maui Invitational)
Nov. 24 vs. Michigan State, Connecticut or Wichita State (Maui Invitational)
Dec. 4 at North Carolina
Dec. 8 vs. Notre Dame (in Louisville)
Dec. 11 vs. Indiana
Dec. 31 at Louisville

Kentucky gets the nod at No. 5 for its willingness to take another young team on the road. The Cats open the season at the Rose Garden against Portland -- an emerging program in the WCC -- and follow up with true road games at North Carolina and Louisville, the latter of which should make for a rather entertaining New Year's Eve in the Commonwealth (even though Louisville won't be in typical form this season). Assuming John Calipari's team handles Oklahoma in the first round of the Maui, they're likely to get a chance to knock off budding rival Washington, and if Kentucky wins that game, Michigan State is the probable final-round opponent. That's tantalizing stuff, and even if the latter game doesn't happen, we'll get a pretty good idea of what to expect from this somehow-even-younger UK team in the first month of the season.

(Honorable mentions: Tennessee, Michigan State, Butler, Illinois, Wake Forest, Kansas State, Florida, NC State)

THE WEAK NONCONFERENCE SCHEDULES

[+] EnlargeJohn Shurna
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireIf John Shurna and the Wildcats want to make the school's first NCAA tourney, they'll have to make some noise in the Big Ten.

Northwestern

Schedule:
Nov. 12 at Northern Illinois
Nov. 17 at Texas Pan-American
Nov. 19 vs. Arkansas Pine-Bluff
Nov. 28 vs. Creighton
Nov. 30 vs. Georgia Tech
Dec. 13 vs. Long Island
Dec. 16 vs. American
Dec. 20 vs. St. Francis (Holiday Festival, NYC)
Dec. 21 vs. St. John's/Davidson (Holiday Festival)
Dec. 23 vs. Mount St. Mary's

Congratulations, Northwestern. This is the single worst nonconference schedule of any big-time or high-major program in the country. Give Bill Carmody's team credit for starting the season with two road games, but neither road opponent should prove all that difficult, and once those two games are over the only prospective "road" game could come in a potential matchup with so-so St. John's at Madison Square Garden. A win over Creighton might look better in March than it will in November, as impact Creighton transfer Gregory Echenique won't be eligible until December, and even the Wildcats' ACC-Big Ten Challenge game comes at home against one of the ACC's weaker foes. This schedule won't do the Wildcats any RPI favors come tournament time, but it could lead Northwestern to enter Big Ten play with a 10-0 record. Maybe that's the strategy here, anyway.

Indiana

Schedule:
Nov. 12 vs. Florida Gulf Coast
Nov. 14 vs. Wright State
Nov. 16 vs. Mississippi Valley State
Nov. 21 vs. Evansville
Nov. 23 vs. North Carolina Central
Nov. 26 vs. Northwestern State
Dec. 1 at Boston College
Dec. 4 vs. Savannah State
Dec. 11 at Kentucky
Dec. 17 vs. SIU-Edwardsville
Dec. 19 vs. South Carolina State
Dec. 22 vs. Northern Iowa (Las Vegas Classic)
Dec. 23 vs. New Mexico or Colorado (Las Vegas Classic)

If you're a coach of a rebuilding program whose fans are hungry for wins, and you have a group of young players who desperately need confidence entering a daunting conference season, here's how you do it: Begin with six straight guarantee home games. Get lucky with a favorable ACC-Big Ten Challenge date at rebuilding Boston College. Sneak another home guarantee in, suck it up and travel to Rupp Arena to face Kentucky, then two more home guarantees, then test your mettle against a decent but unspectacular field in the Las Vegas Classic. Indiana might not win six games in the Big Ten this season, but it could very well enter league play with 11 or 12 wins. That might keep the impatient Hoosiers faithful at bay (as long as they don't look too hard at the names on the opposing teams' jerseys), but it doesn't earn any awards in the scheduling toughness department.

Oregon State

Schedule: Nov. 14 vs. UT-Arlington
Nov. 17 at Seattle
Nov. 21 vs. Texas Southern
Nov. 24 vs. Charlotte
Nov. 27 at Howard
Dec. 1 vs. Utah Valley
Dec. 4 at Colorado
Dec. 12 vs. Texas-Pan American
Dec. 15 at Montana
Dec. 18 vs. George Washington
Dec. 22 vs. Illinois-Chicago

Oregon State gets minor scheduling dap for agreeing to a couple of tricky road games. The first, at Seattle, is a rematch of a game Oregon State lost by 51 points at home last season, though with seven new players, that result shouldn't be quite so insane this season. Colorado could be a tough test in the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series, and Montana is a legit contender in the Big Sky. But if those are your two toughest road tests, and the rest of your slate doesn't have anything resembling a top-25 team in the mix -- is there even a top-50 team in there? -- you officially have a very weak nonconference schedule.

Cincinnati

Schedule:
Nov. 15 vs. Mount St. Mary's
Nov. 20 vs. IPFW
Nov. 22 vs. Florida A&M
Nov. 24 vs. Savannah State
Nov. 27 vs. Dayton (U.S. Bank Arena, Cincinnati)
Dec. 1 vs. Wright State
Dec. 4 at Toledo
Dec. 11 vs. Utah Valley
Dec. 14 vs. Georgia Southern
Dec. 18 vs. Oklahoma (in Oklahoma City)
Dec. 21 at Miami (OH)
Dec. 23 vs. St. Francis (PA)
Jan. 6 vs. Xavier

If you look closely, you'll see what Mick Cronin has done here. The Bearcats don't play a single game outside the state of Ohio until Dec. 18, when they travel to Oklahoma City for a "neutral"-site game against the Sooners. That's over a month of home cooking (Toledo was 4-28 last season, so Dayton and Xavier are the only challenges here) leading into a brief stop across the Midwest to face a weak Oklahoma team, followed immediately by … yep, you guessed it: two more games in the state of Ohio. Cincinnati will leave its home state only once before the Big East season begins. (The XU game comes after the Bearcats' first two Big East games: tilts against DePaul and Seton Hall at, yep, home. Make that one trip across the state line before Jan. 9. Nice.) As a general strategy, this sort of diabolically sneaky geography could be useful. After all, is this the type of thing we notice in March? But in the Bearcats' case, the lack of quality in-state opponents on hand makes the construction of this schedule look doubly worse. If you're going to go on the road, it's best not to take the term so literally.

Rutgers

Schedule:
Nov. 12 at Princeton
Nov. 15 vs. Fairfield
Nov. 21 vs. Miami (Fla.)
Nov. 23 vs. Norfolk State
Nov. 26 vs. St. Joseph's (Philly Hoop Group Classic)
Dec. 1 vs. NJIT
Dec. 7 vs. Marist
Dec. 11 vs. Auburn (in Pittsburgh)
Dec. 14 vs. Fairleigh Dickinson
Dec. 18 at Monmouth
Dec. 23 vs. St. Peter's
Dec. 28 vs. North Carolina (in New York)

Noticing a theme here? Most of the worst schedules in the country belong to rebuilding programs -- which is why you can't really wag your finger; sometimes you just need to schedule wins -- and Rutgers is no different. This isn't a terrible schedule, thanks largely to the North Carolina game at MSG and what could be a somewhat tough season opener Friday at Princeton. Still, the toughest non-UNC game here is a title with an OK-ish Miami team at home, and the stinkers that surround it -- NJIT and Marist were two of the worst teams in all of Division I basketball last season -- could weigh the entire slate down.

Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work every Monday through Friday in the College Basketball Nation blog.