In past years, Manhattan College's schedule included mostly cupcakes. It would be made up of locals like St. Francis (NY), Columbia, N.J.I.T. and Binghamton, mixed with one top 25 team—the Jaspers played the likes Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Wisconsin and Memphis in recent years.
This time around, second-year head coach Steve Masiello, a fiery 34 year-old who was previously an assistant at Louisville under Rick Pitino, has put together an extremely tough schedule, one that is surely the most challenging Manhattan schedule since I started following the Jaspers' basketball program nine years ago.
"I believe this non-conference schedule is the most challenging since the 1970s," Manhattan Athletic Director Bob Byrnes told Manhattan's official website.
The Jaspers will play all but two non-conference games on the road, and even those will not be easy. Their home opener is against Hofstra, which is a potential surprise team in the CAA, and then they play Stony Brook, which won the America East regular season championship last year and is expected to do the same in 2012-13, on New Year's Day.
To open the season, Manhattan will travel to Louisville, which is likely to be a top two team in the nation with Indiana at the start of the season. The Cardinals finished only 10-8 in the Big East last year, but they won the conference tournament and then advanced all the way to the Final Four.
Next up is Harvard, another team that made the NCAA tournament last year, on the road. The Crimson graduated a pair of key players in Keith Wright and Oliver McNally, but it is still expected to win the Ivy League championship.
After coming home for Hofstra, the Jaspers will play their next six non-conference games away from home.
The first three games are against Atlantic 10 opponents: Dayton, which went to the NIT last year, Fordham, and George Washington.
Dayton is a borderline top 25 team, but Fordham and George Washington are both very beatable. The Rams finished in last place in the conference in 2011-12, and the Colonials finished No. 11.
Manhattan's next three games away from home are all close by in New York City. They play at two-time defending NEC champion LIU-Brooklyn, then versus South Carolina on a neutral site at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and finally at Columbia, whose gym is only a 20 minute subway ride from Manhattan College. The Lions always attract a good home crowd, but there should be a fair share of Jasper fans making an appearance.
The Jaspers' final non-conference game will be on the road in the Bracketbuster, scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 23. Their opponent will be determined in either late January or early February.
Last year, Iona, another MAAC team, also put together a difficult non-conference schedule with mostly road games. The Gaels went 9-3 in those games and had no signature wins, but the tough schedule boosted their RPI and took them to the NCAA tournament as an at-large team.
We'll see if the same approach works as well for Manhattan.