Big Ten Basketball: Ranking & Analyzing the Non-Conference Schedules

Scott Henry@@4QuartersRadioFeatured ColumnistSeptember 1, 2012

Big Ten Basketball: Ranking & Analyzing the Non-Conference Schedules

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    Look upon the picture from Indiana vs. Kentucky last December with nostalgia because this season may not feature many Big Ten non-conference games as compelling as that one.

    With the end of the home-and-home border rivalry, the Hoosiers have had to look elsewhere for quality opponents—but did they find them? Are Big Ten schools testing themselves in the early going or merely seeking some tuneup wins to settle their rotations?

    The games in this article are divided into four categories.

    "Don't Miss" games are ones that demand you set your DVR if you're a fan of college basketball, let alone a fan of the team involved.

    "Don't Sleep" games are the ones that may need closer looks to find the appeal, but in these games, there is appeal to be found.

    "Don't Bother" games usually involve teams from the Southland Conference. OK, not all of them, but no matter which conference the opponents are from, these games should give walk-ons chances to play sometime in the last 10 minutes. The category could be called "Don't Bother Unless You Have a Family Member Who Sits On the End of the Bench," but that's very long and clunky.

    "Don't Know" games are primarily part of eight-team tournaments and have four potential opponents. The exception is for Purdue, which is apparently so fearsome this season that no one wants to come to Mackey Arena for a tournament's regional round. More on that later.

    Check out each team's non-conference slate. Then, discuss and rank them yourself, if you're so inclined.

12. Iowa Hawkeyes

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    The Hawkeyes are easing likely starters Mike Gesell and Adam Woodbury into the lineup as freshmen, and they'll have four or five games under their belts before they get their first real test in Mexico.

    Many of their best matchups are contractually mandated—either in-state or inter-conference challenges.


    Don't Miss

    Iowa State, Dec. 7

    ISU has a few new transfers, including the Hawkeyes' ex-conference rival Korie Lucious. Wings Melvin Ejim and Will Clyburn should test the Iowa defense.

    This game will tell us a lot about how the Hawkeyes will fare against tournament-caliber talent.


    Don't Sleep

    DePaul or Wichita State, Nov. 21 (Cancun Challenge)
    at Virginia Tech, Nov. 27 (ACC-Big Ten Challenge)
    Northern Iowa, Dec. 15 (Big Four Classic, Des Moines)

    Wichita State is among America's more respected mid-major programs, and a win against the Shockers would be big for Iowa's tourney hopes in March. A guaranteed Iowa-WSU matchup would be a sure-fire "Don't Miss." This game ends up in the "Don't Sleep" category, though, because of the possibility of facing DePaul.

    The Blue Demons have an All-Big East candidate in Cleveland Melvin and return on most of a team that died hard against Minnesota last year. Still, they're out of their depth in the Big East.

    Virginia Tech's Erick Green will give Gesell all he can handle in an interesting point guard matchup. Other than that, though, Tech will be relying on a bunch of returnees who didn't get a ton of minutes, unlike Iowa's tested veterans Devyn Marble and Aaron White. If those guys don't give Green some support, this could be one of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge's bigger blowouts.

    UNI has nearly everyone back from a 20-win NIT team, and their experience could prove tricky.


    Don't Bother

    Texas-Pan American, Nov. 9
    Central Michigan, Nov. 12
    Howard, Nov. 15
    Gardner-Webb, Nov. 17
    Western Kentucky, Nov. 20 (Cancun Challenge)
    Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Dec. 1
    South Dakota, Dec. 4
    South Carolina State, Dec. 19
    Coppin State, Dec. 22

    Western Kentucky made the NCAA tournament, but it says something that even their run to the Sun Belt championship was considered a Cinderella story. Leading scorer Derrick Gordon transferred to UMass, leaving behind a team that did some growing last season.

    It's likely not enough to compete with Iowa, though.

    Central Michigan is no longer the Fighting Zeiglers; with coach Ernie fired and the family convincing the NCAA that the firing was such a hardship that guard Trey needed to be able to play immediately at Pitt. Even with Trey being as in demand as he was, the Chippewas still only won 11 games last year.

    Texas-Pan American coach Ryan Marks wrote a diary for ESPN The Magazine last season, but he had almost as many columns as wins.

11. Purdue Boilermakers

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    Purdue head coach Matt Painter has some serious "WTF" body language in the picture to the left. If his heralded freshman class doesn't mesh immediately, Boiler fans may be more inclined to say, "FML."


    Don't Miss

    Xavier, Dec. 1
    Notre Dame, Dec. 15 (Crossroads Classic, Indianapolis)

    After the epic Tu Holloway comeback last season, Purdue fans won't have much pity for a Xavier team that will be led by a couple of freshmen and last year's bench. The Paint Crew will be out for blood.

    Notre Dame could contend in the Big East behind work-horse big man Jack Cooley and a great pair of guards in Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant. Never mind them, though—Boiler Nation will be prepared to give the business to forward Scott Martin, the ex-Boiler who is still affectionately referred to as "The Traitor."


    Don't Sleep

    Villanova, Nov. 15 (2K Sports Classic, Madison Square Garden)
    Alabama/Oregon State, Nov. 16 (2K Sports Classic)
    at Clemson, Nov. 28 (ACC-Big Ten Challenge)

    The 2K Sports Classic has four teams in it which have sustained substantial losses, and all of them have something to prove. Whichever matchups occur, they won't be major national news, but they should set the tournament winner up with a nice pair of resume wins by season's end.

    Clemson is replacing its starting backcourt, but the frontcourt duo of Milton Jennings and Devin Booker may give Purdue's big men fits.


    Don't Bother

    UNC Wilmington, Nov. 21
    Lamar, Dec. 4
    at Eastern Michigan, Dec. 8
    Ball State, Dec. 18
    William & Mary, Dec. 29

    Lamar was an NCAA tournament team last year but lost its top five scorers. The game almost rates "Don't Sleep" status just to see what kind of reception Mackey Arena gives Cardinal coach Pat Knight—almost. Pat's just not as easy to despise as his father.

    The rest are the usual collection of below-.500 teams collecting paychecks, although respect to Painter for scheduling a return game in Ypsilanti, where there's nothing to gain and a lot to lose.


    Don't Know

    TBD, Nov. 9/11 (2K Sports Classic Regionals)

    These opponents still have yet to be determined, as the line of teams willing to take fat checks to come to Mackey Arena apparently only goes so far. The Classic benefits the Wounded Warrior Project, so one would expect there would be a few coaches out there willing to take one for charity, right?

10. Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    New Husker coach Tim Miles has a team with questionable depth, but they should get a few decent tests before Big Ten play starts. The majority of the slate is against some weak sisters, but that may be what this squad needs.


    Don't Miss

    Creighton, Dec. 6

    All-American Doug McDermott is always a must-watch player, but Husker fans might not be inclined to tune into this in-state battle. It might not be pretty for Big Red.


    Don't Sleep

    Valparaiso, Nov. 15
    Tulane, Nov. 21
    at Wake Forest, Nov. 27 (ACC-Big Ten Challenge)
    USC, Dec. 3
    at Oregon, Dec. 15

    Valpo will bring five players with experience at other Division I schools, plus international connection Ryan Broekhoff (Australia) and Kevin Van Wijk (Netherlands). The Crusaders return four of the top six scorers from last year's NIT team, so a Nebraska loss won't be an upset.

    Tulane returns forward Kendall Timmons, who missed half the season due to injury, and Conference USA Freshman of the Year Ricky Tarrant. The two combined for approximately 28 points and nine rebounds per game last season.

    If it wasn't for Wake bringing in a top-25 recruiting class, this game would be in danger of winding up in the "Don't Bother" category. These two teams may struggle to escape the bottom of their respective conferences. Wake's C.J. Harris should be the best player on the court. Again, Nebraska will likely be the underdog.

    USC brings an unrecognizable team compared to last year's. There's a lot more talent, and this one could get out of hand unless the Huskers play way over their heads.

    Oregon stomped to the third round of the NIT, but they've lost a lot of talent from that team. Coach Dana Altman didn't let the grass grow under his feet, though, and has added two of America's top juco transfers, including 6'11" Waverly Austin, who was denied admission to South Florida.

    ESPNU 100 point guard Dominic Artis also arrives, and team leader E.J. Singler returns. Again, Nebraska will need to play its best to survive.


    Don't Bother

    Southern, Nov. 11
    Nebraska-Omaha, Nov. 18
    Kent State, Nov. 24
    Jacksonville State, Dec. 18
    Central Michigan, Dec. 22 (Sun Bowl Invitational, El Paso)
    UTEP/Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Dec. 23 (Sun Bowl Invitational)
    Nicholls State, Dec. 29

    Kent State won 21 games last season, but lost six of the nine players who averaged double-digit minutes.

    Jacksonville State returns everyone from last year's 15-18 squad, but is banned from postseason play due to APR deficiencies. If motivated, they might give Nebraska a game.

    The Sun Bowl Invitational might be one of the least interesting tournaments in America this season. Host UTEP may threaten to crack the CBI or CIT this season behind forward John Bohannon, but that's the best recommendation we've got.

9. Northwestern Wildcats

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    Northwestern coach Bill Carmody is throwing up his hands in disgust in this picture. To his credit, his school hasn't done the same with him after the infamous NCAA tournament drought extended to its 74th year. Without John Shurna, is there any prayer of ending that streak this season?


    Don't Miss

    at Baylor, Dec. 4
    Butler, Dec. 8
    Stanford, Dec. 21

    The Baylor game may get ugly fast, but respect to Northwestern for even making the trip to Waco.

    Northwestern vs. Butler could provide a good test for how well each team is blending in its newcomers. The Clarke-Dunham duo for Butler and new NU forward Jared Swopshire should each be large factors. If Northwestern can't win this one, it may take them completely out of the March bubble talk.

    NIT champion Stanford brings in guards Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright, both of whom could be All-Pac-12 contenders. Like Butler, home-court advantage might be a large factor here—another game that the Wildcats will need come March.


    Don't Sleep

    UAB/Illinois State, Nov. 24 (South Padre Island Invitational, South Padre Island, Texas)
    Maryland, Nov. 27 (ACC-Big Ten Challenge)

    Simply put, if NU does not win the South Padre Invitational, their fans should be spared the agony of sweating out March because this is an event that a bona fide NCAA tournament team should win.

    Illinois State returns almost everyone from the team that bounced Wichita State from the MVC tournament, but it's a win that an NCAA tournament team should have.

    The Maryland game is similar. The Terps may have added by subtracting leading scorer Terrell Stoglin, but they'll still need to determine who's picking up the slack. Northwestern should be favored at home, since Drew Crawford is a well-established commodity.


    Don't Bother

    Texas Southern, Nov. 13
    Mississippi Valley State, Nov. 15
    Fairleigh Dickinson, Nov. 18
    Delaware State, Nov. 20
    TCU, Nov. 23 (South Padre Island Invitational)
    Illinois-Chicago, Dec. 1
    Texas State, Dec. 18
    Brown, Dec. 23

    TCU was the best of this bunch in the season-ending Pomeroy ratings, and they ranked 156th. The next highest was Delaware State at No. 250. Yuck.

8. Penn State Nittany Lions

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    In the wake of the NCAA sanctions against Penn State's all-powerful football program, coach Pat Chambers appears to be yelling to the fanbase, "Hey, we play basketball here, too, ya know!"


    Don't Miss

    NC State, Nov. 15 (Puerto Rico Tip-Off, San Juan)
    at LaSalle, Dec. 5

    The Puerto Rico Tip-Off is worth the look at the presumed ACC favorite, even if PSU might struggle to stay in it. Lions point guard Tim Frazier can ball, but a full-speed Lorenzo Brown, recovered from offseason knee surgery, could swallow up the smaller Frazier.

    LaSalle returns four players who averaged at least nine points per game last season from a 21-win NIT team. The backcourt battle should be exciting, pitting PSU's Frazier, Jermaine Marshall and D.J. Newbill against the Explorers' Tyreek Duren, Ramon Galloway and Sam Mills. LaSalle bigs Steve Zack and Jermaine Davis may make all the difference.


    Don't Sleep

    Providence/UMass, Nov. 16 (Puerto Rico Tip-Off)
    Bucknell, Nov. 23
    Boston College, Nov. 28 (ACC-Big Ten Challenge)
    Penn, Dec. 1

    Penn State's second game in Puerto Rico could be a gigantic point guard battle between Frazier and UMass's Chaz Williams. It could also be a look at a Providence team that would look strong in any conference other than the Big East. If Friar freshman guard Ricky Ledo is eligible, that matchup could be fun.

    Bucknell brings in Patriot League Player of the Year Mike Muscala, who beat out NCAA tournament darling C.J. McCollum for said award. Muscala is big and can play, two descriptions that don't both fit any one player on Penn State's roster. A Bucknell win might not be the upset the casual fan will think it is.

    By season's end, Penn State and BC are both very likely to be out of the national discussion. Still, their ACC-Big Ten Challenge matchup should be an interesting clash of styles. Penn State will be led by the backcourt, while BC brings sophomore forward Ryan Anderson and seven-footer Dennis Clifford.

    Against any other opponent, Penn would veer dangerously close to "Don't Bother" territory after losing 58 percent of its offense from last season. Guard Miles Cartwright is the man being relied upon to replace a large piece of that scoring. The Quakers can still contend in the Ivy League, but beating a Big Ten opponent—even if it is Penn State—may be a tall order.


    Don't Bother

    St. Francis (PA), Nov. 9
    Army, Dec. 8
    Delaware State, Dec. 15
    New Hampshire, Dec. 23
    Duquesne, Dec. 29

    It's a familiar refrain, you should all know it by now: None of these teams played in any of the four postseason tournaments last year.


    Don't Know

    TBD, Nov. 18 (Puerto Rico Tip-Off)

    Either Akron, Oklahoma State, Tennessee or UNC Asheville will be PSU's third Puerto Rico opponent. Any of the first three would be highly worth checking out. Asheville lost the top three scorers from the team that nearly upended Syracuse last March.

7. Indiana Hoosiers

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    Why is Tom Crean smiling? Because he'll be sleeping in his own bed nearly every night during November and December.

    Indiana will not have a single true road game during its non-conference schedule, unless one counts the Crossroad Classic matchup in Indianapolis against Butler. Considering the cream and crimson is likely to outnumber the other three colors in that doubleheader's stands, that game's away status could be hotly debated.


    Don't Miss

    Georgetown or UCLA, Nov. 20 (Legends Classic, Brooklyn)
    North Carolina, Nov. 27 (ACC-Big Ten Challenge)
    Butler, Dec. 15 (Crossroad Classic, Indianapolis)

    An Indiana-UCLA battle is much sexier than one between the Hoosiers and Hoyas, but either opponent will feature some touted freshmen. Facing the Hoosiers would get Georgetown forward Otto Porter introduced to a nationwide audience.

    As good as Porter is, though, that's a less compelling storyline than an early test of Bruin coach Ben Howland's grand chemistry experiment.

    North Carolina should still be in the process of firming up its rotation, but this is still the headline matchup of the entire ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

    Butler fans need to know if new gunners Kellen Dunham and Rotnei Clarke can provide some scoring. What better way to test your team's scoring acumen then trying to keep up with one of the most efficient offensive teams in America last season?

    If this game's still in doubt in the final minutes, Butler might not have as much to fear in the Atlantic 10 as some might expect.


    Don't Sleep

    North Dakota State, Nov. 12
    Georgia, Nov. 19 (Legends Classic)

    NDSU returns its top five scorers from a 17-14 squad that participated in the CBI. The game could be deceptively close for a while, but the nation's projected No. 1 team should have more than enough horses to put it away late.

    Georgia brings All-SEC candidate Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to Brooklyn, and he'll be worth the price of admission on his own. The question is: Can the Bulldogs contend with the waves of talent that will likely be coming off Crean's bench?


    Don't Bother

    Bryant, Nov. 9
    Sam Houston State, Nov. 15
    Ball State, Nov. 25
    Coppin State, Dec. 1
    Central Connecticut State, Dec. 8
    Mount St. Mary's, Dec. 19
    Florida Atlantic, Dec. 21
    Jacksonville, Dec. 28

    First-year Mount St. Mary's coach Jamion Christian inherits eight of last season's top nine scorers, but considering those players led an 8-21 team, how much optimism can the Mount have against IU?

    Not a single one of these teams competed in the postseason last year. Expect a lot of 25-to-30-point spreads.

6. Michigan Wolverines

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    John Beilein looks to be begging here. Begging for Trey Burke to return to school was successful, so now, perhaps, it's beseeching the NIT Season Tip-Off to figure out the Wolverines' regional opponents. Much of the overall appeal of this schedule will depend on who Michigan faces in that tournament.


    Don't Miss

    NC State, Nov. 27 (ACC-Big Ten Challenge)
    Arkansas, Dec. 8

    If not quite the headliner, Michigan-NC State could very well be the best game of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Depending on who you talk to, it could also be a Final Four preview. Two great point guards plus two stacked recruiting classes equal one of November's best games anywhere.

    Arkansas isn't nearly as hyped as the Wolfpack this season, but this return match from last year's brawl in Fayetteville should be fun nonetheless. The Hogs would have enough firepower to expect a repeat win if it wasn't for Michigan's star-studded freshman class. Look for guys like Glenn Robinson and Mitch McGary to make the difference.


    Don't Sleep

    West Virginia, Dec. 15 (Barclays Center, Brooklyn)

    Beilein's old employer meets his new employer in Brooklyn's new arena. This will be a good test, both for Michigan's new freshmen and WVU's new transfers.


    Don't Bother

    Slippery Rock, Nov. 9
    at Bradley, Dec. 1
    Western Michigan, Dec. 4
    Binghamton, Dec. 12
    Eastern Michigan, Dec. 20
    Central Michigan, Dec. 29

    It's nice of the Wolverines to prop up their fellow Michigan schools and pay a visit to Bradley, but there's not a game in here that should be competitive after halftime.


    Don't Know

    TBD, Nov. 12/13/19/20/21/23 (NIT Season Tip-Off)

    For some explanation of just why the NIT keeps dragging its feet, read this Andy Katz post from last week. The Wolverines should be expected to advance to the semifinals at Madison Square Garden on November 21, but until we're sure of the opponents, who knows?

    Kansas State, Virginia and Pitt are the other regional hosts, and UM should be favored strongly over all of them.

5. Illinois Fighting Illini

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    The Illini get credit for willingness to take trips to the West Coast and beyond. They also schedule some power-conference opposition without being forced by ESPN. Someone should tell coach John Groce's kid that this is not a schedule to sleep on.


    Don't Miss

    USC, Nov. 19 (Maui Invitational)
    Georgia Tech, Nov. 28 (ACC-Big Ten Challenge)
    at Gonzaga, Dec. 8
    Missouri, Dec. 22 (St. Louis)

    The game against USC is a battle between a pair of teams with a lot to prove after disappointing 2011-12 seasons. The Trojans have the backcourt weapons to go jumper-for-jumper with Illinois. The winner likely gets Texas, which would give the loser host Chaminade.

    Georgia Tech will bring an intriguing big man to their meeting with Illinois, that being freshman Robert Carter. The Yellow Jackets also have 6'11" Daniel Miller, so the Illini bigs will have to wear their work boots.

    The backcourt battle should favor Illinois, although the matchup between Brandon Paul and Kentucky transfer Stacey Poole might rate close scrutiny.

    Like Tech, Gonzaga has a pair of bigs who will provide a stiff test for everybody. Nnanna Egwu, Ibby Djimde and Coastal Carolina transfer Sam McLaurin will have their hands full with seven-footers Kelly Olynyk and Przemek Karnowski. Unlike Tech, the Zags also bring guards who are already on the NBA radar.

    Missouri should be expected to contend for a conference title in its first SEC season. Illinois carries no such expectation, but it's still a great barometer for the Illini in their penultimate game before Big Ten play.


    Don't Sleep

    at Hawaii, Nov. 16
    Texas/Chaminade, Nov. 20 (Maui Invitational)

    Auburn, Dec. 29 (Chicago)

    The Illini make a pit stop in Honolulu before backtracking to Maui. The battle of the bigs between McLaurin and All-WAC center Vander Joaquim should be entertaining. The Warriors' difficulty will come in shutting down Paul.

    Texas's freshmen have a year of experience under their belt and will be a stern test for the Illini. Chaminade, not so much.

    Auburn brings a slightly unsung recruiting class to the United Center. Four-star wings Jordan Price and Shaquille Johnson add skill to a team that lacks size outside of 6'10" Rob Chubb. Neither team is expected to be a factor in its conference race, but this game should be entertaining if the baby Tigers are as good as their ratings suggest.


    Don't Bother

    Colgate, Nov. 9
    St. Francis (NY), Nov. 12
    Gardner-Webb, Nov. 25
    Western Carolina, Dec. 4
    Norfolk State, Dec. 11
    Eastern Kentucky, Dec. 16

    St. Francis forward Jalen Cannon is a force on the offensive glass, finishing in the top 15 nationwide as a freshman. He'll have his hands full with McLaurin, though.

    We're all familiar with Norfolk State now, but the main reason we are is big man Kyle O'Quinn. He's now trying to catch on in the NBA. Wing Pendarvis Williams can score, but his going shot-for-shot with Paul may be the only matchup the Spartans win.

    Other than NSU, none of these schools played beyond championship week last season.


    Don't Know

    TBD, Nov. 21 (Maui Invitational)

    Butler, Marquette and North Carolina await on the opposite side of the Maui bracket, and any of those would rate as a "Don't Miss" matchup. The only way the Illini should see Mississippi State is if they lose to Chaminade.

4. Michigan State Spartans

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    Tom Izzo can always be counted on to put his kids through such a wringer in the non-conference schedule that the Big Ten actually feels easier. This season, there are some big names in interesting places, but there's a bit more fluff than on the normal Sparty schedule.


    Don't Miss

    Connecticut, Nov. 9 (Armed Forces Classic, Ramstein AFB, Germany)
    Kansas, Nov. 13 (Champions Classic, Atlanta)
    at Miami (FL), Nov. 28 (ACC-Big Ten Challenge)

    UConn won't be going to the NCAA tournament, but there's still talent on the roster. Husky backcourt duo Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier will make Sparty's Keith Appling and touted freshman Gary Harris work.

    The Spartans shouldn't count on attacking the basket very hard against KU's Jeff Withey, one of the nation's top defensive stoppers. The Jayhawks again have a roster in transition, relying on hyped freshmen. Still, it's Tom Izzo against Bill Self. Watch and learn.

    Miami's got a twin-tower duo in Reggie Johnson and Kenny Kadji that can pound away on MSU's Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne all night. This could be one of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge's most underrated games.


    Don't Sleep

    Texas, Dec. 22

    The Longhorns got grilled in the NCAA tournament last year, but they were a freshman-laden bunch lacking in size. This season, those freshmen are sophomores and some new freshmen are addressing the size problem. UT should be very prepared to do battle with the Spartans.


    Don't Bother

    Texas Southern, Nov. 18
    Boise State, Nov. 20
    Oakland, Nov. 23
    Louisiana-Lafayette, Nov. 25
    Nicholls State, Dec. 1
    Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Dec. 5
    Loyola-Chicago, Dec. 8
    Tuskegee, Dec. 15
    at Bowling Green, Dec. 18

    If Oakland's Golden Grizzlies still had national scoring leader Reggie Hamilton, that would be a very interesting game. They don't, so it's not. Guard Travis Bader did score 21 against Arkansas and Ohio, then dropped 37 on South Dakota State.

    Still, Arkansas throttled Oakland by 23 last season with Hamilton. Michigan State should be able to do the same without him.

    Tuskegee comes for a game in historic Jenison Field House, the first since 1989. However, Tuskegee is a Division II team. The most throwing down any group of Tuskegee men will be doing that weekend will be during the pre-game concert by the Commodores.

    UL-Lafayette, Bowling Green and Oakland played in the CIT last season, which makes three more postseason participants than on this portion of some teams' schedules.

3. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    With Jared Sullinger and William Buford leaving, Ohio State's fortunes rest largely in the hands of forward Deshaun Thomas, a man who's yet to meet a shot he didn't like. Coach Thad Matta's headaches may be just beginning.


    Don't Miss

    Marquette, Nov. 9 (Carrier Classic, Charleston, NC)
    at Duke, Nov. 28 (ACC-Big Ten Challenge)
    Kansas, Dec. 22

    A Marquette team adjusting to life without Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom takes on an OSU team adjusting to life without Sully and Buford. It may not be the prettiest season opener, but it'll give a great indication of how each team is blending.

    If Duke's point guards can shrug off Aaron Craft's defensive pressure and avoid turnovers, Duke can beat OSU. Conversely, if no one can contain Thomas, OSU can win, Cameron Crazies or no.

    By late December, both Bill Self and Thad Matta should have their rotations figured out, and that game should be a slugfest.


    Don't Sleep

    Washington/Seton Hall, Nov. 18 (Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off, Uncasville, Conn.)
    Savannah State, Dec. 12

    Washington is another Pac-12 team seeking to rebuild the league's damaged reputation. That matchup would feature a pair of raw big men in OSU's Amir Williams and UW's Aziz N'Diaye. Seton Hall might not be able to compete offensively, but Fuquan Edwin is one of the few defenders in America as dangerous as Aaron Craft.

    "Savannah State? Are you serious?" Yes, random commenter, I'm serious. Everyone's back from a team that won the MEAC regular season title in its first year there. They combined for a squad that ranked 49th nationally in defensive efficiency, according to Ken Pomeroy.

    If the game was a month earlier, I'd be even more optimistic that the Tigers would catch OSU off guard. In December, the final margin may be sizable, but there will likely be some nail-biting moments just after halftime.


    Don't Bother

    Albany, Nov. 11
    Rhode Island, Nov. 17 (Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off)
    Missouri-Kansas City, Nov. 23
    Northern Kentucky, Dec. 1
    Long Beach State, Dec. 8
    UNC Asheville, Dec. 15
    Winthrop, Dec. 18
    Chicago State, Dec. 29

    It's odd to not expect much from Long Beach, and they may still absolutely throttle the rest of the Big West. Still, their odds don't look too hot against a Big Ten school without Casper Ware, Larry Anderson and T.J. Robinson.

    Give Dan Hurley a year or two to shape the Rhode Island roster and they may be able to compete in this kind of game. Not yet, though.

    Albany won 19 games last season, but lost 21-PPG man Gerardo Suero and wingman Logan Aronhalt. Good luck to the Great Danes. On a side note, I would donate a large sum of money to any school that would name its teams the Basset Hounds.

2. Wisconsin Badgers

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    When not busy restricting the freedoms of players leaving his program (via Eamonn Brennan of ESPN), Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan just leads his teams to top-four finishes in the Big Ten. This season's non-conference slate will test a team that needs to find a new identity in the post-Jordan Taylor era. Luckily for the Badgers, many of their opponents have similar issues.


    Don't Miss

    at Florida, Nov. 14
    Creighton, Nov. 23 (Las Vegas Invitational)
    California, Dec. 2
    at Marquette, Dec. 8

    Florida, much like Wisconsin, has to figure out its point guard position and has a big man who may not have scratched his true potential yet. That big-man battle between UF's Patric Young and UW's Jared Berggren should be one to watch. A great true road game for the Badgers.

    Creighton/Wisconsin is the best possible matchup the Las Vegas Invitational could produce, and the organizers made sure it would come to pass. The Badgers' stifling defense could cause serious issues for Doug McDermott, and not many teams in America manage that feat.

    Cal lost its leader in Jorge Gutierrez, but returning guards Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs may be able to play around Wisconsin's defense. Cobbs, in particular, may have some insight, being an ex-Minnesota Golden Gopher. UW should still be a solid favorite at home, but it could be fun.

    A similar issue plagues Marquette, a team seeking replacements for stars Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom. Arizona State transfer Trent Lockett should make up some scoring and point guard Junior Cadougan is a steady hand unlikely to wilt against the Badgers, especially at home.


    Don't Sleep

    Arizona State/Arkansas, Nov. 24 (Las Vegas Invitational)
    Virginia, Nov. 28 (ACC-Big Ten Challenge)

    Arkansas is a dark horse (pig?) in the SEC this season, and that matchup would qualify as a "Don't Miss." All-SEC candidate B.J. Young should make that game fun.

    Arizona State would nearly qualify as a "Don't Bother" game, if not for the addition of point guard Jahii Carson to returning starter Chris Colvin. When it's big news that a team wants to score 70 points per game, that team will be forced into a deadly slow game against Wisconsin. Here's hoping that ASU coach Herb Sendek is serious about pushing some tempo.

    Speaking of tempo, one man completely unconcerned about tempo is Virginia coach Tony Bennett. The Cavaliers run one of America's slowest offenses, much like the typical Wisconsin team. Unless guys like UVa's Joe Harris or UW's Sam Dekker go on mad shooting sprees, sleep may be the viewer's only option.


    Don't Bother

    SE Louisiana, Nov. 11
    Cornell, Nov. 18
    Presbyterian, Nov. 20
    Nebraska-Omaha, Dec. 4
    Green Bay, Dec. 12
    Milwaukee, Dec. 22
    Samford, Dec. 29

    Milwaukee reached the CBI, but was quickly bounced by TCU. Their annual meeting with the Badgers doesn't usually go well, as the Panthers haven't beaten their brethren from Madison in 20 years. There's not much reason to expect it now.

1. Minnesota Golden Gophers

12 of 12

    Golden Gopher coach Tubby Smith is prepared to come out fighting this season with sixth-year senior Trevor Mbakwe back in action. After finishing second in the NIT, does the schedule pack enough big games to impress the selection committee at the big March tournament?


    Don't Miss

    Duke, Nov. 22 (Battle 4 Atlantis, Bahamas)
    Memphis/VCU, Nov. 23 (Battle 4 Atlantis)
    at Florida State, Nov. 27 (ACC-Big Ten Challenge)

    Duke is Duke. Whispers around the college basketball world suggest that the Blue Devils may be free to play a better team game without having to cater to first-round draft pick Austin Rivers. A win here would truly stamp Minnesota's ticket back to national relevance.

    The second Atlantis game will be one to watch as well, whether it features VCU or Memphis, both of whom are movin' on up the college basketball ladder. Both have become perennial NCAA tournament teams, and while this win wouldn't quite generate the buzz of one over Duke, it would still be a welcome shot of adrenaline for Gopher Nation.

    Florida State has to replace Bernard James, who was a veteran in more ways than one, along with solid players like Xavier Gibson and Deividas Dulkys. Still, if Michael Snaer can back up his swag with production befitting the best shooting guard in America, FSU will be good enough to provide another huge win if Minnesota can do the job.


    Don't Sleep

    American, Nov. 9
    Tennessee State, Nov. 15
    South Dakota State, Dec. 4
    at USC, Dec. 8

    American won 20 games last year and went to the CIT. The Eagles lost their top two scorers, but are expected to regain forward Stephen Lumpkins, who averaged 13.5 points and 8.2 rebounds in 2010-11. He left to pursue a baseball career, but is now seeking a return to hoops. His matchup with Mbakwe could be an interesting one.

    Minnesota should be able to take TSU, but mark this game if you haven't taken a look at Tigers senior Robert Covington. Saint Louis was the only opponent to hold him to single digits last season, but he has had issues against big competition. He may match up with the Gophers' Rodney Williams in a fun battle.

    SDSU lost only one player from last season's Summit League champion, and it wasn't 21-PPG guard Nate Wolters. The Jackrabbits have three other players who shot 46 percent or better from three-point range last season. If Wolters gets his stroke back after last season's 24-percent debacle, the Gophers' perimeter defenders will be working overtime.

    USC will be praying for better health this year, and they've also added a transfusion of talent.

    Transfers Ari Stewart, J.T. Terrell (both Wake Forest), Renaldo Woolridge (Tennessee) and Eric Wise (UC Irvine) could push the Trojans back into the NCAA tournament if they mesh well with returnees Maurice Jones, Jio Fontan and Dewayne Dedmon. Both of these teams will have a lot to prove.


    Don't Bother

    Toledo, Nov. 12
    North Florida, Dec. 1
    North Dakota State, Dec. 11
    Lafayette, Dec. 22

    Toledo lost only sixth man Curtis Dennis from last year's 17-win CIT team, but still doesn't have any capable size. Mbakwe and center Elliott Eliason should feast on the glass.

    NDSU made the CBI last season, which gives the Gophers only three opponents who did not make a postseason tournament. That alone makes this one of the toughest slates in the Big Ten.


    Don't Know

    TBD, Nov. 24 (Battle 4 Atlantis)

    Either Missouri, Stanford, Louisville or Northern Iowa await in the Gophers' third game in the Bahamas. Seriously, the Battle 4 Atlantis is the most loaded tournament this year. Get NBC Sports Network so you can watch it. Now.

    UNI would qualify as a "Don't Sleep" matchup, and all the others should be excellent.