College Basketball 2011-12 Preview: 10 Toughest Non-Conference Schedules

Scott Henry@@4QuartersRadioFeatured ColumnistNovember 6, 2011

College Basketball 2011-12 Preview: 10 Toughest Non-Conference Schedules

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    Part of the beauty of college basketball, especially when compared to college football, is the ability for teams to schedule heavyweight non-conference opponents. While football teams try to protect their undefeated records by trucking in FCS opponents with little shot of pulling off the upset, basketball's royalty routinely face off before getting into the meat of their conference schedules.

    Scheduling major opponents can enhance any team's credibility with the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, and a few huge wins can rescue a team that gets upset in its conference tournament. Each year, a few teams step up and prove that they're not afraid to hunt big game.

    These 10 teams will have tremendous tournament resumes...if they can survive their early-season meat grinders.

10. Tennessee Volunteers

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    Heads down, towels over eyes: this was how the Vols ended their 2010-11 season, being throttled by 30 points against Michigan. Sadly for new coach Cuonzo Martin, there may be a few more of these poses to come this season.

    This year's Volunteer roster lost approximately two-thirds of last year's scoring, and the unproven returnees face a brutal schedule.

    After dipping their toes in with a couple of home tune-ups, Tennessee travels to the Maui Invitational. Waiting for them when they get off the plane will be a date with Final Four favorite Duke. Either a Michigan rematch or an intrastate showdown with Memphis await in Round 2. On the bright side, if both of those games go badly, there's always Chaminade, right?

    Back on the mainland, the Vols next face a true road game at Oakland, a team that stunned them in Thompson-Boling Arena last season. While the Golden Grizzlies lost center Keith Benson to the NBA draft, most of the rest of that team returns. When the weary team finally returns home, they'll be greeted by a game against All-American Ashton Gibbs and the Pitt Panthers.

    On December 14, the Vols play what could be another dangerous mid-major road game against College of Charleston. Come January, the Big Orange travel to Memphis to face what could be their second date with the Tigers, and finally, defending national champion UConn comes to Knoxville on January 21.

    After all that, the resurgent SEC could seem like a vacation.

9. USC Trojans

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    Kevin O'Neill's teams have to be prepared for anything. He's a coach who will go anywhere and play anyone at any time. This season, it's more of the same for the Trojans.

    USC will battle five teams that won 20 games last season and four that were in the NCAA Tournament. Their first major test will come November 17, when they head to Viejas Arena to take on San Diego State. Granted, this isn't the same Aztec squad that stormed to 34 wins (only one starter returns), but opponents underestimate Steve Fisher at their peril.

    Thanksgiving weekend, the Trojans will travel to Sin City for the Las Vegas Invitational, and they drew the long straw to face the host Runnin' Rebels. Normally, facing the host in a Thanksgiving tournament is a bad draw, but in this case, it could have been worse: North Carolina is also invited. The Trojans' other potential Vegas opponent is South Carolina, not quite a pushover in its own right.

    December could be even more difficult. The Trojans travel from sunny Los Angeles to frigid Minneapolis to face a dangerous Minnesota team on December 3. Raw seven-footer Dewayne Dedmon will have to learn fast against full-grown Trevor Mbakwe and Ralph Sampson III.

    New Mexico lost point guard Dairese Gary, but the Lobos are still expected to be the class of the Mountain West, and they'll come to L.A. to play USC on December 10.

    A pair of BCS conference opponents come to the Galen Center in the week before Christmas. Georgia faces USC on the 17th, and a Kansas team that looks as close to down as Kansas ever gets (they may only win 25 games instead of 30) tips off with the Trojans on the 22nd.

8. Gonzaga Bulldogs

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    Programs like Gonzaga, Memphis and Xavier are the class of solid leagues and would probably still get at-large bids if they scheduled enough scrub teams to go 26-6.

    Thankfully for the fans, they don't.

    The Zags do spend the month of November tuning up, with Washington State serving as their toughest test until Notre Dame comes to Spokane on the 30th. Points for getting Robert Sacre a game (against Hawaii) in his hometown of Vancouver, though.

    Once the calendar flips, Gonzaga truly kicks the difficulty up to All-American. Home games against Michigan State and Butler are sandwiched around road trips to Illinois (on the third) and Xavier (New Year's Eve).

    The Michigan State visit is especially symbolic of how Gonzaga's national reputation has blossomed in the past decade. The idea of a power team like the Spartans coming to the Northwest would have been laughable before the Bulldogs' run of 13 straight NCAA Tournament appearances.

    In addition to all those games listed above, Arizona comes to Seattle for a "neutral-site" game on December 17th. That game will bolster the winner's claim for Western basketball superiority, as both should be in the Top 20 at tipoff.

7. Duke Blue Devils

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    It's a running joke in Chapel Hill that the only thing softer than two-ply Charmin is Duke basketball's non-conference road schedule. And if it's not, then perhaps it should be.

    The Blue Devils aren't often keen on true road games, and this season is no exception. Duke only plays twice on the opponent's court before starting ACC games.

    One of those, against Ohio State on November 29, is mandated by ESPN as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, so even that could only merit half credit. The other true road game, against Temple on January 4, may not be against Top Five competition, but still won't be a pushover.

    At Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Devils play some solid mid-major opponents, chief among them a season-opening clash with Belmont, which returns virtually everyone from a 30-win NCAA Tournament team. Western Michigan and Davidson are expected to be the class of their respective conferences, but still may not be prepared for the Cameron Crazies.

    For Duke's truest tests, we have to examine its neutral site games. The Blue Devils face a pair of potential Top 25 opponents in separate trips to New York City, Michigan State on November 15 and Washington on December 10.

    To top off the schedule, Coach K's club will make the trip to Maui, where they open against a rebuilding Tennessee club, but will face either Michigan or Memphis in the second round. Kansas or UCLA could await in the final if Duke sweeps the first two rounds as expected.

    Some teams schedule for at-large bids. Duke schedules for at-large No. 1 seeds.

6. Butler Bulldogs

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    Want a quick way to make enough money to retire? Go to Vegas and drop a Benjamin on Butler making a third consecutive NCAA Championship Game. Of course, that may be a slight bit of hyperbole, considering that no one expected the Bulldogs to reach the first two, either.

    Despite losing Gordon Hayward last season and Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard this season, the Bulldogs are still drawing preseason Top 25 votes. They're scheduling like they intend to earn that ranking.

    After a couple of tune-ups at Evansville and home against Chattanooga, Brad Stevens and his team welcome Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals to Hinkle Fieldhouse on November 19. Another tough home battle awaits on December 7, when Xavier comes to Indianapolis.

    Butler will weigh in on the battle for Hoosier hoops supremacy by facing Indiana at Assembly Hall on November 27 and Purdue at Conseco Fieldhouse on December 17. Even Ball State will jump it up with Butler on December 10 in Muncie. Apparently, Notre Dame didn't want a piece of this action.

    Immediately after the battle with the Boilermakers, Butler crosses the continent for a pair of stiff western tests. They'll take on Gonzaga in a battle of March giant killers on December 20, then wander down the coast for a game with Stanford on the 22nd.

    Butler may be equipped for another good run in March, or they may not. By New Year's Day, they'll have a good handle on how essential the Horizon League tournament will be.

5. Memphis Tigers

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    Conference USA has slid markedly in its second decade of existence, coinciding with the Big East poaching Cincinnati, Louisville and Marquette. From its 1995 inception through the 2005 NCAA Tournament, C-USA had six four-bid seasons and a six-bid explosion in 2004. Since the '05-06 season, however, the league has had three single-bid years and hasn't had more than two.

    With C-USA not having nearly the depth it used to, the Memphis Tigers have to make sure to load the non-conference schedule with stern tests to keep their at-large credentials polished, just in case someone knocks them off in the conference tournament. Josh Pastner wants to prove he's got the Tigers back up to the lofty heights of his predecessor, John Calipari. If he gets out of this schedule with three or fewer losses, he's there.

    Like Duke, the Tigers open with Belmont, a program that seeks to inherit the Gonzaga-Butler mantle of mid-major masters of March. Then, Memphis makes its way to Maui, where they may actually run into Duke...provided they get past a Top 20 opponent in Michigan, that is. Opponents like Kansas or UCLA could await in their third game.

    From December 6 to December 22, Memphis will run a strong gauntlet against a variety of opponents. They start with a trip to Miami to face the Hurricanes, then the always dangerous Murray State Racers come to FedEx Forum.

    On the 17th, the Tigers head to the Bucket (aka the KFC Yum! Center) to face Louisville, and on the 22nd, they travel to face Georgetown. The hardest part about the Georgetown game may be the fact that it'll be their third in five days, as they have to go home to face Lipscomb in between the two trips.

    The fun doesn't stop after the New Year, either. Memphis hosts Tennessee on January 4, then Xavier exactly one month later. If the Tigers even go .500 in these dangerous games, the committee will have no choice but to give them something better than last year's No. 12 seed.

4. Florida Gators

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    When you throw not one, but two preseason Top Five teams into your non-league schedule, you will get attention. Exhibit A: the 2011-12 Florida Gators.

    Not only does Billy Donovan have his team facing off with Ohio State and Syracuse early in the season, but both are true road games to boot. Granted, the Syracuse game was mandated by ESPN (part of the SEC/Big East Challenge), but still, it should be the biggest matchup of the entire competition. Value City Arena and the Carrier Dome are not places where the faint of heart have success, so the Gators' newcomers, like freshman Brad Beal and Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario, will have to be hardened quickly.

    Later on in December, the Gators will welcome Arizona (on the 7th) and Florida State (on the 22nd) to Gainesville. These games will take the pulse of all three clubs and how they're adapting to life after departed stars Chandler Parsons, Derrick Williams and Chris Singleton, respectively.

    On December 17, future SEC rival Texas A&M will travel to the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise for a preview of what lies in store for Aggie basketball. Of course, the undersized Gators may not be a representative sample.

    The aforementioned Rosario will get a chance to battle his old team when Florida heads to Piscataway on December 29. By then, the Jersey swamps will seem like a playground.

3. St. John's Red Storm

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    Why is Johnny Thunderbird pictured? Because, other than guard Malik Stith and coach Steve Lavin, he's the only part of last year's team that's back. And Johnny logged almost as many minutes on the court as Stith did.

    Lavin is presenting his newbie-dominated team with a sadistic welcome gift in the form of their non-conference curriculum.

    The opening rounds of the 2K Sports Classic look like easy tune-ups against William & Mary and Lehigh, but considering Lehigh returns 20-point-per-game scorer C.J. McCollum, the Johnnies may get a rude surprise if they're not careful.

    Once the Classic shifts to Madison Square Garden, the young Red Storm not only have to deal with their first appearance in "The World's Most Famous Arena," but they also have to face the Arizona Wildcats. Their second game in the Classic will feature either Texas A&M or Mississippi State, both stern challenges. This is a prime illustration of leaving the frying pan and diving into the fire.

    A pair of early December road games, at Kentucky on the 1st and Detroit on the 5th, are polar opposites in terms of brand recognition, but both will be tough games. Detroit may seize the opportunity to dethrone Butler in the Horizon League this season, and Kentucky is still Kentucky. Going to Rupp may make the first MSG game look like morning recess for Lavin's kids.

    As if the St. John's Binky Brigade doesn't get dropped into enough pressure-cooker venues, they travel to Cameron Indoor Stadium and take on Duke on January 28. Finally, UCLA comes to the Garden on February 18. By then, Lavin's baby ballers may be more grown up than Baby Herman from "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"

    As long as they're not puffing stogies on the court, that's a good thing.

2. Xavier Musketeers

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    Xavier comes into the season with one of the favorites for national Player of the Year, and a player like Tu Holloway needs challenges to prove his rep is legit. So, coach Chris Mack obliged by putting together a schedule for the ages.

    The Musketeers get three games to tune up the band: against Morgan State, IPFW and Miami of Ohio. After that, there's scarcely a break until the Atlantic 10 season starts. And if a team considers the A-10 to be a merciful escape, you know the non-league slate's rough.

    A pair of SEC opponents begin the death march, as the Muskies host Georgia on November 25 and travel to Nashville to face preseason No. 7 Vanderbilt on the 28th.

    Xavier then gets to take the temperature of Indiana's top two teams when they host Purdue on December 3 and face a road game against Butler four days later.

    On the 10th comes the always-heated Crosstown Shootout against Cincinnati, and in case you weren't keeping score, that's five straight games against 2011 NCAA Tournament teams.

    December 18 brings a matchup with Oral Roberts, the preseason favorites in the Summit League, and then it's off to Hawaii. The Diamond Head Classic will feature Xavier against Big West favorites Long Beach State, and a potential meeting with either Clemson or Kansas State awaits in the later rounds.

    As a welcome back, the Musketeers get to host Gonzaga on New Year's Eve. How's that for 11 games of hell?

    But wait, there's more. On February 4, Xavier travels to Memphis. Holloway and company may not see March competition this stiff unless they make the Elite Eight.

1. Long Beach State 49ers

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    It's one thing when a team like Michigan State or Kentucky loads up against basketball royalty. It's something completely different when the team lining up elite competition is the favorite to win...the Big West.

    Long Beach has lined up a veritable Mount Rushmore of college basketball, and they're taking all those shows on the road.

    The carnage begins with a trip to Pittsburgh on November 16. Three days later, they're back on their own end of the country, playing at San Diego State, and that qualifies as a break.

    Mental health days against Boise State (November 22), Montana (Nov. 26) and BYU-Hawaii (Dec. 2) will have to be enjoyed, because they come in the middle of a serious slog of likely road beatings.

    November 28 at Louisville.

    December 6 at Kansas.

    December 10 at North Carolina.

    Those three and Pitt are all ranked in the preseason Top 15.

    Even a "vacation" to the Diamond Head Classic kicks off with a game against Xavier.

    This schedule will dwarf any competition the 49ers will face in the Big West, but if they start conference play with a winning record, it'll be a mild surprise.

    Someone buy Dan Monson a drink. He looks like he could use one.


    Read more from Scott on college basketball at The Back Iron.