Since most of next season's non-conference schedules have finally been released, it's a good time to assess whose slates are the most daunting and who didn't challenge themselves enough. The Dagger will go league-by-league the next two weeks. Up first: The ACC.
Toughest non-league schedule: North Carolina
North Carolina coach Roy Williams has assembled a formidable non-league schedule befitting a blue blood program expected to begin the season in the top 10.
On Thanksgiving weekend, the Tar Heels will participate in the nation's toughest exempt tournament — the Battle 4 Atlantis — which also includes Wisconsin, Florida, UCLA and Oklahoma. Then in December, North Carolina hosts Iowa, visits preseason No. 1 Kentucky and travels to Chicago to meet Big Ten contender Ohio State.
Even the so-called easy games on North Carolina's schedule aren't gimmes. Only two of the Tar Heels' opponents finished in the bottom half of the RPI last season. North Carolina Central, William & Mary, Davidson and Robert Morris are each quality mid-majors who should contend in their respective leagues and at the very least won't be a drain on the Tar Heels' strength of schedule.
Easiest non-league schedule: Virginia Tech
Expectations are low for a Virginia Tech program that has only nine scholarship players available this season after five guys left the team following last year's 9-22 campaign. As a result, new coach Buzz Williams assembled a tissue-soft non-conference schedule for the Hokies in hopes they can build confidence before the ACC gauntlet begins.
The only two power conference teams Virginia Tech will definitely face are improving West Virginia and Big Ten bottom feeder Penn State. The Hokies will also have a challenging opener in the Cancun Challenge against Missouri Valley contender Northern Iowa and will face either Northwestern or Miami (Ohio) in its second game.
Beyond that, the schedule is dreck. Four of the bottom 15 teams in last year's RPI visit Blacksburg this season — Appalachian State, The Citadel, Maryland Eastern Shore and Presbyterian. Those games could help Virginia Tech match last season's win total by the start of ACC play, but they'll also drag down the Hokies' RPI and that of their league opponents as well.
Team that scheduled too hard: Syracuse
For years, Syracuse has endured complaints about either not challenging itself enough in non-league play or not leaving the state of New York. Don't expect similar criticism this year since the Orange have put together a demanding schedule even though they must replace three of their four leading scorers from last year's 25-win team.
Two road games against potential top 15 teams highlight the non-league portion of Syracuse's slate: Dec. 2 at Big Ten contender Michigan and Dec. 20 at Big East favorite Villanova. There's also a good chance the Orange will face Big 12 contender Texas in the 2K Classic title game assuming they beat Cal and the Longhorns survive Iowa.
Even some of the mid-majors on the schedule are dangerous. Louisiana Tech will be a favorite to win Conference USA and battle-tested Long Beach State will be a threat to win the Big West. Ultimately, this isn't a glaring case of over-scheduling like Boston College last season, but it is a slate that will test a young Syracuse team that might need a couple months to groom a point guard and figure out where its scoring punch will come from night after night.
Team that scheduled too soft: Notre Dame
Between the return of standout guards Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton and Mike Brey's history of coaxing productive season out of upperclassmen big men, Notre Dame has the ability to bounce back from last year's disappointing 15-17 season. Alas, the Irish did themselves no favors with a non-league schedule that could come back to haunt them if they're on the bubble in March.
Aside from an ACC-Big Ten Challenge date with Michigan State on Dec. 3, there aren't many opponents strong enough to boost Notre Dame's RPI. Maybe a Nov. 22 matchup with UMass if the Minutemen can overcome the loss of standout guard Chaz Williams. Ditto a matchup with Providence the following day if the Friars can replace the production of leading scorer Bryce Cotton. And, heck, maybe Purdue improves enough to become a potential quality win.
Beyond that? There's a whole lot of Grambling State, Navy, Binghamton and Fairleigh Dickinson — matchups with bottom-of-the-barrel Division I teams that will drag down Notre Dame's RPI if the Irish win and torpedo it if they somehow lose. That should enable Notre Dame to build a gaudy record in November and December, but the Irish may regret not challenging themselves more come March.
Three ACC non-conference games to watch:
1. Kentucky at Louisville, Dec. 27: The nation's premier non-league rivalry will feature a Kentucky team with nine McDonald's All-Americans against a Louisville team with a strong backcourt and a potential All-American forward in Montrezl Harrell.
2. Duke at Wisconsin, Dec. 3: The marquee game of this year's Big Ten-ACC Challenge pits two of the nation's top teams against one-another. Duke fills its hole at center with the nation's consensus No. 1 recruit Jahlil Okafor. Wisconsin brings back seven of its top eight players from a Final Four team.
3. North Carolina at Battle 4 Atlantis, Nov. 26-28: We'll know how good the Tar Heels are after they return home from this year's premier exempt tournament. North Carolina meets Butler in the opening round, UCLA or Oklahoma the second day and Florida, Wisconsin, Georgetown or UAB on day three.
Game that should have been scheduled but wasn't: Pittsburgh-West Virginia
It's absurd that the Backyard Brawl has gone on hiatus since West Virginia left the Big East for the Big 12 and Pittsburgh bolted for the ACC. Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins has said he'd love to schedule Pitt and it certainly wouldn't hurt the Panthers to add an annual challenging game to their typically soft non-conference slate. Let's get this done, folks.
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