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 next: The Atlantic 10.
Toughest non-league schedule: VCU
Between the return of the core of an NCAA tournament team and the arrival of top recruits Terry Larrier and Mike Gilmore, VCU has a real chance to enjoy a special season next year. At the very least, the Rams will have plenty of chances to test how good they are early in the season because Shaka Smart has assembled maybe the toughest non-league schedule of his tenure for next season.
Among the five power conference opponents on VCU's schedule are defending Big East champion Villanova, defending ACC champion Virginia and revamped Tennessee and Cincinnati teams. The Rams will also see either Big Ten heavyweight Michigan or Oregon on the second day of the Legend's Classic in New York.
Even the mid-major matchups on VCU's schedule are no joke. Northern Iowa will be the top challenger to Wichita State in the Valley, Belmont is perennially a contender in the Ohio Valley Conference, Toledo returns the core of the MAC's best team and even Old Dominion is a road game at a longtime rival. In short, VCU will be tested early and often. Now it's up to the Rams to prove they're up to the challenge.
Easiest non-league schedule: Duquesne
Here's a list of games Duquesne plays out of state in November and December: Nov. 22 at Abilene Christian. Yes, that lone trip to Abilene really is the only non-conference road game the Dukes will need to take an airplane to reach. Aside from that, Duquesne visits Robert Morris and Penn State and plays a neutral-court game against city rival Pittsburgh.
The home games also aren't exactly against the heavyweights of the college basketball world either. Duquesne hosts Bluefield State, NJIT, Howard, St. Francis (PA), UMass-Lowell, Maryland Eastern Shore and Texas Pan-American, one lower-division program and six bottom-tier Division I schools that haven't sniffed the NCAA tournament in years or at all in some cases.
In Duquesne's defense, the Dukes are still rebuilding. They opened last season with eight scholarship players yet exceeded preseason expectations by winning five league games and finishing tied for 10th. They'll try to take another baby step up the pecking order this season with four returning starters and superior depth.
Team that scheduled too hard: UMass
There isn't a team that glaringly over-scheduled in the Atlantic 10 this season, but UMass probably put together the riskiest difficult schedule. The Minutemen employed an identical scheduling strategy as they used last season even though they may need some time to figure out their roles now that standout guard Chaz Williams has moved on to professional basketball.
The approach UMass took with much success a year ago was playing numerous games against teams with the potential to finish in the RPI top 100 but unlikely to be among the nation's elite. Again the Minutemen's schedule is littered with such games this year, from Harvard, to BYU, to Manhattan, to LSU, to Providence, to Notre Dame, to Florida State.
With athletic forwards Maxie Esho and Cady Lalanne returning and West Virginia transfer Jabarie Hinds set to bolster an already-strong backcourt, UMass could very well enjoy the same non-conference success this season that fueled a return to the NCAA tournament a year ago. However, if the team develops slowly in November and December, this is the type of schedule that could bury the Minutemen the same way Boston College experienced last season.
Team that scheduled too soft: Richmond
If Richmond is going to return to the NCAA tournament next season, the Spiders will have to do it despite a non-conference schedule that won't help them much at all. Of the 13 non-conference teams on Richmond's schedule, only North Carolina State finished in the RPI top 100 this past season.Maybe a veteran-laden Northern Iowa team makes a big leap.
Perhaps a coaching change inspires an instant turnaround at Wake Forest. Or maybe William & Mary enjoys a historic season. But if Richmond's only chance for a quality non-league win is against an NC State team that might not even finish in the upper half of the ACC, the Spiders are putting a lot of pressure on themselves to avoid bad losses in November and December and to rack up marquee wins in Atlantic 10 play.
It's a shame Richmond scheduled like this because it has the chance to be pretty good even with the departure of standout guard Cedrick Lindsay. Kendall Anthony and Trey Davis should provide backcourt scoring, but the Spiders need someone to emerge as a distributor at point guard to make some real noise.
Three A-10 non-conference games to watch:
1. Virginia at VCU, Dec. 6: There will be plenty of buzz in Richmond for the second game in two years between the state of Virginia's two premier teams. VCU won last year's game in Charlottesville 59-56, but the Cavaliers went on to enjoy the better season, winning the ACC title and reaching the Sweet 16.
2. Dayton vs. Texas A&M, Nov. 20: The opener of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic might seem like an odd choice, but consider the huge ramifications for the Flyers. A win likely earns them a semifinal date with UConn and perhaps a shot at New Mexico or West Virginia on day three. A loss, and suddenly the Flyers probably face Charleston on day two and maybe either George Mason or Boston College on day three, a huge strength of schedule hit for a team lacking marquee games already.
3. George Washington at Virginia, Nov. 21: On the heels of a breakout season last year, George Washington boosted the strength of its non-league schedule in hopes that the momentum will continue. This visit to ACC contender Virginia is the highlight of a slate that also includes improving Seton Hall, Penn State, Rutgers and the Diamondhead Classic.
Game that should have been scheduled but wasn't: Xavier-Dayton
Dayton coach Archie Miller has expressed interest in scheduling Xavier, but thus far the Musketeers have been non-committal. That's a shame because a rivalry with the history of Xavier-Dayton should still be played annually even if the Musketeers have moved on to the Big East and the Flyers remain in the Atlantic 10.
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