Non-conference scheduling studs and duds: The Big Ten

Michigan State has the nation's toughest November schedule (AP)
Michigan State has the nation’s toughest November schedule (AP)

Since most of this coming 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. Yahoo Sports will go league-by-league the next two weeks. Up first: The Big Ten.

Toughest non-league schedule: Michigan State

No other program in the country will play a tougher November schedule than Michigan State. Before the calendar turns to December, the Spartans could play as many as five games against Top 25 opponents — all away from East Lansing.

The gauntlet begins in Honolulu where Michigan State opens the season against a young but loaded Arizona team. Four days and six time zones later, the Spartans meet likely preseason top three Kentucky in New York. Then comes the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, which features the likes of Louisville, Baylor, VCU and Wichita State. And as if that’s not enough, looming on Nov. 29 is a visit to likely preseason No. 1 Duke.

Michigan State has the talent to hold its own against that formidable schedule, but the Spartans will be young after graduating senior standouts Denzel Valentine, Bryn Forbes and Matt Costello. A heralded freshman class highlighted by forward Miles Bridges will help fill the void, as will key returners Eron Harris, Matt McQuaid and Gavin Schilling.

Easiest non-league schedule: Rutgers

The schedule Rutgers assembled is exactly what you’d expect from a program that hasn’t finished with a winning record in a decade and hasn’t made the NCAA tournament in a quarter century. The Scarlet Knights built a non-league slate loaded with winnable games.

Only three times will Rutgers face a major-conference opponent before Big Ten play, and one of those games is a matchup against a DePaul program with a similarly bleak recent history. The Scarlet Knights will also visit Miami in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and visit in-state rival Seton Hall on Dec. 23.

Every other non-conference game Rutgers plays is one the Scarlet Knights should expect to win even though they have a new coach, only one scholarship senior and a dearth of Big Ten-level talent on the roster. The return of leading scorer Corey Sanders gives new coach Steve Pikiell a young star around which to build.

Team that took the biggest risk with its schedule: Northwestern

If Northwestern reaches the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history next March, the drought will end in spite of the Wildcats’ schedule, not because of it. The non-league slate Coach Chris Collins assembled features too many low-major opponents likely to weigh down Northwestern’s strength-of-schedule metrics for the rest of the season.

Chicago State (348), New Orleans (343), Mississippi Valley State (330) and Bryant (320) each finished in the bottom 40 in the RPI last season. Eastern Washington (228) and Houston Baptist (234) weren’t much better. Granted every power-conference school buys home games against small-conference opponents, but most target top 200 RPI programs that are still very beatable yet don’t serve as an RPI albatross.

Why would Northwestern opt to play so many bottom-of-the-barrel programs instead? Maybe Collins wants to build confidence in a team that lost standouts Alex Olah and Tre Demps to graduation last spring. Maybe he’s concerned about the severity of the rest of the non-league schedule, which features Texas, Butler, Dayton and either Notre Dame or Colorado. Whatever the reason, it’s certainly risky strategy and it could bite the Wildcats in March.

Four other notable Big Ten schedules:

Wisconsin: Between the loaded Maui Invitational and matchups with Syracuse, Oklahoma, Creighton and Marquette, the Badgers’ non-league slate rivals Michigan State’s as the Big Ten’s toughest.

Ohio State: Typical Buckeyes schedule. A few marquee showdowns (at Virginia, UCLA, UConn), no holiday tournament, no in-state powers and a whole lot of small-conference fluff.

Indiana: Only four relevant non-league games for the Hoosiers, but they’re all must-see: Kansas in Honolulu, North Carolina in Bloomington and Louisville and Butler in Indianapolis.

Minnesota: This is a non-league schedule built to stack wins for a program that lost 23 games last season. The only notable teams on the schedule — Florida State, Vanderbilt, Arkansas and St. John’s — didn’t make the NCAA tournament last year.

Four Big Ten non-conference games to watch:

1. Indiana vs. Kansas, Nov. 11: Indiana won’t have to wait long for its first challenge of the season. The Hoosiers’ first post-Yogi Ferrell game will come against a potential preseason top-five Kansas team featuring a senior backcourt and maybe nation’s best freshman wing.

2. Wisconsin at Maui Invitational, Nov. 21-23: With every key player back from last year’s Elite Eight run, Wisconsin has visions of reaching the Final Four for the third time in four years. The Badgers should have a better idea where they stand after a tournament that also features Pac-12 favorite Oregon, ACC contender North Carolina and four-time national champion UConn.

3. Villanova at Purdue, Nov. 14: This early-season matchup will be a fascinating contrast in styles. Reigning national champion Villanova boasts its usual array of guards including all-American candidate Josh Hart. Purdue counters with a formidable frontcourt that includes former McDonald’s All-American Caleb Swanigan, 7-footer Isaac Haas and versatile forward Vince Edwards.

4. Michigan State vs. Kentucky, Nov. 15: Two of the nation’s most decorated freshman classes face off when the Spartans and Wildcats meet at the Champions Classic in New York. Michigan State is 3-2 in Champions Classic games so far and defeated Kentucky in 2013 in the previous meeting between the two programs.

Game that should have been scheduled but wasn’t: Ohio State vs. Xavier … or Cincinnati … or Dayton

For years, Ohio State has refused to schedule marquee in-state opponents because the Buckeyes felt they had nothing to gain and everything to lose. Xavier and Dayton were smaller-conference programs seeking legitimacy and Cincinnati fell on hard times both before and after pinnacle of the Bob Huggins era.

If Ohio State’s policy made sense once, it no longer does now. Xavier is a preseason top 10 team and perennial Big East contender, Cincinnati has reached six straight NCAA tournaments and Dayton has an Atlantic 10 title and five NCAA tournament wins in the past three seasons. A matchup against any of those programs would bring the Buckeyes as much regional and national exposure as their games against Virginia, UCLA or UConn this year.

At a time when college basketball is starved for regional rivalries, there’s no reason for these series to remain dormant. Schedule annual home-and-homes. Or create an annual doubleheader, Ohio’s version of Indiana’s Crossroads Classic. Just make these games a November or December staple of college basketball in the state of Ohio.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!

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