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 for the next week. Up first: The ACC.
Toughest non-league schedule: North Carolina
Since ACC teams face such a gauntlet once league play begins, few feel the need to regularly challenge themselves in November and December. One exception to that rule is reigning national champion North Carolina, which will play six power-conference opponents and six games away from home before the ACC slate tips off.
The toughest of those games could come at the PK80 Invitational in Portland, where North Carolina should meet Arkansas or Oklahoma in the semifinals before a potential top 15 showdown with Michigan State in the title game. The Tar Heels also host Michigan, visit improving Stanford and Tennessee and meet Ohio State on a neutral floor.
Whether North Carolina can roll through that schedule may depend on how the Tar Heels deal with losing their top three big men from last season’s team. A backcourt headlined by Joel Berry and Theo Pinson should be among the nation’s best, but North Carolina may have to deviate from its traditional two big man lineups since former walkon Luke Maye is the only returning frontcourt player with significant experience.
Easiest non-league schedule: NC State
There’s only one explanation for the non-conference schedule new NC State coach Kevin Keatts assembled for his debut season. Keatts is seeking to build confidence by stacking early wins.
The first four teams NC State plays finished a combined 27-88 last season. Eight of their 13 non-conference opponents finished 266th or worse in the KenPom rankings last season. The only power-conference opponents NC State is guaranteed to face before ACC play tips off are national title contender Arizona and middling Penn State, though the Wolfpack could see one or two more at the Battle 4 Atlantis.
A manageable schedule makes sense for an NC State team that lost 17 games last season and lost point guard Dennis Smith to the NBA. Keatts will rebuild by unlocking the untapped potential in big men Omer Yurtseven and Abdul-Malik Abu, incorporating grad transfers Al Freeman and Sam Hunt and trying to get the Wolfpack to play better defense than they did for Mark Gottfried.
Team that took the biggest risk with its schedule: Miami
Six of Miami’s top eight players are back from a team that won 21 games last season and the Hurricanes also welcome a top-10 recruiting class headlined by McDonald’s All-American Lonnie Walker. This is a potential ACC title-contending team this season, which is why it’s difficult to understand why Jim Larranaga didn’t upgrade his non-league schedule.
Miami’s visit to Minnesota in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge could be the Hurricanes’ lone non-league matchup with an NCAA tournament-caliber opponent. The only other possibility is a potential clash with preseason top 10 USC in the Diamondhead Classic title game if the Trojans and Hurricanes both win their first two games against lesser foes.
Beyond that, Miami’s toughest opponent is … George Washington? LaSalle? Hawaii? It’s a schedule that leaves the Hurricanes susceptible to entering ACC play without a marquee win.
Four other notable ACC schedules:
Duke: The Blue Devils will play four meaningful non-conference games. In addition a Champions Classic showdown with Michigan State and a Big Ten-ACC Challenge visit to Indiana, Duke will also participate in the PK80 Invitational, where it will meet Butler or Texas in the semifinals and perhaps Gonzaga or Florida the following round.
Louisville: The annual Battle for the Bluegrass against Kentucky isn’t the only regional rivalry game on the Cardinals’ schedule. They’ll also visit Purdue and square off against Indiana and Memphis.
Syracuse: In addition to matchups with former Big East rivals UConn and Georgetown, Syracuse will meet national power Kansas on Dec. 2 in Miami. The Orange own a 3-2 series lead over the Jayhawks, most famously an 81-78 victory in 2003 national title game.
Notre Dame: This is a non-league schedule befitting a program that has won seven NCAA tournament games the past three years. Among the Irish’s toughest games: at Michigan State, Indiana on a neutral floor and the Maui Invitational, which will also feature Wichita State, LSU, Marquette, VCU and Michigan.
Four ACC non-conference games to watch:
1. Louisville at Kentucky, Dec. 29: Kentucky has won 8 of 10 games against Louisville since John Calipari’s 2010 arrival, but the Cardinals own the most recent victory. Quentin Snider scored 22 points, grabbed 6 rebounds and dished out 5 assists to lead the Cardinals to a 73-70 victory last December.
2. Duke vs. Michigan State, Nov. 14: Duke owns an 11-2 edge in the all-time series against Michigan State, but the Blue Devils won’t have an easy time adding to that in this Champions Classic showdown. The Spartans return the core of last year’s NCAA tournament team including star wing Miles Bridges, a projected lottery pick next June.
3. Notre Dame at Maui Invitational, Nov. 20-22: This is a golden opportunity for the Irish to prove they won’t miss a beat without Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem. Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson will lead Notre Dame against a strong field that includes likely preseason top 10 Wichita State and potential semifinal opponents Michigan and LSU.
4. Wisconsin at Virginia, Nov. 27: Tony Bennett’s past and present come face to face when the Cavaliers host the school where his father coached and he served as an assistant. Both teams lost key seniors as Virginia must replace star point guard London Perrantes and Wisconsin graduated longtime stalwarts Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig.
Game that should have been scheduled but wasn’t: Duke-Maryland
When Maryland left the ACC for the Big Ten in 2014, Mike Krzyzewski made it clear Duke’s longtime rivalry with the Terps was dead. “We’re not going to schedule them,” he said. “It’s tough to schedule anybody when you have 18 conference games. But when we schedule non-conference, it’s usually outside our conference area, so that we play national teams.”
Sorry, but that’s silly. Duke-Maryland is without question a game with national appeal. And hurt feelings over conference realignment isn’t a good enough reason to kill off a rivalry that has produced a half dozen classic games this century alone.
The easy answer would be to pit Duke and Maryland in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, but Krzyzewski has such influence that it’s hard to see this game happening without his approval. Hopefully he’ll have a change of heart. At a time when college basketball is starved for regional rivalries, the sport needs an annual game between the Blue Devils and Terps.
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