When Selection Sunday comes around every year, one of the biggest talking points is strength of schedule. When two teams’ resumes are tough to separate, the presence of big non-conference games always helps. Having a win against a highly ranked non-conference opponent helps a lot, while just having the increased strength of schedule is a good bump.
Many Big Ten teams go out and challenge themselves before conference play begins, others line-up a slate full of cupcakes. Here are the three easiest and three toughest non-conference schedules in the Big Ten.
#3 Northwestern- The Wildcats are not doing themselves any favors with their mediocre non-conference schedule. Northwestern has never made it to the NCAA Tournament and not playing any big non-conference games will not help their 2012-13 chances. In between the slate of cupcakes Northwestern’s toughest games are Maryland, at Baylor and Butler. It isn’t the easiest schedule, but it has very few challenges. If I was Northwestern, I would have gone out and scheduled as many ranked teams as I could.
#2 Iowa- Last year, the Hawkeyes played four legitimate non-conference games. They lost all four. So, this year’s plan is to not play anyone. They do just that, with their biggest challenges being their annual game against Iowa State and their Big 10-ACC match-up against Virginia Tech. After their poor non-conference schedule Iowa could be in for a rude awakening when Big Ten play starts and they play the big boys.
#1 Penn State- The recently disgraced university has a disgraceful non-conference schedule. They legitimately play no good teams. It is astonishing that coach Tom Chambers and acting AD David Joyner would allow such a weak schedule for a Big Ten team. Their only relatively tough games are against Boston College and Massachusetts or Providence. Anyone who observes college basketball knows with an awful strength of schedule and no big non-conference wins you are not going to make the NCAA Tournament from a major conference. If Penn State actually de-emphasized football, like the Freeh Report said they should, maybe they would realize their basketball team is not going to be successful from beating up on bad teams and then getting dominated in Big Ten play.
#3 Minnesota- Last year, Tubby Smith‘s team made a respectable late season run and made it to the NIT championship game. This year, they are looking to make it to the NCAA Tournament. In order to make it off the bubble they wisely scheduled some strong opponents. After an easy first six games the Golden Gophers participate in the Battle 4 Atlantis, an eight team tournament which pays each school $2 million. Their first game is against Duke and then they play either Memphis or VCU. Next, they play at Florida State in the Big Ten- ACC Challenge. They also travel to Los Angeles to play USC. If Minnesota can win just two of those four games they will be in a great position going into Big Ten play.
#2 Michigan State- It is no secret that Tom Izzo loves to play big non-conference games. This year is no different. They start their season by traveling to Germany to play an unsure Connecticut team, that just lost its coach of 26 years in Jim Calhoun, in the Armed Forces Classic. That is a game they should win, but with young kids playing in another continent against a still talented Uconn team you just never know. Next, they play in Atlanta against last year’s national title runner-up Kansas. They also host dangerous Oakland and travel to play Miami (FL) in the Big Ten – ACC Challenge. Izzo coached teams always come prepared and they should have some nice wins under their belts come conference play time.
#1 Ohio State- Ohio State has the toughest non-conference in the Big Ten. They start by playing Marquette in the Carrier Classic in South Carolina. Their next big game is when they play either Washington or Seton Hall in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off. Ten days later the Buckeyes play Duke in the Big Ten- ACC Challenge, one of the premier games in the annual inter-conference clash. Finally, before Big Ten play starts Ohio State also faces Long Beach State and mighty Kansas at home. They have five tough games, three of which are either on the road or at a neutral site. Depending on how these big games go Ohio State could either be extremely confident or stumbling at the start of conference play.
Playing hard non-conference foes can be a big risk. However, the risk often pays off come selection Sunday. It is no secret that the elite Big Ten teams know this. Along with Michigan State and Ohio State, Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin also play some tough non-conference games. To be the best you must beat the best. That is how college basketball works.