Friday, January 28, 2022

Toughest college basketball schedules 2021-22: Alabama, UNC, Gonzaga face difficult nonconference slates

The countdown to college basketball season is going by quickly as teams begin taking the court this weekend for exhibition games in anticipation of opening day on Nov. 9. For some programs, the sense of urgency to prepare may be particularly strong because of what awaits in the opening weeks of the season. While some programs have opted for nonconference schedules composed mostly of cupcake opponents — we’ll cover those next week — others are preparing for early-season gauntlets.

There can be a big payoff for playing a challenging nonconference schedule, as it offers teams a chance to solidify their NCAA Tournament resumes before league play ever begins. But a tough schedule brings the risk of amassing losses and being embarrassed in a primetime slot.

So who is playing the toughest nonconference in college basketball this season? After surveying every schedule in the sport’s top conferences along with those of other national contenders, five emerged as the best. It’s an inexact science, because the opponents for some teams will be determined how the brackets shake out in early-season tournaments. But for now, here’s a ranking of the toughest five nonconference schedules.

The preseason AP Top 25 rankings are used if applicable with Matt Norlander’s No. 1-358 rankings used for all others.

1. Alabama

Nov. 9: vs. Louisiana Tech — 76

Nov. 12: vs. South Dakota State — 107

Nov. 16: vs. South Alabama — 175

Nov. 19 vs. Oakland — 225

Nov. 25: Iona (neutral) — 139

Nov. 27: Belmont/Drake (neutral) 38/72

Nov. 28: TBA in ESPN Events Invitational (potentially No. 3 Kansas)

Dec. 4: at No. 1 Gonzaga (Seattle)

Dec. 11: vs. No. 15 Houston

Dec. 14: at No. 12 Memphis

Dec. 18: vs. Jacksonville State — 23

Dec. 21: vs. Colorado State — 32

Jan. 29: vs. No. 8 Baylor

The Crimson Tide play three of last season’s Final Four teams in Gonzaga, Houston and Baylor. They also face No. 12 Memphis on the road. If things break as expected in the ESPN Events Invitational, the Crimson Tide could also play No. 3 Kansas. A meeting with the Jayhawks would mean this team ends up playing five of the top 15 from the preseason AP Top 25. That’s a crazy slate. Even the Crimson Tide’s “easy” nonconference games are against respectable foes such as Colorado State, Louisiana Tech, South Dakota State and Iona.

2. North Carolina

Nov. 5: vs. Loyola (MD) — 207

Nov. 12: vs. Brown — 156

Nov. 16: at Charleston — 253

Nov. 20: No. 7 Purdue (neutral)

Nov. 21: No. 4 Villanova OR No. 18 Tennessee (neutral)

Nov. 23: vs. UNC Asheville — 226

Dec. 1: vs. No. 6 Michigan

Dec. 11: vs. Elon — 209

Dec. 14: vs. Furman — 97

Dec. 18: vs. No. 2 UCLA (neutral)

Dec. 21: vs. Appalachian State — 142

There are plenty of cupcakes on North Carolina’s schedule, as the Tar Heels start out with four games against teams ranked No. 150 or lower in Matt Norlander’s preseason 1-358 ranking. But when it ramps up, it really ramps up for the Tar Heels. They are guaranteed two games against preseason top-20 teams in the Air Force Reserve Hall of Fame Tip-Off, which ranks as our No. 1 early-season tournament. The first one is against No. 7 Purdue, and then they will play either No. 4 Villanova or No. 18 Tennessee the following day. Then, in December, UNC plays No. 6 Michigan in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Dec. 1 and UCLA in the CBS Sports Classic on Dec. 18. All told, the Tar Heels could end up playing four of the preseason top 10 teams.

3. Gonzaga

Nov. 9: vs. Dixie State — 283

Nov. 13: vs. No. 5 Texas

Nov. 15: vs. Alcorn State — 355

Nov. 19: vs. Bellarmine — 198

Nov. 22: vs. Central Michigan (neutral) — 204

Nov. 23: vs. No. 2 UCLA (neutral)

Nov. 26: vs. No. 9 Duke (neutral)

Nov. 29: vs. Tarleton State — 242

Dec. 4: vs. No. 14 Alabama (Seattle)

Dec. 9: vs. Merrimack — 248

Dec. 12: vs. Washington — 94

Dec. 18: vs. Texas Tech (neutral) — 40

The Bulldogs have little choice but to play a challenging non conference slate so that they can build a solid NCAA Tournament resume and get a taste of high-level competition before cruising through the relatively easy West Coast Conference. This year’s non conference schedule is particularly strong, with four games scheduled against preseason top-15 teams (No. 2 UCLA, No. 5 Texas, No. 9 Duke and No. 14 Alabama). Gonzaga will also play Washington and Texas Tech.

4. Villanova

Nov. 9: vs. Mount St. Mary’s — 221

Nov. 12: at No. 2 UCLA

Nov. 16: vs. Howard — 342

Nov. 20: No. 18 Tennessee (neutral)

Nov. 21: No. 7 Purdue OR North Carolina — 20

Nov. 28: at La Salle — 229

Dec. 1:  at Penn — 202

Dec. 4: vs. St. Joseph’s — 200

Dec. 7: Syracuse (neutral) — 46

Dec. 12: at No. 8 Baylor

Dec. 29: vs. Temple — 137

The No. 4 Wildcats play at No. 2 UCLA on Nov. 12 in their second game of the season. Eight days later, they will be taking on No. 20 Tennessee in the Air Force Reserve Hall of Fame Tip-Off. The following day, they will face either No. 7 Purdue or North Carolina. December brings a neutral-site game with Syracuse and a road game against defending national champion Baylor. There are plenty of easy wins incorporated into Villanova’s non conference schedule, but the big games are really big.

5. Seton Hall

Nov. 14: vs. Yale — 88

Nov. 16: at No. 6 Michigan

Nov. 22: vs. No. 17 Ohio State (neutral)

Nov. 24: vs. Cal OR Florida (neutral) — 119/35

Nov. 28: vs. Bethune Cookman — 352

Dec. 1: vs. Wagner — 240

Dec. 4: vs. Nyack — (DII)

Dec. 9: vs. No. 5 Texas

Dec. 12: vs. Rutgers — 39

Dec. 18: Iona (neutral) — 139

This schedule stands out as tough not only because of who is on it but also because of who is playing it. The Pirates finished 14-13 last season and missed out on the NCAA Tournament. This year, they are replacing leading scorer and co-Big East Player of the Year Sandro Mamukelashvili and are picked to finish fifth in the Big East. Facing No. 5 Texas, No. 6 Michigan and No. 17 Ohio State along with Rutgers won’t be easy. Throw in a potential game with Florida after the Ohio State game in the Fort Myers Tip-Off along with a contest against Iona, a 2021 NCAA Tournament team, and you get some tough tests for the Pirates.

Honorable mentions

The teams considered for the rankings were taken from the AP Top 25 and college basketball’s power conferences. But there are plenty of other programs playing particularly tough schedules. Here are a couple of tough schedules from mid-majors.

Bellarmine

Key games

Nov. 9: at No. 7 Purdue

Nov. 17: at Saint Mary’s — 56

Nov. 19: at No. 1 Gonzaga

Nov. 22: vs. No. 2 UCLA (neutral)

Nov. 30: at West Virginia — 45

After going 14-8 during its first season in Division I, Bellarmine of the ASUN is loading up on tough games. The Knights play three teams in the preseason AP top 10 and five total games against top-60 foes before conference play ramps up. Considering that Bellarmine’s first-ever game as a Division I team was played at Duke last season, it’s obvious this program has little fear.

Alabama State

Key games

Nov. 9: at Western Kentucky — 85

Nov. 10: at Vanderbilt — 102

Nov. 16: at Iowa State — 148

Nov. 18: at Iowa — 59

Dec. 1: at Dayton — 71

Dec. 15: at No. 2 UCLA

Dec. 21: at No. 12 Memphis

Dec. 28: at Texas Tech — 40

Every team in the SWAC loads up on road games against bigger names for financial purposes, and things are no different for Alabama State. What does stick about the Hornets’ schedule, though, is the presence of games at UCLA and Memphis. In total, Alabama State, coached by former NBA star Mo Williams, will play eight road games against teams that are either in a power conference or Norlander’s preseason top 100.

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