Whether your favorite college hoops team plays a true gauntlet-of-a-schedule or faces literal cupcakes, I can assure that in listening to coachspeak over the years covering this silly sport, every one of them will say the same of their degree of difficulty entering the season: that the schedule their team faces is unrelenting and brutal.
Some college coaches, though, are more truthful than others and have the track record to back up their big talk.
Gonzaga, for instance, consistently schedules aggressively in its nonconference slate to make up for any lost opportunities it has in playing in the WCC. Michigan State and Tom Izzo are also notorious for lining up an onslaught.
But which programs actually have the most difficult schedules in 2023-24? Which coaches are doing more than lip service in the preseason to set expectations accordingly?
We looked over the schedules and came to our own conclusions below. For this exercise we weighted nonconference schedules slightly more than conference schedules (to avoid having a list full of Big 12 teams), but tried to account for both to some degree. We will also at times reference Cameron Salerno’s latest article in which he ranked some of the best games of the upcoming season for the preseason AP Top 25 teams.
Let’s get into it with a look at five notable tough schedules for 2023-24:
1. Michigan State
- vs. No. 2 Duke, Nov. 14 in Champions Classic
- vs. No. 12 Arizona, Nov. 23 in Acrisure Classic
- vs. No. 20 Baylor, Dec. 16 in Detroit
- vs. No. 3 Purdue, March 2 in West Lafayette, Indiana
Schedule thoughts: Tom Izzo talks a big talk about his schedule every year, and every year, he walks a big, elongated walk by lining up one of the toughest schedules in the sport. And this year his Spartans — ranked No. 4 in the preseason AP Top 25 — once again have a brutal schedule in nonconference play once again. The showdown vs. Duke in the Champions Classic in the opening week of the season should be spectacular, but don’t sleep on the Dec. 16 matchup vs. Baylor slated to be played at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.
- vs. No. 6 UConn, Dec. 1 in Lawrence, Kansas
- vs. No. 16 Kentucky, Nov. 14 in Champions Classic
- at No. 7 Houston, March 9 in Houston
Schedule thoughts: The preseason No. 1 Jayhawks darn near took the cake on this list as the team with the toughest schedule. Not only does KU play in the toughest conference in college basketball, but Bill Self also made sure his nonconference was full of traps to boot. The environment when defending champion UConn comes to Allen Fieldhouse on Dec. 1 probably figures to equal out to the best game among them all, though I think the Champions Classic game vs. No. 16 Kentucky on Nov. 14 could prove to be more tricky a task.
3. Arkansas Pine Bluff
- at No. 11 Gonzaga, Dec. 5 in Spokane, Washington
- at No. 6 UConn, Dec. 9 at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Connecticut
- at Oklahoma, Nov. 30 in Norman, Oklahoma
Schedule thoughts: We have to show love to the SWAC here. UAPB just fearlessly welcomes all comers in its nonconference schedule and will go on the road to face both Gonzaga, UConn and Oklahoma in the span of two weeks from late November to early December. Will it win any of those games? Probably not! But does it deserve credit for putting this schedule together? Absolutely! We love to see it.
- at No. 5 UConn, Feb. 17 at XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut
- at No. 25 Illinois, Nov. 14 in Champaign, Illinois
- vs. UCLA, Nov. 20 in Maui Invitational
Schedule thoughts: Shaka Smart’s electric offense was one of the biggest storylines in college hoops last season and that brand of play will be on full display in some major early-season matchups this season. With Tyler Kolek back, Marquette will be a major force as it goes on the road to face Illinois on Nov. 14 and then faces UCLA, among other teams, in the Maui Invitational later that month.
- vs. No. 11 Gonzaga, Nov. 20 in Maui Invitational
- vs. No. 24 Alabama, Dec. 9 in Toronto
- vs. No. 12 Arizona, Dec. 16 in Indy Classic
- at No. 3 Michigan State, March 2 in West Lafayette, Indiana
Schedule thoughts: Get your Fairleigh Dickinson jokes off now, folks, because by March Madness, I’m Fairleigh certain the trolls will be eating their words. It’ll be hard for Purdue reputationally to shake losing to a No. 16 seed in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, I’ll admit, but counterpoint: the only other No. 1 seed to suffer such a loss (Virginia) came back the following season to win the national championship. So 100% of No. 1 seeded teams to lose to a No. 16 seed have gone on to win the title the following year. Facts are facts.