Last season, after I ranked the most difficult nonconference schedules, the teams at Nos. 1 and 3 (North Carolina and Texas) imploded, while the teams at Nos. 2, 6 and 7 (Michigan State, Duke and West Virginia) made the Final Four. The lesson, I suppose, is that a tough schedule is a good and vital thing -- but only if you have the right personnel to endure it.
BCS conference teams were the only ones considered for these rankings, because they, unlike the Gonzagas and Butlers of the college hoops world, have the luxury of choice in scheduling. The goal was to look at who's voluntarily putting themselves through the wringer. My criteria for what's tough are, in order: willingness to play legitimate true-road and semi-road games; entries into competitive, neutral-court tournaments; non-gimme home dates; and overall schedule quality.
Will Georgetown, this year's No. 1-ranked team, use its schedule as a springboard for a deep NCAA tournament run ... or simply be exposed before it even hits the Big East?
ROAD11/12 at Old Dominion12/9 at Temple12/23 at Memphis
SEMI-ROAD11/30 vs. Missouri (in Kansas City)
NEUTRAL11/18 vs. Coastal Carolina (Charleston Classic)11/19 vs. Wofford/USC-Upstate (Charleston Classic) 11/21. vs. N.C. State/East Carolina/George Mason/Charlotte (Charleston Classic)
HOME12/4 vs. Utah State
Bold move by the Hoyas, building a schedule this difficult for their first season without big man Greg Monroe. They're the lone potentially ranked, major-conference team with three true road games and a semi-road game. The trips are hardly easy, either -- visits to the best team in the CAA (Old Dominion), the best team in the A-10 (Temple), the best team in the C-USA (Memphis) and a Big 12 contender (Missouri in Kansas City). Georgetown's multi-team event, the Charleston Classic, isn't a blockbuster, but the bracket should set up a meeting with the best team in the Southern Conference (Wofford) and either the second-best CAA team (George Mason) or an improved N.C. State squad. A home game against WAC favorite Utah State completes a slate of non-BCS all-stars, most of them better than the Ohio team the Hoyas were upset by in the first round of last season's NCAA tournament.
ROAD11/19 at Portland12/4 at North Carolina12/31 at Louisville
NEUTRAL11/22 vs. Oklahoma (Maui Invitational)11/23 vs. Washington/Virginia (Maui Invitational)11/24 vs. Michigan State/UConn/Wichita State (Maui Invitational)
SEMI-HOME12/8 vs. Notre Dame (in Louisville)
HOME12/11 vs. Indiana12/22 vs. Winthrop
The Wildcats are the only other quality BCS conference team with three true road games. The UNC trip is one of the most-anticipated games of December, while the Portland trip is essentially a recruiting visit: power forward Terrence Jones, the final commitment in Kentucky's loaded 2010 class, is from there, as is Kyle Wiltjer, a likely frontcourt starter when he arrives in 2011. There's plenty of intrigue in a potential second-round meeting with Washington in Maui, now that the 'Cats have two former UW commitments (Jones and the yet-to-be-eligible Enes Kanter) on their roster. If a Kentucky-Michigan State final occurs in Maui, that could push the Wildcat's schedule to No. 1.
ROAD12/5 at USC12/22 at Michigan State
SEMI-ROAD12/18 vs. North Carolina (in Greensboro)
NEUTRAL11/18 vs. Illinois (2K Sports College Hoops Classic, New York City)11/19 vs. Pittsburgh/Maryland (2K Sports College Hoops Classic)
HOME1/4 vs. Arkansas1/8 vs. UConn
There will be no easing into the point guard position for freshman Cory Joseph. Consider the guards he'll face before Big 12 play begins in earnest: Kalin Lucas (Michigan State), Demetri McCamey (Illinois), Kemba Walker (UConn) and possibly Ashton Gibbs (Pitt), if the Longhorns reach the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic final. All four are legit All-America candidates. There's very little -- if anything -- separating Texas' schedule from Georgetown's and Kentucky's.
ROAD12/11 at Pitt1/22 at UConn
11/24 vs. Wake Forest (NIT Season Tip-Off, New York City)11/26 vs. Villanova/UCLA (NIT Season Tip-Off)
HOME11/16 vs. Belmont (NIT Season Tip-Off)11/17 vs. Missouri State/Arkansas State (NIT Season Tip-Off)12/14 vs. Oakland12/21 vs. USC12/23 vs. Belmont1/5 vs. Memphis
The Vols are doing a veritable tour of the Big East, traveling to Pitt and UConn, and potentially facing Villanova at Madison Square Garden in the NIT Season Tip-Off final. Belmont (whom Tennessee plays twice!), Missouri State and Oakland are all solid mid-major foes, albeit at home, while the Memphis game will make for excellent early-January TV, showcasing three of the nation's best freshmen in the Tigers' Joe Jackson and Will Barton and the Vols' Tobias Harris.
ROAD12/1 at Duke
NEUTRAL11/23 vs. UConn/Wichita State (Maui Invitational)11/24 vs. Kentucky/Oklahoma/Virginia/Washington (Maui Invitational)12/7 vs. Syracuse (Jimmy V Classic, New York City)12/11 vs. Oakland (Auburn Hills, Mich.)
HOME11/16 vs. South Carolina12/22 vs. Texas
The Spartans received the toughest draw of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, traveling Duke for a game that could very well feature the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the country. The showdown between Lucas, the nation's best senior point guard, and the Blue Devils' Kyrie Irving, the No. 1 freshman point guard, is a must-see event. Michigan State should get two strong games in Maui, too, against either UConn or Wichita State (the Missouri Valley favorite) in the second round, and Kentucky or Washington in the final.
ROAD12/18 at Xavier12/29 at Richmond
PROBABLE NEUTRAL11/24 vs. Tennessee (NIT Season Tip-Off, New York City)11/26 vs. Villanova/UCLA (NIT Season Tip-Off)
HOME11/16 vs. VCU/Winthrop (NIT Season Tip-Off) 11/30 vs. Iowa1/2 vs. Gonzaga
The Demon Deacons, like Georgetown, are willing to face non-BCS all-stars at home (Gonzaga) and on the road (Xavier and Richmond). The Richmond game is a homecoming of sorts for Wake freshman Travis McKie, whom Scout.com ranked as the No. 10 small forward in the 2010 class. Making the NIT Tip-Off finals in New York City is no guarantee, with VCU standing in the way in the early rounds. Wake has more overall size and athleticism, but the Rams will be starting four seniors, including likely all-conference point guard Joey Rodriguez, and former Demon Deacon Jamie Skeen, an athletic, 6-foot-9 power forward.
ROAD12/1 at Wisconsin12/4 at Syracuse
NEUTRAL11/18 vs. East Carolina (Charleston Classic)11/19 vs. Mason/Charlotte (Charleston Classic)11/21 vs. Georgetown/Coastal Carolina/USC/Wofford (Charleston Classic)
HOME12/19 vs. Arizona1/11 vs. San Diego
In the first four days of December, we should find out whether this Wolfpack team -- newly loaded with elite freshman point guard Ryan Harrow and power forward C.J. Leslie -- is capable of playing its way onto the NCAA bubble. Wisconsin's Kohl Center is as difficult to win in as any ACC venue, and Syracuse has the front line (in Fab Melo, Rick Jackson and Kris Joseph) to do battle with State's Leslie, Tracy Smith and Richard Howell.
ROAD11/27 at Oregon1/30 at St. John's
NEUTRAL11/22 vs. Marquette (CBE Classic, Kansas City)11/23 vs. Kansas State/Gonzaga (CBE Classic)12/4 vs. Butler (East Rutherford, N.J.)
HOME12/1 vs. Michigan State12/11 vs. St. Louis1/5 vs. UAB1/23 vs. Temple
The Blue Devils have an impressive schedule, even though it only includes one semi-tough road game, at St. John's in a Duke-friendly building, Madison Square Garden. Their visit to Oregon, allowing Medford product Kyle Singler to play his little brother, E.J., should be a cakewalk given how thin the Ducks are after a catastrophic offseason. Kansas State, a possible opponent in the CBE Classic final, would give Singler and the Brothers Plumlee a physical test in the paint. Duke's best home game, against Michigan State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, is the No. 1 nonconference matchup in the nation.
ROAD12/3 at Washington State
SEMI-ROAD12/18 vs. Florida (in Sunrise, Fla.)
NEUTRAL11/22 vs. Gonzaga (CBE Classic, Kansas City)11/23 vs. Duke/Marquette (CBE Classic)
SEMI-HOME12/21 vs. UNLV (in Kansas City)
HOME11/16 vs. Virginia Tech
Coach Frank Martin is willing to bring his team to South Florida, because of his roots as a high school coach there and his recruiting ties to the area. Thus we're rewarded with an intriguing meeting between the Wildcats and Gators on Dec. 18 in Sunrise -- a game that features two of the country's better scoring guards in Jacob Pullen and Kenny Boynton. The CBE Classic organizers (as well as ESPN) would love to see a K-State-Duke final in Kansas City. A win there for the Wildcats could make them the nation's No. 1-ranked team.
SEMI-ROAD12/4 vs. Gonzaga (in Seattle)
NEUTRAL11/18 vs. Texas (2K Sports College Hoops Classic, New York City)11/19 vs. Pitt/Maryland (2K Sports College Hoops Classic)12/22 vs. Missouri (in St. Louis)
HOME11/13 vs. Southern Illinois11/30 vs. North Carolina12/8 vs. Oakland
The Illini are the only team to crack the top 10 despite not playing a true road game. Trekking to Seattle to face Gonzaga pretty much counts as a road game, though. Winning the Coaches vs. Cancer event at Madison Square Garden -- by beating Texas and (most likely) Pitt -- would send an early statement that Illinois is a legit Big Ten contender. And 11 days after that's over, the Illini get to host North Carolina, a game in which I'm excited to see super-freshmen Jereme Richmond and Harrison Barnes match up on the wing.
UCLA (at Kansas, vs. BYU in Anaheim, vs. St. John's at home, potential NIT Tip-Off games vs. Villanova, Tennessee/Wake)
Purdue (playing at Virginia Tech and West Virginia)
Virginia Tech (at Kansas State, vs. Mississippi State in the Bahamas, at home vs. Purdue)
Arizona (vs. BYU in Salt Lake City, at N.C. State, vs. Kansas in Las Vegas, home vs. New Mexico State)
North Carolina (at Illinois, home vs. Kentucky, semi-home vs. Texas, potential Puerto Rico Tip-Off games against Minnesota and West Virginia/Vandy)
Florida (at Florida State, at Xavier, vs. Kansas State in Sunrise, Fla., home vs. Ohio State)