If the importance of non-conference scheduling wasn't already clear, recent years have made it plainly obvious, especially when it comes to NCAA tournament seeding and bubble decisions. Just look at the new quadrant system, which considers a win on the road over a top-75 team to have the same weight as a win at home over a top-30 team or a win on a netural court over a top-50 team. The way a coach decides to (or is able to) schedule his non-conference slate and how his team performs in it can have a big impact later, especially if a team struggles in conference play or winds up in a league without much depth. Last season, Oklahoma and Arizona State both made the NCAA tournament despite going 8–10 in their respective conferences, and it was largely because of their non-conference efforts, where they amassed several key victories away from Norman and Tempe.
A strong non-conference schedule means more opportunities at wins that will impress the selection committee, and it can sometimes give teams an advantage when entering conference play. So which teams have the toughest games lined up in 2018–19? Our top 10 is below.
*indicates that the game is taking place at a neutral site
Notable games: at Kentucky, vs. Tennessee/Louisville* vs. Michigan State*, vs. Villanova, vs. Marquette*, at Arizona State
A juggernaut schedule for the Jayhawks, especially if that Tennessee game pans out (the two will meet if Kansas beats Marquette and the Vols beat Louisville in the NIT Tip-Off). Playing on the road at Kentucky is the toughest single draw of any of the teams on this list, even if it comes in late January, when both sides should be in better form. But this non-conference schedule is also deep, with games against Michigan State, Villanova, Marquette and at Arizona State all presenting varying degrees of difficulty. Kansas could very well be the preseason No. 1 team in the country, so it’s a fitting schedule for a team that wants to be the best of the best. The new-look Jayhawks will need to come together quickly, though, with three of these matchups (Michigan State, Marquette and likely Tennessee) coming in November.
Notable games: at North Carolina, Maui Invitational, vs. Tennessee*, vs. Washington, vs. Texas A&M, at Creighton
The Zags are running the gantlet with this loaded non-conference slate, which includes a particularly tough two-week stretch to start December. In addition to two true road games, one of which is in Chapel Hill, they get a fellow preseason Final Four contender in Tennessee at a neutral site and are part of the stacked Maui Invitational field. In Maui, Gonzaga will open with Illinois and likely play the winner of Arizona/Iowa State before potentially meeting Duke or Auburn in the championship.
Should the Bulldogs meet Duke in Maui, they’d face what are expected to be three preseason top-10 teams, with none of those games coming at home. And because of the nature of the WCC, Gonzaga has more pressure on it to earn marquee wins in non-conference play than any of the teams it’s likely to potentially battle for a No. 1 seed in March.
3. North Carolina
Notable games: vs. Kentucky*, vs. Gonzaga, vs. Michigan State/UCLA*, at Michigan, vs. Texas*, vs. Davidson
The Tar Heels have a strong non-conference run and, in a rare move, open with two mid-major road games—against Wofford, which shockingly upset them in Chapel Hill last season, and nearby Elon. But the true road test will come when UNC travels to Ann Arbor to face Michigan in a Big Ten/ACC Challenge rematch. December games with Kentucky and Gonzaga are the headliners on this schedule, but the Las Vegas Invitational features a strong quartet of teams that could lead to a North Carolina–Michigan State showdown. UNC also hosts Davidson and Harvard, two teams that aren’t likely to be pushovers. It’s a good, challenging schedule for a team that will be led by seniors while integrating a talented freshman trio.
Notable games: vs. Duke*, vs. North Carolina*, vs. Kansas, at Louisville, vs. Utah, vs. Seton Hall
The Wildcats are only a hair behind North Carolina, and while their schedule is a tad more top-heavy than the Heels’, it doesn’t have quite the level of depth. Facing Duke and UNC on neutral courts and Kansas at home speaks for itself, and Louisville will hopefully provide a better test than the Cardinals did in the rivalry game last season. Utah and Seton Hall are both power conference teams on the downswing, though, and are unlikely to move the meter too much.
Kentucky is in a good position, however, because it has three chances at top marquee wins outside of the SEC and plays in a conference that may be the country's deepest and will provide plenty more résumé-boosting opportunities. The Wildcats’ non-conference schedule is also structured in a favorable way, as their three biggest games (Duke, UNC and Kansas) are spread out on Nov. 6, Dec. 22 and Jan. 26. After the showdown with the Blue Devils, they’ll have plenty of time to work out the kinks against a slew of mid-majors, and then will move up a step to face the Utes and Pirates before playing the Tar Heels.
Notable games: vs. Kentucky*, Maui Invitational, vs. Indiana, vs. Texas Tech*, vs. St. John’s
Like Gonzaga, the Blue Devils are part of the loaded Maui Invitational field, where they seem sure to face multiple quality teams. That and the Champions Classic opener against Kentucky are the marquee events of their non-conference slate, and their date with Indiana will be highly anticipated as well. Games with Texas Tech and St. John’s are also solid non-conference tests, especially if Mustapha Heron is eligible for the Red Storm. The only area Duke’s schedule gets dinged in is the lack of a true road game—its Jan. 8 ACC meeting with Wake Forest will be its first of the year. That’s not necessarily a terrible thing for a young team, but ideally the Blue Devils would get at least one taste of a road environment before starting conference play.
6. Texas Southern
Notable games: at Gonzaga, at Oregon, at Iowa State, at Arizona State, at Texas A&M, at Baylor, at San Diego State, at Georgia
No, that’s not a typo—all of those games are on the road. This is actually nothing new for the Tigers, who have scheduled like this for the last few years under then-coach Mike Davis. Davis, who felt that a loaded road slate builds character, left for Detroit-Mercy over the offseason, and former LSU coach Johnny Jones is now in charge.
This year’s non-conference schedule actually isn’t quite as daunting as last year’s—when Texas Southern opened 0–13 and didn’t play at home until Jan. 1—but it’s still a doozy. We’ll see if it pays off similarly, as last year the battle-tested Tigers turned their brutal start into a 12–6 conference season, then won the SWAC tournament to go dancing.
Notable games: vs. Michigan State, vs. West Virginia*, vs. Butler/Virginia*, vs. Stanford/Wisconsin*, at Florida State, at TCU, vs. Butler, vs. Oklahoma*
This is a deep slate for the Gators, which are expected to play eight of their 13 non-conference games against power conference teams. We say “expected” because the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament could shake out in a number of ways, though a semifinal against Wisconsin and a final game against either Butler (if it loses to the Badgers) or Virginia (if it wins) are the most likely outcomes. If Florida were to face the Cavaliers, it would be enough to bump it up a spot on this list. Regardless of what happens in the Bahamas, the Gators should enter SEC play having been tested plenty, with only its SEC/Big 12 Challenge game at TCU happening after conference play begins.
Notable games: at Gonzaga, at Auburn, Virginia Tech*, Western Kentucky, Minnesota*, Texas A&M*
Mike Hopkins was aggressive in scheduling, and the tandem of road games at Gonzaga and Auburn is an extremely strong one. Washington, which is coming off an NIT appearance and could contend in the Pac-12 after returning its core, won’t be easing its way into the season, either. It opens against a Western Kentucky team that is no slouch (the Hilltoppers have five-star Charles Bassey and Auburn transfer Desean Murray, though they recently learned starting PG Lamonte Bearden won’t be eligible in the first semester) before traveling to Alabama three days later.
The Huskies also have three games in Vancouver in November, which should give them a fan advantage over opponents like Minnesota and Texas A&M. Washington has an early chance to show it has improved since the same point last season with a pair of rematches: at Gonzaga, which it lost to by 27, and on a neutral court against Virginia Tech, which it lost to by 24.
9. Michigan State
Notable games: vs. Kansas*, vs. UNC/Texas*, vs. UCLA*, at Florida, at Louisville
This is a solid schedule for an experienced team that lost two NBA lottery picks, and it will be enhanced if the Spartans beat UCLA at the Las Vegas Invitational and get lined up with North Carolina in the final. Florida and Louisville are two road trips that are both winnable yet challenging and will look strong on Michigan State’s résumé. There’s some definite risk-reward potential here, however; the Spartans could get two tries at a truly marquee win (Kansas, UNC) but could also easily fall in both, putting a lot of pressure on the trips to Louisville and Gainesville.
10. Arizona State
Notable games: vs. Kansas, vs. Nevada*, vs. Mississippi State, at Vanderbilt, at Georgia
The Sun Devils’ schedule features two matchups with likely preseason top-10 teams (Kansas and Nevada) and three true road games. And even though two of those three road games (at Georgia and at San Francisco) are quite winnable, with the third being a tougher challenge at Vanderbilt, there’s always something to be said for the willingness to go on the road that many times before conference play hits. And for a young team with only two seniors on the roster, that kind of experience combined with hosting a team like Kansas (which Arizona State beat at Allen Fieldhouse last year) can be invaluable.
Honorable Mention: Louisville, Villanova, UT Arlington, South Carolina, UConn, Marquette, Auburn, Wisconsin, UCLA, Seton Hall, North Florida, Wofford