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Posted: Tuesday September 15, 2009 4:55PM; Updated: Wednesday September 16, 2009 10:27AM
Luke Winn Luke Winn >
INSIDE COLLEGE BASKETBALL

UNC, Michigan St. on top again with toughest non-league schedules

Story Highlights

With the toughest non-conference schedule, UNC faces some tough teams early

Pittsburgh and Syracuse avoid any true road games outside of Big East

Schools like Texas use non-league games as recruiting showdowns in hotbeds

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Ty Lawson heir apparent Larry Drew II faces early tests against Ohio State, Kentucky and Michigan State.
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Every major-conference team that I'd consider ranking in a preseason top 25 -- well, every team other than Mississippi State -- has made its 2009-10 schedule public, and I spent the last few days poring over them.

This is an effective way to kill time in the slow buildup to Midnight Madness, plot out viewing/travel plans for November and December, and also drive oneself dizzy from staring at too many HTML tables shaded in alternate grays. What did I learn? To begin, that North Carolina, while it won't be No. 1 in any preseason polls, still deserves to be atop one list:

The Five Toughest Non-League Schedules

1. NORTH CAROLINA

Biggest Games:
11/19 vs. Ohio State (Coaches vs. Cancer, NYC) 11/20 vs. Cal/Syracuse (Coaches vs. Cancer)
12/1 vs. Michigan State
12/5 at Kentucky
12/19 vs. Texas (at Cowboys Stadium, Arlington)

Last season, when Carolina boasted a starting lineup of three first-round draft picks (Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington) and had a future Lottery Pick stashed on its bench (Ed Davis), it played an atrocious non-league schedule. It may have been unintentionally atrocious, in that it happened to include the worst Kentucky team in almost 20 years, an epically bad Oregon team and a defenseless Notre Dame team in Maui, as well as a non-scary version of Nevada in Reno. But the fact is that it included just one true road game (Nevada) and one NCAA tournament-bound opponent (Michigan State). It was hardly a slate befitting the unanimous preseason No. 1 team.

The Tar Heels seem to be overcompensating in 2009-10: Despite a shaky backcourt situation and no real expectations of repeating as national champs, they have the toughest non-conference schedule in the country. They're the only team that's facing three likely preseason top-five foes (home vs. Michigan State, then a trip to Kentucky, and a faux-neutral date against Texas in Cowboys Stadium's basketball test-run for the 2010 NBA All-Star Game). UNC is also a part of one of the toughest multi-team events, the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic in New York, where it'll face the Big Ten's third-best team, Ohio State, and possibly play Pac-10 favorite Cal. Sophomore Larry Drew II, Lawson's heir at the point, is going to get tested early.

2. MICHIGAN STATE

Biggest Games:
11/17 vs. Gonzaga
11/27 vs. Florida (Legends Classic, Atlantic City)
11/28 vs. UMass/Rutgers (Legends Classic)
12/1 at North Carolina (ACC/Big Ten Challenge)
12/22 at Texas

The Spartans are the only elite team playing two true road games against top-10 teams (UNC and Texas). Their November opponents aren't bad, either: Florida missed the NCAA tournament last season but should get to the dance with its talent infusion of freshman Kenny Boynton and Georgetown transfer Vernon Macklin while Gonzaga will have one of the country's better backcourt trios in Matt Bouldin, Steven Gray and Demetri Goodson.

3. TEXAS

Biggest Games:
11/24 vs. Pitt (likely, in CBE Classic final)
12/3 vs. USC (Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series)
12/19 vs. North Carolina (at Cowboys Stadium)
12/22 vs. Michigan State
1/5 at Arkansas
1/23 at UConn

The 'Horns made the bold move of scheduling two difficult, true road games after the New Year -- a Jan. 5 trip to Arkansas and a Jan. 23 trip to UConn. They'll get on CBS for the battle with the Huskies, which is the first of a four-game deal. I only wish Texas could go outside the purview of the Big 12 and add a second game with Kansas. That matchup will be a bigger intra-conference game than Duke-UNC this season, and we only get it once, on Feb. 8 in Austin.

4. OHIO STATE

Biggest Games:
11/19 vs. North Carolina (Coaches vs. Cancer, NYC)
11/20 vs. Cal/Syracuse (Coaches vs. Cancer)
12/2 vs. Florida State (ACC/Big Ten Challenge)
12/12 at Butler
1/23 at West Virginia

Buckeyes coach Thad Matta gets a recruiting benefit out of playing in Indianapolis, where he signed 2006 Final Four cogs Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. The tradeoff is that, on Dec. 12, OSU has to face the most talented Butler team of this decade -- one that might be ranked higher than the Buckeyes in the preseason polls. The benefit of playing in Morgantown on Jan. 23 is exposure on CBS, but that's it: the Mountaineers are a sleeper pick to win the Big East, and will be just as bruising as anyone the Buckeyes will face in the Big Ten.

5. KANSAS

Biggest Games:
11/17 vs. Memphis (Hall of Fame Classic, St. Louis)
12/6 at UCLA (Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series)
12/19 vs. Michigan
12/22 vs. Cal
1/2 at Temple
1/10 at Tennessee

When KU senior associate athletic director Larry Keating and John Calipari planned the Jayhawks-Tigers title-game rematch last year, it had the makings of a potential No. 1-vs.-No. 2 game in St. Louis. With Calipari -- and more importantly, Memphis recruits John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Darnell Dodson -- gone to Kentucky, the matchup loses a bit of its luster. Kansas still has an impressive, bi-coastal schedule, though, with visits to L.A. (for UCLA) and Philly (Temple, plus the home of the Morris twins), and a headlining game against Kentucky's prime SEC title contender, Tennessee.

* I deliberately excluded mid- and low-major schedules from consideration here, because I was interested in what teams that don't need need huge out-of-league RPI boosts or guarantee money are willing to do voluntarily.

THE NEXT FIVE TOUGHEST ...

6. Duke

The Blue Devils will likely face UConn in the NIT Season Tip- Off Final at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 27, and they have a guaranteed Garden game against Gonzaga on Dec. 19. They're also playing true road games at Wisconsin (for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge) on Dec. 2 and Georgetown on Jan. 30. A home date with Tulsa in the middle of ACC play -- Feb. 25 -- isn't a gimme, either. The Golden Hurricane should be in contention for an at-large NCAA berth out of Conference USA.

7. West Virginia

The Mountaineers are in the loaded Anaheim Classic along with Texas A&M, Clemson, UCLA, Butler and Minnesota, plus have true road dates scheduled with Purdue (a top-10 team) on Jan. 1 and Cleveland State (last year's Horizon League tournament champ) on Dec. 19. Home games with Ole Miss on Dec. 23 and Ohio State on Jan. 23 are tough as well

8. Michigan

This isn't the greatest year to take a road trip to Kansas, but the Wolverines are doing so on Dec. 19, just 10 days after playing a true road game at Utah. They're also punishing themselves by hosting UConn in a nationally televised game on Jan. 17, just three days before a Big Ten road swing through Madison and West Lafayette. ... and by playing in the Old Spice Classic (along with Marquette, Xavier, Florida State and Baylor), the finals of which are just three days before a Dec. 2 home date with Boston College.

9. Georgetown

The Hoyas have one of the tougher turnarounds I've seen in November or December, playing Butler in the Jimmy V Classic on Dec. 8 in New York, then flying to California to play Washington in the Wooden Classic in Anaheim on Dec. 12. The Huskies should be one of the country's best up-tempo teams with Abdul Gaddy and Isaiah Thomas in the backcourt, and Butler isn't just the best methodical mid-major. As Georgetown coach John Thompson III told me this week, "[Butler's] one of the best teams in the country, period."

10. Illinois

The Illini only have one true road game (at Clemson for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Dec. 2), but they've put together an ambitious run of neutral and semi-neutral games. They'll play Utah and then (likely) Oklahoma State in Las Vegas over Thanksgiving weekend; Georgia in Duluth, Ga., on Dec. 19; Missouri in St. Louis on Dec. 23; and Gonzaga in Chicago on Jan. 2.

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