Nonconference schedule analysis: Big Ten

All week, ESPN.com has been breaking down the nonconference schedules of each and every team in a dozen different leagues. On Tuesday, we began with the ACC, SEC and C-USA. On Wednesday, we continued with the Big East, Atlantic 10 and Colonial.

We devoted Thursday to the West, with the Pac-12, WCC and Mountain West. Friday is all about the Midwest. We began with a look at the Missouri Valley and the Big 12 and finish up with the Big Ten ...


Toughest: Gonzaga (Dec. 3), vs. UNLV in Chicago (Dec. 17), vs. Missouri in St. Louis (Dec. 22)

Next-toughest: Cancun Challenge (Nov. 22-23), at Maryland (Nov. 29)

The rest: Loyola-Chicago (Nov. 11), SIU Edwardsville (Nov. 14), Lipscomb (Nov. 17), Chicago State (Nov. 27), St. Bonaventure (Dec. 7), Coppin State (Dec. 11), Cornell (Dec. 19)

Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- This is your standard Illinois schedule. The Illini have a couple of legitimate true road and home challenges, one against Gonzaga and the other in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge at rebuilding Maryland, and the addition of two typical neutral-site games -- the Braggin' Rights rivalry game with Missouri in St. Louis and a quasi-home game against UNLV at the United Center -- mean the schedule isn't totally forgiving. The Cancun Challenge doesn't offer much -- Richmond is the toughest opponent in that tournament -- but even so, the Illini have a handful of chances to prove themselves in challenging situations.


Toughest: at NC State (Nov. 30), Kentucky (Dec. 10)

Next-toughest: Butler (Nov. 27), vs. Notre Dame in Indianapolis (Dec. 17)

The rest: Stony Brook (Nov. 11), Chattanooga (Nov. 13), at Evansville (Nov. 16), Savannah State (Nov. 19), Gardner-Webb (Nov. 21), Stetson (Dec. 4), Howard (Dec. 19), UMBC (Dec. 22)

Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- In recent seasons, as Indiana has struggled, so have its schedules. Few teams played as soft a nonconference slate as Tom Crean's last season. This season, the schedule improves slightly thanks to the return of two traditions: The Hoosier Invitational (featuring that Nov. 27 game vs. Butler) and the revived Crossroads Classic, a rotating four-team competition boasting IU, Purdue, Notre Dame and Butler. There's also the traditional rivalry game with Kentucky, which Indiana is lucky enough to get at home. (Bold prediction: That crowd is going to be crazy.) After that, it's cupcake city. But the schedule has noticeably improved, and maybe that's in line with what Hoosiers fans will expect from their team's performance this year, too.


Toughest: Clemson (Nov. 29), at Northern Iowa (Dec. 6), at Iowa State (Dec. 9)

Next-toughest: vs. Creighton in Des Moines (Nov. 20)

The rest: Chicago State (Nov. 11), North Carolina A&T (Nov. 14), Northern Illinois (Nov. 17), Campbell (Nov. 23), IPFW (Nov. 26), Brown (Dec. 3), Drake (Dec. 17), Central Arkansas (Dec. 19), Boise State (Dec. 22)

Toughness scale (1-10): 2 -- The good news? Iowa won't have to spend much on airfare until the Big Ten season starts. The bad news? The price of air miles may not be worth the ridicule. If you look closely, you'll notice that Iowa's only nonconference games outside of Iowa City will be played ... in Iowa. That's not to say those games don't present some degree of difficulty -- Creighton is on the rise, Iowa State will have its best team in years and UNI is a very difficult place to play. But thanks to a home year in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, the farthest trip the Hawks will make before Dec. 28 is a two-hour ride west on I-80. It's a half-step removed from playing every nonconference game at Carver-Hawkeye.


Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 21-23), at Virginia (Nov. 29)

Next-toughest: Iowa State (Dec. 3)

The rest: Ferris State (Nov. 11), Towson (Nov. 14), Western Illinois (Nov. 17), vs. Oakland in Auburn Hills, Mich. (Dec. 10), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (Dec. 13), Alabama A&M (Dec. 17), Bradley (Dec. 22)

Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- A Big Ten/ACC Challenge matchup with Virginia is intriguing, but this schedule is all about the Maui Invitational. Michigan tips off against Memphis, a talented team garnering top-15 buzz to begin the season. So it won't take much time to see how this Wolverines team will stack up without departed underclassman Darius Morris. If Michigan wins, it's likely to get a rematch of March's NCAA tournament game with Duke, a game that would make this schedule much more difficult by default. Even if that doesn't happen, the Maui field is so loaded that UM could lose out on the two obvious marquee matchups (Duke, Kansas) and still end up playing Tennessee and either UCLA or Georgetown. Now that's a consolation bracket.


Toughest: vs. North Carolina in San Diego (Nov. 11), vs. Duke in New York (Nov. 15), at Gonzaga (Dec. 10)

Next-toughest: Florida State (Nov. 30)

The rest: Texas Southern (Nov. 18), Arkansas-Little Rock (Nov. 20), Milwaukee (Nov. 23), at Eastern Michigan (Nov. 27), Nebraska-Omaha (Dec. 4), Central Connecticut State (Dec. 7), Bowling Green (Dec. 17), UMKC (Dec. 19), Lehigh (Dec. 22)

Toughness scale (1-10): 9 -- Tom Izzo's reputation for scheduling precedes him: He'll play anyone anywhere at any time, even if it might not be the best idea for his team's record. This season is no different. The Spartans open with a much-hyped game against North Carolina on an aircraft carrier off the coast of San Diego. Short of scheduling the Chicago Bulls to a neutral-site game at a forward operating base in Afghanistan, that's taking "play anyone anywhere" to its furthest logical extreme. And if that weren't bad enough, four days later Michigan State travels all the way across the country to play Duke in Madison Square Garden. There is a bit of relief here in the form of seven home cupcakes, but a trip to Spokane and a home game against Florida State round out one of the most difficult and travel-heavy nonconference schedules you'll see this year.


Toughest: Virginia Tech (Nov. 30), USC (Dec. 3)

Next-toughest: Fairfield (Nov. 17), Old Spice Classic (Nov. 24-27)

The rest: Bucknell (Nov. 11), South Dakota State (Nov. 14), Mount St. Mary's (Nov. 21), Appalachian State (Dec. 6), St. Peter's (Dec. 10), Central Michigan (Dec. 13), North Dakota State (Dec. 22)

Toughness scale (1-10): 4 -- The most noticeable aspect of Minnesota's schedule is its lack of true road games. The Gophers won't play in an opponent's home gym until the Big Ten schedule rolls around. Part of that is coincidence (it's Minnesota's turn to host a Big Ten/ACC Challenge game) and part of it is USC's willingness to come to the Twin Cities for a true road game. Either way, it means the Gophers have to do their "road" work in Orlando at the Old Spice Classic, a tournament they should by all rights aspire to win. There simply aren't that many quality teams in the Old Spice this season: If Minnesota keeps winning and seeds hold, the best three opponents they could face are DePaul, Indiana State and, oh, Dayton? Fairfield? Take your pick. Any way you break it down, the schedule's going to be soft.


Toughest: at USC (Nov. 14), at Creighton (Dec. 4)

Next-toughest: Oregon (Nov. 23)

The rest: South Dakota (Nov. 11), Rhode Island (Nov. 20), South Dakota State (Nov. 26), Wake Forest (Nov. 30), Florida Gulf Coast (Dec. 7), at TCU (Dec. 10), Alcorn State (Dec. 17), Central Michigan (Dec. 20)

Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- I'll give some props (you know, as the kids say) to the Cornhuskers for being willing to schedule a true road game against a decent opponent. And give the Huskers credit for continuing their series with Creighton; the Bluejays have always had trouble convincing high-major teams to come to town. But other than those two games, this schedule is baby-bottom soft. Everything's at home. Every high-major opponent is beatable. Even the Big Ten/ACC Challenge game will be played in Lincoln against a Wake Forest team coming off an historically bad season. Last season, Doc Sadler's bad nonconference schedule put his team behind the NCAA tournament eight-ball even as the Huskers were making a worthwhile argument in Big 12 play. That may well happen again.


Toughest: Baylor (Dec. 4), at Creighton (Dec. 22)

Next-toughest: Charleston Classic (Nov. 17-20), at Georgia Tech (Nov. 29)

The rest: Texas Pan-American (Nov. 13), Stony Brook (Nov. 25), Mississippi Valley State (Dec. 2), Texas Southern (Dec. 15), Central Connecticut (Dec. 17), Eastern Illinois (Dec. 18)

Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- Now this is more like it, Wildcats. In recent years, one of the reasons -- among several -- that Northwestern has fallen short of the first NCAA tournament bid in school history is a distinct lack of quality nonconference opponents. That changes this season. The Charleston Classic isn't a loaded field by any means, but Northwestern could emerge with wins over LSU, Tulsa or Western Kentucky, and VCU, Seton Hall, Georgia Tech or St. Joseph's. The biggest eye-opener will come at Welsh-Ryan Arena, when -- and I admit I had to rub my eyes when I first saw this game on the schedule -- Baylor will come to town. The Wildcats' road game at Creighton is a tough one, too. This isn't a Michigan State-level slate, but it's far better than what Northwestern has played in the past few seasons. And that Baylor game should be fascinating.


Toughest: Florida (Nov. 15), Duke (Nov. 29), at Kansas (Dec. 10)

Next-toughest: at South Carolina (Dec. 17)

The rest: Wright State (Nov. 11), Jackson State (Nov. 18), North Florida (Nov. 21), VMI (Nov. 23), Valparaiso (Nov. 25), Texas Pan-American (Dec. 3), South Carolina-Upstate (Dec. 14), Lamar (Dec. 20), Miami (Ohio) (Dec. 22)

Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- Last year, when Jared Sullinger and company steamrolled Florida in Gainesville, we knew for certain Ohio State was a national title contender and force to be reckoned with. We won't need that revelation this time around. Still, OSU has three truly marquee nonconference battles on its docket. Fortunately for the Buckeyes, two -- Florida and Duke -- come at home. The other, a road trip to Lawrence, will pit Sullinger against fellow star big man Thomas Robinson. All three will be must-see TV. This schedule isn't deep, but boy, those games at the top are good.


Toughest: Hall of Fame Tip-Off (Nov. 19-20)

Next-toughest: at Boston College (Nov. 30), Ole Miss (Dec. 4), at Duquesne (Dec. 10)

The rest: Hartford (Nov. 12), Radford (Nov. 14), Long Island (Nov. 16), Youngstown State (Nov. 23), Lafayette (Dec. 7), Mount St. Mary's (Dec. 18), Cornell (Dec. 21)

Toughness scale (1-10): 4 -- At first glance, it doesn't look like much, but that's before you realize the rebuilding Nittany Lions -- with their first-year head coach, Patrick Chambers, and distinct lack of former four-year star Talor Battle -- will face Kentucky in the first round of the Hall of Fame tournament at Connecticut's Mohegan Sun Arena. That one could get ugly. Then it's either Old Dominion or South Florida on day two. A visit to rebuilding BC could just be ugly, period, while a short trip to play a better-than-you-think Duquesne team is tricky. This schedule could be tougher, sure. But for this team, this season, it might already be tougher than required.


Toughest: at Xavier (Dec. 3), vs. Butler in Indianapolis (Dec. 17)

Next-toughest: Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 17-20), Miami (Fla.) (Nov. 29)

The rest: Northern Illinois (Nov. 11), High Point (Nov. 14), Western Michigan (Nov. 23), Coppin State (Nov. 26), Western Carolina (Dec. 7), Eastern Michigan (Dec. 10)

Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- The 2011 Puerto Rico Tip-Off is no 2011 Maui Invitational, but there are solid teams in the mix. Purdue will open with MAAC favorite Iona on Nov. 17, could play Temple in the second round and, if seeds hold, get a very solid mark against either top-25 Alabama or reigning NIT champ Wichita State. Then there's the trip to Xavier (brutal) and the meeting with Butler at the Crossroads Classic (only slightly less brutal).


Toughest: at North Carolina (Nov. 30), Marquette (Dec. 3), UNLV (Dec. 10)

Next-toughest: Chicago Invitational Challenge (Nov. 25-26)

The rest: Kennesaw State (Nov. 12), Colgate (Nov. 16), Wofford (Nov. 19), UMKC (Nov. 22), Green Bay (Dec. 7), at Milwaukee (Dec. 13), Savannah State (Dec. 15), Mississippi Valley State (Dec. 23)

Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- When the Big Ten/ACC Challenge schedule was released, the biggest question was: Who gets to play North Carolina in Chapel Hill? That honor fell to the Badgers, and UW's nonconference schedule immediately went from "pretty tough" to "look out." The other big challenges come at home: Marquette will visit the Kohl Center in the heated in-state rivalry game, and Mountain West co-favorite UNLV will travel to Madison after hosting the Badgers last year. The Chicago Invitational Challenge isn't without its potential, ahem, challenges, particularly if Wisconsin meets BYU. But it's that North Carolina game that sticks out the most. It's going to be a good one.