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Grading Big Ten Men’s Basketball Non-conference Schedules: B is for Batman?

Michigan State, Ohio State, and Northwestern receive their non-conference schedule grades

Syndication: Lansing State Journal
Tom Izzo is Batman
Nick King/Lansing State Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

Apologies for dropping this a day late. After giving Indiana basketball a C- grade last week, I was poisoned. That or I succumbed to the flu the past week - I keep forgetting.

We continue our preview of the Big Ten men’s basketball 2023-24 non-conference schedules with the penultimate article in this series. Today we finally get to the programs that have managed to put together non-conference schedules bordering on acceptable. There are plenty of warts with all three of today’s schedules, but taken on a whole they merit a solid grade.

If you missed the first three articles in this series, you can find them in the links below or just note that I’ve successfully angered Minnesota, Penn State, Maryland, Rutgers, Nebraska, Indiana, Iowa, and Illinois fans already. I regret nothing.

Some of our readers may have been wondering why I’ve been so hard on Big Ten scheduling practices? Well, take a look at the number of Big Ten teams that received votes in the preseason AP poll, and then tell me how teams are going to rack up quality wins in Big Ten play. Just 3 Big Ten teams start the season in the top 25 and only three others received any votes at all. If your team doesn’t grab a couple of decent wins in the non-conference slate this year, your favorite program could end up like 2018 Nebraska, who went 13-5 in the Big Ten and missed the NCAA tournament.

Before getting into the details of today’s teams’ schedules, let’s review the grading criteria I’m using.

Grading Criteria

Each team’s schedule was graded using a super scientific gut feel approach.

Grades are higher the more quality programs you play. By quality I mean high major competition in the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, SEC, American, A10, and Mountain West. Select teams from other conferences (think Charleston or Drake) will also get you credit.

Season expectations were considered. Each team should be challenging themselves and not relying on just the Big Ten schedule for their tournament resume. That means something different for every program. A schedule that would get a C for the Boilermakers probably gets an A for the Nebraska this year.

I prefer to see mid majors over low majors and local or regional teams over bussing in a team from California or Alabama. Only Purdue needs the practice beating low major teams. If you must have a set number of buy games (games you are paying for an opponent to show up), let’s try not to pay for a bottom 50 team to travel through 5 states to reach you.

Since each Big Ten team is playing in a multiple team event (MTE), each of your Big Ten programs have opportunities to schedule up to 11 games.

On to today’s grades.

Michigan State Spartans - B

Michigan State will enter the season ranked 4th in the AP poll. Their schedule contains a handful of early challenges and they’ve sprinkled in a handful of decent mid major opponents.

If you are a fan of one of the I-schools, you may be asking why does Michigan State get a significantly better grade than us? Our team and the Spartans are both playing 4 power six programs.

Here’s the answer: Michigan State has three terrific matchups in Duke, Arizona, and Baylor compared to two for each of Indiana and Iowa. They also scheduled two solid mid majors in James Madison and Indiana State that should both compete for an auto bid come March. James Madison is in fact the Sun Belt coaches preseason pick to win their league.

I don’t expect James Madison or Indiana State to give the Spartans too much trouble but both programs finished last season in the top 100 of the KenPom rating system and due to their placement on the calendar (the season opener and post Christmas games) they are definitely potential trap games.

Now, why does Michigan State stay off the A line? Season expectations. Some of this is on the Big Ten offices for matching up Michigan State with Butler and some of this is on Michigan State for putting together a MTE with Arizona and Alcorn State. But for a top 5 team, you’d like to see Michigan State have a 4th game against top 50 competition. Not necessarily another top 25 opponent, but someone they could fairly confidently add to both their resume and the conference’s. By avoiding the traditional tournament style MTE and getting matched up against a Big East bottom feeder, their isn’t a game on Sparty’s non-con schedule you can circle as a probable win against a NCAA tournament team. For a team most likely fighting for seed and that the rest of the conference is counting on raising the tide, that’s less than ideal.

Games I’m excited to see: Arizona, Baylor, Indiana State

I didn’t circle the Duke game because while both teams are highly ranked coming into this season, both of those projections are fairly reliant on a lot of new pieces and it’s possible that a win over Duke (or even a close game) won’t be as meaningful as it appears at the time (see Purdue’s win over Duke last season).

Arizona and Baylor are more proven commodities for me and have more established coaching staffs.

I’m also really curious to see how the Sycamores look this year. I think they are just a tad behind Drake and Northern Iowa this season, but definitely think they are a team to watch for in Arch Madness the next two years.

MaximumSam: I wish they would televise the Hillsdale game.

BoilerUp89: Season is almost here MaximumSam. Just hang in there a few more weeks.

The Ohio State Buckeyes - B

I have no idea why there are little numbers next to Texas A&M or Alabama on a schedule graphic that was released back in June, but that’s not relevant.

The Ohio State Buckeyes seek to bounce back after a disaster of a season last year. To do so, they’ve scheduled four guaranteed games against quality competition in Texas A&M, Alabama, West Virginia, and UCLA. Please note that UCLA is officially the Buckeyes opponent for the CBS Sports Classic despite the Buckeyes schedule tweet showing it as one of Kentucky, North Carolina, or UCLA.

The Buckeyes could also potentially face Oregon depending on how things progress at the Emerald Coast Classic, but Santa Clara seems more likely. While Santa Clara was a top 100 type team last year with former Illini Brandin Podziemski on the roster, he is now gone and the Broncos are expected to fall back a bit this year.

All five of these games are games that the Buckeyes can compete in. No, I won’t be betting on them to beat Alabama, UCLA, or Texas A&M, but it isn’t unobtainable for the Buckeyes to steal a win against one of these programs. Add wins against West Virginia and either Oregon or Santa Clara and the Buckeyes have a solid start to a tournament resume. For a team coming off a 16-19 season, Ohio State has given themselves a non-conference schedule with some opportunities but shouldn’t get bludgeoned repeatedly.

The rest of the schedule is bad. Oakland, Merrimack, Western Michigan, Central Michigan, Miami Ohio, and New Orleans offer very little in the way of challenges. At least most of them are regional.

Games I’m excited to see: Texas A&M, West Virginia, Alabama

Texas A&M last year walked to one of the worst 15-3 conference records from a power conference I’ve ever seen. I don’t believe they should have been in the tournament let alone a 7 seed. That being said, they return four of their starters and have a ton of experience. It will be a tough early season test for the inexperienced Buckeyes.

By the time the West Virginia game rolls around, we should have a decent understanding of where Ohio State’s season is headed. A win or loss won’t be season deciding on its own but it will be an important game for the Buckeyes to grab some momentum heading into Big Ten play.

Alabama plays the Buckeyes two weeks before they play my Boilermakers. I’ll be watching to see what the new look Crimson Tide brings to the table.

MaximumSam: The spirit of Wally Szczerbiak lives on as the Bucks face the ferocious Redhawks. Fun fact, I went to Miami when Wally was there. The year after he graduated he ran a basketball camp in the summer. The rec center where the camp was wouldn’t let him in because he didn’t have his ID.

Northwestern Wildcats - B+

I expect this to be the most controversial grade in this series. Yes, I’m grading Northwestern on a curve. Beyond that though, let’s acknowledge that Northwestern has five games against high major competition: Dayton, Rhode Island, DePaul, Arizona State, and Mississippi State/Washington State. Yes, I’m still defining the A10 as high major despite a poor season last year*.

None of Northwestern’s high major competition will start the season in the top 25. I doubt any of them will appear there this season outside of potentially Mississippi State. For a program that has made two NCAA tournaments ever and think they have a chance of being a bubble team this year though, this is a great schedule. It’s filled with potential Quad 2 wins that Northwestern should be able to collect if they have serious asperations of returning to the NCAA for a second consecutive season.

You’ll also note that Northwestern didn’t schedule one game that is a probable loss. They should be favored in at least 10 of their games come tip time and possibly all 11. Overall the Wildcats have scheduled a manageable non-conference schedule that should set them up nicely when we start comparing resumes of bubble teams in late February. While there aren’t any top tier teams, Northwestern has wisely recognized that playing a collection of Quad 2 type teams is better for your resume than getting your face kicked in by a couple of top 10 teams and then beating 8 low majors.

Bonus points for playing regional teams. Northern Illinois, Chicago State, DePaul, Detroit Mercy, and Western Michigan add some regional flavor to Northwestern’s schedule.

*Despite being a one bid conference last season, the A10 has still been a multi-bid conference nine of the last ten NCAA tournaments. I’m considering last year an outlier unless the trend continues. Conferences that gain multiple bids every year (or almost every year) are high major by my definition.

Games I’m excited to see: Dayton, Mississippi State

Dayton has historically been a better basketball program than Northwestern. Northwestern gets them at home in the first test for both programs this season. Early season tone setter for both the Wildcats and the Atlantic 10.

Mississippi State is the lone opponent that Northwestern is currently not favored against (and they aren’t even guaranteed to play them). Hopefully they do, but this will be a game for fans of defense. It has the potential to rival Wisconsin-Virginia for lowest scoring game involving a Big Ten team this year.

MNW: I think B+ is probably a little generous—I do not consider Rhode Island to be a great game by any stretch, though you at least defend your methodology (I just disagree).

There’s a fun symmetry to the Dayton and Rhode Island games: in 2016 the ‘Cats played the Flyers at the United Center as part of a doubleheader with Illinois and someone else. After a hard-fought 67-64 Northwestern win, the wife of the then-Dayton coach took to Twitter to voice her complaints not only with the refs, but with Northwestern—including a shot at their then-nonexistent NCAA Tournament history.

Since then Northwestern has made two NCAA Tournaments and her husband notably just one that year—going 0-fer first with the Indiana Hoosiers and now Rhode Island.

Anywho, some bullet-pointed thoughts:

  • I’m convinced the Binghamton series is just so PTI will shoot live from Welsh-Ryan Arena, and you can’t convince me otherwise.
  • The tournament in Connecticut is fine, generally the kind of level I’d expect for Northwestern—here’s hoping for a ‘Cats-CLANGA finale.
  • I’m really happy with the true roadie at Arizona State. Big Ten teams should be required to play a true road game at P5/6 opposition outside the various challenges—that’s not something Northwestern’s always lived up to (though the rivalry game with DePaul helps), but I think it should push the ‘Cats into B-grade consideration.

BoilerUp89: Archie Miller isn’t a great coach - please come back to Bloomington Archie! -, but he’s better than what the Rams showed last year. Last year’s team was one of the bottom 10 in the nation when it came to shooting the basketball. Rhode Island brought in 11 new players this season and should rebound to semi-respectable this year.


Who has the toughest schedule?

This poll is closed

  • 63%
    Michigan State
    (72 votes)
  • 26%
    The Ohio State
    (30 votes)
  • 10%
    (12 votes)
114 votes total Vote Now


Which schedule best sets a team up for meeting their season goals?

This poll is closed

  • 42%
    Northwestern - they are going to have more Quad 1+2 wins than most of the conference going into January
    (49 votes)
  • 39%
    Michigan State - they prove they are top 5 and gets some big wins for their 1 or 2 seed
    (45 votes)
  • 18%
    Ohio State - they bounce back against this schedule and prepare themselves for a NCAA bubble run
    (21 votes)
115 votes total Vote Now

We will be back next week to grade our final three programs in Michigan, Purdue, and Wisconsin.