NCAA Basketball: St. Mary's at Gonzaga

With tip-off for the 2020-21 college basketball season looming Wednesday, there are still dozens of Division I programs -- and some leagues -- that have not released their schedules yet. It's a reminder of how much uncertainty remains for a season that will begin in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic. But even though the season is getting a later than usual start and is already rife with disruptions due to the virus, there are still some great nonconference battles on the docket.

Some programs have clearly prioritized scheduling quality nonconference opponents and are on track to play several worthy foes before league play begins. Others have lost marquee games due to the cancelation of multi-team events or other COVID-19 related issues and have struggled to get good games booked. Baylor, for example, was on this list until the No. 2 Bears had to withdraw from this week's event at Mohegan Sun, which cost the program a game with No. 18 Arizona State and a potential game against No. 3 Villanova.

So who are the teams with the toughest nonconference schedules? Considering the varying number of scheduled games between teams and the reduced potency of homecourt advantage due to attendance restrictions, using precise data points to make the case is a challenge. So here's a breakdown of the teams with the five most-challenging college basketball nonconference schedules based on the eye test.

5. Kentucky

Aside from Morehead State and a potential game, everyone else on Kentucky's nonconference schedule as of Nov. 24 is a top-80 team in the KenPom preseason ranking. Kansas, UCLA and Texas are each in the top 25, while Georgia Tech, Notre Dame and Louisville are also quality opponents with NCAA Tournament aspirations.

  • Nov. 25 -- Morehead State
  • Nov. 29 -- Richmond
  • Dec. 1 -- No. 6 Kansas (Indianapolis)
  • Dec. 6 --  at Georgia Tech
  • Dec. 12 -- Notre Dame
  • Dec. 19 -- No. 22 UCLA (Cleveland)
  • Dec. 26 -- at Louisville
  • Jan. 30 -- No. 19 Texas

4. Villanova

The Wildcats' marquee matchups are spaced out but stand out nonetheless. Even with No. 2 Baylor out of the picture at Mohegan Sun this week, Villanova should be challenged against Arizona State. Dates with Texas and Virginia loom large as well for a team with national title aspirations.

3. Notre Dame 

On top of playing four ranked teams during their nonconference schedule, the Fighting Irish must also play No. 9 Duke and No. 4 Virginia in ACC games before the end of December. it will be a brutal early-season stretch for a program replacing its top two scorers. But if Notre Dame can pull off a couple upsets, it could position itself for an NCAA Tournament bid.

Nov. 28 -- at No. 13 Michigan State
Dec. 2 -- Western Michigan
Dec. 4 -- No. 12 Tennessee -- CANCELLED
Dec. 8 -- No. 23 Ohio State
Dec. 12 -- at No. 10 Kentucky
Dec. 19 -- Purdue (Indianapolis)

2. Gonzaga

Don't let the presence of several games against low-major opponents distract you from the prestige of the opening gauntlet from Nov. 25 to Dec. 5. Throw in Iowa on Dec. 19 and Gonzaga is playing three of the preseason top-six teams before Christmas. The game with Tennessee would have made it four of the top 12, but was canceled due to positive COVID-19 tests among the Volunteers. 

  • Nov. 26 -- No. 6 Kansas (Fort Myers, Florida)
  • Nov. 27 -- Auburn (Fort Myers)
  • Dec. 2 -- No. 12 Tennessee (Indianapolis) -- CANCELED
  • Dec. 5 -- No. 2 Baylor (Indianapolis)
  • Dec. 8 Tarleton State
  • Dec. 10 Southern
  • Dec. 12 Northern Arizona
  • Dec. 14 Idaho
  • Dec. 19 -- No. 5 Iowa (Sioux Falls, South Dakota)
  • Dec. 21 Northwestern State
  • Dec. 29 Dixie State

1. Kansas

Just what will Kansas be after losing the lethal two-man duo of Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike from a team with national championship aspirations? We'll get an idea on Thursday when the No. 6 Jayhawks open up against No. 1 Gonzaga in the Rocket Mortgage Fort Myers Tip-Off. Though Kansas also has some cupcakes on its nonconference schedule, its headliner games are really, really good with Kentucky, Creighton and Tennessee all coming up after the Gonzaga game.

  • Nov. 26 -- No. 1 Gonzaga (Fort Myers, Florida)
  • Nov. 27 -- Saint Joseph's (Fort Myers, Florida)
  • Dec. 1 -- No. 10 Kentucky (Indianapolis)
  • Dec. 3 -- Washburn
  • Dec. 5 -- North Dakota State
  • Dec. 8 -- No. 11 Creighton
  • Jan. 30 -- at No. 12 Tennessee

Honorable mention: Baylor

Despite missing this week's event at Mohegan Sun, the Bears still have games against No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 8 Illinois on their nonconference slate. Baylor is also scheduled to play Auburn during the Big 12/SEC Challenge, though that game has lost some luster amid Auburn's self-imposed postseason ban and the uncertainty surrounding the eligibility of Tigers' five-star guard Sharife Cooper.