Every coach in college basketball wants to brag about having a difficult schedule. Kentucky coach John Calipari intimated recently he might just be crazy for the challenging slate he put together for his Wildcats. Auburn coach Bruce Pearl suggested in September that no team in the power conference structure this year plays a tougher schedule than his Tigers. And of course, as he always does, Michigan State's Tom Izzo this week said the same of his Spartans' schedule.
But which programs actually have the most difficult schedules in 2022-23? Which coaches are doing more than lip service in the preseason to set expectations accordingly?
We ran the numbers and came to our own conclusions below. These aren't the toughest schedules by ranking based upon strength of opponent metrics, RPI, BPI or any of those three letter abbreviations that measure either your favorite team's schedule or your body fat percentage. No, sir and no, ma'am. These are, if you will allow me to editorialize a bit, the five schedules that jump off the page as the toughest and most interesting as we prepare for the season. They are ranked based solely on which ones I find the most intriguing and are weighed heavily based upon nonconference schedules as opposed to conference schedules, though the bigger picture is generally considered so as not to exclude those in the mid-major ranks.
I am the judge, jury and executioner in this exercise, so please sit back, relax and -- if I were you -- maybe grab a pen and piece of paper.
1. Michigan State
- vs. No. 1 Gonzaga, Nov. 11 in Armed Forces Classic
- vs. No. 2 Kentucky, Nov. 15 in Champions Classic
- vs. No. 16 Villanova, Nov. 18 in Gavitt Tipoff Games
- vs. No. 20 Alabama, Nov. 24 for Phil Knight Invitational
Schedule thoughts: Generally speaking, coaches who try to brag about tough schedules are just trying to pump up their fanbase or set expectations or both. But Tom Izzo this week said in an appearance on the College Hoops Today podcast with Jon Rothstein that he thinks Michigan State has the hardest schedule in the country, and, well, I think he's probably right. The Spartans get Northern Arizona to open the season before ripping right into a gauntlet of Gonzaga, Kentucky, Villanova, Alabama then Notre Dame in a five-game stretch over 20 days. Brutal, brutal stuff. This team will be put to the test right away. A-plus work from Izzo giving the schedule goods with a no-fear slate. We absolutely love to see it.
- vs. Michigan State, Nov. 24 in Phil Knight Invitational
- at No. 3 Houston, Dec. 10
- vs. Memphis, Dec. 13
- vs. No. 2 Gonzaga, Dec. 17
Schedule thoughts: Nate Oats continues to be one of the most aggressive schedulers in the modern game going. There's a couple softies tossed into the early slate so No. 2 might be a tad generous, I'll admit, but with Michigan State, Memphis and Gonzaga on the schedule and a road test against Houston on tap, it's hard to pick too many nits. These will all be appointment viewing and No. 20 Alabama made plenty of effort to try and schedule up, not down.
- vs. Michigan State, Nov. 11 in Armed Forces Classic
- at No. 12 Texas, Nov. 16
- vs. No. 4 Kentucky, Nov. 20
- vs. either Purdue or West Virginia, Nov. 25 in Phil Knight Invitational
- vs. No. 5 Baylor, Dec. 2 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota
- vs. No. 20 Alabama, Dec. 17 in Birmingham, Alabama
Schedule thoughts: This isn't a surprise by Mark Few -- he has made it a habit of scheduling tough in the nonconference because there are so few opportunities to improve the resume in WCC play -- but it's still refreshing to see on paper what the No. 2 Zags are up against this year. It gets Kentucky (basically) at home and Baylor on a neutral court but has Bama on a semi-away venue, Texas in Austin and Michigan State in its second game of the season. Have mercy.
- at No. 21 Oregon, Nov. 20
- vs. Saint Mary's, Dec. 3
- vs. No. 20 Alabama, Dec. 10
- at No. 18 Virginia, Dec. 17
Schedule thoughts: No. 3 Houston opens its schedule with four teams ranked outside of KenPom.com's top 100 but coach Kelvin Sampson made sure with his schedule that his Cougars will be battle-tested before league play. Those are sprinkled in nicely throughout November and December with a road test against Oregon on Nov. 20 and a road test at Virginia on Dec. 17, with games against Saint Mary's and Alabama sprinkled in between. This could be Sampson's most talented team ever so to hold nothing back with respect to an aggressive schedule? We've got to give Sampson some props for that.
Notable nonconference games
- vs. Michigan State, Nov. 15 in Champions Classic
- at No. 2 Gonzaga, Nov. 20
- vs. No. 22 Michigan, Dec. 4 in London Showcase
- vs. No. 8 UCLA, Dec. 17 in CBS Sports Classic
- vs. Kansas on Jan. 28 in Big 12/SEC Challenge
Schedule thoughts: This isn't the toughest schedule in college hoops this season, I don't think, but if you argued it is you wouldn't get a ton of pushback from me. No. 4 Kentucky going to Gonzaga? That's not a John Calipari-like thing to do (but it is, however, glorious). Combine that with the London game vs. Michigan, the Champions Classic game vs. Tom Izzo and Michigan State and the CBS Sports Classic game vs. UCLA? Oh, and Kansas in late January for the Big 12/SEC Challenge? Yeah, this is a top-five schedule in college hoops. No. 4 UK will have a really tough run to start the season.
And 1: Texas Southern
Notable nonconference games
- at No. 25 Texas Tech, Nov. 10
- at No. 3 Houston, Nov. 16
- at No. 15 Auburn, Nov. 18
- at No. 5 Kansas, Nov. 28
Schedule thoughts: Shout out to Johnny Jones and Texas Southern. He always finds a way to schedule big dogs, but this year he absolutely outdid himself. At Texas Tech on Nov. 10. Home against Arizona State three days later. Then the following week: three straight roadies at Houston and Auburn followed by another roadie Nov. 28 at Kansas. An unreal YOLO slate. Texas Southern might really open its season 0-8 -- in fact, more likely than not it will be underdogs in each of its first eight games -- so to go all out like this deserves some special praise. If it winds up helping them back into the NCAA Tournament, like the Tigers did last season, then it will have all been worth it.