Duke non-conference schedule 2019-20: Ranking the Blue Devils' toughest non-ACC games

For as good as Duke is -- and for as much talent Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski has imported in the one-and-done era -- the program's non-conference schedule for the 2019 season might lead you to believe it is seeking to rack up an impressive record to qualify for the NCAA Tournament as opposed to lining up stiff challenges to lock in quality wins en route to a potential No. 1 seed.

The Blue Devils released their schedule on Thursday, and in it, the usual suspects -- multiple games inside Madison Square Garden along with a handful of average-to-below-average contests, almost all of which will be played at Cameron Indoor Stadium. But take a look closer, and you'll find that outside the games slated to take place inside MSG, only one -- a Dec. 3 road tilt against Michigan State -- is a contest against a surefire tournament team. It's also the only true road game for Duke before league play.

Sure, ACC play will provide plenty of challenges; Louisville looks like a legitimate threat to win the league on paper, Virginia, even without world-beaters Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and DeAndre Hunter, is still reigning title winners, and North Carolina is still North stinking Carolina. They'll be good because, frankly, they're always good.

But even by Duke's standards, the schedule outside of league play leaves something to be desired. The biggest brand in college basketball playing Central Arkansas in mid-November and Brown just before the start of the new year aren't the type of games that will generate Zion-like buzz in a post-Zion world. And because Duke will once again be one of the youngest teams in America next season, the lack of true tests in challenging environments outside the ACC is puzzling.

It's also Duke's approach annually: schedule marquee neutral site games, schedule soft at home, and grind out a potential toughie in the Big Ten/ACC challenge. There's nothing wrong with it. Heck, the same tactic helped them earn the No. 1 overall seed last season. It's just fascinating theater to see a college basketball power all but refuse to play true road games, opting to rely almost entirely on neutral site and league games to build the résumé.

Here's a look at Duke's 2018 non-conference schedule.

  • Nov. 5: vs. Kansas (Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden)
  • Nov. 8: Colorado State
  • Nov. 12: Central Arkansas
  • Nov. 15: Georgia State
  • Nov. 21: vs. California (Empire Classic at Madison Square Garden)
  • Nov. 22: vs. Georgetown or Texas (Empire Classic at Madison Square Garden)
  • Nov. 26: Stephen F. Austin
  • Nov. 29: Winthrop
  • Dec. 3: at Michigan State (Big Ten/ACC Challenge)
  • Dec. 19: Wofford
  • Dec. 28: Brown

Let's dissect the schedule on a more granular level by looking at the five most challenging non-conference games for the Blue Devils -- ranked countdown style. 

5. Georgia State

Nov. 15 at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, North Carolina

2018-19 record: 24-10

Coach: Rob Lanier

Outlook: Georgia State lost its coach of nearly a decade, Ron Hunter, to Tulane this offseason. Gone, too, is star player D'Marcus Simonds, who opted for the NBA after his junior season. The Panthers are rebuilding around long-time Tennessee assistant Rob Lanier. With four of the Panthers' top scorers from their 24-win team a year ago either graduating or transferring, Duke should be hitting cruise control by halftime.

4. Wofford

Dec. 19 at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, North Carolina

2018-19 record: 30-5

Coach: Jay McAuley

Outlook: Like Georgia State, Wofford is facing a climb to get back to its successful shell a season ago. Wofford lost coach Mike Young to Virginia Tech and star Fletcher Magee exhausted all his eligibility. After losing only thrice between last December and this March, the Terriers could be doing a lot more of it this season in Jay McAuley's inaugural campaign.

3. Georgetown or Texas

Nov. 22 at Madison Square Garden in New York (Empire Classic)

2018-19 record: Georgetown 19-14 ; Texas 21-16

Coach: Patrick Ewing (Georgetown); Shaka Smart (Texas)

Outlook: First, a prediction: this will be Georgetown, who likely will beat Texas in the first-round of the Empire Classic. The Hoyas bring back James Akinjo, Mac McClung and Josh LeBlanc and have an exciting young core primed to take a leap. Texas, on the other hand, is a mystery. Jaxson Hayes, Kerwin Roach and Dylan Osetkowski's departures leave a big load for Courtney Ramey, Jase Febres and Matt Coleman to fill in the stat sheet.

2. Kansas

Nov. 5 at Madison Square Garden in New York (State Farm Champions Classic)

2018-19 record: 26-10

Coach: Bill Self

Outlook: Kansas lost its top two scorers from last season and still might be better in 2019-20 due to the return of big man Udoka Azubuike. Azubuike played in only nine games last season before sustaining an injury, but he holds the key to KU once again becoming a Big 12 title winner. With he, Devon Dotson and Ochai Ahbaji, the Jayhawks are bounce-back candidates to surpass a mediocre (26 wins by KU's standard is mediocre -- what a world!) season last year.

1. Michigan State

Dec. 3 at Breslin Center in East Lansing, Michigan (Big Ten/ACC Challenge)

2018-19 record: 32-7

Coach: Tom Izzo

Outlook: When star scorer Joshua Langford went down with an injury just after Christmas, Michigan State's hopes to be a real threat in the Big Ten and nationally looked grim. Of course, with Tom Izzo, nothing is grim. The Spartans rallied to share the conference's regular-season crown with Purdue and then went on to advance to the Final Four. That momentum should help carry them into 2019-20, and sets them up for even more lofty expectations in with Cassius Winston leading the charge.

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