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Ranking the top 10 mid-major non-conference schedules

Not everyone can schedule this well, but we should give credit where it’s due.

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NCAA Basketball: Belmont at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Another mid-major scheduling article?

Despite the long odds and countless obstacles, some mid-major teams have a knack for putting together competitive schedules. With the start of the season around the corner, there’s no better time to take a look at the 10 best mid-major schedules this season, ranked by opponents’ combined record from last season.

But first, a few caveats:

  1. Teams that went sub-.500 last season weren’t eligible. Plenty of low-major schools get bought out by high-majors. But will they win most of these games? Probably not. The point of this article is to highlight conference contenders that have scheduled aggressively — not teams willing to get shellacked for a check.
  2. Non-Division I teams weren’t factored into the combined record analyses. With all due respect to the brave D-II and NAIA schools willing to play D-I opponents, your 18-win season in the GNAC doesn’t carry the same weight as an 18-win season in the Missouri Valley.
  3. Second-round games in Multi-Team Events weren’t factored in either. If we tried to play with all the potential scenarios, we can go on for days. Depending on how these tournaments pan out, some of these schedules can get even better.

10. Florida Gulf Coast

Home: Colgate, Florida International, South Dakota State

Away: Florida Atlantic, Illinois State, Michigan State, Ole Miss, Oral Roberts, UMBC

Neutral: Florida (Orange Bowl Classic), Gulf Coast Showcase (Toledo, Colorado State/Louisiana, 1 TBD)

Combined record last season: 213-154 (58.0%)

Postseason teams: 5 (4 NCAA, 1 CBI)

The defending ASUN regular season champs scheduled three Power 5 teams, two mid-major teams with legitimate NCAA Tournament chances (Illinois State and South Dakota State) and the first 16 seed to beat — nay, destroy — a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Eagles do play a pair of non-D-Is, but the ASUN (as a whole) has been known to schedule those more often than they should.

This doesn’t sound too shabby for a team that will likely contend for the ASUN title. But FGCU fans know that even the weaker teams on their schedule aren’t guaranteed wins. The Eagles have been known to drop an extremely winnable home game in the non-conference: Oral Roberts blitzed them by 19 last season and Georgia Southern used a huge second half to pull a 13-point upset two years ago.

This year, don’t sleep on that Florida International game.

9. UC Irvine

Home: Denver, Idaho, Montana, Utah State, UT-Rio Grande Valley

Away: Butler, Cal Baptist, Eastern Michigan, Pacific, Saint Mary’s, Santa Clara, Texas A&M

Neutral: Gulf Coast Showcase (UTSA, South Dakota State/Tulane, 2 TBD)

Combined record last season: 235-166 (58.6%)

Postseason teams: 7 (3 NCAA, 1 NIT, 1 CBI, 2 CIT)

Head coach Russell Turner would be the first to admit that UC Irvine’s 2017-18 non-conference schedule demanded the impossible from his young, sophomore-heavy squad. After playing against the likes of South Dakota State, Nevada, Arizona State and Kansas State in the non-conference, the Anteaters limped into Big West play with a 5-11 record.

This year’s schedule provides a happy medium of challenging opponents, potential for quality wins, and other, more winnable games.

Although this year’s schedule includes some of the return games from last season (i.e. Montana, Saint Mary’s and Utah State), the Anteaters are in a better position to win. Everyone from last season returns and UC Irvine addressed its one need by adding Stanford grad transfer Robert Cartwright to its promising backcourt of Evan Leonard, Max Hazzard and Eyassu Worku.

Keep an eye on what this older, tougher UC Irvine squad does in the Gulf Coast Showcase. Quality mid-majors are all over that bracket, but UCI could surprise people with a deep run.

8. Vermont

Home: Bucknell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Northeastern, St. Bonaventure, Yale

Away: Boston, George Mason, George Washington, Kansas, Lipscomb, Louisville, Towson

Combined record last season: 255-174 (59.4%)

Postseason teams: 5 (4 NCAA, 2 NIT)

Don’t tell John Becker that he’s losing two-time America East Player of the Year Trae Bell-Haynes, Sixth Man of the Year Cam Ward, and senior starters Payton Henson and Drew Urquhart. Becker will schedule aggressively no matter what. The Catamounts will play a who’s-who of east coast mid-majors, plus a primetime game against Kansas that should be fun if Vermont keeps it close (they will not keep it close).

7. Belmont

Home: Illinois State, Lipscomb, Middle Tennessee, Western Kentucky

Away: Green Bay, Kennesaw State, Lipscomb, Purdue, Samford, UCLA

Combined record last season: 200-135 (59.7%)

Postseason teams: 5 (3 NCAA, 2 NIT)

Rick Byrd has done something that people outside of Nashville need to notice.

The Bruins’ home-and-home with Lipscomb is nothing new; Byrd has scheduled it with Lipscomb every year since Belmont joined the Ohio Valley Conference in 2012-13. Both are private, liberal arts schools in Nashville —in fact, their campuses are two miles apart — with a rivalry dating back to their NAIA days. It sounds simple, yet it’s an especially astute move when both teams are good.

Both Belmont and Lipscomb will be conference title contenders this season, which should amount to two thrilling Battle of the Boulevard games. Their proximity got me thinking of other in-city home-and-homes that mid-majors in places like Los Angeles, Houston, or Washington D.C. should set up. If there are quality, non-conference opponents in your backyard, why not play them?

6. New Mexico

Home: Central Arkansas, Colorado, Iona, New Mexico State, North Texas, Penn, UTEP

Away: Bradley, Cal State Northridge, New Mexico State

Neutral: Saint Mary’s (in Los Angeles)

Combined record last season: 222-148 (60%)

Postseason teams: 6 (3 NCAA, 1 NIT, 2 CBI)

Speaking of home-and-home rivalries, the New Mexico Lobos make the list in part because of two games against the New Mexico State Aggies, who are coming off consecutive 28-win seasons. Aside from their heated rivals, the Lobos will bring a ton of intriguing opponents to the Pit this year: CBI champion North Texas should be a postseason team this year, Colorado should be better, and defending MAAC champ Iona will play the Lobos for the first time ever.

With a roster featuring high-major transfers like JaQuan Lyle, Vance Jackson and — if eligibility permitsCarlton Bragg, facing nine opponents that finished over .500 last season should make the non-conference fun.

5. Montana

Home: Georgia State, North Dakota State

Away: Arizona, Creighton, South Dakota State, UC Irvine

Neutral: Islands of the Bahamas Showcase (Incarnate Word, Miami (OH)/North Dakota State, 1 TBD)

Combined record last season: 140-92 (60.3%)

Postseason teams: 4 (4 NCAA)

The Grizzlies will roll through a mediocre Islands of the Bahamas Showcase field, likely setting up a championship game with Georgia Southern or Towson. That’s the easy part. Away games against three NCAA Tournament teams and the aforementioned UC Irvine Anteaters won’t be a walk in the park. However, this team is too talented and its defense is too good to go winless in non-conference road games.

But here’s the rub: The Big Sky will be awful this year. Now, Montana certainly won’t be in the conversation for an at-large bid, but wins against this steep competition will immensely help their NIT or NCAA Tournament seeding if they get there. Snagging a win against potential one-bid conference champions like Georgia State, South Dakota State or UC Irvine would be a realistic goal.

4. Lipscomb

Home: Belmont, Navy, Tennessee State, Vermont

Away: Belmont, Clemson, Louisville, Middle Tennessee, Morehead State, SMU, TCU

Combined record last season: 228-134 (63.0%)

Postseason teams: 5 (2 NCAA, 3 NIT)

The second half of the Battle of the Boulevard checks in on this list, and for good reason: The Bisons play three Power 5 schools and have a decent shot at beating at least one of them (hello again, Louisville). Like Vermont, Lipscomb managed to schedule this well without the help of an MTE, all while inviting just one ND1 to town.

The difference between the Bisons and the other ASUN team on this list, however, is that Lipscomb returns all five starters from last season’s NCAA Tournament team. Lipscomb’s fun-as-hell, fast-paced style will stymie their opponents; don’t be surprised if they warrant several “epitome of brutality” tweets.

3. Northeastern

Home: Boston, Eastern Michigan, Oakland, St. Bonaventure

Away: Bucknell, Davidson, Harvard, Syracuse, Vermont

Neutral: Charleston Classic (Alabama, Ball State/Virginia Tech)

Combined record last season: 216-125 (63.3%)

Postseason teams: 8 (5 NCAA, 2 NIT, 1 CIT)

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: A one-bid contender returns over 90 percent of its minutes from last season, then schedules a boatload of NCAA Tournament teams and enters a tough MTE.

It seems a bit formulaic, but the Northeastern Huskies fit this mold. The ultra-competitive Charleston Classic field stands out on paper — especially with the prospect of Vasa Pusica on national television — but the backcourt battle against the likes of Davidson and Harvard should deliver. Here’s to hoping Northeastern’s hyper-accurate shooting carves up the Syracuse zone. Could the Orange suffer another non-conference home upset this year?

2. VCU

Home: Bowling Green, College of Charleston, Gardner-Webb, Hampton, Hofstra, Iona, Rider, Wichita State

Away: Old Dominion, Texas, Virginia

Neutral: Legends Classic (Temple, Cal/St. John’s)

Combined record last season: 253-143 (63.9%)

Postseason teams: 8 (5 NCAA, 3 NIT)

The second-toughest schedule on this list is also one of the most home-heavy. But this isn’t a problem for VCU.

Ever since the Siegel Center opened in 1999, the Rams have won 85 percent of their games — good for No. 13 in active arenas. This year’s team, which hasn’t gotten off to the best start since Marcus Evans sustained another Achilles injury this offseason, will rely on their home-court advantage against tough mid-majors like College of Charleston, Iona and a resurgent Rider squad. If all breaks right — a phrase VCU fans should get used to this season — the Rams could go into Atlantic 10 play with maybe one home loss.

As for the games away from home, the Rams have a shot at winning the Legends Classic, featuring a field of three potential breakout teams and Cal. Again, this hinges on the availability of Evans, who as of Monday still didn’t have a timetable for a return. Right now, one of the few certainties is the difficulty of this schedule.

1. Nevada

Home: Akron, BYU, Cal Baptist, Little Rock, Pacific, South Dakota State

Away: Loyola University Chicago, USC, Utah

Neutral: Arizona State (Basketball Hall of Fame Classic), Grand Canyon (Jerry Coangelo Classic) and the Las Vegas Continental Tire Holiday Invitational (Tulsa, Southern Illinois/Massachusetts)

Combined record last season: 227-145 (69.4%)

Postseason teams: 6 (2 NCAA, 3 NIT, 1 CBI)

Could it be anyone else?

As of today, it appears that Wolf Pack scheduled a solid contingency plan in case they drop more games than expected in Mountain West play. Casual fans will point to the Sweet 16 rematch against Loyola as the crown jewel of the schedule, but their opening-night game against BYU will be must-see television, as will matchups against a Mike Daum-led South Dakota State team and Grand Canyon at GCU Arena East. Not only that, the Wolf Pack have a chance to win more PAC-12 games than Washington State will this season (please quote me on this).

As an added bonus, most of Nevada’s games will be nationally televised — including six appearances on ESPN networks — so you really don’t have an excuse to not watch.

Honorable Mentions

(Or, “The Randy Bennett Awards,” Or, “You Picked The Wrong Year To Schedule Aggressively”)

Middle Tennessee

Home: Charleston Southern, Lipscomb, Murray State

Away: Belmont, Rhode Island, Toledo, Vanderbilt

Neutral: Battle 4 Atlantis (Virginia, Butler/Dayton, two TBD), Ole Miss (in Nashville)

Combined record last season: 192-103 (65.1%)

Postseason teams: 4 (4 NCAA)

Saint Mary’s

Home: Bethune Cookman, Bucknell, California, Cal State Fullerton, Harvard, McNeese State, San Jose State, UC Irvine, Utah Valley

Away: New Mexico State, Western Kentucky

Neutral: LSU (in Las Vegas), MGM Resorts Main Event (Utah State, Arizona State/Mississippi State), New Mexico (in Los Angeles)

Combined record last season: 255-209 (55.0%)

Postseason teams: 7 (3 NCAA, 3 NIT, 1 CBI)

These teams missed the NCAA Tournament because of a few bad losses and poor non-conference scheduling. As of today, these teams look like they’ve learned a lesson.

The problem? Middle Tennessee lost four starters and its head coach. Saint Mary’s lost most of its best starting five in program history. Both have plenty of question marks going into next season, and they’ll have to answer these against a demanding non-conference schedule.

h/t Chris Dobbertean at Blogging the Bracket and @TheD1Docket.