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Andy Katz | Correspondent | November 1, 2018

College basketball: Why North Carolina’s gutsy non-conference schedule is the toughest this year

What squad can prevent Kansas' 15th consecutive Big 12 title?

The Division I men's basketball committee has implored teams to play a high quality non-conference schedule.

Go on the road.

Challenge your team in the games you can control.

Play neutral-site games.

And if you’re in what’s typically a one-bid league, hoping the conference can land multiple teams in the field, then you better win some road games against power conference teams.

You’re not usually getting them to come to your place, so the only option is to win your share of those games and then hold serve in your conference with a stellar record.

The best non-conference schedule in the country goes to….North Carolina.

The most important non-conference schedules for a conference hoping to break through with multiple bids is…..the MAC’s Buffalo and Eastern Michigan.

Let’s break down the key games.

North Carolina plays...

At Wofford (Nov. 6): The Tar Heels return a game to Wofford, which beat UNC at home last season. Wofford was picked second in the Southern Conference but has the best player in Fletcher Magee. Few teams ever in the Carolina mold would play a game like this at any point in the season. This game came about because Wofford coach Mike Young and UNC coach Roy Williams have known each other for years, dating back to the Dean Smith era.

At Elon (Nov. 9):  OK, so Elon isn’t predicted to finish higher than eighth in the Colonial. This is a game that the Tar Heels should win. But once again, they are going ON THE ROAD to Elon. This gets the Tar Heels more brownie points for taking chances. UNC and Elon share a similar donor. The request went to Williams to see if he could help open up a new building. He says yes and that means the Tar Heels are playing consecutive road games to start the season for the first time since 1986-87.

Stanford (Nov. 12): This has been a recent series for the Tar Heels. Stanford isn’t the same team without Reid Travis (now at Kentucky). But this is still a Pac-12 team at home — and that will always help a profile more than a guarantee game.

Saint Francis (PA) (Nov. 19): Now, why is this game on my list? Well, this is called “educated scheduling.” St. Francis is predicted to finish first in the NEC. If that occurs, then UNC would get a win against another team in the field. Playing the best teams in one-bid conferences is the way to increase your profile.

Texas and then Michigan State or UCLA in Las Vegas (Nov. 22-23): This is going to be a boom tournament for all four teams over Thanksgiving. The four are all likely headed to the tournament and the Spartans and Bruins have realistic shots to compete for their respective conference titles. Roy Williams always likes to play in a high-level holiday tournament. This year is no different.

At Michigan (Nov. 28): It's another tremendous get for the Tar Heels, as they play Michigan in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge again. The Wolverines will be a top-five Big Ten team and of course John Beilein will end up having the Wolverines as a threat to win games in the tournament.

Gonzaga (Dec. 15): The Zags are one of the favorites to get to Minneapolis. This is the first of a home-and-home series. Bravo to Williams for setting up a national title rematch from 2017 and his willingness to go back to Spokane. There is nothing but a huge upside for this game for both teams.

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Kentucky in Chicago (Dec. 22): This is part of the annual CBS Sports Classic, and the Tar Heels get the Wildcats in what could be their second-straight Final Four preview in December. The talent on the floor in this game will rival games the Tar Heels play the rest of the season. The challenge for UNC will be immeasurable.

Davidson (Dec. 29): The Wildcats were my pick to finish first in the A-10, third in the conference preseason poll. Davidson has one of the best scorers in the country in Kellan Grady. Carolina has traditionally played Davidson, but this is a great year to do so since it will once again be a conference title contender.

Harvard (Jan. 2): The Crimson are the pick to win the Ivy, giving North Carolina yet another quality game at home against a possible NCAA tournament team. This Harvard team has a chance to once again win a game, who knows maybe two, in the NCAA tournament. The Tar Heels will look back at this game as another one that makes them improve.

The Tar Heels should have the No. 1 strength-of-schedule. If the numbers don’t align to say so, just wait and see how many NCAA tournament-bound teams they ended up playing when the bracket is revealed in March.

Buffalo, Eastern Michigan lead MAC's charge for two bids

The MAC hasn’t had multiple bids since 1999! So, maybe after 20 years the MAC can finally end the streak. But it will come down to two teams and how they handle non-conference road games, assuming they are to dominate their respective divisions and meet in the MAC title game. Buffalo and Eastern Michigan are the two teams that hold the MAC’s fate of multiple bids.

Buffalo is the pick to win the MAC East and overall. The Bulls could lay claim to a legitimate spot in the preseason top 25. They return most of their team from a squad that beat Arizona in the first round of the NCAA tournament. So, what did Buffalo do? The Bulls are going on the road to ensure they’ve got quality games to help their cause if they don’t win the MAC tournament.

Buffalo plays...

At West Virginia (Nov. 9): The Bulls could start off the season like they ended it (beating Arizona before losing to Kentucky) by knocking off a major power. If Buffalo beats West Virginia in Morgantown, then the Bulls will get the national attention they deserve but more importantly, they'll get plenty of power-rating pop.

At St. Bonaventure (Dec. 8): The Bonnies aren’t what they were last season. This is a bit of a bridge year for St. Bonaventure. But winning in the Reilly Center is still extremely difficult. And if Buffalo pulls this off, the win will have high value.

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At Syracuse (Dec. 18): The Orange are a legit ACC and Final Four contender. Buffalo could help its cause immensely with a road win at the Carrier Dome. Beat Syracuse, and Buffalo’s metrics will improve throughout the season. Syracuse is going to be a tough out to beat at home this season.

At Marquette (Dec. 21): The Golden Eagles are my pick to finish second in the Big East. They will be playing in their new arena and have a monster homecourt edge. This will be the week where we find out if Buffalo has the goods to be an at-large team. Imagine if it was able to get a split or a sweep? If so, then Buffalo will be taken seriously as an at-large candidate before the MAC tips off.

Eastern Michigan was picked to win the MAC West, and coach Rob Murphy is a firm believer that he has a team capable of getting to the NCAA tournament.

EMU plays... 

At Duke (Nov. 14): EMU could pull off the shocker and win at Cameron, or at the very least play extremely respectable and gain valuable momentum.

At Rutgers (Nov. 19): This is the type of game the Eagles must win. Rutgers is predicted to finish at the bottom of the Big Ten. Eastern Michigan can win this game. We would expect an upper-level Big Ten team to do the same.

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At TCU (Nov. 26): The Eagles go to Fort Worth to play a Big 12 team expected to compete in the top four. This is one of those critical non-conference games against a team in the field that would be significant come March.

At Northeastern (Dec. 1): Beating the Huskies isn’t going to get Eastern into the field. But taking out the predicted CAA champs would help it long term in possible seeding.

At Kansas (Dec. 29): This bookends the Duke game in the non-conference for Eastern. Murphy gets plenty of credit for scheduling up. If he could somehow steal one of the two road games then he’s in a tremendous position. You can’t improve your stock if you don’t take chances and play the elite teams.

Oh, Eastern Michigan and Buffalo open the MAC season on Jan. 4 against each other at Eastern and then play two weeks later on Jan. 18 in Buffalo.

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