Non-conference schedule assessment: Big Ten

USA TODAY Sports

The Big Ten is already one of the toughest conferences in the country and its top-tier teams have stacked their non-conference schedules.

The Big Ten is traditionally one of the toughest leagues in the country, and this year will be no different. But that doesn't mean the best teams can walk through easy out-of-conference schedules.

If the upcoming 2013-14 schedules prove anything, it's that the Big Ten is not afraid to hide from the absolute best.

Wolverines face tough road ahead

If Michigan is going to get back to the Final Four, it will first have to navigate a daunting schedule, both in the Big Ten and elsewhere. After a couple tune-up games at home, the Wolverines travel to Iowa State to face a Cyclones team coming off back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances. It doesn't get easier from there either, as the Puerto Rico tipoff will match them up with either Florida State or VCU in the second round, then potentially Georgetown or Kansas State in the championship game.

When Michigan gets home from Puerto Rico, it will play in two of the biggest match-ups of the entire non-conference schedule. The Wolverines visit Duke on Dec. 3 for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, then host Arizona 11 days later.

Those wondering if Michigan will be the same team without Wooden Award winner Trey Burke will find out fast. There may be some growing pains early on, but if Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary can guide the team through November and December with minimal damage, Michigan will be a force when Big Ten play starts.

Badgers with something to prove

Bo Ryan's Badgers have advanced to the Sweet 16 twice in the last three years but have not reached the Elite Eight since 2005. A second-round upset last year to Ole Miss didn't comfort Wisconsin fans either, but the Badgers can prove early that they are contenders once again. They open the regular season against an improved St. John's team before hosting Florida in primetime on ESPN2. On Thanksgiving Week, they will play in the Cancun Challenge against a Saint Louis team that spent much of last year in the Top 25.

The Badgers wrap up their out-of-conference slate with a game at Virginia, then one at home against Marquette. The Golden Eagles have beaten Wisconsin each of the last two years. The Badgers lost a lot from last year, but freshmen Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig come in with a lot of hype.

Spartans draw Big Blue in Champions Classic

The Kentucky Wildcats might be the No. 1 team in the country when the preseason polls are released, and even if they aren't, they're sure to be top-three. Michigan State will be up there as well, and the two teams will square off on Nov. 12 in Chicago at the Champions Classic. The game is part of a doubleheader that wraps up ESPN's season-opening marathon and the Worldwide Leader may have saved the best for last. Before Kansas and Duke tip off the nightcap, the veteran Spartans, behind Keith Appling, will try and bring down the heralded freshmen from Lexington.

Tom Izzo and John Calipari have both brought multiple teams to the Final Four in the last decade, and this one could be a preview of what's to come next April. Michigan State returns its top three scorers with Gary Harris and Adreian Payne backing up Appling. Kentucky will counter with five top-ten recruits from the Class of 2013, including the backcourt duo of Aaron and Andrew Harrison. This game will either be a schooling from the veteran Spartans or a notice to the rest of the country that UK's youth movement is not to be ignored.

Big Ten/ACC Challenge again steals the show

Don't bother making plans on Dec. 3 or 4. The Big Ten/ACC Challenge is back for a 15th year and the matchups are more jaw-dropping than ever. Indiana will visit the Carrier Dome to get things started against ACC newcomer Syracuse on the third before Michigan faces Duke at Cameron Indoor. An improved Maryland travels to Columbus to face Ohio State during the first set of games on the second night. That's followed by North Carolina at Michigan State. It will be the third regular season meeting between those two since the Tar Heels beat the Spartans in the 2009 National Championship game.

Other games to watch out for in the challenge include Notre Dame at Iowa and Florida State at Minnesota. Both of those games will be on Dec. 3.

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