The big non-conference games on the schedule (outside of the Pre Season NIT) are Arkansas, West Virginia, and the Big Ten/ACC Challenge match-up (has not been announced yet). Two of these games will be occurring in Ann Arbor and the other game, against West Virginia, will be played in the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY. All three of these games should be pretty competitive, but it's doubtful any of Michigan's opponents in these three games will be ranked, unless Michigan's ACC opponent is someone like North Carolina or North Carolina State.
Regardless of Michigan's ACC Challenge opponent, the point is still clear. Michigan has very few legitimate non-conference opponents next season. Sure, this isn't that unusual for Michigan or other teams, but for a team in Michigan's situation these are great opportunities. Michigan will certainly be ranked very high to start the season and is bringing in a great roster with some highly regarded recruits, but the team still hasn't made a huge presence in the NCAA Tournament under John Beilein. With this in mind, performing against top-notch competition should help to alleviate some of the concerns.
As I've pointed out, until Big Ten season starts, Michigan doesn't have a lot of opportunities to prove themselves against top-notch competition. Yes, Michigan doesn't have to prove themselves as they did 5 or 10 years ago, but they still need to prove that they belong among the elite teams in the nation. The elite teams in the country typically do well against the tough teams and get good seeding in the NCAA Tournament as a result. Let's take a look at the teams that earned #1 seeds and how many non-conference games they had against ranked opponents.
Non-Conference Ranked Opponents
Location of Games (Home, Road, Neutral)
Record in Games
*Only counts teams ranked at the time of match-ups. For instance, Indiana did not count as a ranked opponent for Kentucky.
Although one would expect a better record against non-conference ranked opponents, teams like MSU and UNC actually finished at .500 or below. This is pretty surprising. However, if one looks at the analysis of these teams, they can see that some of the opponents were teams like Kentucky and UNC, which ended up being #1 seeds. The other interesting thing to note is that some teams like Syracuse were able to get by without a lot of these games. Obviously, conference play is the most important factor in NCAA Tournament seeding, but scheduling these types of games does seem important.
After reviewing the table and this information, one may think that these games don't matter to the top NCAA Tournament seeds. However, I think it's important to differentiate winning and losing these types of games. For instance, look at the Kentucky vs. UNC match-up at the beginning of the season. Both ended up being #1 seeds in March. Does this mean the game didn't matter? Of course not. There's no doubt that the result helped Kentucky, it's just that it didn't hurt UNC much. Look at the Virginia game for Michigan. It helped Virginia a lot in their seeding, but it didn't really hurt Michigan much. To me, this shows why it's a great opportunity for Michigan. Even if they don't do well against tough non-conference opponents and the Pre Season NIT Tournament, they aren't going to be hurt much. However, if they do well they're going to benefit much in March.
Perhaps I'm overemphasizing the important of these early season match-ups, but imagine if Michigan can win or do well in all of its major non-conference match-ups. According to CBSsports, the Pre Season NIT Tournament will include Pittsburgh, Kansas State, and Virginia along with Michigan. None of these three teams are predicted to be ranked in the top 25 to start the season, but all three of them have the potential to be very good. If Michigan can pull out an early victory over Virginia, Pittsburgh, or Kansas State, it's going to go a long way towards establishing them for March.
Last season, Michigan's only legitimate non-conference win was against Memphis at a neutral site. However, Michigan also lost on the road against Arkansas and Virginia, which brought them down. Every one of these #1 seeds had a victory against a ranked non-conference opponent and I think this tournament offers a great shot for Michigan to do that. If Michigan is able to do well, or win this tournament next season, I think they have a great chance at being ranked very high during the season and getting a great seed in March. These types of games can't hurt a team, as one can see from the table above, but there's no doubt that it can help a team.
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