officially released their schedule for this season and much of the reaction was immediate. We had a good idea of what was coming with some of the earlier announcements such as the game against North Carolina State, but there are a few surprises, both good and bad, in the Big Ten schedule that could make things interesting over the course of the season. I'm not going to breakdown every game and every specific part of the schedule, but I am going to look at a few key segments and make some general comments about what I think could play out this year.
There are a few things worth mentioning here. Overall, there will probably only be a few games that get ample attention from the media. Despite this, there are still 3 very exciting match-ups and the Preseason NIT, which includes teams like Pittsburgh, Kansas State, and Virginia. All three could be quality opponents and Michigan will have the chance to play them. So even if you are a bit concerned by the lack of "big name" teams on the schedule, don't fret because there are plenty of opportunities to see some solid match-ups in the non-conference schedule.
Of course, the biggest non-conference game for Michigan will likely be North Carolina State, who is ranked #6 on Andy Katz's preseason Top 25 list. Whether they will be ranked #6 at the time of the match-up or not, a game featuring #5 vs. #6 in Ann Arbor has got to be something that's pretty exciting. I've commented on this before, but this is a game that is a bit frustrating. It's awesome to get a quality opponent, especially in Ann Arbor, but right now, NC State is ranked the highest in the ACC, but certainly won't have as much excitement as a game against someone like North Carolina or Duke. It will still be a game with adequate coverage and excitement, but I would have preferred playing a Duke or North Carolina. Regardless, this should easily be the biggest game of the non-conference season and one of the biggest of the year.
Although not quite as high-profile, the games against Arkansas and West Virginia will also provide a chance for Michigan to pick-up some quality wins. Michigan stumbled on the road against Arkansas last year and a win will go a long way towards showing this year's Wolverine team is better than the last and for the overall perception of the Big Ten come tournament time. The West Virginia game will probably be dominated by discussion of developments off the court. John Beilein left West Virginia for Michigan and this will likely dominate the game's coverage and discussion. Plus, there might be some carry over from the whole Rich Rod to Michigan ordeal. Should be one of the more interesting games on the schedule.
Outside of the Preseason NIT, NC State, Arkansas, and West Virginia, the non-conference schedule isn't that exciting. There are a few games that could provide some excitement, but not a whole lot. The game against Slippery Rock should be fun with Michigan's tradition of announcing Slippery Rock's scores, but not something that will go too much coverage. Along with this, games against Western Michigan, Central Michigan, and Eastern Michigan always provide a little different atmosphere than games against a typical opponent, but again, they won't be getting a ton of coverage.
Nothing is extremely unexpected on the Big Ten schedule, but the breakdown is still extremely important for determining the Big Ten champions and Michigan's likely performance. I say this because although the Big Ten works very hard to make the schedule fair for all the teams, there is always some variation. For instance, opponents, game locations, and timing of games differ drastically by team. So let's take a look at those three categories on Michigan's schedule.
Michigan's 2012 Big Ten opponents are largely expected. Michigan plays all 11 of the other teams in the Big Ten. They play 7 teams twice and 4 teams once. This makes for 18 total games. So the important thing here is to determine the teams that Michigan plays once and whether that helps or hurts them. Michigan gets the same four "one play" teams that it did from last year; Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Wisconsin. This was actually a disadvantage last year because only one of those teams (Wisconsin) finished in the top half of the conference standings. Essentially, Michigan had to play the harder teams more often than the easier opponents.
This year, it should be a little less of a disadvantage. Minnesota and Wisconsin are both in Andy Katz's Top 25 teams and Iowa could have a pretty capable squad with some experience returning and some quality recruiting. Nebraska will likely be horrible again, but with 3 of the 4 teams being pretty respectable, it's at least a little less of a disadvantage this year. Of course, the challenge of playing Indiana, MSU, OSU, and Purdue twice will be pretty difficult, but having Penn State, Illinois, and Northwestern twice could help the record a bit.
Next is location. Not too much to note here since most of Michigan's Big Ten opponents are played both on the road and at home. So this leaves the four "one plays" as a variation. This will be a disadvantage for Michigan because they play the two teams of these four (Minnesota & Wisconsin) that will likely be the toughest on the road. Michigan did lose to Iowa and getting the Hawkeyes at home will be nice, but Nebraska makes about no difference and it's going to be pretty tough to win in Minneapolis and Madison.
Finally, the timing of the games. This is what will make Michigan's Big Ten schedule very difficult. There are three segments that are worth noting. The first segment is pretty early when Michigan has to travel to Columbus, Minneapolis, and play Purdue at home in consecutive games. All three should be quality opponents and provide a challenge for the Wolverines. Next, in the most difficult part of the schedule, in my opinion, Michigan has to play against Indiana on the road, Ohio State at home, then go on the road to play Wisconsin and MSU in consecutive games. All four of those teams finished in the top five of the Big Ten last year and are all ranked in the preseason list according to Andy Katz. If Michigan can even get out of that streak with a 2-2 record or at 3-1, they have a great shot at winning the Big Ten.
The final stretch that could cause Michigan some problems is the one that ends the regular season. The Wolverines will close with MSU at home, Purdue on the road, and against Indiana in Ann Arbor. I think Michigan has a great shot at winning the majority of those games, but it will be absolutely vital to have a winning record in that stretch if the Wolverines want to make any challenge for the Big Ten, especially against preseason favorite Indiana.
Overall, I like the schedule, but it will be largely decided by Michigan's performance against the opponents and during the stretches I have highlighted above. I have high hopes for Michigan this season, but they are going to have to play consistently if they want to do anything this year, which is something they struggled with last season. They certainly have a chance at a great NCAA Tournament seed and a Big Ten title, but it's going to be a tough road ahead.