The Stanford men's basketball team announced its 2012-13 schedule on Wednesday and there's a lot to be excited about. If the defending NIT champions can pick up where they left off in March, the Cardinal can put together a solid NCAA Tournament resume before the start of Pac-12 play, even with a slip-up or two along the way.
Here's an early look at the Cardinal's five most difficult guaranteed* non-conference opponents.
1. at NC State, Dec. 18
The Wolfpack finished 24-13 last season and took eventual national runner-up Kansas to the brink in the Sweet 16. Coach Mark Gottfried returns his top four scorers, including forward C.J. Leslie, a projected lottery pick in next year's draft. Assuming he's eligible, the Wolfpack will also welcome 6-foot-4 guard and McDonald's All-American Rodney Purvis to the fold. NC State is expected to compete for its first ACC title since 1989 and will be battle-tested following a November trip to Ann Arbor to play Michigan in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Cardinal came from behind to beat the Wolfpack at Maples Pavilion last season; a win in Raleigh this December could be the crowning achievement on Stanford's non-conference resume.
2. Missouri (at Bahamas), Nov. 22
Stanford opens the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas with a Thanksgiving Day game against Missouri, which was last seen getting bounced from the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Kyle O'Quinn and Norfolk State. The Tigers lose their top three scorers from last year's 30-win team, but coach Frank Haith returns guards Phil Pressey and Michael Dixon, as well as former all-Big 12 forward Laurence Bowers, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. Missouri will also add four talented transfers to the mix, though former Oregon prized recruit Jabari Brown won't be eligible until December.
*If Stanford wins, it will face the winner of the Northern Iowa-Louisville game. If Stanford loses, it will face the loser of that game. The Cardinal could play Duke, Minnesota, Memphis or VCU in its final game of the tournament. Those teams are not included in this list, though almost all of them would qualify as tougher opponents than the three teams below.
3. vs. Belmont, Nov. 18
The Bruins move to the Ohio Valley Conference after winning 41 of their last 44 Atlantic Sun games, including 16 of 18 last season en route to their fourth conference championship in five years. Belmont didn't put up much of a fight against Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament, but they return 11 players and three starters from a 27-win team that lost by one point to Duke in last year's season opener. Seniors Kerron Johnson and Ian Clark combine to form one of the most talented and experienced backcourts in the country, which should help offset the loss of post players Mick Hedgepeth and Scott Saunders.
4. vs. Denver, Dec. 2
The Pioneers are also switching conferences this season, moving from the Sun Belt to the WAC. Despite some bad luck, Denver won 22 games last season and is considered one of the favorites to win the WAC. The Pioneers, who run the Princeton offense under coach Joe Scott, return four of their top five scorers. Denver hosts Cal in its second game of the season.
5. at Northwestern, Dec. 21
Northwestern's all-time leading scorer, John Shurna, graduated, but the Wildcats return four starters from a squad that won 19 games and advanced to the second round of the NIT. Northwestern is 49-5 against unranked opponents at home over the last four years and is one of five teams that hasn't suffered a loss to a team with an RPI over 100 in the last two seasons. It's the quality wins that have been hard to come by for the Cats, who are still seeking their first NCAA Tournament berth.
San Francisco (at Oakland)
vs. Cal-State Fullerton
vs. UC Davis
vs. Alcorn State