PEORIA — The Bradley Braves will face five programs that advanced to the NCAA Tournament in 2021 or 2022 as part of a nonconference men's basketball schedule designed to challenge their team ahead of a Missouri Valley Conference run.
The Braves will face SEC powers Auburn and Arkansas, ranked Nos. 12 and 10, respectively, in ESPN's summer poll. It marks the first time since 1949-50 that Bradley will face two SEC opponents in a single season.
"As a competitor, I’m excited about our nonconference schedule," Bradley coach Brian Wardle said. "We obviously wanted to build a strong resume with our 11 nonconference games. We are going to be challenged every night, which is going to prepare us for a very tough 20-game Valley campaign with the additions of Belmont, Murray State and UIC."
A first-time foe
The Arkansas game is Dec. 17 in North Little Rock, Ark., and puts Bradley against a team it has never played before.
Arkansas was 28-9 last season and has reached the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament two straight years. Its recruiting class is ranked No. 2 in the nation, led by consensus five-star prospect Nick Smith Jr., a 6-foot-5 guard rated as the No. 6 prospect in the nation.
"That game happened late, the last game we filled on our schedule," Wardle said. "We wanted one more really good game, and the dates lined up.
"Both head coaches definitely wanted the game. It was a no-brainer for us, we're excited for the opportunity."
Bradley basketball's 2022-23 nonconference schedule
Nov. 2: Illinois Wesleyan at Bradley (Carver Arena), 7 p.m., exhibition game.
Nov. 7: Wisconsin-Parkside at Bradley (Carver Arena), 7 p.m.
Nov. 11: Bradley at Utah State (Logan, Utah), TBA
Nov. 15: Eastern Michigan at Bradley (Carver Arena), Cancun Challenge, 7 p.m.
Nov. 19: Southeast Missouri State at Bradley (Carver Arena), 3 p.m.
Nov. 22: Bradley vs Auburn (at Cancun, Mexico), Cancun Challenge, 5 p.m.
Nov. 23: Bradley vs Liberty/Northwestern, (at Cancun, Mexico), Cancun Challenge, 5 p.m./7:30 p.m.
Nov. 26: Merrimack at Bradley (Carver Arena), 3 p.m.
Dec. 6: Bradley at SIU-Edwardsville (Edwardsville), 7 p.m.
Dec. 17: Bradley at Arkansas (North Little Rock, Ark.), 3 p.m.
Dec. 19: Stonehill at Bradley (Carver Arena), 7 p.m.
Dec. 22: Akron at Bradley (Carver Arena), 4 p.m.
Why they built it this way
"Scheduling is one of most important things to do for your program," Wardle said. "We'll face teams that like to spread us out and shoot 3s. We'll face some slower teams, and some teams that like to run. It's all to prepare us for the Valley."
And for something else: An NCAA Tournament resume, which factors in the NET, an algorithm used by the NCAA starting in 2018 to consider teams for the tournament.
"With NET, we're very conscious of trying to play at least four-plus games in our nonconference schedule that are Quad 1/Quad 2 games," Wardle said. "It's going to be quite a challenge for us. We see the value in it."
A change in the Valley schedule
With the Missouri Valley Conference adding Belmont, Murray State and UIC — with Loyola leaving — to create a 12-team lineup, there is a schedule format tweak that comes with it.
The schedule will include 20 conference games against 11 opponents. Bradley will face two of those opponents just once — one of them only on the road, one of them only at home.
But the rivalry series — in BU's case Illinois State — will not be touched. They'll remain among the two-game series.It's not known yet who Bradley's two single-game Valley opponents will be.
"That format is exciting for me, I love seeing some change," Wardle said. "We're counting two of those games now as essentially part of our nonconference schedule. The bottom line is, this is by far the strongest schedule we've ever faced in my time at Bradley."
The fine print of the nonconference schedule
• Utah State has qualified for the NCAA Tournament in three of the last four seasons.
• Bradley won the 2018 Cancun Challenge, and returns to the tournament to face nationally ranked Auburn on Nov. 22 and then either Liberty or Northwestern a day later.
• Stonehill has joined the Northeast Conference and is in its debut season at the NCAA Div.-I level.
• Akron is another first-time BU opponent, and won the MAC championship and went to the NCAA Tournament under former Illinois coach John Groce.
• Merrimack is another first-time foe from the Northeast Conference, and is a defensive-minded team that finished in the top 40 in the nation in steals the last three seasons.
• Liberty, from the Atlantic Sun Conference, is one of seven teams in the nation to win at least 20 games six straight seasons. Their returnees include two-time Atlantic Sun Player of the Year Darius McGhee.
• Eastern Michigan's roster includes Emoni Bates, a former No. 1-ranked national recruit who transferred from Memphis.
• The Braves will host Illinois Wesleyan in an exhibition game Nov. 2 at Carver Arena.
Dave Eminian is the Journal Star sports columnist, and covers Bradley men's basketball, the Rivermen and Chiefs. He writes the Cleve In The Eve sports column for pjstar.com. He can be reached at 686-3206 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @icetimecleve.
This article originally appeared on Journal Star: Bradley basketball 2022-23 nonconference schedule released