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The 5 toughest games for Michigan basketball in 2018

The returning NCAA finalists take on the last two national champions. Even with a less competitive Big Ten, visits to East Lansing and Madison are never fun.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four Championship Game-Michigan vs Villanova Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

John Beilein and Michigan basketball face Northwood (Mich.) tonight (7 p.m., BTN Plus) in a home exhibition tune-up prior the the opener next Tuesday.

After another couple layups against Norfolk State and Holy Cross, the road for the returning NCAA finalists gets slicker. The Wolverines are set to face five of Ken Pomeroy’s top-25 overall efficiency teams this season.

From the non-conference to the tough-sledding of road games in the Big Ten, the following are the five toughest games on Michigan’s schedule for 2018-2019:

(1) Nov. 14, at Villanova

As wild as last year’s March Madness was for Michigan, all it did was earn the right to get pummeled by Jay Wright’s Wildcats.

Winner of two of the last three national championships, Villanova faces a bit of a rebuild. Wright needs to replace four of last year’s leading scorers in Jalen Brunson, Omari Spellman, Mikal Bridges and Donte DiVicenzo.

With Beilein and assistant Luke Yaklich returning the nation’s No. 3 efficiency defense, this loss of offensive production looks promising. However, senior Eric Paschall is a big man with a three-point stroke (35.6 percent). Can 7-foot-1 Jon Teske stick with him off the ball?

Early in the schedule, on the road and against the undisputed king of the hill, this mountain is probably too steep to climb.

(2) March 9, at Michigan State

Yes, Mo Wagner broke Nick Ward’s ankles in Breslin last year.

Before that, Beilein was 2-6 against the Spartans in East Lansing.

Michigan may not have the offensive weapons to take advantage of Tom Izzo’s defense this winter. Ward and former walk-on Kenny Goins will start in the frontcourt. Without Wagner, will Teske or one of his reserves create a mismatch off the bounce?

This 2018-19 team may have to turn to its freshman class for sparks on offense. In a raucous road venue, can the young pups cope? If they can’t, gunners Matt McQuaid and Josh Langford — as long as he doesn’t settle for long twos — should fill the buckets.

Both hovered around 40 percent from three in 2017-18.

If the Wolverines are to get their fourth victory in Breslin under Beilein, the solution likely comes from Zavier Simpson beating the defense-optional approach of point guard Cassius Winston. This would facilitate pick-and-roll against a plodding group of big men.

(3) Nov. 28, North Carolina

Long ago, before the great Yakliching, there was a time of abysmal defense in Ann Arbor. Actually, in took place in Chapel Hill.

The venue for this year’s ACC-Big Ten Challenge flips to Crisler Center. The Tar Heels bring back third-team All-American forward Luke Maye, who torched the Wolverines for 27 points on just 14 shots last November.

Michigan featured its best defensive rebounding team in the Beilein era last winter. It ranked No. 34 overall by swiping 25 percent of missed shots. Roy Williams’ teams typically crash the boards, so this improvement will be tested.

The Wolverines hold a 2-4 mark all-time against UNC.

(4) Jan. 19, at Wisconsin

Two words: Trohl. Center.

Also, the Badgers quietly emerged late in last year’s 15-18 debacle. They topped No. 6 Purdue, 57-53, won two more in a row and pushed conference champion Michigan State to the brink twice.

The heart and soul of this year’s preseason No. 20 efficiency outfit is Ethan Happ. He’s an elite and versatile big man. He scores, grabs defensive rebounds and dishes assists at top-50 rates nationally.

His counterpart is rec gym look-a-like Brad Davison, who struggled with a shoulder injury last year. He still managed to connect on 36 percent of his treys.

Outside of last year’s 83-72 triumph in Madison, Beilein and company have only one other road win in the series. Hopes constantly have been dashed by Davison clones.

(5) Dec. 1, Purdue

Jim Delany insists on conference basketball in December, and bye golly, the bushy-browed commissioner will have it.

Michigan split its holiday season Big Ten games in 2017, topping Indiana and falling at Ohio State. It’s a time of year where teams would rather work on kinks than play meaningful contests.

This is where the No. 24 Boilermakers enter the picture. While there’s no more Isaac Haas (Indiana Ivan Drago) or Vince Edwards, plenty of pieces return for Matt Painter.

For one, Carsen Edwards has the highest-usage player on the nation’s No. 2 offense per Ken Pomeroy. At point guard, he hit over 40 percent from deep to score 18.5 points a game. Simpson will have to exploit his loose handle (nearly two turnovers a game).

Replacing Haas’ size is 7-foot-3, 250-pound Dutchman Matt Haarms. While Haas used to bully inside to score, Haarms is more finesse. Defensively, in limited time, he averaged more than two blocks a game.

Beilein and Painter have engaged in beautiful basketball war the last few seasons. While holding home court and more experience, expect the chess match to continue in earnest.