Eight days from today, the 2017-18 college basketball season will tip off. Here’s a look at the new season’s 25 most intriguing non-conference games:
1. Duke vs. Michigan State, Nov. 14 (Chicago)
Comment: The glamour matchup of this year’s Champions Classic doesn’t merely pit the top two teams in the preseason AP Top 25. It also features ample star power thanks to the presence of the favorite to win national player of the year (Miles Bridges), the presumptive No. 1 pick in the NBA draft (Marvin Bagley) and college basketball’s most recognizable player (Grayson Allen). Get your popcorn ready.
2. Kentucky vs. Kansas, Nov. 14 (Chicago)
Comment: The Champions Classic undercard isn’t too shabby either. On one side is a Kansas team loaded with quality veteran guards but lacking its usual depth in the frontcourt. On the other side is an ultra-athletic Kentucky team that may need more time than usual to blossom given that only one rotation player from last season returns. Advantage Kansas in mid-November? Probably.
3. Louisville at Kentucky, Dec. 29
Comment: For the first time in almost a decade, college basketball’s most intense non-conference rivalry won’t pit John Calipari against Rick Pitino. Louisville interim coach David Padgett will try to hold together what looked like a top-12 caliber team before scandal struck and forced university administrators to jettison Pitino and two of his assistants in early October.
4. Kentucky vs. UCLA, Dec. 23 (New Orleans)
Comment: Very few players on either side return from last season when UCLA toppled No. 1 Kentucky in Lexington and then the Wildcats enacted revenge in the Sweet 16. Kentucky will reload behind a new crop of freshmen headlined by wing Hamidou Diallo and stretch forward Kevin Knox. UCLA will build around returning standouts Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday and a heralded freshman class.
5. Villanova vs. Gonzaga, Dec. 5 (New York)
Comment: How good can Gonzaga be after losing four of its top eight players from last year’s national runner-up squad? The guess here is the Zags will miss the steady hand of Nigel Williams-Goss and the rim protection of Przemek Karnowski and Zack Collins, but they won’t fall too far. This clash with four-time reigning Big East champ Villanova should provide an early litmus test.
6. Kentucky at West Virginia, Jan. 27
Comment: The friendship between Bob Huggins and John Calipari has survived some memorable matchups over the years, most notably West Virginia’s upset of John Wall’s Kentucky team in the 2010 Elite Eight. This year’s Big 12-SEC Challenge clash has a chance to be another gem with Kentucky boasting its usual array of young talent and West Virginia returning the core of a Sweet 16 team.
7. Cincinnati at Xavier, Dec. 2
Comment: Cincinnati snapped Xavier’s three-game Crosstown Shootout win streak last season, overcoming an eight-point halftime deficit despite 40 points from Musketeers star Trevon Bluiett. Both teams could be even better this season as the Musketeers bring back Bluiett and a strong supporting cast and the Bearcats add high-scoring transfer Cane Broome to an already potent roster.
8. Duke at Indiana, Nov. 29
Comment: Assembly Hall will be rocking for Archie Miller’s first high-profile home game as Hoosiers head coach. Can Indiana feed off that energy and put a scare into a Duke team that opens the season atop the polls? It’s unlikely. The Hoosiers lost a ton of talent from a team that missed the NCAA tournament last year and will have to rely heavily on Robert Johnson.
9. Miami at Minnesota, Nov. 29
Comment: There may not be any name brands in this matchup, yet it could be the most compelling matchup of the ACC-Big Ten challenge. Five of Minnesota’s top six scorers are back from a team that won 24 games last season and eased the pressure on head coach Richard Pitino. Miami meanwhile boasts a young, talented core headlined by potential NBA draft picks Bruce Brown and Lonnie Walker.
10. Cincinnati at UCLA, Dec. 16
Comment: Whereas Cincinnati brings back a similar roster to the one UCLA beat in the second round of the NCAA tournament last March, the Bruins lost five of their top six scorers from that game. The younger, more athletic Bruins will not be nearly as skilled or as deadly from the perimeter this season, but they could be better and more versatile defensively as their heralded freshman class gains experience.
11. Louisville at Purdue, Nov. 28
Comment: Watch out for Purdue even without All-American forward Caleb Swanigan. The Boilermakers return enough talent to potentially emerge as the biggest threat to Michigan State in the Big Ten. This home game against Louisville will provide a good early indicator whether Isaac Haas, Vince Edwards and Carson Edwards can collectively make up for Swanigan’s departure.
12. Seton Hall vs. Louisville, Dec. 3
Comment: This is Seton Hall’s best chance before Big East play to prove itself as an elite team. All-American candidate Angel Delgado and three other senior starters return from a team that has reached the NCAA tournament the past two years. If Khadeen Carrington makes a smooth transition to point guard and some outside shooters emerge, the Pirates are capable of challenging Villanova in the Big East.
13. UConn at Arizona, Dec. 21
Comment: UConn had already lost to Wagner and Northeastern even before injuries to guard Alterique Gilbert and wing Terry Larrier further waylaid the already struggling Huskies. Can they get healthy and rebound from last year’s hot mess of a 17-loss season? A visit to talent-laden Arizona should offer a barometer for UConn’s fortunes.
14. Arizona vs. Texas A&M, Dec. 5 (Phoenix):
Comment: Texas A&M could provide an early test for Arizona if J.J. Caldwell can solve the point guard issues that plagued the Aggies last season. Between sharpshooting D.J. Hogg, high-scoring wing Admon Gilder, ultra-productive old-school big man Tyler Davis and NBA prospect Robert Williams, Texas A&M is loaded at the other spots on the floor. Williams vs. DeAndre Ayton should be especially fun.
15. Notre Dame at Michigan State, Nov. 30
Comment: Again Notre Dame is losing a couple of key players. Again the Irish will recover just fine. The nucleus of point guard Matt Ferrell, undersized big man Bonzie Colson and wing Temple Gibbs should be enough to put a scare into a Michigan State team that opens as a heavy favorite to win the Big Ten next season.
16. Texas at VCU, Dec. 5
Comment: One of the stipulations of Shaka Smart’s VCU contract was that he had to schedule a home-and-home series against the Rams if he ever bolted for another college program. Smart will bring his Texas team to Richmond at a time when the Longhorns are trying to bounce back from a down season and VCU is rebuilding after another coaching change and a talent exodus.
17. Wichita State at Baylor, Dec. 2
Comment: The Shockers’ chances of winning in Waco could depend on the health of standouts Landry Shamet and Markis McDuffie, both of whom are expected to miss the start of the season with foot injuries. Baylor will pose a formidable challenge with three starters back from a 27-win team including high-scoring guard Manu Lecomte and shot-swatting center Jo-Lual Acuil.
18. Cincinnati vs. Florida, Dec. 9 (Newark)
Comment: Already an elite defensive team under Mick Cronin, Cincinnati have improved offensively over the past couple years by adding more shot creators like Cane Broome, Kyle Washington and Jacob Evans too. This neutral-court matchup with Florida will offer the Bearcats a chance to make an early statement that this team gives Cronin his best chance at reaching a Final Four.
19. USC at SMU, Dec. 2
Comment: SMU will be out for revenge after USC rallied from a 10-point second-half deficit last March and ended the Mustangs’ 30-win season in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The Trojans won’t be easy to beat though. With Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatright both withdrawing from the draft and a strong freshman class on campus, USC is two deep at every position.
20. Virginia at West Virginia, Dec. 5
Comment: Virginia sometimes had a hard time scoring last season even with London Perrantes running its offense. Now that the Cavaliers’ steady point guard has graduated, how will they compensate? This will be a chance for Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and Jack Salt to step up and prove they can carry the Virginia offense against an elite defense that thrives on forcing turnovers.
21. Michigan at North Carolina, Nov. 29
Comment: Michigan is one of six power-conference foes the reigning national champs will face before ACC play begins, no easy task for a team that lost its top three big men from last season. A backcourt headlined by Joel Berry and Theo Pinson should be among the nation’s best, but North Carolina may have to deviate from its traditional two big man lineups since former walkon Luke Maye is the only returning frontcourt player with significant experience.
22. Kansas vs. Stanford, Dec. 21 (Sacramento)
Comment: Second-year Stanford coach Jerod Haase will meet his alma mater in a matchup that provides a golden opportunity for the Cardinal to notch a marquee earlywin. This is Stanford’s best roster in years thanks to the return of Pac-12 player of the year candidate Reid Travis and the arrival of an outstanding recruiting class.
23. Iowa State at Missouri, Nov. 10
Comment: Michael Porter, college basketball. College basketball, Michael Porter. The heralded freshman will make his Missouri debut against an Iowa State team that lost a lot of talent from last year and might be hard-pressed to extend its NCAA tournament streak. If Missouri is going to make a splash in Cuonzo Martin’s debut season, this is a game it should win at home.
24. UConn vs. Oregon, Nov. 23 (Portland)
Comment: The PK80 Invitational is college basketball’s best preseason tournament this season, and this is maybe its most compelling opening-round game. Peyton Pritchard is the only rotation player back from Oregon’s Final Four team. Can the Ducks reload by surrounding Pritchard with some talented transfers and freshmen? We’ll have a better idea by the time this game is over.
25. South Dakota State at Kansas, Nov. 17
Comment: South Dakota State’s Mike Daum might be college basketball’s best player on a small-conference roster. This visit to Phog Allen Fieldhouse is the best early-season showcase for the 6-foot-9 stretch forward. Daum averaged 25.1 points per game last season and shot 41.8 percent from behind the arc.
– – – – – – –