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The Top 25 Non-Conference Games

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Beginning in September and running up until November 10th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 college hoops preview package.

While much of the nation doesn’t start paying attention to college basketball until after the Super Bowl, there are plenty of must-see matchups that happen starting in November, when some of the country’s best programs square off in non-conference matchups. From holiday tournaments to neutral-site spectacles to on-campus clashes, the 2017-18 season has some great non-league offerings.

1. Duke vs. Michigan State – Champions Classic (Chicago) – Nov. 14 (7 p.m.): The Champions Classic never fails to deliver, and this season it’s giving the country the top-two teams in NBC Sports’ preseason Top 25 squaring off in the first week of the season. This game has it all, from national title contenders to a National Player of the Year favorite (Miles Bridges) to a potential No. 1 2018 NBA Draft pick (Marvin Bagley III) to everyone’s favorite villain (Grayson Allen). This is as can’t miss as can’t miss gets.

2. Kentucky vs. Kansas – Champions Classic (Chicago) – Nov. 14 (9:30 p.m.): Another pair of top-five teams will clash in the nightcap at the United Center when the Wildcats and Jayhawks tangle. It’ll also be the country’s first chance to evaluate what figure to be immensely talented but somewhat mysterious rosters. Kentucky surely has the players, though the fit, once again mostly who shoots it, questionable. Kansas is just downright weird. There will be a whole season to play after this game, but it should provide a hint to how good – or flawed – both of these Final Four hopefuls are.

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

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3. PK80 (Portland) – Nov. 23-26: The 80th birthday present Nike founder Phil Knight is throwing himself might be the most anticipated tournament (non-Big Dance division) in the sport’s history. It features 13 of the sport’s biggest brands. Plus Portland and Portland State. And DePaul, courtesy of Georgetown’s ducking real competition in Patrick Ewing’s debut season. The field may not be as strong as hoped when it was announced last year, but it’s still going to provide awesome matchups that are so rare in non-conference hoops. Spend your Thanksgiving in Portland. You won’t be disappointed.

4. UCLA vs. Kentucky (New Orleans) – Dec. 23 (4 p.m.): Christmas comes early in New Orleans with a replay of two of the more anticipated/enjoyed games of 2016-17. Both teams have overturned their rosters since the Ball vs. Fox Family War of Words, but both will probably be ranked in the top-15 come late December and two of college basketball’s most storied programs squaring off is always appointment television. The only downside here is that with the storied gyms of Pauley Pavilion and Rupp Arena at their disposal, the two powerhouse programs instead are playing at Smoothie King Center. Remember, this is all about the student-athlete.

5. Kentucky at West Virginia – SEC/Big 12 Challenge – Jan. 27 (4:30 or 7 p.m.): The schedule of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge is kind of silly, plopping it right in the middle of the conference season (though less so than the Big Ten’s schedule gymnastics), but getting John Calipari vs. Bob Huggins is fantastic, no matter when it happens. Given that it’s happening on-campus in Morgantown between two teams that could be ranked in the top-10 at the time, it’s reason to celebrate.

6.. Louisville at Kentucky – Dec. 29 (1 p.m.): Two top-10 teams, two bitter in-state rivals and one on-campus game. Good on these two programs, and lucky for us.

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7. Seton Hall at Louisville – Billy Minardi Classic – Dec. 3 (4 p.m.): Everyone will know going into the season how strong the Cardinals are, but Seton Hall may be a bit overlooked, even if they open the year as a top-20 team. The Pirates have a really fun group that includes Angel Delgado, Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez. They’re going to make some noise in the Big East, and they’ll have a chance to announce their intentions in early December.

8. Cincinnati vs. Florida – Never Forget Tribute Classic (Newark, N.J.) – Dec. 9 : The Bearcats return a ton from a 30-win team and the Gators’ roster is mainly unchanged after last year’s Elite 8 run. Two veteran teams with major aspirations will be taking the floor with their eyes on maybe moving a seed-line with a resume-boosting win.

9. Villanova vs. Gonzaga (New York) – Dec. 5 (7 p.m.): Some of the biggest names from last season’s rosters are gone from both of these teams, but the programs remain two of the best in the country and this year’s teams will be no slouches. The Josh Perkins/Jalen Brunson matchup is worth tuning into all by itself.

10. Miami at Minnesota – Big Ten/ACC Challenge – Nov. 29 (9 p.m.): This may not look like a top-10 game at first blush, but both the Hurricanes and Gophers are going to have serious teams this year. Jim Larranaga’s squad is going to have guards galore while Richard Pitino brings back nearly everyone from last year’s squad, by far the best he’s had in Minneapolis. This easily could be a matchup of top-10 teams.

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11. Cincinnati at UCLA – Dec. 16 (3:30 p.m.): Both the Bearcats and Bruins have solid non-conference schedules this season, and this matchup will be among the best for both.

12. Cincinnati at Xavier – Dec. 2 (Noon): The Crosstown Shootout is a must-see every year, and with the Bearcats and Musketeers set to be top-20 teams, this year’s no different.

13. Alabama at Arizona – Dec. 9 : There will be a ton of talent on display in Tucson with DeAndre Ayton, Allonzo Trier and Rawle Atkins on the Wildcats’ side and freshman Collin Sexton for the Crimson Tide.

14. Notre Dame at Michigan State – ACC/Big Ten Challenge – Nov. 30 (7 p.m.): Michigan State’s Miles Bridges is one of the sport’s highest-flyers while Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson gets his while barely ever leaving the floor. Having them on the same court at the same time offers great contrast – and probably a lot of buckets.

15. Virginia Tech at Kentucky – Dec. 16 (2 p.m.): Zach LeDay and Seth Allen are gone, but Buzz Williams’ team should still have enough to give Kentucky trouble in Rupp Arena.

16. Texas at VCU – Dec. 5 (6 p.m.): Shaka Smart returns to Richmond just over two years after leaving the Rams for the Longhorns in what is sure to be an emotional trip. Plus, it’s a chance to watch Mo Bamba, who very well could be a top-five draft pick come June.

17. Indiana at Louisville – Dec. 9 (2 p.m.): The Hoosiers may not be a national contender this year, but it’s Archie Miller’s first foray into the Indiana/Kentucky hoops battles, even if it’s not with his program’s traditional southern rival.

Glen Johnston, Texas A&M Athletics

18. Texas A&M vs. West Virginia – Armed Forces Classic (Ramstein-Miesenbach, German) – Nov. 10 (6 p.m.): The Mountaineers and Aggies tip off the hoops season overseas at the Ramstein Air Base with Robert Williams leading the way for the Aggies.

19. Wichita State at Baylor – Dec. 2 (2 p.m.): Gregg Marshall might have his best team ever with the Shockers with everyone back from last year’s squad that finished in the KenPom top-10 despite just getting a 10-seed in the NCAA tournament. The Bears lost Johnathan Motley, but with Manu Lecomte and Jo Lual-Acuil back, Scott Drew should have Baylor in the top-25

20. Missouri vs. Illinois (St. Louis) – Dec. 23: This is one of probably two high-profile non-conference games for Michael Porter, Jr. to showcase his potential top-pick talent, plus it pits Mizzou’s Jeremiah Tilmon against the program he initially committed to before defecting to the Tigers ahead of Brad Underwood’s first year in Champaign.

21. Butler at Maryland – Gavitt Games – Nov. 15 (8:30 p.m.): Another first-week gem that has the Bulldogs heading to College Park to face Justin Jackson and the Terps.

22. Duke at Indiana – ACC/Big Ten Challenge – Nov. 29 (9:30 p.m.): The Blue Devils visit Assembly Hall for just the second time ever and the first since the 2005-06 season.

23. Arizona vs. Texas A&M (Phoenix) – Dec. 5 (10 p.m.): DeAndre Ayton vs. Robert Williams. That should be fun.

24. Baylor at Florida – SEC/Big 12 Challenge – Jan. 27 : The SEC/BIg 12 Challenge is stocked with awesome matchups, but this one has a chance to be a good one.

25. South Dakota State at Kansas – Nov. 17 (8 p.m.): The Jackrabbits’ Mike Daum is a potential All-American. He’s got a chance to build some November hype at Allen Fieldhouse.

Bill Self’s least impressive Kansas team is 40 minutes away from the Final Four

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OMAHA, Neb. — Kansas is vulnerable, exploitable and limited. The Jayhawks have no depth, are without a superstar and possess a middling defense.

They are Bill Self’s worst team.

And they have won the Big 12 regular season and tournament titles, secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and are a win away from the Final Four.

The Jayhawks shrugged off some late sluggishness to dispatch No. 5 Clemson 80-76 on Friday night in the Midwest Regional semifinal at CenturyLink Center to put themselves in the Elite Eight for the third-consecutive year with a date with Duke on Sunday.

This year has often been about what this Kansas team couldn’t do after the losses of Frank Mason and Josh Jackson and then the ineligibility of Billy Preston. Early-season losses to Washington and Arizona State, the latter at the usually impregnable Allen Fieldhouse, were the proof this Kansas team might finally be the one not to win a Big 12 title. Then Texas Tech beat the hell out of them in Lawrence and it looked like the streak was on its way to over.

Devonte Graham was a poor imitation of Mason.  Svi Mykhailiuk was too timid and inconsistent. Udoka Azubuike was foul-prone and unproven. The supporting cast was a rung or two lower than a team with national-championship aspirations could carry.

Those problems are real. Those issues are troublesome. Those deficiencies are critical.

In spite of it all, Kansas won the Big 12 by two games, ripped through the conference tournament and are on the doorstep of playing for a national championship.

Bill Self’s worst team has a chance to be the country’s best.

“I’m so proud of our team because I think of all the teams that we’ve had here, this would be the team that everyone would have thought would not be in this game,” Self said Friday. “And so, hey, we’re in this game. We’ve got a legitimate shot to go to San Antonio.

“You prepare the whole year to play in this game. So I think we’ll play with no what-ifs. I think we’ll let it go. I think we’ll be as loose as we can be and still you’ve got to make shots.

“I’d like nothing more than to take my team this year to San Antonio and let them experience what the best of the best is in college basketball.”

The key to Kansas’ season has been embracing its shortcomings. Azubuike is the only big they’ve got that can give them both scoring and defense consistently. It’s a 180 for a program that’s featured Thomas Robinson, Cole Aldrich, the Morris Twins and Jeff Withey. Kansas almost always plays through its bigs. This year, they’re playing around one.

“I never played like this,” Self said. “It just goes against the grain from the teams that we’ve had in the past, but these guys have figured it out. They’ve learned how to play through it, and we’ve had unbelievable guard play and unbelievable leadership from our vets, and had some guys have some outstanding seasons.

“There’s less margin for error but these guys have certainly rallied around that.”

Kansas’ shooting is why they’re in the Elite Eight. The Jayhawks are 10th nationally with a 40.5 3-point shooting percentage. It’s Azubuiike, though, that makes so many of those good looks possible. The man makes 77.5 percent of his shots from the floor. That demands defensive attention. And that means defenders aren’t shadowing shooters.

“He’s a guy we can throw the ball into and he can go get a basket,” Malik Newman, who had a team-high 17 points Friday, said. “I think his passing is underrated. That’s another big key for him. When we’re able to throw it in and the defense collapses on him, he is able to kick it out and find an open shooter.

“It just opens up the whole game for us.”

It’s opened up a whole world of possibility for Kansas and a world of hurt for their opponents.

“Most teams have somebody that you can kind of scratch off,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell mused. “So one of the reasons they’re so hard to guard is they’ve got a center that scores if he catches it deep, and he’s bigger than everybody on the floor so he does get position. And then you’ve got guards that can all make shots and drive by you and they play with great spacing.”

Now, Kansas isn’t full of slouches. Graham was the Big 12 player of the year, Azubuike’s talent was apparent even if it was raw before injury robbed him of a freshman year. Mykhailiuk is all-Big 12 while Malik Newman and LaGerald Vick were heralded prospects. Still, there’s not a lottery pick among them. No Andrew Wiggins or Ben McLemore or Josh Jackson. The fit is strange and the depth is zilch.

All that has eroded Kansas’ wiggle room for mistakes, but when they operate within their comfort zone, it can make for great offense. The first two minutes of the second half when the Jayhawks hit back-to-back 3s was a thing of beauty, ball movement and shot making. It was the blueprint for a buzzsaw.

Maybe Self’s worst team is pretty damn good.

Keenan Evans closes strong (again) as Texas Tech advances past Purdue to Elite Eight

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BOSTON — Second Half Keenan struck again on Friday night.

Keenan Evans scored 12 of his 16 points and handed out three of his four assists in the final 10 minutes of the game as No. 3-seed Texas Tech held off No. 2-seed Purdue, 78-65. Zach Smith and Justin Gray paced Tech early, combining for 26 points that helped the Red Raiders build a lead that reached as high as nine before Evans went into takeover mode. Zhaire Smith added 13 points of his own, while the Red Raiders forced 17 Purdue turnovers.

And with that, Texas Tech will to advance past the Sweet 16 for the first time since … ever.

This is uncharted territory for for the Red Raider program that has never been to an Elite Eight and will be playing for their first-ever trip to the Final Four.

“To build a program there has to be a lot of firsts so myself and Keenan have only been together for two years, so we’ve never been to the Elite Eight in two years,” Beard said. “That’s more accurate.”

It’s also fitting, really.

Because it more or less sums up what makes this Texas Tech program so interesting.

On a night where their three-leading scorers never really got going, the Red Raiders advanced on the stretch of two things: Their defense, and the fact that they can stay in a game on the nights when their best players don’t play their best.

With just over 10 minutes left in the game, when Purdue was getting ready to make one final run at advancing to the Elite Eight, is when Evans took over. And there’s no question about it: He closed out this game. Everything that the Red Raiders got on the offensive end of the floor came through Evans down the stretch, even the stuff that doesn’t show up in the score book; for example, the Red Raiders executed a pick-and-roll to perfection with three minutes left, but the lob that Evans threw to Zach Smith ended up as a missed dunk that Zhaire Smith was able to put right back in. Evans doesn’t get the assist, but he made that bucket possible.

I saw all that to say this: With 10 minutes left, the three leading scorers in the Tech program — Evans, Zhaire Smith and Jarrett Culver — were a combined 4-for-16 from the floor with just 11 points.

And Texas Tech held a 50-41 lead. If Evans is Texas Tech’s closer, this was a save that he earned with a three-run lead.

“It’s our identity,” Beard said. “We have a lot of faith in our whole roster, we use a lot of different guys and tonight was fitting. That is the way we have played all year.”

If that doesn’t sum up Chris Beard’s program, I don’t know what does.

No. 2 Duke goes inside to defeat No. 11 Syracuse

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OMAHA, Neb. — Second-seeded Duke made just 5 of its 26 3-point attempts against No. 11 Syracuse on Friday in the two ACC programs’ Sweet 16 matchup.

So the Blue Devils just went inside.

Marvin Bagley III and Wendel Carter, Jr. both had big games to help the Blue Devils outlast the Orange, 69-65, to put themselves in the Elite Eight on Sunday against top-seeded Kansas.

“This was a heck of a game,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I thought both teams played their hearts out. A great game to win, a really difficult game to lose, because Syracuse played such winning basketball.”

While Duke couldn’t beat the zone that took Syracuse from the First Four to the second weekend with its outside shooting, its two big underclassmen provided plenty of production. Bagley had 22 points and eight rebounds while Carter added 14 points and 12 boards.

“It was a hard fought game. We knew they were going to compete every second of the game,” Bagley said, “and we just tried to compete as well. We had a little point in the game where we started turning it over, and things weren’t going our way, but we stayed tough mentally and we finished it out.”

Bagley was on the receiving end of a number of lobs behind the Syracuse zone that helped the Duke offense stay out in front.

“We practiced it all week,” Bagley said. “We try to look for different things and different ways to score against that zone, and we did a great job at that and got the win.”

Tyus Battle had 19 points to lead the Orange. Oshae Brissett added 15 points and seven boards while Marek Dolezaj had 13 points.

Syracuse shot 53.8 percent from the floor in the second half while Duke shot 36.4 percent (and 11.1 percent from distance), but it wasn’t enough to overcome the Orange’s 16 turnovers or Duke’s 17 second-chance points.

Grayson Allen had 15 points and eight assists for Duke. The Blue Devils had 32 points in the paint.

Duke will now turn its attention to the Jayhawks, who defeated Clemson earlier Friday to make it to their third-straight Elite Eight. The game will tipoff Sunday at 5:05 p.m. (ET).

“We just got to come out ready to play from the beginning,” Bagley said. “We were kind of slacking in this game. I think we’ll be ready for that game. Everybody’s going to be up. We should be coming out strong.”

VIDEO: Allen-to-Bagley oop beats the Syracuse zone

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Usually, you’ve got to shoot a team out of a zone.

Duke might be able to dunk Syracuse out of it.

Grayson Allen and Marvin Bagley connected for a beautiful alley-oop Friday in the second half of the Blue Devils’ Sweet 16 contest against the Orange.

That will work as a zone-buster.

VIDEO: Duke slaps the floor on defense…while playing zone

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Slapping the floor on defense has its advocates and its detractors.

Some applaud the old-school, hard-nosed nature of putting hand to floor. For others, its a bit corny.

What everyone agrees on is that you don’t drop a floor slap if you’re playing zone.

Unless you’re Duke, apparently.

Presumably, the whole point of slapping the floor is to psyche yourself and intimidate your opponent with aggressive man-to-man defense. Not sit-back-and-guard-this-spot-whether-there’s-a-guy-there-or-not defense.

C’mon, Duke. You’re making it too easy for your haters.