2014-2015 Season Preview: 25 must-watch non-conference games

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Kentucky beat Louisville twice last season (AP Photo)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

The college basketball offseason is brutal, longer than any other major sport. But practice is already underway, meaning actual college basketball games are officially right around the corner. This year’s non-conference slate has everything you could ask for — rivalries, rematches, top-10 clashes, etc. — and many of these games happen within the first five days of the 2014-2015 season.

Here are the 25 best non-conference games. Mark your calendars:

THE TOP 15

1. Kansas vs. Kentucky (Champions Classic in Indianapolis) – Nov. 18

The Jayhawks and Wildcats meet in the nightcap of the 2014 Champions Classic just four days after the college basketball season begins. Kentucky returns Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress and the Harrison twins and add four more McDonald’s All Americans to that roster. Kansas, however, also brings in a highly-touted quartet that will join returners Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis. Bill Self and John Calipari have both won their national championships at the expense of the other.

2. Duke vs. Wisconsin (ACC/Big Ten Challenge) – Dec. 3

The ACC/Big Ten Challenge’s top game will pit two top-5 teams against one another as the Blue Devils head to the Kohl Center in Madison to take on the Badgers. Not only does this matchup two conference favorites, it provides the best individual matchup of the season, with the senior Frank Kaminsky going up against the nation’s top freshman Jahlil Okafor.

3. Kentucky vs. Louisville – Dec. 27

Kentucky took both games from Louisville last season, including a five-point win in the Sweet 16. Luckily, the Cardinals get the Wildcats at home this season with great matchups on the floor. Terry Rozier and Chris Jones up against the Harrison twins and Tyler Ulis while Montrezl Harrell battles the massive UK frontline. The nation’s best rivalry rarely disappoints.

4. Arizona vs. Gonzaga – Dec. 6

Despite losing two starters, Arizona has plenty of NBA talent in its starting five. Gonzaga will field one of the best rosters in program history, with starters Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell and Przemek Karnowski and transfers Byron Wesley and Kyle Wiltjer. The last time these two teams met was March in the Round of 64. Arizona cruised to a 84-61 win.

source: Getty Images
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson tries to dunk on Gonzaga (Getty Images)

5. North Carolina vs. Kentucky – Dec. 13

One ACC contender wasn’t enough for John Calipari, as his Cats welcome the Tar Heels to Rupp Arena. The 2011 meeting was an instant classic and while the two blue bloods took a break from play in 2012, the non-conference tilt is back on for a second straight season after UNC topped UK in last year. 

6. Texas vs. Kentucky – Dec. 5

The SEC/Big 12 Challenge one-upped its ACC-Big Ten counterpart with two incredible games on Friday, Dec. 5. One of those games? Kentucky hosting Texas. The Longhorns are coming off a rejuvenated season and will pose a front court of Jonathan Holmes, Cameron Ridley and five-star freshman Myles Turner ready to do battle with Kentucky’s deep frontline.

7. Florida vs. Kansas – Dec. 5

In the nightcap of that SEC/Big 12 Challenge double-header, Florida and Kansas meet once again in the regular season, only this time in Allen Fieldhouse. Last season, the Gators used a 67-61 win to kick-off a 30-game winning streak that brought them to the Final Four. This game will include some new faces (Cliff Alexander, Kelly Oubre, etc.) and players in bigger roles (Kasey Hill, Chris Walker).

8. Duke vs. UConn – Dec. 18

UConn won its fourth national championship in 15 years this past April with Duke playing a role in two of those titles. In 1999, the Huskies defeated Duke in the national championship game. Five years later, the Huskies downed the Blue Devils in the Final Four. When they meet on Dec. 18 in Izod Center, it’ll mark the 10th time they’ve played. Duke hopes it’s a lot like the last meeting (2009) when it won a 68-59 contest. Both fanbases travel well.

9. UConn vs. Florida – Jan. 3

source: AP
AP photo

In the last 22 games of the 2013-2014 season, Florida had just two losses, both against UConn. Shabazz Napier’s buzzer-beater in Storrs stole a victory from the Gators. Four months later, Florida became part of UConn’s unlikely national championship run. Billy Donovan gets Kevin Ollie’s team in Gainesville to kick off the 2015.

10. Utah vs. San Diego State Nov. 18

The 24-hour tip-off marathon picks back up in the early evening with one of those games being Utah at San Diego State. The Utes have high hopes this season with the return of Delon Wright. The Aztecs exceeded expectations last season and could repeat that with Dwayne Poole is a host of young talented guards.

11. SMU vs. Gonzaga – Nov. 17

SMU missed out on the NCAA tournament last season due to a weak out-of-conference schedule. Larry Brown beefed up that portion of the schedule this year with Gonzaga — a team with top 10 talent — as an early test. This is still an interesting game, but would have been much higher on the list had Emmauel Mudiay enrolled.

12. Duke vs. Michigan State – Nov. 18

The Blue Devils have four big-time recruits including Okafor and Tyus Jones. Michigan State lost three starters and will rely on Branden Dawson, Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice. It’s tough to compete with the headliner of the Champions Classic, but this is as good of an opening act as you’ll see.

13. Virginia vs. VCU – Dec. 6

Last season, VCU entered Charlottlesville as the No. 14 team in the nation and left with a 59-56 victory over the Cavaliers. The Rams host the Cavs in early December this time around. At that point in the season both teams could be in the top-15 or even top-10. VCU will be battle-tested by Dec. 6 with games against MAC-favorite Toledo and Villanova beforehand. The Wahoos will have the talented perimeter of Malcolm Brogdon, London Perrantes and Anthony Gill to go head-to-head with Havoc.

14. Syracuse vs. Villanova – Dec. 20

An original Big East Conference game is always a must-see event. The Orange also have St. John’s on the schedule, but traveling to Philadelphia to take on ranked Villanova program is the better of the two. This will be the second time these two former league rivals go toe-to-toe since the conference dismantled, as the Orange pulled away with a 78-62 victory at home in what ended up being a top-10 matchup.

15. Wichita State vs. Memphis (in Sioux Falls, South Dakota) – Nov. 14

How do you make a mid-November game in Sioux Falls, South Dakota interesting? Invite a team that hasn’t lost a regular season game since March 2013 and bring in a perennial top-25. Sure, Memphis is going through a rebuilding mode with an entire new back court, but the Tigers have inside presence with Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols that could give the Shockers trouble. Cleanthony Early is now a Knick, but Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker are both All American candidates.

TEN MORE TIMES YOU’LL NEED TO SET YOUR DVR

  • 16. Kentucky vs. UCLA – (CBS Sports Classic in Chicago) Dec. 20: Two blue-bloods square off in the United Center.
  • 17. Texas vs. UConn – Nov. 30: Ryan Boatright vs. Isaiah Taylor will be fun.
  • 18. Arizona vs. Michigan – Dec. 13: Sean Miller’s defensive mastery vs. John Beilein’s offensive ingenuity.
  • 19. Arizona vs. UNLV – Dec. 23: The Runnin’ Rebels have a ton of young talent on their roster.
  • 20. Syracuse vs. Michigan (ACC/Big Ten Challenge) – Dec. 2: Syracuse have PG questions while Michigan has an unproven front line.
  • 21. Ohio State vs. North Carolina (CBS Sports Classic in Chicago) – Dec. 20: Are the Buckeyes truly a top 15-caliber team?
  • 22. Minnesota vs. Louisville (U.S. Air Station in Puerto Rico) – Nov. 14: Big Pitino vs. Little Pitino.
  • 23. Green Bay vs. Georgia State – Dec. 4/27: Arguably the nation’s two-best mid-majors. Keifer Sykes vs. Ryan Harrow and R.J. Hunter. And yeah, these two teams meet twice.
  • 24. Oklahoma vs. UCLA – Nov. 26: Oklahoma has a chance to win the Big 12 is Tashawn Thomas gets eligible.
  • 25. Wichita State vs. Utah  Dec. 3: Utah is one of the best teams you’re not paying attention to right now.

POTENTIAL IN-SEASON TOURNAMENT GAMES WE’RE HOPING TO SEE

  • Battle 4 Atlantis: North Carolina vs. Wisconsin
  • Maui Invitational: San Diego State vs. Arizona
  • 2k Classic: Texas vs. Syracuse
  • Orlando Classic: Kansas vs. Michigan State
  • Legends Classic: Michigan vs. VCU
  • Puerto Rico Tip-Off: UConn vs. West Virginia