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.

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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

Louisville challenges NCAA over recruiting allegations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville has refuted NCAA allegations against its men’s basketball program in the wake of a federal corruption scandal, requesting that the highest-level violation be reclassified.

The university also is challenging that former coach Rick Pitino failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.

Louisville filed a 104-page response last week to the Notice Of Allegations sent to the school in May. The document stated that college sports’ governing body seeks to ignore wire fraud convictions against several people involved in the scheme – including a former Adidas executive – by suggesting they were representing its athletic interests. Louisville’s contract with the apparel maker was a standard sponsorship agreement rather than a promotional deal, the response added.

“This argument is as novel as it is wrong,” the school wrote in its response. “Even if an institution has some responsibility for the conduct of its suppliers, that responsibility plainly does not extend to acts of fraud perpetrated against the institution itself.”

Louisville also seeks to have several second-tier violations reclassified even lower. The NCAA has until Nov. 15 to respond with the school responding 15 days after before a decision is made whether the case will proceed through the traditional Committee on Infractions or Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP).

The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations states that Louisville committed a Level I violation, considered the most severe, with an improper recruiting offer and extra benefits along with several lesser violations. Those lesser violations also include Pitino failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

The NCAA notice completed a two-year investigation following a federal corruption probe of college basketball announced in September 2017. Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal investigation related to the recruitment of former player Brian Bowen II. Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not named in the federal complaint and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.

Louisville has previously indicated it would accept responsibility for violations it committed but would contest allegations it believed were not supported by facts. The school also noted corrective measures taken in the scandal’s immediate aftermath, such as suspending and then firing Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

Louisville also dismissed the NCAA’s contention that former Adidas executive James Gatto and amateur league director Merl Code represented the school while funneling illegal payments to recruits at several schools.

“The enforcement staff’s remaining allegations lack factual support and overread the relevant Bylaws,” the response stated, “and rest on the erroneous contention that the conspirators were representatives of the University’s athletics interests.

“For these reasons and others set forth, the panel should reject the enforcement staff’s dramatically overbroad theory, and classify this case as involving a Level II-Mitigated violation.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.