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The season is rapidly approaching, with less than two weeks to go before practices officially begin across the nation. So, what are some of the non-conference games that you should keep an eye on this season? Twenty-five such games are listed below including a couple surprises (tried to list a team no more than twice), but the game at the top of the list should surprise no one.
1. Kentucky at Louisville (December 29)
This game topping the list shouldn’t be a surprise, as the Wildcats and Cardinals are two of the teams expected to contend for a national title. Kentucky won both meetings last year, something that the Louisville players will be reminded of quite often. Youth vs. experience and two of the best coaches in the game makes for must-see entertainment at the KFC Yum! Center.
2. North Carolina at Indiana (November 27)
Given the heavy personnel losses that North Carolina suffered the team that shows up in Bloomington probably won’t look like the “finished” product come March. But a game like this can be an excellent learning tool for Roy Williams’ team as they’ll take on the team many have labeled as the favorite to win the national title. North Carolina traditionally ranks among the best teams in the country, but do they have the horses to win at Indiana?
3. Duke vs. Kentucky (November 13)
Another one of the “youth vs. experience” battles for Kentucky, but as we’ve seen during the John Calipari era the Wildcats win them more often than not. But Duke in Atlanta should be an intriguing match-up, especially when considering Kentucky’s Kyle Wiltjer, Nerlens Noel and Alex Poythress taking on Duke’s Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Amile Jefferson.
4. Louisville at Memphis (December 15)
The old foes get together in one final non-conference battle before the Tigers join the Big East in 2013, and Josh Pastner’s got a team that is talented enough to win some NCAA tournament games. Adonis Thomas is back to full strength after missing a sizable portion of last season with a broken foot, and the arrival of Shaq Goodwin will help the Tigers inside. Louisville is deep and experienced, but the game will ultimately come down to how much point guards Joe Jackson (Memphis) and Peyton Siva (Louisville) have improved.
5. NC State at Michigan (November 27)
This is probably a bit high on the list but Michigan should be one of Indiana’s biggest challengers in the Big Ten. Guard Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. both return and John Beilein also has his best incoming freshman class since arriving in Ann Arbor. But the same can be said for the Wolfpack, who have an outstanding freshman class with three McDonald’s All-Americans joining an experienced rotation.
6. Michigan State vs. Kansas (November 13)
The other game in the Champions Classic doubleheader matches two teams that were highly successful last season but have to replace some important contributors. The Spartans have to adjust to life without Draymond Green, meaning more responsibility for veterans such as Adreian Payne, Derrick Nix and Keith Appling. Kansas moves on with Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor in the NBA, and they’ll ask for more from Elijah Johnson, Jeff Withey and Travis Releford. Both have highly-touted newcomers as well, and the questions for both teams should make for a fun battle.
7. Ohio State at Duke (November 28)
Part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, this game will offer a nice look into the progression of Duke point guard Quinn Cook. He’ll have the ball in his hands quite a bit this season, but Ohio State has arguably the nation’s best on-ball defender in junior Aaron Craft. The Buckeyes lose Jared Sullinger and William Buford but DeShaun Thomas returns and LaQuinton Ross should be ready to go after minimal playing time once he was ruled eligible last season.
8. UNLV at North Carolina (December 29)
UNLV won last year’s meeting in impressive fashion in Las Vegas; can they do the same in Chapel Hill? A talented cast of newcomers joins a corps of veterans led by senior guard Anthony Marshall, and Dave Rice’s team is more than capable of making serious noise in March. North Carolina has a healthy Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland, and James Michael McAdoo is a player many expect to break out in 2012-13.
9. San Diego State vs. UCLA (December 1 in Anaheim)
While many are focusing on the talent that’s arrived in Westwood don’t underestimate San Diego State when it comes to who the best team in southern California is. Reigning Mountain West POY Jamaal Franklin returns as do Chase Tapley, James Rahon and Xavier Thames, and newcomers such as freshman Winston Shepard will be heard from as well. UCLA will counter with their four-member freshman class and front court returnees who need to step up if they’re to contend in the Pac-12.
10. Florida at Arizona (December 15)
Despite having to go with Nick Johnson at the point the Wildcats held their own in Gainesville in last season’s meeting. With Mark Lyons on board don’t look for Sean Miller to have to make such a move in the rematch. Florida boasts an experienced front court led by Patric Young and Erik Murphy, which will be a good test for Arizona’s young but talented front court.
11. Kansas at Ohio State (December 22)
These two met in Lawrence last season (sans an injured Jared Sullinger) with the Jayhawks picking up the victory. Is Naadir Tharpe ready to take over at the point for Kansas, or will it be someone else that runs the show? Whoever that man may be, they’ll have to deal with the defense of Aaron Craft. And three players who either had to sit out all of (KU’s Ben McLemore and Jamari Traylor) or saw limited duty (OSU’s LaQuinton Ross) last season will be on display.
12. Syracuse vs. San Diego State (November 9)
This one’s actually being played on the USS Midway just outside of San Diego, so while the Aztecs are much closer to the venue this won’t be like playing in front of “The Show” from an atmosphere standpoint. How prepared is sophomore Michael Carter-Williams to take over at the point? We’re going to find out as he’ll take on SDSU’s experienced back court led by Mountain West POY Jamaal Franklin.
13. Saint Joseph’s at Creighton (December 1)
Hopefully college basketball fans don’t overlook this battle because both the Hawks and Bluejays are capable of making noise this season. The individual match-up of Creighton’s Doug McDermott and Saint Joseph’s C.J. Aiken shouldn’t disappoint (although it’s possible that Aiken will see more of Gregory Echenique than McDermott), and both teams have very good players on the perimeter as well.
14. Missouri at UCLA (December 28)
This is the Tigers’ final road game before the begin SEC play, and Frank Haith’s club is more than capable of making a splash in their new league. Point guard Phil Pressey is one of the country’s best and a rotation that adds some talented transfers (Keion Bell and Alex Oriakhi being two) should have good chemistry thanks to a summer trip to Europe. They’ll be tested by the Bruins, who have some talented newcomers of their own to rely on.
15. Michigan State at Miami (November 28)
How good can Miami be? Along with Maryland the Hurricanes have the talent needed to make a jump in the ACC standings. Shane Larkin and Durand Scott can be a handful for opposing teams, and the chance to take on Michigan State at home is something that Jim Larranaga’s program needs to take advantage of (statement game).
16. Tennessee at Georgetown (November 30)
The Volunteers’ struggles before Jarnell Stokes arrived on campus did a number on their NCAA tournament hopes last year, but having he and Jeronne Maymon together for an entire season will make them a contender in the SEC. The Hoyas on the other hand lost a lot from last year’s squad but a talented freshman class and the development of Otto Porter should net them another NCAA tournament appearance.
17. Stanford at NC State (December 18)
Two teams that hope to contend for (if not win) their respective conferences meet in Raleigh a week before Christmas. Mark Gottfried’s Wolfpack reached the Sweet 16 last season and some believe this group is capable of winning the program’s first ACC regular season title since 1989. Stanford on the other hand is looking to build on a Postseason NIT title, and the chance to see talented players such as Chasson Randle (Stanford) and C.J. Leslie (NC State) is one fans shouldn’t pass up.
18. Baylor at Gonzaga (December 28)
If there’s one thing people should give credit to Scott Drew for it’s the willingness to take on high-caliber opponents in hostile environments. Last year the Bears went to Provo where they held off BYU, and they’ll be looking to do the same against Gonzaga at “The Kennel”. Baylor has a talented rotation led by guards Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip, and Gonzaga will counter with a deep group anchored by guard Kevin Pangos and forward Elias Harris.
19. New Mexico at Cincinnati (December 27)
While neither the Lobos nor the Bearcats are considered to be favorites in their respective conferences, both are talented enough to make a run at the Mountain West and Big East titles. Guard play should be good in this one as New Mexico brings Kendall Williams and Tony Snell to the Queen City, where Cashmere Wright and Sean Kilpatrick await.
20. Butler vs. Indiana (December 15)
Part of a doubleheader at Conseco Fieldhouse (Notre Dame/Purdue being the other tilt), a lot will be learned about the Bulldogs on the perimeter. Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke moves to the point, and the question is whether or not he can find the proper balance between getting guys their shots and taking a few of his own. Butler’s going to need Clarke to take on both tasks this season, and the duel between he and Jordan Hulls should be fun to watch.
21. Minnesota vs. Duke (November 22)
Trevor Mbakwe is back from the torn ACL that ended his season in 2011-12, and had the now 6th-year senior been healthy there’s a good chance that Tubby Smith’s team would have made the NCAA tournament. He and Rodney Williams lead a Golden Gopher squad that should finish in the top half of the Big Ten (at least), and this quarterfinal game against Duke in the Battle 4 Atlantis is one they can win.
22. BYU vs. Florida State (November 16)
The is one of two games in the Coaches vs. Cancer event at the Barclays Center (don’t miss Notre Dame/Saint Joseph’s either), and if BYU wants to avoid an NCAA seed similar to last year (14-seed) they can use this win on their resume. FSU may have lost Bernard James but Michael Snaer and Ian Miller return, making them a threat in the ACC.
23. North Texas at Saint Louis (December 5)
Tony Benford certainly isn’t ducking challengers in his first season in Denton, as the Mean Green begin their season at Creighton. Does Saint Louis, who is expected to contend in the Atlantic 10, have enough inside to contain All-America candidate Tony Mitchell? Can the Mean Green keep SLU’s guards, led by Kwamain Mitchell, under wraps?
24. Ohio at Massachusetts (December 19)
Ohio’s D.J. Cooper and UMass’ Chaz Williams are two of the best point guards in the country, and they’ll be on the same court in this one. Jim Christian takes over a deep team that reached the Sweet 16 last year, but Derek Kellogg can match the Bobcats man for man with his rotation. This game will have major implications for both teams as the conversations about RPI and SOS intensify later in the year.
25. Saint Mary’s vs. Drexel (November 22)
The favorite in the CAA meets the reigning WCC champion in the quarters of the Anaheim Classic and it’s worthy of being a final. But most importantly viewers should keep an eye on the match-up at point guard, with SMC’s Matthew Dellavedova taking on Drexel’s Frantz Massenat.
Five others: Colorado State at Colorado (December 5), Alabama at VCU (December 15), Wisconsin at Marquette (December 8), Florida vs. Kansas State (December 22 in Kansas City) and Marshall vs. West Virginia (December 5 in Charleston, WV).
Raphielle is also the assistant editor at CollegeHoops.net and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.