We rounded up the best non-conference games of the 2017-18 college basketball season.
Cooler weather, tons of football, a healthy heaping of comfort food and—college basketball? Sports fans across the nation usually crave the first three during the month of November, but they might wait until the calendar flips to 2018 to absorb the last one. Take South Bend, Ind., for example. Notre Dame fans are definitely more concerned with whether or not Brian Kelly’s team can stay in the College Football Playoff picture than if Mike Brey can lead the Fighting Irish to the Elite Eight for the third time in four seasons. Animation for the latter will sweep through Indiana in a few months—just not yet.
But if you’re a Duke fan dealing with a football team hovering around .500, or a Michigan State supporter trying to cope with a triple overtime loss to Northwestern in late October, remedies for fall football heartbreaks are fast approaching. Those two schools take to the hardwood at the Champions Classic in Chicago in mid-November in what could very well be the best non-conference game of the 2017-18 college basketball season. Here’s a hierarchy of other notable non-conference matchups to pay attention to:
1. No. 1 Duke vs. No. 2 Michigan State (Nov. 14)
Rankings mean very little early on in college basketball. The number attached to a team’s name in March holds far more weight than the one adjoining it in November. But for those who need another reason to get excited about this clash of bluebloods, here it is: This matchup marks the first time since January 2016 that the top two teams in the country square off in the regular season, when No. 1 Kansas edged No. 2 Oklahoma 109-106 in three overtimes. While it’ll be hard to mirror that barnburner, No. 1 Duke and No. 2 Michigan State have the firepower to provide a thrilling contest. Duke phenom freshman forward Marvin Bagley III is already garnering consideration for the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft while Michigan State sophomore guard Miles Bridges headlines player of the year candidates. Oh, and Grayson Allen and his antics are back for a senior season. Buckle up.
2. No. 5 Kentucky vs. No. 4 Kansas (Nov. 14)
If No. 1 vs. No. 2 wasn’t enough, No. 4 Kansas and No. 5 Kentucky battle at the United Center just minutes after the Blue Devils and Spartans leave the floor. Senior guard Devonte Graham should steady the Jayhawks’ ship, which saw Frank Mason III deboard after a stellar senior season. Redshirt sophomore guard Malik Newman, a transfer from Miss. St., will add stability to Kansas’s backcourt. That duo will face a slew of freshmen for Kentucky — nothing new on head coach John Calipari’s roster. Look for redshirt freshman guard Hamidou Diallo, who enrolled at Kentucky in January and declared for the 2017 NBA draft before even playing a collegiate game, to be a spark plug for Calipari after withdrawing from the draft to showcase his skills in the NCAA.
3. No. 16 Louisville at No. 5 Kentucky (Dec. 29)
This is one of the better rivalries in the sport and it doesn’t usually need extra unfoldings to make the games compelling. But Louisville’s dismissal of former head coach Rick Pitino after the program got caught up in an offseason bribery scandal makes this year’s game even more engaging. Kentucky and Louisville have played each other 50 times, and Pitino has been around for over half of them. He coached at U.K. from 1989 to 1997 and at Louisville from 2001 until he was let go in September. Pitino has been a staple in this rivalry, and it’ll be odd to see Calipari coach against Cardinals’ interim coach Dave Padgett. But the two sides hate each other just enough and are both still loaded with enough talent to attract viewers.
4. No. 6 Villanova vs. No. 18 Gonzaga (Dec. 5 in New York)
Villanova beat North Carolina to earn a national title in 2016. Gonzaga lost to the Tar Heels in the championship game in April. The two teams not named UNC to make it to the last two title tilts should provide an entertaining affair at Madison Square Garden. Though each program has lost key components from the teams that made deep runs during the last two springs, both should hang around the Top 25 all season—at least long enough to make this a ranked matchup in early December.
5. No. 14 Notre Dame at No. 2 Michigan State (Nov. 30)
Notre Dame got outgunned against West Virginia in the second round of last season’s NCAA Tournament in an 83-71 loss. But it wasn’t Bonzie Colson’s fault. If his stat line from that matchup is an indication of what opponents are in for during the forward’s senior season, then Tom Izzo’s team should brace itself for this late-November matchup. Colson poured in 27 points, made four of his five three-point shots and snagged eight rebounds against the Mountaineers. If he continues that trend, he’ll improve upon an impressive junior year in which he averaged 17.8 points per game, made 44.3% of his threes and grabbed 10.1 rebounds per game. Miles Bridges is still the player to watch in this game, but don’t be surprised if Colson has his way. He’s become one of the best inside-out players in the nation.
6. No. 12 Cincinnati vs. No. 8 Florida (Dec. 9)
The Bearcats won 30 games last season before falling to Lonzo Ball and UCLA in the second round of the tournament. Florida won 27, which was good enough to land the Gators in the Elite Eight. Cincinnati features three returning upperclassmen who averaged double-digit points a season ago. That trio is led by junior guard Jacob Evans, who scored 13.5 points per game. He’ll be up against Florida junior shooting guard KeVaughn Allen, who averaged a similar 14.0 points per game. With both teams keeping important pieces to last year’s successful squads, this is a game to keep an eye on.
7. No. 12 Cincinnati at No. 17 Xavier (Dec. 2)
Sticking with the Bearcats, they’ll have a major test one week before facing Florida when they take on crosstown rival Xavier. Like the Gators, the Musketeers managed to reach the Elite Eight in March. Guard Trevon Bluiett led Xavier with 18.5 points per game last year, and he’s back for his senior season. Fellow guard J.P. Macura logged 14.4 points per game and he’s returning for a senior campaign as well. All indications point toward a competitive Top 20 matchup between these bitter foes.
8. Alabama at No. 3 Arizona (Dec. 9)
SI’s projection system predicts Arizona to be the top team in the country this year. Junior guard Allonzo Trier is a pure scorer—17.2 points per game last year—and 7’0” freshman forward DeAndre Ayton fills the void left by Lauri Markkanen’s departure to the NBA. Ayton came in as a top-5 recruit and joins Duke’s Bagley as potential No. 1 picks in next year’s NBA draft. Alabama landed a top-10 recruit of their own in freshman guard Collin Sexton. Head coach Avery Johnson put together back-to-back winning seasons in Tuscaloosa and has The Tide trending upward in the SEC. Alabama came in just outside the preseason AP Top 25 as the first team receiving votes.
9. No. 13 Miami at No. 15 Minnesota (Nov. 29)
Minnesota’s surprisingly successful 2016-17 season ended with two frustrating losses. The Golden Gophers lost the Big 10 Championship Game 84-77 to Michigan then bowed out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, 81-72, against Middle Tennessee. But head coach Richard Pitino returns plenty of hungry players. They’ll be tested early by a Miami team that is also looking to start strong after losses to North Carolina and Michigan State ended its run in 2017.
10. No. 7 Wichita State at No. 24 Baylor (Dec. 2)
The Shockers split a pair of non-conference games against Big 12 opponents last season; they edged out Oklahoma by three on Dec. 10 then lost to Oklahoma State by 17 seven days later. This year, they’ll play those same two challengers while adding Baylor to their non-conference slate. Head coach Gregg Marshall has his top eight scorers back from last year’s 31-5 team. Scott Drew, meanwhile, saw two of his top three scorers leave Waco—including unquestioned team leader Johnathan Motley (17.3 ppg). Drew has consistently led the Bears to Top 25 seasons though, and he should have this one circled on the schedule to prove that he can do it yet again.
11. No. 21 UCLA vs. No. 5 Kentucky (Dec. 23)
The key players from March’s Sweet Sixteen showdown have moved on, but Kentucky reloaded with freshmen talent and UCLA still has a ballsy Top 25 unit. Freshman guard LiAngelo Ball will keep his boisterous super-dad, LaVar Ball, around the program after the eldest Ball brother, Lonzo, left for the NBA. This game should be, uh, a ball.
12. Texas at VCU (Dec. 5)
Texas head coach Shaka Smart returns to VCU for the first time since he left the Rams, who Smart of course guided to the Final Four in 2011. In his second season on the 40 Acres, Smart didn’t come close to matching that feat. The Longhorns went 11-22 and only picked up four wins in Big 12 play. That might turn out to be just a bump in the road as Smart landed top-5 recruit Mohamed Bamba, a 7’0” forward who will be a lottery pick in 2018 if he has the season the Longhorns hope for. Texas also scooped up a potential point guard of the future in Matt Coleman. If those two freshmen muster up some early season chemistry, Smart’s in for a happy homecoming.
13. No. 1 Duke at Indiana (Nov. 29)
Indiana lost 10 of its last 14 games to close out last season, leading to the dismissal of Tom Crean. In November 2016, though, Crean’s Hoosiers knocked off No. 3 Kansas 103-99 in overtime in the season opener and handled the eventual national champion, North Carolina, later in the month in a 76-67 triumph. New head coach Archie Miller will likely have his team ready to fly with Mike Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils in town. Miller led Dayton to the NCAA Tournament in each of the last four seasons before coming to Indiana and will try to replicate Crean’s big early season wins from a season ago.
14. Michigan at No. 9 North Carolina (Nov. 29)
Remember when Chris Webber tried to call a timeout that Michigan didn’t have in the 1993 NCAA National Championship Game? That’s the last time these two titans clashed. The Wolverines lost their top two scorers but junior forward Moritz Wagner and senior guard Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman will try to carry Michigan back to the Sweet Sixteen, where it lost by a single point to Oregon in March. North Carolina offers those two a good measuring stick even after losing Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks. Guard Joel Berry II, the heart and soul of the title team, returns for his senior season in Chapel Hill.
15. No. 25 Texas A&M vs. No. 11 West Virginia (Nov. 10)
The first game of the year tips off from Germany between the Aggies and Mountaineers. Senior guards Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles Jr. will pace the vaunted “Press Virginia” defense for one last season. If the Aggie guards can break the press, junior center Tyler Davis and sophomore forward Robert Williams will be waiting on the other side for close-range buckets. Both frontcourt players averaged double-digits in points last year. Nothing comes easy against the Mountaineers, though—they led the NCAA in forcing turnovers a season ago.