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  • College basketball's non-conference schedule is vast, but we've narrowed down the 50 best games on the 2018–19 slate that you'll want to tune into.
By Molly Geary
October 02, 2018

College basketball season is almost here, and with preseason practice starting up around the country, it’s not too early to start circling dates on your calendar. In fact, the season starts earlier than usual this year (Tuesday, Nov. 6)—and it starts with a bang, as the annual Champions Classic doubleheader has been turned into an opening night showcase. But that’s only the beginning. We pored over the entire non-conference schedule and picked out the can’t-miss games, so bookmark this now and get ready for what’s sure to be another great season.

Tuesday, Nov. 6

Kansas vs. Michigan State, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN (in Indianapolis, Ind.)

While both the Jayhawks and Spartans sustained significant losses from last season, the former will look quite different from the team that fans last saw in the Final Four. Bill Self has revamped and reloaded, and Kansas will be a top-three preseason team in the country. But its new pieces are going to need to jel quickly to handle an immediate challenge from a veteran Michigan State team looking to take advantage of any early jitters.

Duke vs. Kentucky, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN (in Indianapolis, Ind.)

The nightcap of the marquee doubleheader at Bankers Life Fieldhouse will be an exciting display of young talent and a first look at many of the season’s most anticipated five-star recruits: R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, Zion Williamson and Tre Jones of Duke, and E.J. Montgomery, Keldon Johnson, Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley of Kentucky. The Blue Devils will be supremely talented but supremely young, while the Wildcats should be able to support their freshmen with the return of sophomores P.J. Washington, Quade Green and Nick Richards, plus highly regarded grad transfer Reid Travis.

Florida at Florida State, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2

If you’re not into the Champions Classic, or you own a DVR, you don’t want to miss opening night’s underrated option: a likely top-25 battle between in-state rivals in Tallahassee. FSU is coming off a surprising Elite Eight run, brings back much of its core and will still have the length that gave the Gators fits when they met in 2017. Florida, meanwhile, will be breaking in its shiny new point guard, five-star Andrew Nembhard.

BYU at Nevada, 11 p.m., CBSSN

Put on some coffee for this one if you’re not on the West Coast. This is your first chance to see a top-10 Nevada team, which could get a decent test from BYU. The Cougars will likely supplant Saint Mary’s as Gonzaga’s primary contender in the WCC, and they have a serious talent in junior forward Yoeli Childs. Plus, get your first look at Wolf Pack five-star Jordan Brown and a slew of transfers, including Trey Porter.

Friday, Nov. 9

Northeastern at Harvard, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN+

You’re going to either need to be in the Boston area or have an ESPN+ subscription to watch this one, but this is a great mid-major Friday night matchup. Both the Huskies and Crimson came extremely close to the NCAA tournament last season and could be the preseason favorites in their respective conferences (CAA and Ivy). Northeastern is led by Vasa Pusica, a former San Diego State transfer, while Harvard’s top-25 recruiting class from two years ago is now coming into its own.

Washington at Auburn, 9:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network

This is a great first test for the Tigers, who are looking to build on last season’s surprising rise. The Huskies also overachieved last season—though not to the extent that Auburn did—in Mike Hopkins’s first year as coach and could be legitimate Pac-12 contenders after bringing back every major contributor.

Sunday, Nov. 11

Vanderbilt at USC, 9 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network

If you get the Pac-12 Network, you can close your weekend out with an intriguing battle in Los Angeles. There will be plenty of new five-star talent on the floor between the Trojans’ Kevin Porter Jr. and the Commodores’ Darius Garland and Simi Shittu, as well as returning names like Bennie Boatwright and Saben Lee.

Wednesday, Nov. 14

Michigan at Villanova, 6:30 p.m. ET, FS1

That’s right—we’re getting treated to a national championship game rematch just over a week into the season. Both the Wolverines and Wildcats sustained significant departures (76.6% of the title game’s points were from departed players) and could take a step back this year, though perhaps not a large one. Villanova’s offense will need to be re-tooled from the one that clinically destructed opponents in March, but both sides will be relying on different faces to step up alongside veterans like Charles Matthews, Phil Booth and Eric Paschall.

Marquette at Indiana, 8:30 p.m. ET, FS1

Don’t change the channel after Michigan-’Nova, because there’s another promising Gavitt Games matchup immediately following it. The Golden Eagles and Hoosiers are both programs on the rise despite missing the dance in 2018, and there will be a pair of can’t-miss players on the court in Marquette’s Markus Howard, who averaged 20.4 points and shot 40.4% from three a season ago, and Indiana wunderkind Romeo Langford.

Thursday, Nov. 15

UConn vs. Syracuse, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2 (at Madison Square Garden)

These two rivals will meet for the fourth straight year and the third straight time in New York City as part of this year's 2K Empire Classic. The Orange, after returning all five starters, will be favored, but this is an opportunity for the Huskies to make a statement early in the Dan Hurley era. It’s also a chance to see two excellent veterans in Tyus Battle and Jalen Adams.

Maui Jim Maui Invitational: Monday, Nov. 19 to Wednesday, Nov. 21

Wednesday’s championship: 5 p.m. ET, ESPN

This year’s Maui field is absolutely loaded and seems almost guaranteed to produce, at the very least, compelling semifinals and a great final. On one side of the bracket we have Duke, Auburn, Xavier and San Diego State, while on the other there’s Gonzaga, Arizona, Iowa State and Illinois. The semifinals are likely to bring Duke-Auburn, while the final has a chance to pit two teams that could be preseason top-five in Duke and Gonzaga (Auburn-Gonzaga would be fun as well). No matter what happens in this Thanksgiving week tournament, you’re not going to want to miss it.

Thursday, Nov. 22

Las Vegas Invitational: North Carolina vs. Texas, 7:30 p.m. ET; Michigan State vs. UCLA, 10 p.m. (both on FS1) [see below]

Friday, Nov. 23

Vegas winners play Friday at 6:30 p.m. on FOX, losers at 4:30 p.m.

Football may rule America on Thanksgiving and Black Friday, but college hoops fans are unlikely to be disappointed if they tune into the Las Vegas Invitational those nights. Thursday’s semifinal games are both worth watching, but Friday could produce the best of the bunch. The Tar Heels and Spartans are probably the favorites to come out of the semis, but the Longhorns and Bruins shouldn’t be counted out. Texas has a deep backcourt and will be catching UNC fairly early into the season, while UCLA has a solid mix of returning talent and a top recruiting class.

NIT Tip-Off Final: Tennessee/Louisville vs. Kansas/Marquette, 9 p.m., ESPN2 (in Brooklyn, N.Y.)

Almost immediately following the Vegas invitational games, there’s another treat in store on Black Friday. The NIT Preseason Tip-Off includes four intriguing teams: the first nationally televised games for Louisville under Chris Mack, an offense-powered Marquette team and two preseason Final Four candidates in Kansas and Tennessee. Wednesday’s games will determine who meets Friday, but it’s probably safe to say that most neutral fans are rooting for a Jayhawks-Volunteers showdown.

Battle 4 Atlantis championship: 2 p.m. ET, ESPN

While Thanksgiving week tournaments are always susceptible to going off-script, it’s going to be a major upset if the Battle 4 Atlantis final isn’t Virginia taking on either Florida or Wisconsin. Either would be an interesting matchup for the Cavaliers, and facing the Badgers would especially guarantee a low-scoring, slow-paced affair. Watching Virginia’s methodical style of play could be the perfect appetizer to the games that evening.

Sunday, Nov. 25

Advocare Invitational championship: 1 OR 4 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN2

The Advocare Invitational isn’t overly compelling overall, but the final could provide some intrigue. Villanova should be able to get through its side of the bracket to take on what’s likely to be either Florida State or LSU, both teams that could be preseason top-25. FSU would give ’Nova more of a physical, veteran-heavy test, while the Tigers would lean on sophomore Tremont Waters and an elite freshman class.

Monday, Nov. 26

Nebraska at Clemson, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2

#Nebrasketball is going to be all the rage again in Lincoln as the Cornhuskers look poised to have their best season in a long time, but they’ll have to hit the road for this one. Clemson, meanwhile, is back for more after snapping a seven-year tournament drought and reaching the Sweet 16 in 2018. These veteran-led teams will both be eager to use this ACC/Big Ten Challenge game to boost their CV.

Tuesday, Nov. 27

Nevada at Loyola-Chicago, 8 p.m. ET, ESPNews

The Mountain West/Missouri Valley Challenge brings us a Sweet 16 rematch of two of March’s biggest surprises. Both teams lost a pair of starters from that game, which the Ramblers won 69–68, but return key pieces. Loyola-Chicago brings back Clayton Custer, Marques Townes and big man Cameron Krutwig, while Nevada could enter this matchup ranked in the top 10. But if we learned anything in March, it’s to never count out the Ramblers, who will have home court advantage.

Indiana at Duke, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

This Big/Ten ACC Challenge game, a rematch from last season’s 82–75 Duke win in Bloomington, will feature a likely unprecedented four of the top five recruits in a class—at least until the feat is matched when the Blue Devils face North Carolina in ACC play. Three of those four are Blue Devils (Barrett, Reddish and Williamson), and the other is Langford, who chose the in-state Hoosiers. While Indiana will be better this year, hanging with Duke at Cameron Indoor will be no small task.

Wednesday, Nov. 28

Virginia at Maryland, 7:15 p.m. ET, ESPN or ESPN2

For those who miss the old ACC, this game is a throwback. Beating the Cavaliers might be too tall an ask for a Terrapin team that should be nonetheless improved after last season’s disappointment, but UVA is more familiar than most with the difficulties in playing at a hyped-up Xfinity Center.

North Carolina at Michigan, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN

Another Big Ten/ACC Challenge rematch, only with the site flipped. The Tar Heels won last year’s meeting in Chapel Hill by 15, but Michigan’s team was not yet close to the form it would find in February and March. Defense was the Wolverines’ strength last season, and it will be put to the test by a North Carolina team led by Luke Maye and No. 3 recruit Nassir Little. With the Tar Heels’ questions at point guard, however, Zavier Simpson’s stingy defense could be key.

Saturday, Dec. 1

Kansas State at Marquette, 2:30 OR 5 p.m. ET, FS1

The Wildcats don’t have a particularly tough non-conference schedule, and this one may be the best of it. It’ll be a good barometer on the road for a K-State team that could be Kansas’s top challenger in the Big 12, and the task of dissecting the ‘Cats defense will be similarly revelatory for Marquette’s always-dangerous offense.

Sunday, Dec. 2

UConn at Notre Dame (women), 4 p.m., ESPN

Bah gawd, that’s Arike Ogunbowale’s music! You’re not going to want to miss the sequel between these teams as they meet for the first time since the Irish stunned undefeated UConn in the Final Four. And believe it or not, the Huskies aren’t likely to be the preseason No. 1 after losing three of their top five scorers—though Katie Lou Samuelson returns and Geno Auriemma adds two top-five recruits. Meanwhile, Notre Dame not only returns Ogunbowale and its core, it also gets All-American Brianna Turner back after an ACL injury.

Tuesday, Dec. 4

West Virginia vs. Florida, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN (at Madison Square Garden)

The chance for monster Sagaba Kontae blocks is always reason to watch West Virginia, and he could be even better this year as a junior. The Gators, however, could prove a worthy opponent in New York.

Saturday, Dec. 8

Michigan State at Florida, 12 p.m. ET, CBS

This is a huge week for the Gators, who have taken on a challenging non-conference slate overall. It’s a chance to pick up a marquee win at home—but also a chance for the Spartans to gain an always-important road victory. Florida will need to find a way to contain Nick Ward on the boards.

Xavier at Cincinnati, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN2

This rivalry always seems to deliver in one way or another, and while it won’t be the top-10 battle that last year was (in part because former Musketeers coach Chris Mack left for Louisville), there’s plenty of talent left on both sides to produce an entertaining affair.

Wisconsin at Marquette, 5 p.m. ET, FOX

The annual in-state rivalry game has been fairly even in recent years, with the schools tied 8–8 going back to 2002 and neither side having won more than two in a row in that span. The Badgers are probably flying more under the national radar than they should be.

Sunday, Dec. 9

Arizona at Alabama, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN

Admit it—you’re curious about the Wildcats, whom you’ve probably heard lost all five starters and had a hard time filling out a recruiting class after getting caught up in the FBI probe. But Sean Miller did secure three four-stars and now has former Duke transfer Chase Jeter eligible, making a trip to Tuscaloosa worth watching.

Gonzaga vs. Tennessee, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN (in Phoenix, Ariz.)

This is a terrific matchup between preseason Final Four contenders out in Arizona and will feature a lot of excellent players who can get overlooked in the national picture, like Admiral Schofield, Grant Williams, Killian Tillie and Rui Hachimura.

Saturday, Dec. 15

Villanova at Kansas, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN

Villanova hasn’t often been considered the underdog in recent years, but that’s what it will be in Allen Fieldhouse. Phil Booth and Eric Paschall are plenty battle-tested, but the younger Wildcats will need to step up.

Notre Dame vs. Purdue, 1:30 p.m. ET, CBS
Butler vs. Indiana, 3:45 p.m. ET, CBS

The Crossroads Classic in Indy is always a fun time, like when Juwan Morgan went off for 34 points last year in Indiana’s overtime win over Notre Dame. There’s plenty of firepower all around here, from the Irish’s T.J. Gibbs to Purdue’s Carsen Edwards to Butler’s Kamar Baldwin to the Hoosiers’ Morgan and Romeo Langford.

Gonzaga at North Carolina, 7 p.m. ET, TV TBA

This is the end of a brutal four-game stretch for the Zags, and it might be the toughest of all given that it’s on the road. Gonzaga has never traveled to Chapel Hill before, but these teams do have recent history (does the 2017 national championship game ring a bell?). Will the result be different this time?

Virginia Tech vs. Washington, 7 p.m., ESPNU (in Atlantic City, N.J.)

This matchup might not jump off the page at you, but it’s a sneaky intriguing one you may want to DVR if you’re watching Gonzaga-UNC. The Hokies could make noise in the ACC and build off back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances, while the Huskies are a program on the rise.

Wednesday, Dec. 19

Auburn at NC State, 6 p.m., ESPN2

After making the NCAA tournament in Kevin Keatts’s first season, the Wolfpack bring back Torin Dorn, Braxton Beverly and add a host of transfers, including C.J. Bryce. This could be a tough road test for the Tigers.

Thursday, Dec. 20

Duke vs. Texas Tech 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2 (in New York)

This is the Blue Devils’ final game before ACC play starts, and they’ll have a two-week layoff after it. The Red Raiders will have a different look from their Elite Eight squad but likely won’t be pushovers.

Friday, Dec. 21

Oregon at Baylor, 7 p.m. ET, TK

The Ducks’ non-conference schedule isn’t particularly difficult, but their No. 3 recruiting class and likely status as the Pac-12 preseason favorite makes them worth watching in this decent Friday night road test at Baylor.

Saturday, Dec. 22

Kentucky vs. North Carolina, 5:15 p.m. ET, CBS (in Chicago)

The gloves will be off for this one, with both teams having had a month and a half to settle into their new rosters. Like their meeting in 2016, this could be a true barnburner. First to 100 wins?

Kansas at Arizona State, 9 p.m. ET,

The Sun Devils stunned the Jayhawks last year, and now Kansas can seek revenge in Tempe. It doesn’t seem likely right now that lightning will strike twice, but it will give KU a true road game before it hits Big 12 play.

St. Louis at Florida State, TBA (in Sunrise, Fla.)

The Billikens could very well make their first NCAA tournament since 2014 this year, and this trip will be a good measuring stick of where they’re at. It’s the toughest game of a solid non-conference slate for St. Louis.

Saturday, Dec. 29

Davidson at North Carolina, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN2

The Wildcats had one of last season's best freshmen you've (maybe) never heard of in guard Kellan Grady, who averaged 18 points on 50.1% shooting (37.2% from three). He scored 18 against UNC a season ago, and that was only his sixth collegiate game. Tune in to see what he does for an encore.

Kentucky at Louisville, TBA

Last year this game was a rare blowout as Kentucky boat-raced the Cardinals. Even at home, it’s not going to be easy for Louisville this time around, either, but Chris Mack’s introduction to the rivalry is reason enough to watch.

Wisconsin at Western Kentucky, TBA

The Hilltoppers are not a team to overlook this season after adding five-star Charles Bassey and Auburn transfer Desean Murray. And the Badgers have to do the traveling here, making it one to keep an eye on.

Sunday, Dec. 30

Alabama at Stephen F. Austin, 6 p.m. ET, ESPNU

This is a bit of a brave trip for the Crimson Tide to make, as any March Madness viewer knows the Lumberjacks are always tough. Last year, SFA played three SEC teams on the road and went 1–2, its two losses coming by a combined six points.

Monday, Dec. 31

Marshall at Virginia, 1 p.m. ET, ACC Regional Networks

This game should be a fascinating contrast of styles—Marshall played with the sixth-fastest tempo in the country last season and employs a strategy of shooting early and often, while Virginia had the nation’s slowest tempo and famously plays a defense-first, grind-it-out philosophy. It’s also a great chance to see a mid-major that won an NCAA tournament game in 2018 and brings back the dynamic duo of Jon Elmore and C.J. Burks.

Saturday, Jan. 26

West Virginia at Tennessee, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN2

The appetizer to the main course of the Big 12/SEC Challenge (see below) isn’t too shabby itself. This could be a great battle between two teams led by veterans, and while both sides have strong frontcourts, the Vols’ guards will to try to make the difference at home.

Kansas at Kentucky, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN2

At least right now, it’s not hyperbole to say that this could be the best non-conference game of the season. You’re going to have to wait for it, though—which isn’t a bad thing. By late January, both Kentucky and Kansas could be playing closer to their best basketball, having ample time to integrate their new pieces. While the opening Champions Classic games will also be a showcase of elite talent, they might be more of a rough draft compared to this one. This should be a real treat in a break from conference play for both, and will be a major résumé-booster for the winner just around the time when the discussion of NCAA tournament seeding starts to heat up.

Saturday, Feb. 2

St John’s at Duke, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN or ESPN2

Remember when the Red Storm stunned the Blue Devils last year in New York? That win was due to a red-hot shooting night and a magical week, but the Johnnies could actually be pretty solid this year. With all of Duke’s roster turnover, it’s hard to quite call this a revenge game, but we’re betting Coach K hasn’t forgotten.

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