One of the great losses of the COVID-19-impacted 2020–21 season was the lack of high-profile nonconference games. While some big games were still played, several tournaments couldn’t go off as originally planned and other games that did make it onto the schedule (like Gonzaga vs. Baylor) were wiped away due to positive COVID-19 tests. Thankfully, the 2021–22 season should be far more “normal,” and with that normalcy come some outstanding nonconference showdowns between men’s college basketball’s best teams.
Here’s a look at the top 10 standalone games and five best multi-team events (MTEs) on tap for this season.
Best nonconference games
1. UCLA vs. Gonzaga: Nov. 23, Las Vegas
The spectacle of this Final Four rematch will be special, particularly considering how many players from that memorable March Madness matchup return. UCLA returns all five starters and adds impact transfer Myles Johnson (Rutgers), while Drew Timme and Andrew Nembhard return after playing starring roles on last year’s Gonzaga team.
2. Texas at Gonzaga: Nov. 13, Spokane
This matchup between Sports Illustrated’s No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the preseason should be absolutely electric. Plus, in a world where so many high-profile nonconference games get played on neutral courts, it’s great to see a matchup with these stakes played on campus. Don’t let this game get overshadowed by a college football Saturday.
3. Duke vs. Kentucky: Nov. 9, New York City
Coach K’s final season begins with a high-profile matchup against John Calipari’s new-look Kentucky team in the headliner of opening night. The Blue Devils may be without talented freshman AJ Griffin as he recovers from a knee injury, but the chance to see potential No. 1 NBA pick Paolo Banchero in the spotlight for the first time should be all kinds of fun.
4. Michigan at North Carolina: Dec. 1, Chapel Hill, N.C.
In the best game of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, Hubert Davis gets his first big home test in Chapel Hill against a Michigan team set to contend again for the Big Ten title. The frontcourt matchup between Armando Bacot and Hunter Dickinson will be the headliner, but whoever wins the point guard battle of Michigan’s DeVante’ Jones and UNC’s Caleb Love will likely win the game.
5. Gonzaga vs. Duke: Nov. 26, Las Vegas
From an NBA draft standpoint, no game will be talked about more this season than this one. It pits perhaps the two best prospects in next year’s class in Duke’s Banchero and Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren. Both players will likely spend significant time guarding each other in this one, which could wind up as a top-10 matchup depending on how the Blue Devils fare in the Champions Classic.
6. Memphis vs. Tennessee: Dec. 18, Nashville
An in-state rivalry game between two teams loaded with talent, this matchup is an absolute treat for mid-December. Penny Hardaway’s Tigers loaded up this summer with the additions of five-star freshmen Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren, while Rick Barnes and the Vols added a pair of five-stars in Kennedy Chandler and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, as well as top transfer Justin Powell.
7. Villanova at Baylor: Dec. 12, Waco, Texas
The defending national champs play host to a program that has won two of the last five national championships. Is that enough to convince you to watch? It’s a new-look Baylor team headlined by transfer point guard James Akinjo and returners Matthew Mayer and Adam Flagler. Villanova’s experienced group, led by Collin Gillespie, should be well-equipped to win on the road.
8. Kentucky at Kansas, Jan. 29, Lawrence, Kan.
The SEC/Big 12 Challenge provides us with this matchup of bluebloods in late January. Expect this Kentucky team in particular to look far different in this one than it does in the Champions Classic in November as Calipari integrates lots of new faces to his team. Kansas, an older group that adds fifth-year point guard Remy Martin, should be more ready to win from the outset.
9. Villanova at UCLA, Nov. 12, Los Angeles
This matchup is one of the premier games of the season’s opening week, which is what makes it so disappointing that it will tip off at 11:30 p.m. ET, well after many on the East Coast head to bed. My recommendation: Brew yourself a cup of coffee or two and stay up to see two talented, experienced teams battle it out in Westwood.
10. Alabama at Gonzaga, Dec. 4, Seattle
High-level basketball returns to Seattle for this one, which will be played at the new Climate Pledge Arena. These two squads can put up points in bunches: Gonzaga led the nation in scoring last year and Alabama ranked in the top-25 nationally in that stat as well. Expect plenty of offense in what will be a huge test for Nate Oats’s Crimson Tide.
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Top Thanksgiving Week tournaments
1. ESPN Events Invitational
Field: Alabama, Belmont, Dayton, Drake, Iona, Kansas, Miami, North Texas
The combination of elite brands like Kansas and Alabama with all these mid-major darlings makes this perhaps the most unusual MTE of the year. The Jayhawks and Tide will be tested: Belmont won 26 games last year and runs it back, Drake returns significant production from a team that earned an at-large bid, North Texas won an NCAA tournament game a season ago and Iona has Rick Pitino roaming the sidelines. That’s saying nothing of Dayton and Miami, potential NCAA tournament teams in their own right.
2. Hall of Fame Tip-Off
Field: North Carolina, Purdue, Tennessee and Villanova
Four of the 20 best teams in the sport descend on Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., for two days of high-level basketball. UNC will face Purdue and Tennessee will take on Villanova in the first round, with the winners and losers facing off the next day. I’m most excited about seeing Purdue in this setting as the Boilermakers look to make the leap behind growth from Jaden Ivey and a monstrous frontcourt that features Trevion Williams and Zach Edey.
3. Battle 4 Atlantis
Field: Arizona State, Auburn, Baylor, UConn, Loyola Chicago, Michigan State, Syracuse and VCU.
There may be only two preseason top-25 teams in this field, but its balance and talent level across the board makes the Battle 4 Atlantis one of the best MTEs of the year. Among the juicy first-round matchups is a battle between Michigan State and Loyola Chicago, which pits Tom Izzo against his former graduate assistant Drew Valentine, the youngest head coach in Division I. All eight teams here could compete for NCAA tournament bids.
4. Maui Invitational
Field: Butler, Chaminade, Houston, Notre Dame, Oregon, Saint Mary’s, Texas A&M, Wisconsin
For the second straight year, the Maui Invitational won’t be played in Hawaii, as a surge in COVID-19 cases has caused the event to relocate to Las Vegas. The headliners of this one are Houston and Oregon, two preseason top-15 teams that could face off in the event’s championship game. As long as Bill Walton is sitting courtside wearing a lei, it will feel like Maui to me.
5. Fort Myers Tip-Off
Beach Division—Cal, Florida, Ohio State, Seton Hall
Palms Division—Bowling Green, Milwaukee, Southern Utah, Yale
Three likely NCAA tournament teams in the top division and four intriguing mid-majors makes this event worth watching during Thanksgiving week. Seton Hall’s talented group of newcomers, headlined by Kadary Richmond, should pose a strong test to E.J. Liddell and Ohio State. On the mid-major front, Milwaukee features five-star wing Patrick Baldwin Jr. playing for his father, Pat, while Yale and Southern Utah are favorites in their respective conferences.
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