Top Ten Non-Conference Games
In just over two weeks, the 2013-14 college basketball season begins. For most sports fans, this is met with a collective yawn, a scratch of the belly, and a less than bemused question, "is it March yet?" However, those people - and hopefully you aren't one of them - miss out on a lot of great college basketball action. The 2013-14 season is ready to explode with excellent freshmen, great teams, and plenty of tremendous non-conference games. Without looking at the early season tournaments, here are ten of the best games that you can put on your calendar for viewing so you can shed that "casual college basketball fan" label. I chose not to use any one team twice, but I'll note a few other games that should be great as well.
1. Duke vs. Kansas, November 12, Champions Classic, Chicago
The first college basketball games are on Friday, Nov. 8, but the season truly tips off with the 24-hour ESPN marathon that culminates in the Champions Classic at the United Center in Chicago. The "under card" of Michigan State and Kentucky is no small potatoes, but it will be Duke and Kansas that should command center stage. This game will be the introduction to many people of Andrew Wiggins, who is supposed to be the next great phenom. The Blue Devils have their own top freshman in Jabari Parker. Both rosters are loaded with talent and this should be a great game between two of the best coaches in the nation.
2. Kentucky at Louisville, December 28
You have to give coach John Calipari credit. He doesn't shirk on scheduling. The freshman-laden Wildcats play North Carolina, Michigan State, and the national champion Louisville Cardinals before settling into SEC play. Calipari has once again hauled in a ridiculous amount of first-year talent, including power forward Julius Randle, backcourt twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison, and James Young. Forward Alex Poythress and center Willie Cauley-Stein return as sophomores after a disappointing season. Louisville brings back scorer Russ Smith and power forward Montrezl Harrell along with newcomers Chris Smith and Terry Rozier in the backcourt.
3. North Carolina at Michigan State, December 4
Many outlets, including Blue Ribbon, have the Spartans as the top team in the country. This is mainly because coach Tom Izzo's team has a lot of returning talent. Player such as forward Adriean Payne, point guard Keith Appling, shooting guard Gary Harris, and powerful wing Branden Dawson (one of my personal favorites) are all back. The Tar Heels are not quite as powerful as they were a few years ago, but they have James Michael McAdoo as their centerpiece with possible contributions from P.J. Hairston, although he may continued to be suspended. This should be the headline game of the Big 10-ACC Challenge.
4. Indiana at Syracuse, December 3
At first blush, you may not realize that this game is also part of the Big 10-ACC Challenge, but it is. Syracuse (along with Pittsburgh and Notre Dame) have joined the ACC. The Orange will reprise both the 2013 East Regional Final, which Syracuse won, as well as the 1987 NCAA Final, which the Hoosiers won on a last second shot by Keith Smart. Both squads have endured major changes in the offseason. C.J. Fair is the main man for Syracuse, which will hope to continue its success with its near-impenetrable 2-3 zone. Indiana lost its two signature players, but has point guard Yogi Ferrell, Arizona State transfer Evan Gordon, and freshman forward Noah Vonleh to build around.
5. Ohio State at Marquette, November 16
The Buckeyes and Golden Eagles have had a lot of success in recent years, and there is little reason to think they won't be good in 2013-14. Both teams lost their top scorer to the NBA, but coaches Buzz Williams and Thad Matta are nothing if not resourceful. Lenzelle Smith Jr., Sam Thompson, and/or LaQuinton Ross will have to step up for the Buckeyes. Aaron Craft will be the field general and provide perimeter defense (although I think he is somewhat overrated). Marquette has size in Davante Gardner and excellent wings in Todd Mayo and Jamil Wilson.
6. Arizona at Michigan, December 14
Roster turnover hit the Big 10 as hard as any conference, and the Wolverines were not exempt. They have two big pieces of their national runner-up team returning in forward Glenn Robinson III and big man Mitch McGary, who has been limited in early practice with a back issue. Freshman such as Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin will have to mature quickly, particularly against Arizona. The Wildcats have another new point guard in former-Duquesne T.J. McConnell. Junior Nick Johnson is a nice combo guard and coach Sean Miller hopes sophomores Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski step forward. Keep an eye on freshman forward Aaron Gordon.
7. Florida State at Florida, November 29
Bragging rights for the state of Florida will be on display as the Seminoles travel to Gainesville. Coach Billy Donovan is one of the best coaches and has another talented squad at his disposal. Center Patric Young has a great look, even if his numbers are not always fantastic. Virginia Tech transfer Dorian Finney-Smith should help pound the boards, while freshman Kasey Hill takes the reigns of the offense. The Seminoles will likely be underdogs, but players like Okaro White and Ian Miller could help pull the "upset." Florida also hosts Kansas on Dec. 10.
8. Memphis at Oklahoma State, November 19
The next two games involve the top two fantasy players coming into the season. Marcus Smart bypassed the NBA draft to return to Stillwater and take the Cowboys as far as he can. The 6-4 guard won't have to do it alone as Markel Brown and Le'Bryan Nash also return. Coach Josh Pastner attracts McDonald's All-Americans to the Tiger squad annually, but the team never seems to make much noise beyond Conference USA domination. Memphis is now in the Atlantic Athletic Conference and has one of the best backcourts in the nation. Missouri transfer Michael Dixon, Joe Jackson, and Geron Johnson should be in Smart's grill for 40 minutes.
9. California at Creighton, December 22
Before Doug McDermott is tested by the new Big East, he'll play host to a Golden Bear squad against whom he had 34 points and nine boards in 2012-13. McDermott will have Grant Gibbs to feed him the ball and Will Artino to help with post defense. Ethan Wragge can hit 3-pointers if Cal doubles McDermott. Justin Cobbs is a fantasy stud in his own right after averaging 15.1 points and 4.8 assists. He'll be helped by freshman Jabari Bird, who should help with defense and by attacking the basket.
10. Washington at Connecticut, December 22
I like it when teams with the same mascot meet up. In my imagination they are playing for the right to keep the mascot, and the victor gets to rename the other team. Who will still be the Huskies after Dec. 22? UConn still has the sizzling albeit undersized backcourt of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. Omar Calhoun provides shooting from the wing. Washington is led by scorer C.J. Wilcox and has freshman point guard Nigel Williams-Goss to run the show.