Kentucky-L'ville, UNC-UNLV among must-see nonconference face-offs
Kentucky-Louisville rivalry is one of college hoops' most compelling storylines
North Carolina won't return nearly the same team when it faces the UNLV Rebels
Despite being moved to a neutral location, Cincinnati-Xavier is still a must-watch
Conference showdowns make college sports hum, but there's something very alluring about compelling nonconference matchups. Sometimes they're something new, an intersectional jolt of flavor into a diet of early-season vanilla. Sometimes they're among the best rivalries in the game. This season should be no different as there are a bunch of really interesting games already on the docket. Here are my 25 favorites. They're not necessarily the best games, whatever that means, but I think they're certainly worth a watch.
Note: These games are one-off schedule nonconference games and do not appear in any of the tournaments we broke down last week. They are ranked in order of overall intrigue.
1. Kentucky at Louisville (Dec. 29)
Two elite teams meet once again, rematch of the Final Four, eternal bragging rights (at least for another year), HoF coaches who can't stand each other. It's not always a pretty watch, but it's compelling TV and the best soap opera in the sport at the moment.
2. North Carolina at Indiana (ACC-Big Ten Challenge, Nov. 27)
Looks better on paper than it may be in reality, but still compelling, especially to see what UNC has early-ish in a season in which it has a lot of questions after the draft pillaged the roster. Sort of weird to think the Heels are freerolling, but the pressure to win this one is totally on IU.
3. Kentucky vs. Duke (Atlanta, Nov. 13)
The Entitled Fan Base Bowl! Just kidding. Sort of. I love the idea of the Champions Classic -- great programs playing regularly is always good -- but the games are too early in the season. Both clubs have questions after losing some key pieces, both have freshmen that are very much worth watching as well as some returning talent. Kansas-MSU is a strong co-headliner.
4. UNLV at North Carolina (Dec. 29)
This is a rematch of one of last season's biggest statement games, when the Rebels exploded all over the Heels in the second half at Orleans Arena. Unfortunately for UNC fans, they don't return nearly the same team and the Rebels head to Chapel Hill with one that should be even better.
5. Louisville at Memphis (Dec. 15)
The Tigers know CUSA isn't that strong this season, and their nonconference schedule is providing them with numerous chances to impress. This is probably the choicest of the bunch, though, getting a top-5 team and a regional rival to come to them. We'll know a ton about Memphis' maturity after this one.
6. Indiana vs. Butler (Indianapolis, Dec. 15)
A huge showcase game in the Hoosier State with some potentially mouthwatering matchups. Butler will be a transformed shooting team, which should help it keep pace with the efficient and talented Hoosiers, but can its interior guys hold off Cody Zeller and Co? Will be a good advance test case for a season in the A-10.
7. Missouri at UCLA (Dec. 28)
Yeah, Baby! Yeah, Baby! Yeah, Baby! Tyus Edney and Marques Johnson approve of this rematch of the legendary 1995 second-round NCAA game that helped springboard the Bruins to the national title. Oh, and both teams could be very, very good this season if a few things come together.
8. Kentucky at Notre Dame (SEC-Big East Challenge, Nov. 29)
The Wildcats are playing in Indiana and it's not in a dome! With how absurdly good ND is at home and how much talent it returns this season, this is a very difficult early-season spot for the as-always-youthful Cats.
9. San Diego State vs. UCLA (Wooden Classic, Dec. 1)
The Wooden Classic isn't always classic, but this is a tremendous matchup and one that UCLA may not be favored to win. A lot depends on the development of young bigs on both sides, but the Aztecs have the guard play to take advantage of the very young Bruins perimeter.
10. Kansas at Ohio State (Dec. 22)
The Buckeyes didn't have Jared Sullinger in Lawrence last season, but they did when Kansas beat them in the Final Four in New Orleans. Both teams have had some time to rebuild around remaining talent as Thomas Robinson is also gone. I like the timing of this game, other than it potentially being impacted by final exams.
11. Syracuse vs. San Diego State (Battle of Midway, Nov. 9)
The Orange rarely leave New York for a nonconference game, so traveling cross-country to play a loaded SDSU team on an aircraft carrier definitely earns them brownie points. At least the Orange will feel at home with the ocean as a shooting background.
12. Wisconsin at Marquette (Dec. 8)
One of the nation's best and most underhyped rivalry games has a bit of extra juice to it after Marquette went into Madison last season and handed the Badgers an L. Not a lot of love lost between anyone involved in this one.
13. Gonzaga at Butler (Jan. 19)
A great choice for a College GameDay visit and a terrific matchup between teams that should be ranked at the time. The Original Glass Slipper program vs. the Program Du Jour, Mark Few vs. Brad Stevens, and Hinkle Fieldhouse? I'm in.
14. Cincinnati vs. Xavier (Dec. 19)
How can you not watch, even if the series has lamely been moved to a neutral site? Cincinnati has the better, more experienced team, but that never really seems to matter in the Crosstown Shootout, er, sorry, the Skyline Chili Crosstown Classic benefiting the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Blech. Wish we could #ZipUp that hideous new name.
15. Davidson at New Mexico (ESPN Hoops Marathon, Nov. 13)
Yes, please. Like you're going to be watching anything else in this time slot? Jake Cohen and the Wildcats are a major upset possibility here, but the Lobos have the horses to contest for the crown in a deep Mountain West. Plus it starts at midnight Mountain Time. Yay, Denver living!
16. West Virginia vs. Michigan (Brooklyn, Dec. 15)
John Beilein gets to take on his former program and the coach whose shadow loomed over his time in Morgantown. Two very clever coaches going head-to-head on a neutral floor with a good amount of talent back for both, even with a few important personnel losses.
17. Memphis at Tennessee (Jan. 4)
It doesn't have the steam of the 1 vs. 2 showdown with John Calipari and Bruce Pearl at the helms, but this should be a very intense and entertaining in-state rivalry game. It also could be a solid chip in an at-large profile down the road for the winner, especially if it's Memphis.
18. Saint Mary's at Utah State (Nov. 15)
Sooooo tempted to try to get to this game in person. It's an enormous chance for a maturing USU squad to signal its intent in its farewell season in the WAC. Love to see great regional matchups between top mids. Also a matchup that has two of the guys who look the least like lethal basketball killers in Matthew Dellavedova and Preston Medlin.
19. Lehigh at Baylor (Nov. 9)
Right out of the chute, we get C.J. McCollum vs. Pierre Jackson? Happy first real day of the season to us! The Mountain Hawks were very competitive in a couple of big road games last season, precursors to their NCAA tournament KO of Duke. Baylor will need to be very ready.
20. Louisville at College of Charleston (Dec. 4)
C of C actually hosts two Big East teams this season -- St. John's is the opponent in the first round of the Charleston Classic -- but this is the headliner, even with Bobby Cremins no longer on the Charleston sideline. The Cougars gave the Cards everything they wanted last season at the KFC Yum! Center.
21. Northern Iowa at UNLV (Missouri Valley-Mountain West Challenge, Dec. 19)
Love this style contrast between the run-and-run-some-more MWC co-favorite and the gritty, halfcourt-oriented challengers to Creighton in the Valley. The Rebels will have been away from home for awhile before this one. Being anxious to impress the locals could equal trouble. The Rebs were crushed at Wichita State in this event last season.
22. Saint Joseph's at Drexel (Dec. 31)
Stylistically, the Hawks at Creighton on Dec. 1 will be a better watch, but the Philly guy in me can't resist a matchup of what could be the two best teams in the city crammed into the DAC on New Year's Eve. Nonleague scheduling was a major critique point for the Dragons last March. This year's slate has a chance to be a lot better.
23. Alabama at VCU (Dec. 15)
Anthony Grant and the Tide are contractually obligated to play this game as the back part of a home-and-home triggered by Grant's old contract at VCU. The last time VCU got a home game with their old coach, the Rams sandblasted Jeff Capel and Oklahoma in 2009. Given Bama's personnel overhaul, that could happen again here.
24. Saint Louis at Washington (Nov. 28)
The Huskies went to Saint Louis last season and got annihilated -- the 13-point final margin was the closest UW got after trailing 50-25 at the half. That loss was one of the warning signs for a Pac-12 that ended up being historically awful in nonleague play. Now they get a shot at revenge with a rebuilding team against the potential A-10 fave.
25. San Jose State at New Orleans (Nov. 9)
After years of post-Katrina decline, a two-year dalliance with a drop from Division I athletics and a switch from the Louisiana State system to the University of Louisiana system, the Privateers have decided to stay in D-I. Good for them and good luck helping rebuild the school and reconnecting with the city.