10 Must-See Nonconference Games in the 2014-15 College Basketball Season
More than half of college basketball's offseason is now in the rearview mirror, meaning it's about time to figure out which nonconference games of the 2014-15 season you absolutely cannot afford to miss.
These are the games that we'll be talking about for the rest of the year, whether in the weekly rankings, the tournament seedings or the daily arguments about which team is actually the favorite to win the 2015 national championship.
In deciding which game ranks where, I repeatedly asked myself: "If I was only allowed to watch Y games, would this be one of the Y games I would watch?"
And contrary to what may become popular belief after seeing the top seven games on the list, no, I am not a Kentucky fan—real recognize real.
November and December may be football season, but you would be remiss if you didn't at least watch these 10 nonconference college basketball games.
In case 10 games isn't enough or you don't feel like watching Kentucky four times, here are a few honorable mentions that are more than worth your time.
Gonzaga at Arizona (Dec. 6) and Gonzaga at UCLA (Dec. 13)
The Zags typically only play two or three true road nonconference games per year, and these are probably the two best games they have played since nearly shocking No. 2 Michigan State on Nov. 17, 2009. Expect to hear a lot of late February/early March discussion about these two games, as Gonzaga potentially states its case for a No. 1 seed.
Connecticut vs. Duke (Dec. 18) and Connecticut vs. Texas (Nov. 30)
For all three of these teams, there are more intriguing games in the top 10. Still, it has to be noted that the first five weeks of Connecticut's title defense will include two extremely difficult games.
Utah at San Diego State (Nov. 18) and Utah vs. Kansas (Dec. 13)
Were it up to me, these games would both be nationally televised in prime time. However, the SDSU game is on the same night as the Champions Classic, and the Kansas game is on the same day as Arizona vs. Michigan, UCLA vs. Gonzaga and Kentucky vs. North Carolina.
Utah also plays a pretty huge nonconference game against Wichita State on Dec. 3. Clearly, the Utes got the message that it was their schedule and not their talent that kept them out of the 2014 NCAA tournament.
Ohio State at Louisville (Dec. 2) and Ohio State vs. North Carolina (Dec. 20)
Though I do think Ohio State is headed for third place in the Big Ten and a Top 25 ranking for much of the season, I'm not convinced that either of these games will be as great as the top 10.
10. Southern Methodist vs. Gonzaga
When: November 17
Where: Spokane, Wash.
If this game were played 24 hours later, it might not even warrant an honorable mention.
As is, it's looking like this will be the first great game of the 2014-15 season.
For both teams, it will be our first look at a squad that has already made some huge offseason waves.
Gonzaga was going to be ranked in the Top 25. Even when it looked like Kyle Dranginis might be the team's fifth starter, expectations were high for a team bringing back Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and Przemek Karnowski and adding Kyle Wiltjer after sitting out for a season.
After the announcement that the Bulldogs were adding USC's leading scorer Byron Wesley, though, they became a bona fide top-10 team.
SMU went in the opposite direction, opening the offseason as a top 10-15 team before slipping to the back of the Top 25 after word broke of Emmanuel Mudiay's decision to play overseas.
If SMU wins, it's a statement that the Mustangs are more than able to compete without Mudiay and just another case of Gonzaga failing to meet lofty expectations. If Gonzaga wins, prepare to hear about SMU's season that could have been with Mudiay, as well as Gonzaga's aspirations of being this year's Wichita State.
9. Michigan vs. Arizona
When: December 13
Where: Tucson, Ariz.
This perhaps the only game on the list that includes a team that doesn't open the season ranked in the Top 25, but if Michigan fails to join that club, it won't be by much.
Last year, it was the home game against Arizona that really got Michigan moving in the right direction. The Wolverines ultimately lost the game, but only by two points—and after holding a nine-point lead at the half and getting next to nothing out of Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan.
Even against the gigantic Wildcats, it was the game that proved Michigan could beat top-notch teams while relying almost exclusively on its guards. The Wolverines went on to win their next 10 games and 22 of the next 26 before falling to Aaron Harrison in the Elite Eight.
Might this game have the exact same effect?
A lot of people (myself included) are down on the Wolverines this summer because they're undersized and lost too many of the best guards from last year. But that was pretty much the exact same narrative that started last year when McGary's back problems became public knowledge.
On the other bench, this game will be one of our only chances to see what Arizona is made of before the start of Pac-12 conference play.
The Wildcats play in the Maui Invitational, but there isn't much intrigue in that field until/unless they meet up with San Diego State. The only other noteworthy games are a late December road game against a UNLV team that might not be any good and the previously mentioned home game against Gonzaga.
Really, this could be the game that determines whether Arizona serves as one of the last undefeated teams in the country for a second straight season.
8. Battle 4 Atlantis Final
When: November 28
Where: Paradise Island, Bahamas
There's at least an outside chance that this game ends up being a dud.
In fact, let's rate some of the potential pairings on a scale from 0-10. The field for this tournament is UAB, Butler, Florida, Georgetown, North Carolina, Oklahoma, UCLA and Wisconsin.
Any final involving UAB is rated 0.9. This would just be a plain old zero if not for the fact that UAB surviving this group of death would be a pretty crazy story to follow.
A final between some combination of Butler, Georgetown, Oklahoma and UCLA is a 3.7. All four are likely NCAA tournament teams, but I wouldn't go betting on any of them to make the Final Four.
A final between one of the aforementioned four teams and one of the three favorites (Florida, North Carolina or Wisconsin) is rated 6.4. This game would have a distinct Sweet 16 feel to it with a clear favorite and a very formidable underdog.
Several bonus intrigue points if the underdog is going for an epic three-game sweep after eliminating the other two favorites (Ex: Georgetown vs. North Carolina with Georgetown having already beaten Florida and Wisconsin in the previous two games.)
A final between some combination of Florida, North Carolina and Wisconsin is 9.2. Even the three ideal pairings aren't quite as great as seven of the other games that are already actually on the schedule, but there's no question that the Battle 4 Atlantis is most likely to result in the best final of the early-season tournaments.
7. Texas vs. Kentucky
When: December 5
Where: Lexington, Ky.
It might never be quite as good from top to bottom as the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, but the Big 12/SEC Challenge does give us two of the best nonconference games we could possibly ask for.
The first one is a battle between two teams for whom we have spent just about the entire offseason drooling over their quality depth. Both Kentucky and Texas could legitimately run a 10- or 11-man rotation without losing much of anything from their on-court product.
Perhaps of most interest in this game will be finding out whether anyone will actually be big enough to contend with Kentucky.
Between Jonathan Holmes (6'8"), Obinna Oleka (6'8"), Connor Lammert (6'9"), Cameron Ridley (6'9"), Prince Ibeh (6'10") and Myles Turner (7'0"), the Longhorns have a front line that is tall enough and rebounds well enough to nullify the obvious advantage that the Wildcats will have against just about every other team they play this year.
That may merely mean that Kentucky wins because the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, are much better than Isaiah Taylor and Javan Felix, but it should be fun to see how Kentucky responds to theoretically getting less than 15 offensive rebounds in this one.
6. Florida vs. Kansas
When: December 5
Where: Lawrence, Kan.
This serves as the second of two extremely intriguing Big 12/SEC Challenge games as well as the first of two very compelling rematches from last December involving Florida.
Not only did Florida win this battle last season, but it was the first step in what ended up being a 30-game winning streak.
For the opposite bench, Andrew Wiggins had himself a coming-out party in the losing effort. He scored 11 points in the final three minutes, finishing the game with 26 points and four made three-pointers—both of which stood as career highs until the final week of January.
Kansas struggled in the Battle 4 Atlantis, lost its first game back on the mainland to Colorado and was lampooned in the first half against Florida to the tune of a 15-point deficit at halftime. But that second half really seemed to be the turning point in Kansas' season.
It was an extremely rare game in which both teams can point back to it and say, "That's when we really started to click."
That's a lot to live up to, but Vegas Insider has both Florida and Kansas among the six favorites to win the 2015 championship. Don't be surprised if March rolls around and this early December game ends up being one of the biggest arguments for the winner as a No. 1 seed and the loser as a No. 2 seed.
5. Connecticut vs. Florida
When: January 2 or 3
Where: Gainesville, Fla.
There's a bit of Internet dissension in terms of when this game will be played. Connecticut's beat writer, Don Amore of the Hartford Courant, has it listed as January 2, but Florida's beat writer, David Jones of Florida Today, has it listed as January 3.
I'm assuming Jones has it right, as his post is slightly more recent, and it makes more sense for this game to be played on a Saturday than a Friday, but you have to love trying to make sense of college basketball schedules when they are sporadically announced on a team-by-team basis over the course of several months.
Either way, we're being treated to an early January rematch from the 2014 Final Four—which was already a rematch of a game that ended on a Shabazz Napier-injured-ankle buzzer-beater in December.
Of course, neither of these teams will look anything like it did four months ago. Connecticut lost two full-time starters (Napier and DeAndre Daniels) and two part-time starters (Lasan Kromah and Niels Giffey). Florida lost four full-time starters (Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young, Casey Prather and Will Yeguete).
Despite all the players they lost, both teams are considered early candidates for a return trip to the Final Four. And as one of the latest nonconference games on the calendar, this game should tell us more about its participants' tournament outlook than something such as the next entry on the list.
4. Champions Classic
Who: Michigan State vs. Duke and Kentucky vs. Kansas
When: November 18
Where: Indianapolis, Ind.
Without a doubt, there will be a lot of complaints that this event isn't at No. 1 on the list but hear me out.
These games take place on the fifth day of the regular season. For last year's Champions Classic, Joel Embiid wasn't even in the starting lineup yet. A lot of the noteworthy freshmen—Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, Andrew Harrison and Dakari Johnson—committed either four or five fouls.
It's simply too early in the season for these teams to be anywhere near peak performance.
Don't get me wrong, I love the Champions Classic and would go see these games in a heartbeat. But as far as "games that help us decide which teams are the best in the country," there are a few better ones.
Think about it: How often was the 2013 Champions Classic referenced in the tournament-seeding discussion as opposed to games played as little as two weeks later into the season?
Again, this is a fantastic event. But with these four teams combining to replace 10 of last year's 20 starters, it'd be even more fantastic if it was played in early December after everyone has a few games under their belts.
3. Louisville vs. Kentucky
When: December 27
Where: Louisville, Ky.
Easily this is the best nonconference rivalry in the entire country, and it's only the third-most must-see game on the list.
Translation: Buckle up for some serious slugfests this fall.
One major thing this game has going for it—like the previous game on the list between Connecticut and Florida—is that it takes place more than a month into the season. By the time Kentucky and Louisville square off, we'll already have a pretty good idea what they'll each bring to the table.
Terry Rozier will have already spent nearly six weeks as a starting guard for Rick Pitino. Either Wayne Blackshear or Shaqquan Aaron should have emerged as a reliable small forward—the same goes for Mangok Mathiang and the plethora of incoming options at center.
Another big plus is that it's pretty much the only show in town. That stretch of days from Dec 22-30 is usually like a ghost town for college hoops.
But with Louisville losing Russ Smith, are we sure this is the battle between potential No. 1 seeds that it has been over the past three seasons? I had the Cardinals as a No. 4 seed in my projected bracket last week without getting much argument—and they were frankly closer to a No. 5 than a No. 3.
If they play well enough to be a top-10 team by the time this game rolls around, I'll change my tune and put it down as the best nonconference game of the 2014-15 season. Until then, let's reserve the top two spots for games that are more likely to be previews of the national championship.
2. Duke vs. Wisconsin
When: December 3
Where: Madison, Wis.
Over the past 13 years, Bo Ryan (351) and Mike Krzyzewski (379) have combined to win 730 games, each advancing to every NCAA tournament during that stretch.
But the legendary coaches have only faced each other twice—Duke won at home in the 2007 ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and Wisconsin won at home in the 2009 ACC / Big Ten Challenge.
Oddly enough, the loser of the game ended up having a better season. Wisconsin went 31-5 and reached the Sweet 16 during the 2007-08 season, while Duke went 35-5 and won the 2010 national championship. In each instance, the winner was eliminated in the round of 32.
Yet, this game may have more intrigue than the other two combined. In the rankings that ESPN, USA Today and CBS Sports posted after the deadline to declare for the NBA draft, Duke and Wisconsin were unanimously in the top four along with Kentucky and Arizona.
Long story short, if both the Badgers and the Blue Devils earned No. 1 seeds in the 2015 tournament, it wouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.
The battle that the world will tune in to watch is Frank Kaminsky vs. Jahlil Okafor.
Can Kaminsky go toe-to-toe with the most dominant center of the incoming class? Does Okafor have the ability to defend out to the perimeter against a player like Kaminsky? Will Duke be able to get offensive rebounds against a great defensive rebounding team in Wisconsin?
More importantly, can we survive the wait until early December to get the answers to these questions?
1. North Carolina vs. Kentucky
When: December 13
Where: Lexington, Ky.
While others have Duke winning the ACC and getting a No. 1 seed in the tournament, I foresee North Carolina earning those honors. Plus, Kentucky is substantially more likely to go 40-0 than Wisconsin.
Thus, this blue-blood battle edges out Duke vs. Wisconsin for singular nonconference game I would watch if I'm only allowed to pick one.
(Thank heavens that isn't the case.)
If you love great coaching battles, this one has John Calipari against Roy Williams.
If you enjoy watching great point guards go head-to-head, how can you argue with Marcus Paige against Andrew Harrison?
If you're hopelessly obsessed with freshmen, you'll be glad to know this game features six of the top 18 players on the ESPN 100.
And if you like college basketball history, how about this game between two of the three schools in the country with more than 2,100 wins, per Sports-Reference.com?
Let's also sprinkle in the fact that Kentucky and North Carolina delivered one of the best nonconference games of last season—UNC won 82-77 in a game where neither team led by more than eight points.
Add it all up and this should be one for the ages.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.
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