College Basketball: 5 Games We Can't Wait To Watch on Opening Weekend

Chaz Surette@@ChazSuretteCorrespondent INovember 8, 2011

College Basketball: 5 Games We Can't Wait To Watch on Opening Weekend

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    After months and months of waiting, the 2011-2012 college basketball is finally almost here.

    As soon as UConn cut down the nets in Houston after taking home the 2011 National Championship this past April, college hoops fans across the nation began preparing for the coming season. Fans of all teams are eager to show that their team is the best in basketball, and that they'll be the ones to take their turns cutting down the nets this year in New Orleans.

    With all this hype, it's finally time for the games to begin. This weekend, the Top 25 teams will kick off their 2012 campaigns and begin the journey toward the Big Dance. Here's a look at some of the best games to watch this weekend.

North Carolina vs. Michigan State

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    When: Friday, November 11, 7 PM ET

    Where: USS Carl Vinson, San Diego, CA

    TV: ESPN

    The North Carolina Tar Heels enter this season with some ultra-high expectations. After a deep run in the Tournament last year and the return of all five starters, the Tar Heels are the early favorites to win the 2012 National Championship, entering the year as the near-unanimous No. 1 team in nearly every major poll.

    The Heels will once again be led by superstar Harrison Barnes, who after a slow start last season came on strong in ACC play and helped carry the team to a spot in the Elite Eight.

    Alongside Barnes will be front-court stalwarts John Henson and Tyler Zeller, both of whom will be scoring and rebounding machines once again. Kendall Marshall is firmly in the driver's seat as the Heels' starting point guard, and with the addition of top recruits James McAdoo and P.J. Hairston, North Carolina is a force to be reckoned with in the ACC and beyond.

    Facing off against the Tar Heels will be the Michigan State Spartans, who will look to rebound from last year's embarrassing collapse down the stretch. Michigan State will need to find ways to replace team leader Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers, and Korie Lucious, the team's first, second, and fourth-best scorers, respectively.

    Draymond Green, who averaged 12.6 points per game and 8.6 rebounds per game last year, will be a major frount-court presence for the Spartans this year, and will have to step up his game and take on a bigger leadership role in order for Michigan State to be competitive in the Big Ten.

    The inaugural Carrier Classic is sure to be an exciting affair, and no doubt Michigan State will give North Carolina a big early-season challenge.

    A lot of the games on the schedule after this one are tune-up games for the Top 25 in the polls (heck, most of them aren't even on national TV), but there are still some interesting storylines and big implications down the road for some.

Marist at Kentucky

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    When: Friday, November 11, 7 PM ET

    Where: Rupp Arena, Lexington, KY

    This is the first game in what is sure to be a very interesting season for the Kentucky Wildcats. With the loss of Brandon Knight and Josh Harrellson, their wingmen will need to step up big this year, especially Terrence Jones, Kentucky's second-leading scorer and leading rebounder from last year, and Doron Lamb, Kentucky's third-leading scorer.

    The Wildcats are a very young team, with an influx of new freshmen to fill the gaps left by departing seniors and draftees. Anthony Davis and Marquis Teague will likely be big contributors in the frontcourt alongside Terrence Jones, while Michael Gilchrist will play a big role at small forward to replace some of the lost scoring by Brandon Knight.

    Although Marist should be a cakewalk for the young Wildcats, it will still be looked at as a good indicator of the work that needs to be done by this team based on both individual and team efforts this weekend.

Columbia at Connecticut

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    When: Friday, November 11, 7 PM ET

    Where: Gampel Pavilon, Storrs, CT


    The UConn Huskies are coming off one of the most improbable runs to the National Championship in  recent memory. After a hot start to last season, the Huskies faltered down the stretch in Big East conference play, before roaring back to life in the Big East Tournament on the back of Kemba Walker. UConn would win a total of 11 straight games on the road to their third National Championship.

    This year, they'll be without Kemba Walker, who not only led the team in scoring and assists, but led the team emotionally as well, with his on-court drive and intensity serving as a rallying cry for the rest of the team. It'll be up to Jeremy Lamb, Alex Oriakhi, Shabazz Napier, Roscoe Smith and a host of teammates and new recruits to keep UConn in the hunt for another Big East title and another deep Tournament run.

    Lamb was second in scoring last year for the Huskies, while Oriakhi led the team in rebounding. Shabazz Napier and Roscoe Smith were also valuable members of last year's starting lineup. These guys will need to come together to fill the huge hole left by Kemba Walker, and they will need to transform from a supporting cast of role-players to a group of big-time players.

    Although an early Ivy League opponent is no great matchup, it's the beginning of a rebuilding season with the potential for huge success.

Belmont at Duke

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    When: Friday, November 11, 9 PM ET

    Where: Cameron Indoor Stadium, Durham, NC

    Kyrie Irving. Nolan Smith. Kyle Singler.

    Duke lost all three of these players to the NBA following last season, which saw Duke once again win the ACC Tournament only to fall apart in the Big Dance and lose in the Sweet Sixteen to Arizona.

    The Blue Devils will really have their work cut out for them this year, as they'll be without their three leading scorers and their second-leading rebounder (Singler).

    However, they gain one of the best recruiting classes in the nation in the form of Austin Rivers (son of Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers), Marshall Plumlee (the third Plumlee brother after Miles and Mason to don the Duke Blue), Michael Gbinije, Quinn Cook and Alex Murphy. The Blue Devils also return both of older Plumelee brothers, plus valuable leadership in the form of Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly.

    The opener against Belmont will be a great opportunity for Austin Rivers and his fellow freshmen to show the nation the talent they bring to Durham, and the potential this team has for a deep Tournament run (provided they don't collapse again, as tends to happen when you have a lot of freshmen in charge).

Tennessee-Martin at Louisville

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    When: Friday, November 11, 7 PM ET

    Where: KFC Yum! Center, Louisville, KY

    I find this game to be particularly intriguing, not because of the players or the matchups, but because of what it represents for the future of college basketball.

    I know that sounds dramatic, but this is the opening of a very critical season for the Louisville Cardinals. Following this season, Pitt and Syracuse will depart the Big East for the ACC; this leaves Louisville as potentially one of the top teams in the Big East.

    This season may very well be a year for Louisville to prove that it will be a contender for years to come, as they will no longer have Pitt and Syracuse to contend with in-conference, meaning they could potentially reign supreme over the Big East.

    If Louisville can make a mark this year, they will gain a lot of positive publicity, which will bolster their recruiting ability and raise their national profile further. This game will give a decent first impression in terms of the Cardinals' current talent level, and certainly shed some light on where they go from here.

The Excitement Doesn't Stop Here!

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    Any other games you can't wait to tune into? Discuss in the comments!