The 10 Biggest Nonconference Games of the 2011-2012 College Basketball Season
In just a few short days, college basketball season will officially begin. Last year, Kemba Walker and the Uconn Huskies surprised everyone, not only by winning the Big East Tournament as a nine seed, but going on to win a very dramatic National Championship game against Butler. With so many players returning to school because of the NBA lockout, this should be one of the most entertaining seasons we have seen in years.
Here are the 10 biggest non-conference games of the season.
(1) North Carolina at (2) Kentucky—December 3
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Two of the most prestigious programs in the sport and the two runaway preseason favorites meet on December 3 at Rupp Arena, in what should be the best game of the regular season. In a rematch of last year’s Elite 8 showdown, Roy Williams leads a team returning all major pieces from last year’s squad, including Tyler Zeller, John Henson, sophomore sensation Harrison Barnes. They also have a talented duo of freshman in James McAdoo and P.J. Hairston.
The Tar Heels will face a Kentucky team returning stars Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Darius Miler. The thing to watch for in this one is how Kentucky’s freshmen (top recruits such as Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague, Michael Gilchrist and Kyle Wiltjer) handle the pressure of such a big game this early in the season.
(6) Duke at (3) Ohio State—November 29
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In what should be the best game of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, sixth-ranked Duke travels to Columbus to face Jared Sullinger and the third-ranked Buckeyes. Ohio State returns not only Sullinger, but second-leading scorer William Buford as well. Losing seniors Jon Diebler and David Lighty will hurt the Buckeyes, but newcomers Shannon Scott and Amir Williams, both McDonald’s All-Americans, should pick up some of the slack.
Despite the Big Ten’s defense-first style of play, expect a high-scoring game as Duke’s Austin Rivers will look to take advantage of a big game early in the season, and prove why he was the top-overall recruit this year. Things to watch in this one are how Seth Curry handles his move to point guard and how, or if, the Plumlees contain Jared Sullinger.
(8) Florida at (5) Syracuse—December 2
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Florida has arguably the toughest schedule in all of college basketball, with non-conference games against Ohio State, Arizona and Florida State. Traveling to the Carrier Dome to face an extremely deep Syracuse team will be a huge test for the Gators. With an abundance of guards, the Gators will look to extend the floor and play an up-tempo game that Billy Donovan has had so much success with in the past.
Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker return for the Gators and, along with freshman Bradley Beal, they form one of the nation’s top backcourts. Syracuse returns nearly all of their team from last year, including stars Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche and Kris Joseph, making it one of the deepest teams in college basketball.
(13) Kansas at (2) Kentucky—November 15
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On November 15, Bill Self and his Kansas Jayhawks will face off against second-ranked Kentucky in Madison Square Garden as part of the State Farm Champions Classic, and it sure looks like it will be a classic. A lot has changed since Bill Self’s Jayhawks defeated Calipari’s Memphis Tigers in the 2008 National Championship, but you’ve got to believe some bitterness remains between the two coaches.
This year, Calipari leads a stellar recruiting class and a handful of experienced players against Self’s Jayhawks, who are in somewhat of a rebuilding year after losing the Morris twins and one-and-done Josh Selby to the NBA draft, as well as senior guard Brady Morningstar. However, the Jayhawks return Tyshawn Taylor, who should have a breakout year. Although Kentucky looks better on paper, Self, who has posted back-to-back 30-win seasons, always has the Jayhawks in contention.
(8)Florida at (3) Ohio State—November 15
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This game features two teams with completely different styles of play. Last year, Jared Sullinger dominated the Gators inside as Ohio State defeated Florida 93-75. However, this year’s game seems like a better matchup, with both teams ranked in the preseason top 10. Although Ohio State seems to have a slight advantage in this one, the depth and talent of Florida’s backcourt gives them a good chance against anyone.
(9) Louisville at (2) Kentucky—December 31
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Surprise, surprise, another Kentucky game. Kentucky honestly may have the toughest schedule in all of college basketball, so they will have plenty of chances to prove why they’re ranked second in the preseason polls. This rivalry was heated enough before Rick Pitino and John Calipari spent a good amount of time this offseason taking shots at one another.
When asked about the state of Kentucky’s notable programs, Calipari just happened to forget to mention Louisville. Pitino responded by saying, “Four things I’ve learned in my 59 years about people. I ignore the jealous, I ignore the malicious, I ignore the ignorant and I ignore the paranoid.”
Look for one of college basketball’s best rivalries to get a little better this season when the Cardinals take the court in Lexington on December 31.
St. John’s at (6) Duke—January 28
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After last year’s embarrassing loss to the Red Storm at Madison Square Garden, Duke will be looking for revenge when St. John’s comes to Cameron Indoor on January 28. Steve Lavin brought the excitement of St. John’s basketball back to the Big Apple last season. However, losing the majority of last year’s NCAA tournament team, and having eight underclassmen, they will surely undergo some growing pains this season. It will be interesting to see if Coach Lavin can mold his players in time for this game, which could be crucial if St. John’s hopes to return to the tournament in 2012.
(15) Wisconsin at (1) North Carolina—Nov 30
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In another great Big Ten/ACC challenge matchup, the Badgers travel to Chapel Hill to take on the preseason favorite Tar Heels. With Jordan Taylor and Harrison Barnes both legitimate Player of the Year candidates, look for both to step up and make this a statement game. Carolina may be the most balanced team in college basketball, but look for Wisconsin’s stingy defense to slow the Tar Heels down in what should be an exciting showdown, as the ACC looks to avenge its first and only loss in the challenge last year.
(3) Ohio State at (13) Kansas—December 10
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This game features two No. 1 seeds from last year's NCAA tournament. Because neither team fulfilled expectations last year, both will be looking for a quality win, as each team has a legitimate shot at a No. 1 seed again this year. Kansas will be looking to prove they are not in a rebuilding year, and Ohio State will try to show why they belong in the discussion for a national title. Look for Jared Sullinger to step up and prove that he’s the best player in the country.
Michigan State at (1) North Carolina—November 11
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On Veteran’s day, Michigan State and North Carolina will face off on an aircraft carrier in the “Carrier Classic." This game will feature not only the preseason-No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels, but two of the best coaches in all of college basketball in Roy Williams and Tom Izzo. Some might question why this game made the list, with plenty of other top 25 matchups throughout the season, but I have a feeling this game will be a lot closer than you might think.
This being the season opener for both teams, we will get a chance to see how good the preseason favorite really is. Although expectations are down in East Lansing, never count out a team coached by Tom Izzo. Michigan State, which opens its season with games against UNC and then Duke, will look to make a statement early and knock-off the preseason favorites.