College Basketball 2011-'12: 10 Best Games of the Season so Far

Joe CampioneContributor IIIDecember 23, 2011

College Basketball 2011-'12: 10 Best Games of the Season so Far

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    With almost two whole months in the books, this year's season of college basketball has already proven to be exciting and completely unpredictable.

    With many of the major conferences starting their conference play on Tuesday, I thought it would be a good time to look back at some of the best games the early season out-of-conference schedule gave to us so far this season.

    The beginning of the college basketball season is known for its fair share of mismatches and blowouts, but every now and again we fans are given a gem of a game.

    Whether it be between two high-level teams duking it out in an NCAA Tournament preview or just a good old-fashioned upset, everybody loves an exciting outcome to a hard-fought game—except the losing team's fans of course.

    So without further ado, here's my list of the top 10 games in the NCAA basketball season so far...

Honorable Mentions

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    Here's a list of games that didn't quite make the top 10 cut, but were still worth mentioning in their own right.


    Rhode Island at George Mason, Nov. 11th

    C'mon, you know I had to at least mention George Mason on this list.

    Opening day for the Patriots started off with a bang, with their 92-90 overtime victory over the Rhode Island Rams. Jamal Wilson's 38 points just weren't enough to overcome Ryan Pearson's double-double in a close, back-and-forth game.

    Key plays were Jonathan Holton's clutch three-pointer at the end of regulation to tie the game and Orion Outerbridge's three-point attempt at the buzzer that clanged off the back rim to secure the Patriots' victory.


    Illinois at Missouri, Dec. 22nd

    This game just took place last night and featured two Top 25 teams in what was a very entertaining "Braggin' Rights" game.

    Missouri jumped out to a 13-point lead, but allowed Illinois to come all the way back, eventually taking a two-point lead with two minutes to go after three free throws from D.J. Richardson.

    But with the game tied at 70 with only 1:30 to go in the game, Kim English got a steal, hit his layup and the ensuing free throw to give Missouri the lead for good and keep their perfect record intact.


    Charleston at Louisville, Dec. 20th

    Charleston did everything in its power to try to steal a win from Louisville in the KFC Yum! Center, but it would not be enough thanks to Kyle Kuric.

    Charleston led for most of the game, and actually had a 60-59 lead with 3:12 to go before Kuric's floater in the paint connected, sparking a 7-0 run over the next 70 seconds to give Louisville the lead and the win, 69-62.


    Davidson vs. Kansas, Dec. 19th

    In 2008, Davidson quite nearly pulled off an upset of Kansas to crash the Final Four.

    In 2011, Davidson finally got its long-awaited revenge, stunning the No. 11 Jayhawks 80-74 in the Sprint Center, powered by Nik Cochran's 21 points.

    The game was tight throughout the entire second half, with Cochran's three-pointer with 1:21 remaining giving the Wildcats a six-point lead that Kansas could not overcome.


    Murray State vs. Southern Miss, Nov. 27th

    The Murray State Racers have been the surprise of this year's season, jumping out to a 13-0 start and a No. 22 national ranking.

    However, none of this would have been possible if they didn't escape the championship game of the Great Alaska Shootout with a double-overtime win over Southern Mississippi.

    Murray State seemed to have everything under control with a 12-point halftime lead, but watched it all melt away, concluding with Rashard McGill's free throws to send the game to overtime.

    Luckily for the Racers, Isaiah Canaan's seven points in the second overtime powered them to a hard-fought, nailbiting victory. 

10: Oral Roberts at Arkansas-Little Rock, Dec. 12th

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    So here's my obscure game for the list.

    Chuck Guy of Oral Roberts went to the free-throw line with his team down 55-53 and only three seconds to go. Guy drained both free throws to tie the game, giving UALR one last desperation chance to tie the game

    Here's where the fun starts.

    Tramar Sutherland heaved the ball down the court, but it was intercepted by Damen Bell-Holter from Oral Roberts, who proceeded to chuck a desperation three-pointer from his own free-throw line.

    Naturally, it banked off the backboard and went in.

    Although there wasn't a ton to write home about in the actual game itself, and it seemed like there were about 12 people in attendance, you can't deny that scoring five points in three seconds, including a ridiculous full-court heave with less than a second left to win the game, isn't an exciting finish. 

    If for nothing else the video of the shot justifies this game being No. 10 on the list. 

9: St. John's vs. Texas A&M, Nov. 18th

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    If you have ever watched college basketball—or any level of basketball really—you know one simple fact: free throws can save you, or they can burn you.

    This simple adage was never more apparent than in Texas A&M's 58-57 victory over St. John's in the Coaches vs. Cancer consolation game.

    The game was entertaining and hotly contested throughout, even if it may have been marred by some inconsistent officiating—the Aggies went to the line a whole three times in the game as opposed to 38 times for St. John's.

    Although Elston Turner hit a clutch jumper with six seconds left to give the Aggies a one-point lead, the real story of this game came in the last 2.3 seconds.

    Down by only one, Nurideen Lidsey drove to the basket, drawing yet another foul from Texas A&M, giving St. John's a chance to win the game at the free-throw line.

    Despite this golden opportunity, the sophomore missed both free throws—maybe due to help from Billy Kennedy's daughter—giving Texas A&M the victory.

    Overall, I thought this was a fun game, and any time St. John's is playing in the Garden, you know it's going to be a good game to watch.

    Even if the Red Storm were getting some home cooking from the referees, between the level of competition, the competitiveness of the game and possibly the most heartbreaking finish of the season, this game clearly deserves the No. 9 spot on my list.

8: North Carolina vs. Michigan State, Nov. 11th

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    This season's coolest game of the year checks in at No. 8 on my countdown.

    The Carrier Classic, as it was called, took place aboard the USS Carl Vinson, and featured the No. 1 team in the nation on the court, with a host of basketball legends, servicemen and women and even the President of the United States watching.

    The breakout performer of the game was North Carolina's John Henson, who put up 12 points and an astounding nine rebounds, one shy of the North Carolina school record, en route to a 67-55 victory over the Spartans. 

    I have this game at No. 8 simply because it's not everyday you see a basketball game on an aircraft carrier.

    The game itself was pretty run-of-the-mill, and the outcome was never in doubt almost the entire second half, with Michigan State never getting within 10 points of the Tar Heels over the last 10:42 of the game.

    Still, if for nothing else, the uniqueness of this game and the ridiculous ratings it generated were enough to convince me that this was one of the most memorable games of the early season.

7: Creighton at San Diego State, Nov. 30th

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    When you saw on the schedule that a mid-major team with high expectations this season—the Creighton Bluejays—would be visiting last year's mid-major team who turned college basketball on its head—the San Diego State Aztecs—you knew it was going to be an entertaining game.

    San Diego State came out clicking on all cylinders, including taking a 17-point lead early in the first half, but Creighton would fight back, cutting the lead down to only four by halftime.

    The second half was a back-and-forth battle before Creighton opened up a six-point lead with only two minutes to play, but the Aztecs would not go away, hitting three-pointer after three-pointer to keep themselves afloat.

    With 7.3 seconds remaining, Creighton's Jahenns Manigat went to the line for two shots with the Bluejays up one point.

    After hitting his first free throw to extend the lead to 85-83, Manigat missed the second one, but despite ample chances, the Aztecs could not get the rebound, and Creighton escaped the Viejas Arena with a signature victory.

    The game really had everything you wanted. It was competitive, had great shooting and a spectacular finish. Between all of that and the fact that I'm a sucker for a good mid-major game, this game was a clear cut choice for No. 7 on my list.

6: North Carolina vs. UNLV, Nov. 26th

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    Not since 2006 had a No. 1 team lost in November, ironically, in a game that took place in Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.

    UNLV made sure to change that with their 90-80 upset over the top-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels in the championship game of the Las Vegas Invitational.

    Powered by Chace Stanback's career-high 28 points and 10 rebounds, the Runnin' Rebels dominated the second half against the Tar Heels, and after taking a two-point lead with 18:02 remaining in the second half, UNLV never gave back the lead.

    In fact, UNLV started the second half on a 14-0 run, taking advantage of some ice-cold shooting from North Carolina.

    Just for good measure, the UNLV fans at the "neutral" site in Las Vegas stormed the court in celebration of the victory: a staple of a classic win.

    This game is ranked as high as it is simply because it was an unranked team knocking off the best team in the nation, and that always makes for an intriguing game.

    Factor in some of the crazy individual performances and some storming-the-court action, and you have yourself the fifth-best game of the season so far.

5: Belmont at Duke, Nov. 11th

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    Coach K needed only two wins at the beginning of this season to tie Bobby Knight for the record for all-time wins by a Division I men's basketball coach, prompting Duke to schedule two games in two days to start the season.

    Never in Duke's wildest dreams did they ever expect Belmont to give them as much of a fight as they did.

    The Bruins fought back from an early 16-point deficit and a nine-point halftime deficit to give the Dukies one of their biggest scares during their incredible nonconference home winning streak.

    Powered by Ian Clark's three-point play with 51 seconds left, the Bruins actually cut Duke's lead down to one, putting all of Cameron Indoor Stadium on edge for their home opener.

    Luckily for the Blue Devils, it was Andre Dawkins to the rescue with a clutch three-pointer with 16.7 seconds left to put Duke up by four points.

    A couple of free throws from Ryan Kelly with 7.1 seconds remaining to maintain Duke's four-point lead put the game out of reach, as even a desperation three wasn't enough for the Bruins to pull the upset.

    This game gave me hope that this would be an unpredictable season, and any time Cameron Indoor Stadium gets loud, it's the sign of a memorable game.

    There's no denying that the place came unglued after that three from Dawkins bailed out the Blue Devils and put Coach K one win closer to his record.

4: Central Florida vs. Connecticut, Nov. 25th

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    Early in the second half, UConn was up 17 points and everything was going according to plan. Then Marcus Jordan happened.

    The son of the NBA legend made 13 of his 20 points over the final 9:54, including hitting two clutch free throws to give the Knights a 58-57 lead with 3:11 left.

    The Huskies could do nothing but watch as UCF launched a 17-2 run to cut down UConn's once seemingly insurmountable 17-point lead to only two.

    Jordan finished his offensive flurry by hitting four more free throws at the end to keep UCF's lead and preserve their 68-63 upset victory.

    This game had a lot of things going for it.

    First and foremost, it was a major upset, with an unranked team taking down the No. 4 team in the nation. More importantly, it is not everyday you see a team come back from 17 points down in the second half, much less on the defending national champions, so that in and of itself earns this team the No. 4 spot on this list.

    Just as an added bonus, this game also featured the breakout of Marcus Jordan, who showed that he can get it done against the best in the country.

    He proved to the nation that we may be hearing his name a lot more in the near future—and for more than just being Michael Jordan's son.

3: Duke vs. Kansas, Nov. 23rd

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    Just look at the storylines you had heading into this game.

    It was a matchup between Duke and Kansas, two of college basketball's most respected, storied programs. Duke had never lost in Hawaii in the school's history. Oh, and it was for the Maui Invitational championship.

    Was there any doubt this one would be a classic?

    The entire game was just a steady back-and-forth, with neither team being able to pull away from the other for too long. Both teams received huge games from star players, with Mason Plumlee of Duke putting up 17 points and 12 rebounds and Thomas Robinson scoring 16 with 15 boards for Kansas.

    While all that is great, the real story of this game was Tyler Thornton.

    After Elijah Johnson drilled a three to give Kansas a 61-60 lead with 1:31 left, Thornton drained a cold-blooded three to take back the lead with only 1:08 to go. After Kansas turned the ball over, Duke started to run down the clock.

    With the shot clock winding down, the ball somehow ended up in the hands of Thornton again, and with a man in his face, Thornton was forced to throw up a prayer of a three-pointer—which connected, giving Duke just enough cushion to take a 68-61 victory out of Maui.

    This game had two superpowers of college basketball. It had 16 lead changes. It had a raucous crowd that was into every single play. It had one of the craziest three-pointers you will see all season.

    I think it's pretty obvious why Duke-Kansas landed at No. 3 on this list.

2: North Carolina at Kentucky, Dec. 3rd

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    I promise you I'm not a North Carolina fan. They just happened to have a lot of entertaining games so far this season.

    This rematch of last year's Elite Eight matchup proved to be a potential preview of this year's tournament as well, with both the Tar Heels and Wildcats fighting down to the last second.

    Well, almost.

    The back-and-forth contest came down to Reggie Bullock drilling a three-pointer to cut Kentucky's lead down to one with only 48 seconds left.

    Freshman Marquis Teague would then miss the front end of a one-and-one, giving North Carolina the ball and a chance to steal a victory from the Wildcats in the Rupp Arena.

    Enter Anthony Davis.

    John Henson got a decent look in close for the Tar Heels, but the freshman sensation Davis skied to block the shot and grabbed the loose ball with 5.6 seconds to go. North Carolina, presumably assuming the game was over, neglected to foul Davis, and allowed him to run out the rest of the clock.

    This was a game that had a big-game feel to it, and what looked on paper to be a thrilling game lived up to all of the hype.

    Not only was the end of the game exciting, but the entire contest throughout was entertaining and left me wanting to see these two teams matchup again in March.

    So with all of that going for it, what game could possibly top it as the best game of the season so far?

1: Kentucky at Indiana, Dec. 10th

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    Was there really any doubt that this would be No. 1?

    Indiana had built up a nice sized lead over the No. 1 Wildcats over the course of the game, taking a 57-66 lead with only 7:52 left to play. But Kentucky would not go away that easily, taking advantage of a near four-minute scoring drought from the Hoosiers to cut the lead to one.

    Kentucky would take the lead soon after, and powered by a Marquis Teague layup with 48.8 seconds left, the Wildcats had a 71-70 lead.

    Kentucky opened the door for Indiana however with missed free throws, including Doron Lamb missing one of two free throws with 5.6 seconds left, trimming the Wildcat to two.

    In those 5.6 seconds, Verdell Jones dribbled into the frontcourt and threw a pass behind him to Christian Watford, who drained the biggest three-pointer of his life as time expired, giving the Hoosiers the 73-72 victory and putting all of Bloomington, Indiana into a frenzy.

    I truly do not know what more you could possibly ask for from a basketball game.

    The last four minutes of this game were as entertaining a four minutes as I have seen in any game in a long time. Factor in the heart-stopping three-pointer and watching the students rush the floor, and I had half a mind to drive to Bloomington just to celebrate with them.

    There is no doubt in my mind that this game has been the best game of the season so far, and we will certainly be seeing footage of that three-pointer all season.


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    So there's my list of the top 10 games of the season so far.

    Obviously, this list is completely subjective, and if you liked the list, didn't like the list, or have other games that you think should have made the list, tell me in the comments below.

    The beauty of college basketball is that even two months in, we already have seen a host of great games, and with conference play about to begin and tournaments on the horizon in March, the fun is only beginning. 

    All I know is that if the first two months of the season are any indication of what we're in store for the whole year, it's gonna be one exciting season.