Must-Watch 2022-23 Nonconference Men's College Basketball Games

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesFeatured Columnist IVNovember 11, 2022

Must-Watch 2022-23 Nonconference Men's College Basketball Games

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    Gonzaga's Julian Strawther
    AP Photo/Young Kwak

    While it's fantastic to have men's college basketball back in our lives, the matchups thus far have largely been yawn-inducing.

    Plenty of games ended up being fun. The opening-night overtime game between Loyola-Chicago and Fairleigh Dickinson had everyone buzzing, as did Georgetown needing overtime to avoid a disastrous loss to Coppin State the following night. Davidson won a double-overtime game at Wright State, and South Dakota State has already been involved in a pair of heart-stopping finishes.

    But those games were all unexpectedly worth watching.

    Now, we finally get into the stuff that has been circled on the calendar for months, beginning with Friday night's Gonzaga-Michigan State game on an aircraft carrier.

    To celebrate the start of the 2022-23 season, we've ranked the top 22 nonconference games on the docket. We'll begin by pointing out a few potential gems in the early-season tournament slate that gets rolling next week.

    Games are ranked in ascending order of "must-watchness."

The Potentially Awesome 'Early-Season Tournament' Games

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    North Carolina's Caleb Love (2) and Armando Bacot (5)
    AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

    It wouldn't be right to include these games in the rankings, because it's possible they won't come to fruition.

    However, there are five tournaments from Nov. 18-27 that could churn out incredible matchups. (Opening-round games from tournaments were eligible for inclusion in the top 22, as those will definitely be happening.)

    Continental Tire Main Event (Nov. 20): There's always one four-team tournament in which a good team is going to walk away with two losses. Last year, it was Purdue, Tennessee, Villanova and North Carolina in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off, in which UNC went 0-2 before making it to the national championship. In the second and final round of this one, it's either going to be Baylor-UCLA and Virginia-Illinois or Baylor-Illinois and UCLA-Virginia. Either way, that should be phenomenal.

    Maui Jim Maui Invitational (Nov. 21-23): If the currently higher-ranked teams prevail in the opening round, the semifinals would be No. 9 Creighton vs. No. 10 Arkansas and No. 17 Arizona vs. No. 19 San Diego State. Those would be be two great games, followed by two more gems in the championship and third-place games.

    Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 23-25): This isn't quite as great as Maui, but no one should complain about the possible No. 5 Kansas vs. No. 24 Dayton and No. 11 Tennessee vs. USC/BYU semifinals, especially if it ends with a Jayhawks-Volunteers showdown in the finals.

    Phil Knight Invitational (Nov. 24-27): We're probably going to get UNC-Villanova in one semifinal, and heavens only knows in the other. The opening-round UConn-Oregon and Alabama-Michigan State games should both be great. It's hard to come up with a bad projected matchup for a championship, but UNC-Alabama would be especially fun.

    Phil Knight Legacy (Nov. 24-27): There are only two preseason AP Top 25 teams in this eight-team field, but both Purdue and Xavier were close among others receiving votes. That makes the projected Duke-Xavier and Gonzaga-Purdue semifinals mighty intriguing. However, we're all hoping to see No. 2 Gonzaga vs. No. 7 Duke for the championship.

Nos. 22-18: 2 Gonzaga Games, 2 Maui Games and a 'Las Vegas Clash'

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    Indiana's Trayce Jackson-Davis
    AP Photo/Doug McSchooler

    22. Michigan State vs. Gonzaga, Nov. 11 (in San Diego, CA)

    If you thought the trend of playing marquee early-season games on ships had sailed, think again. Tom Izzo and Mark Few will lead their squads aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln for what should be the best and most unique game of the first week of the season. It's hard to believe this will be the first meeting between Gonzaga and Michigan State since 2011.

    21. Ohio State vs. San Diego State, Nov. 21 (in Maui Invitational Quarters)

    The opening round in Maui features a big matchup, as Ohio State—which lost seven of its eight leading scorers from last season—faces its first legitimate test of the season. Can the Buckeyes get it done against a veteran, defensive-minded San Diego State team, or will the Aztecs back up their preseason No. 19 ranking with a statement win?

    20. Texas Tech vs. Creighton, Nov. 21 (in Maui Invitational Quarters)

    Ohio State-San Diego State isn't the only notable opening-round showdown in Maui. Creighton got out to an inauspicious start to the season, actually trailing St. Thomas (MN) with 10 minutes remaining in regulation on Monday. And Texas Tech will be playing at least the first month or two without Fardaws Aimaq, a double-double machine from Utah Valley who was poised to be one of the top transfers in the nation prior to a September injury. All the same, it's a major showdown between a pair of AP Top 25 teams, in which only one can advance to the winner's side of the Maui bracket.

    19. Arizona vs. Indiana, Dec. 10 (in Las Vegas, NV)

    The Saturday after college football conference championships is a good time to draw in some curious eyes for the first time of the season. This "Las Vegas Clash" scheduled for primetime on Fox should deliver the goods. Though Arizona and Indiana opened the season at Nos. 17 and 13, respectively, in the AP poll, they both debuted in the top 10 on KenPom. The matchup in the paint between Ąžuolas Tubelis and Trayce Jackson-Davis could be a heavyweight fight fit for Vegas.

    18. Gonzaga at Alabama, Dec. 17 (in Birmingham, AL)

    This is already our second Zags game, and we're just getting started with them. This one could rank higher on the list, though, just because it's a chance for payback for Gonzaga. Last December, Alabama went out to Seattle and dropped 91 points to upset Drew Timme and Co. in the first-ever meeting between the programs. Could lightning strike twice for what is now a freshman-heavy Crimson Tide rotation?

Nos. 17-13: 3 Early Pac-12 Tests, IU-KU and the 1st of 3 B12/SEC Challenge Games

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    Arizona's Azuolas Tubelis
    AP Photo/Rick Scuteri

    17. UCLA vs. Illinois, Nov. 18 (in Las Vegas, NV)

    This will be our first real look at the conglomeration known as the new Fighting Illini. Illinois lost six of its seven leading scorers from last year, but it picked up two big-time transfers from the Big 12 (Terrence Shannon Jr. and Matthew Mayer) as well as a loaded recruiting class headlined by point guard Skyy Clark. It might take a while to come together, or Illinois could quickly emerge as a title contender with wins over UCLA and Baylor/Virginia in Las Vegas.

    16. Houston at Oregon, Nov. 20

    Houston was not ranked No. 1 in the preseason AP poll, but the Cougars have been the hip and trendy pick to win the national championship. This could be one of their countable-on-one-hand losses this season, though. Not only is it a road game, but Oregon could take advantage of a considerable size disparity. Houston has no one in its rotation taller than 6'8", but the Ducks have two young 7-footers (Kel'el Ware and Nathan Bittle) and a 6'11" senior (N'Faly Dante).

    15. Tennessee at Arizona, Dec. 17

    This is a rematch of a gem from last December, in which the Volunteers knocked off 11-0 Arizona thanks in no small part to a combined 23 fouls called against the Wildcats' starting five. Will they get friendlier whistles as the home team, or will the physical Volunteers be able to frustrate Arizona into a similar result? Tennessee will need some good minutes in the paint from Uros Plavsic to survive the deep and large Wildcats frontcourt.

    14. Indiana at Kansas, Dec. 17

    Indiana has two massive Saturdays in a row. One week after its game against Arizona in Las Vegas on Dec. 10, it will head to the Phog to face the reigning national champions. Winning either game would be big. Winning both would be incredible. Freshman center Ernest Udeh Jr. should be the X-factor in this one, as Kansas—lacking a clearly dominant big man for the first time in a long time—will need to figure out how to slow down preseason first-team AP All-American Trayce Jackson-Davis.

    13. Texas at Tennessee, Jan. 28

    These teams met in Austin as part of last year's SEC/B12 Challenge for what was an ugly 52-51 affair. It was particularly ugly for the Longhorns, as they blew a 17-point lead in the final seven minutes before eking out a win on a late free throw. Does Tennessee return the favor, or does Texas' Dillon Mitchell thrive against Tennessee's Julian Phillips in the battle of potential one-and-done small forwards? Since this one is in late January, those newbies should be well-seasoned by that point.

Nos. 12-9: 2 Big Baylor Games and 2 Big Rematches from Last Season

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    Can Kelvin Sampson and Marcus Sasser get revenge on Alabama?
    AP Photo/Vasha Hunt

    12. Baylor vs. Virginia, Nov. 18 (in Las Vegas, NV)

    Virginia was unrecognizable last season. The snail-like pace was still there, but the Cavaliers couldn't shoot worth a darn, and their defense was worse than it had been at any other point in the past decade. Was it just an off year for a team that had to replace three NBA players and a bunch of transfers, or is the pack-line magic gone in Charlottesville? We assume the former, but this early test against the Baylor Bears and freshman phenom Keyonte George could point in the direction of an answer to that unknown.

    11. Gonzaga at Texas, Nov. 16

    The final margin was only 12 points, but Gonzaga annihilated Texas in the opening week of last season, led by Drew Timme's 37 points. Will the Longhorns have any semblance of an answer for him this time around? At least on paper, this is a fascinating matchup between a high-efficiency, uptempo Gonzaga offense and a slow-paced Texas team which may well end up with the most efficient defense in the nation.

    10. Alabama at Houston, Dec. 10

    Alabama-Houston was easily one of the most memorable games of the 2021-22 campaign, both because it was fantastic for 40 minutes and because it ended with a controversial non-goaltending call. But Alabama survived against a Houston team that had both Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark at the time, and we're all eager to see how things go down a month from now. To have any hope of winning in Houston, Alabama will need to take much better care of the ball (19 turnovers) and shoot it better (3-of-28 from three) than it did in its season-opener against Longwood.

    9. Arkansas at Baylor, Jan. 28

    At least in the eyes of NBA draft scouts, this one probably clocks in eight spots too low on the list. Arkansas' Nick Smith Jr. and Baylor's Keyonte George entered this season neck-and-neck in the race to become the first college player taken in the 2023 draft. Razorbacks freshmen Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh might also be first-round picks. But this should also be an excellent late-season showdown between AP Top 10 teams. For at least one of these teams, this could be a huge data point in the hunt for a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance.

Nos. 8-5: 3 Top 10 Teams Hit the Road, and Blue Bloods Collide in the Big Apple

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    UCLA's Tyger Campbell and Jaime Jaquez Jr.
    AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer

    8. Creighton at Texas, Dec. 1

    Expectations for Creighton have never been higher. Literally. The Bluejays debuted at No. 9 in the AP poll, which is their highest preseason ranking ever. And if they can climb just two spots, No. 7 would match their highest ranking in any week of any season. Are they actually good, though? They'll have a chance to prove something in the Maui Invitational the week before this one, but this game at Texas should be their biggest game of the entire season.

    7. Houston at Virginia, Dec. 17

    First to 45 wins? Virginia struggled on defense last year, but these have been arguably the two best defenses in the nation over the past five seasons combined, thriving in slow-paced contests. This should be a rare fun-to-watch rock fight in a preposterously loaded day of college hoops. Five of our top 18 games are on Dec. 17, and a few others on that Saturday (Ohio State-North Carolina, Dayton-Wyoming, Utah-BYU) were at least worth considering.

    6. North Carolina at Indiana, Nov. 30

    UNC may need to go through both Villanova and Alabama to win the Phil Knight Invitational, but this is the biggest definitely-on-the-calendar nonconference test for the preseason No. 1 team. The last time these blue bloods met was in the 2016 ACC/B1G Challenge, when it was No. 3 North Carolina at No. 13 Indiana. The Hoosiers won that game by nine, but UNC went on to win it all that year, while Indiana lost in the first round of the NIT.

    5. Kentucky vs. UCLA, Dec. 17 (in New York, NY)

    It's pretty hard to argue with AP No. 4 vs. AP No. 8 on a neutral court, especially when those teams are two of the winningest programs in NCAA history. Both the Wildcats and the Bruins have an upperclassman in the running for National Player of the Year (Oscar Tshiebwe for Kentucky; Jaime Jaquez Jr. for UCLA) as well as multiple 5-star freshmen who figure to be well into a groove by mid-December.

Nos. 4-1: Hope You Like Kansas, Kentucky and Gonzaga

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    Gonzaga's Drew Timme
    AP Photo/Young Kwak

    4. Duke vs. Kansas, Nov. 15 (in Indianapolis, IN)

    The Champions Classic is a two-game extravaganza. However, with expectations for Michigan State not particularly high this season, MSU-Kentucky didn't quite make the cut. Conversely, Duke-Kansas should be awesome, although exceedingly weird without both Mike Krzyzewski (retired) and Bill Self (suspended for first four games). We also don't know if Duke's freshman phenoms Dariq Whitehead or Dereck Lively II will be available as they both recover from lower-leg injuries. Still, this should be a mighty large opening-week matchup between title contenders.

    3. Kansas at Kentucky, Jan. 28

    As is typically the case in the years that Kansas and Kentucky don't meet in the Champions Classic, this is the headliner of the SEC/B12 Challenge on the final Saturday of January. This will be the 10th meeting (including the 2012 national championship) between these blue bloods since John Calipari arrived in Lexington, and both teams were ranked in the Top 20 for each of the previous nine. Expect more of the same, and hopefully a more competitive game than last year's 18-point road blowout by the Wildcats.

    2. Gonzaga vs. Baylor, Dec. 2 (in Sioux Falls, SD)

    A rematch of the 2021 national championship, and perhaps a preview of the 2023 national championship? Gonzaga will be going through the ringer just to get to this point, playing three consecutive games against Michigan State, Texas and Kentucky before partaking in the Phil Knight Legacy tournament, in which the championship game could/should be against Duke. The Zags might let us down in March on an annual basis, but bless them for their quest to increase national interest in the first month of the college hoops season. Not all heroes wear capes. (Although Drew Timme probably would wear one on the court if he could.)

    1. Kentucky at Gonzaga, Nov. 20

    When big college basketball news breaks in August, it's usually a scandal, an injury or some other sort of negative situation. But Kentucky and Gonzaga broke the mold with news of a home-and-home series beginning this season in Spokane. (They made bigger waves in October by revealing it will actually be an annual showdown for six years.)

    In our preseason bracket projection, Kentucky was the No. 1 overall seed and Gonzaga was No. 2 overall. It doesn't get any better than an early-season matchup between those two teams. Let's just hope that the Wildcats manage to get back to full strength in time for it after opening the season sans Sahvir Wheeler (leg), Daimion Collins (personal) and reigning NPOY Oscar Tshiebwe (knee).