10 Can't-Miss Nonconference Games on the 2015-16 College Basketball Schedule

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystSeptember 16, 2015

10 Can't-Miss Nonconference Games on the 2015-16 College Basketball Schedule

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    Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

    These final two months of college basketball's offseason are—hopefullygoing to fly by, and before you know it, you'll be frantically trying to figure out which nonconference games you absolutely cannot afford to miss.

    Fortunately, we've got you covered with gems like Maryland vs. North Carolina and Duke vs. Kentucky among what should be the 10 highest-profile games of the first seven weeks of the season.

    We can't guarantee they'll be the best games played in November and December, but they should be the most intriguing, as every team represented on the list figures to open the season ranked in the AP Top 25 poll. These aren't the type of games that determine which teams get to the NCAA tournament, but rather which ones are most deserving of the coveted No. 1 seeds.

    Games are ranked in ascending order of combined projected rank in the preseason Top 25, culminating in the aforementioned pair of games between teams that should all be ranked in the Top 5.

    Only games being played in November or December were considered for the list. The biggest omission resulting from this decision is the game between Kansas and Kentucky on January 30. If eligible for this list, that marquee game would have been No. 3.

Honorable Mentions

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Baylor vs. Oregon (November 16)
    Baylor vs. Vanderbilt (December 6)
    Baylor vs. Texas A&M (December 19)

    Were this a list of sleepers to win major-conference regular-season titles, all four of these teams would be somewhere near the top. Baylor, Oregon, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt aren't quite stone-cold locks to make the tournament, but most would agree that they should all be dancing in March.

    Thus, it will be intriguing to see how they stack up against one another in this trio of games with Baylor serving as the barometer.

    Georgetown vs. Maryland (November 17)

    On any other day, this would be a must-watch game, but those responsible for scheduling this one should be sacked. Georgetown is a fringe candidate for the preseason Top 25, and Maryland is a strong candidate for the top spot in the first poll of the year.

    However, tipping off at roughly halftime of the first Champions Classic game and ending at roughly halftime of the second Champions Classic game makes this a high-profile affair that will only be watched by people who already have their March Madness, multiTV setup in place.

    Maui Invitational Final (November 25)

    Whether this is actually the best early-season tournament is yet to be determined, but there's a strong chance that the semifinal pairings in the Maui Invitational will be Vanderbilt vs. Indiana and Kansas vs. UCLA.

    We'll gladly take any of those four potential championship games on "Thanksgiving Eve," but we would be most thankful for Indiana vs. Kansas.

    Louisville vs. Michigan State (December 2)

    There are so many outstanding pairings in the ACC/B1G Challenge that this 2015 Elite Eight rematch is, at best, the third-most anticipated game of the event. Still, Rick Pitino vs. Tom Izzo is quite the consolation prize to our top 10 games.

    Utah vs. Wichita State (December 12)

    As was the case last December when Utah won by one point in overtime, this ought to be a battle between Top 25 teams.

    Frankly, though, just pick a Utah nonconference game and it's probably a good one.

    A far cry from ESPN.com's third-worst nonconference strength of schedule in the country in 2013-14, the Utes' slate will see them play Duke, San Diego State, Wichita State, BYU and a potential path of Texas Tech, Miami and Butler in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.

    Cincinnati vs. Xavier (December 12)

    This is one of the most loathsome nonconference rivalries in the country, and Cincinnati and Xavier are both very much in the running for a spot at the back end of the preseason Top 25. Not only is this a game for recruiting bragging rights, but it may well have a significant impact on tournament seeding.

    Indiana vs. Notre Dame (December 19)

    The first month of the season will be unwatchable at times as teams adjust to the new rules. By mid-December, there's a pretty good chance we'll desperately need this game between what should be two of the most efficient offenses in the country.

10. Wisconsin vs. Oklahoma

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    When: November 29

    Where: Norman, Okla.

    Individual Battle: Nigel Hayes vs. TBD power forward

    One way or another, this game is going to be a major litmus test for the Badgers.

    The early portion of Wisconsin's season (vs. Western Illinois, vs. Siena and vs. North Dakota) is a joke, followed by intriguing 2K Classic games against Georgetown and either Duke or VCU.

    If the Badgers are successful in the four-team tournament, we'll be looking to this Oklahoma game as their chance to really cement their status among the nation's elite for a third straight year. Struggle in the 2K Classic, though, and suddenly they'll need a good showing against the Sooners to keep people from questioning an entire offseason's worth of high expectations due to Bo Ryan and little else.

    Either way, Nigel Hayes will be particularly important in this one.

    Compare the rosters side by side and the Sooners are either slightly or substantially superior at four of the five positions. However, Wisconsin's presumed advantage at power forward could be enough to pull off a critical road win.

    Whether the Sooners go with Khadeem Lattin, Dante Buford or Akolda Manyang as Ryan Spangler's primary frontcourt running mate, Hayes is good and versatile enough to drop at least 20 points on what should be Oklahoma's weakest link.

    At that point, the game will probably hinge on Wisconsin's luck at defending the three-point arc. According to Kenpom.com, the Badgers have ranked in the top seven nationally in defensive 3PA% (percentage of opponents' field-goal attempts coming from three-point range). In 2012 and 2013, they also ranked in the top 11 nationally in three-point field-goal defense at 29.4 and 28.9 percent, respectively.

    Last year, however, opponents shot 37.5 percent from downtown against Wisconsin. If that poor luck persists, look for Buddy Hield and Isaiah Cousins to pace Oklahoma to a comfortable win.

9. California vs. Virginia

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    Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

    When: December 22

    Where: Charlottesville, Va.

    Individual Battle: Jaylen Brown vs. Anthony Gill

    For the most part, California's nonconference schedule is nothing special.

    There are a few intriguing gamesvs. Davidson, at Wyoming and neutral-court games against San Diego State and either Richmond or West Virginiabut hardly anything that will really help us decide whether the Golden Bears actually have what it takes to go from the 2015 NIT to 2016 Final Four.

    Aside from this game, that is.

    Over the past several years, few places have been tougher to play than John Paul Jones Arena. Dating back to the absolutely bizarre home loss to Delaware on November 13, 2013, the Cavaliers are 47-3 at home with the losses coming against a national champion (Duke), a Final Four team (Wisconsin) and the only team in the country that has been more of a headache to face in the 2010s than Virginia (VCU).

    Thus, if California comes in and flirts with or even pulls off an upset, we'll know this team is the real deal.

    The critical one-on-one matchup will be in the paint between highly rated freshman Jaylen Brown and criminally underrated senior Anthony Gill. Brown is already a near shoo-in for a top-five draft pick in 2016, but he should have his hands full with Gill in this one.

    At any rate, Virginia needs to hope that Gill is ready to fill the role of "defensive juggernaut" that has been vacated in consecutive years. Akil Mitchell was that impenetrable force two years ago. Darion Atkins was the guy last season.

    If Gill can add some shot-blocking and elite defensive rebounding to what was already an incredibly efficient offensive game last season, he just might be one of the favorites for the 2016 John R. Wooden Award.

    Also of particular intrigue will be watching California's backcourt (Tyrone Wallace, Jordan Mathews, Jabari Bird) try to penetrate Virginia's pack-line defense. If Tony Bennett shows a way to slow down this perimeter offense, it could be bad news for the Golden Bears when Pac-12 teams seek to replicate the approach.

8. Indiana vs. Duke

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    Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

    When: December 2

    Where: Durham, N.C.

    Individual Battle: Yogi Ferrell vs. Derryck Thornton

    Not only is this a showdown between two of college basketball's blue-blood programs which should both open the season comfortably in the Top 25, but it is a game that is absolutely oozing with upset potential.

    This is hardly groundbreaking data analysis, but Duke struggled last season when opponents were draining three-pointers.

    Six times during the 2014-15 season, an opponent shot at least 43 percent from three-point range while making at least eight triples. Three of those games resulted in losses, one was the overtime win over Virginia Tech and the other two were single-digit-point victories.

    Enter, Indiana.

    The Hoosiers were arguably the best three-point shooting team in the nation last year, reaching 43 percent and eight makes on 11 different occasionsfive of which came away from home, so their shooters don't seem to care where they're playing.

    All of the primary members of that three-point assault are back for another year, led first and foremost by lead guard Yogi Ferrell. He made more triples and recorded 102 more assists than any other player on the roster and should prove to be one heck of a triple-threat challenge for Duke's freshman point guard, Derryck Thornton.

    As great as Thornton projects to be, he has minimal hope of winning the individual battle with a legitimate Wooden Award candidate, so it will be up to the other Blue Devils to help make up that difference.

    Against Indiana's dreadful perimeter defense, Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard and Matt Jones could have a real field day in what should be a race to at least 80 points.

7. Oklahoma vs. Villanova

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    Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

    When: December 7

    Where: Honolulu

    Individual Battle: Buddy Hield vs. Jalen Brunson

    What's the connection between Oklahoma, Villanova, college basketball and the 74th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor? I have no clue, but I'm certainly not going to complain about the chance to sprinkle some patriotism into a game between two excellent teams.

    As was the case for Indiana vs. Duke, the big question here is whether the highly touted freshman guard has any hope of keeping pace with the opposing outstanding, veteran backcourt.

    Jalen Brunson is going to do some incredible things this season, but how will he respond to the first real test of his collegiate career? Villanova's best opponent to this point in the year will probably Stanford, and that isn't saying much.

    Buddy Hield is a whole lot better than anything Nebraska, East Tennessee State or Akron will be throwing the Wildcats' way, and let's not forget that Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard are pretty darn good in their own right.

    Whether Brunson or Ryan Arcidiacono is actually the primary ball-handler to start the season, the freshman will inevitably be expected to play a pretty big role with Dylan Ennis and Darrun Hilliard both out of the picture.

    The other intriguing battle in this one is at the power forward spot.

    As mentioned in the Wisconsin-vs.-Oklahoma slide, it's anyone's guess who will be Oklahoma's second frontcourt starter. Whoever it is will likely be matched up against an unconventional big man. Kris Jenkins has to be considered the early favorite to start at "power forward" for the Wildcats, even though he had nearly twice as many three-point attempts as rebounds last season.

    Redshirt freshman Mikal Bridges is another candidate for the job, but he is also much more of a wing than a big.

    This could be an advantage for Villanova, because though solid against conventional power forwards, Oklahoma did occasionally struggle with stretch 4s.

    The Sooners suffered losses to Wisconsin (Nigel Hayes, Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky), Kansas (Perry Ellis), Baylor (Royce O'Neale) and Iowa State (Dustin Hogue and Georges Niang) before nearly losing to Dayton (Dyshawn Pierre) in the round of 32.

6. Arizona vs. Gonzaga

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    Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

    When: December 5

    Where: Spokane, Wash.

    Individual Battle: Mark Tollefsen vs. Kyle Wiltjer

    One of the better nonconference games of the 2014-15 season, expect more of the same when Arizona travels up north to The Kennel for the return game in a home-and-home series that we hope the Wildcats and Bulldogs renew for at least another decade.

    Two things about the rematch should terrify Arizona fans.

    First, Domantas Sabonis was a near non-factor for Gonzaga. He dealt with foul trouble pretty regularly as a freshman, and this was one of those games. He played just 17 minutes, committing four fouls and three turnovers against six points and four rebounds. All things considered, it was arguably his worst game of the season.

    Second, Kyle Wiltjer had a pretty rough night, as well. Hounded by perhaps the best power forward he faced all year (Brandon Ashley), Wiltjer scored 15 points on 16 field-goal attempts, including hitting just one of his six three-point tries.

    That Gonzaga was able to nearly win the game while getting subpar efforts out of its frontcourt monsters is a minor miracle, but it would seem unlikely that they both get held in check again in this one.

    However, San Francisco transfer Mark Tollefsen will help the Wildcats try their darnedest.

    Arizona is one of the few teams in the country deep and versatile enough in the frontcourt to really go to war with Gonzaga in the paint. The Wildcats have Kaleb Tarczewski, Dusan Ristic and Boston College transfer Ryan Anderson to handle Gonzaga's conventional big men and Tollefsena 6'9" career 38.2 percent three-point shooterto hopefully combat and defend Wiltjer's range.

    Should the frontcourt play to a draw, Arizona should have a significant advantage in the backcourt as Gonzaga looks to replace Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and Byron Wesley.

5. Kansas vs. Michigan State

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    Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

    When: November 17

    Where: Chicago, Ill.

    Individual Battle: Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk vs. Denzel Valentine

    This was easily the biggest dilemma on the list. Where do we rank what is clearly the second-best game in the building on the night it is being played, yet clearly one of the 10 best pairings of the first seven weeks of the season?

    As far as the past three decades are concerned, it doesn't get much better than Kansas vs. Michigan State. 

    Should the Jayhawks make the NCAA tournament this season, they would tie North Carolina's all-time record for consecutive tournament appearances with 27 in a row.

    Dating back to the 1985-86 season, Kansas has won two national championships while competing in eight Final Fours and 19 Sweet 16s. Sparty isn't far behind with 18 straight tournament appearances, including a national championship, seven Final Fours and 15 Sweet 16s in the past 30 years.

    As far as we're concerned, though, the past only serves to accentuate a game between two teams who should be among the nation's elite in 2015-16, per usual.

    On the court, the most intriguing battle here is on the wing. Kansas is arguably better than Michigan State at the 1 and 2 (Frank Mason and Wayne Selden vs. Tum Tum Nairn and Bryn Forbes), but if the small forwards (Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and Denzel Valentine) have repeats of last season, that's a massive advantage for the Spartans.

    Valentine was one of the biggest triple threats in the country, whereas "Svi" had a pretty disappointing freshman year.

    One look at projected draft boards, though, would suggest that everyone has Mykhailiuk down for a monster sophomore season. If he's ready to excel this early, that opens the door for an off-the-court issue to potentially dictate the outcome.

    Kansas' stud freshman big man Cheick Diallo still has not been cleared by the NCAA. Kobie Eubanks and Damon Wilson attended the same school (Our Savior New American) as Diallo last year. The former was not eligible to enroll at Alabama and the latter was just recently cleared, but with some hurdles remaining.

    Though Bill Self is outwardly confident that Diallo will be cleared, it's hardly a foregone conclusion.

    If he plays and does so at the level at which he's projected, Kansas should win this game and go on to be one of the five best teams in the country.

    Without him, the Jayhawks would still be pretty darn good, but you have to think Self is getting sick of having wrenches thrown into his plans after losing Joel Embiid and Cliff Alexander toward the end of the past two seasons.

4. Villanova vs. Virginia

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    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    When: December 19

    Where: Charlottesville, VA

    Individual Battle: Josh Hart vs. Marial Shayok

    There's just something poetically perfect about two of the most underappreciated teams of the past two years playing one of the best nonconference games of the year on the first day of college football's bowl season.

    Villanova and Virginia have each won two consecutive outright regular-season titles in their respective major conferences, but they both sputtered to the finish line, failing to reach the Sweet 16 in either year. Thanks to the occasional blowout loss, the Wildcats are viewed by many as a team that relies way too heavily on three-pointers and doesn't play great defense. It's the opposite for the Cavaliers, painted unfairly as a team that plays elite defense but isn't offensively proficient.

    But make no mistake about it: These have been and should continue to be two of the 10 best teams in the country.

    Of course, there's a reason they're viewed the way they are, and it will most likely decide who wins the game. Villanova averaged 17.6 three-point attempts per game last year, and Virginia's opponentsunable to penetrate the pack-line defenseattempted 36.6 percent of their field goals from beyond the arc. Even though the Wildcats lost their top two gunners (Darrun Hilliard and Dylan Ennis), you just know they'll be letting them fly with Ryan Arcidiacono, Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins.

    In addition to Villanova's luck at throwing the ball into the hoop from 22 feet away, the battle at small forward could be a crucial one.

    Much like the Kansas vs. Michigan State game, the underdog's best player and the favorite's weakest link just so happen to both play small forward. Marial Shayok had a pretty strong freshman year as a backup, but that's nothing compared to how well Hart has played as possibly the best sixth man in the country over the past two years. Both will likely be starters this year, and this game could be the opportunity for either Hart to stake his claim as a fringe Wooden Award candidate or Shayok to prove that Virginia has no weak links for a third straight season.

3. Louisville vs. Kentucky

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    Garry Jones/Associated Press

    When: December 26

    Where: Lexington, KY

    Individual Battle: Chinanu Onuaku vs. Skal Labissiere

    Arguably the most heavily anticipated nonconference game of every season, Kentucky and Louisville ought to deliver another in-state showdown for the ages.

    That's assuming, of course, that both teams have fully implemented all of their new pieces by late December.

    Only three teams in the entire country lost at least 80 percent of the point production from a roster that made the 2015 NCAA tournament: Kentucky, Louisville and St. John's. The Wildcats and Cardinals had a combined 11 players average at least 5.7 points per game last season. All 11 are gone. So good luck using last year's game tape to make a prediction about this year's game.

    For Louisville, however, two returning players will be particularly crucial in this game: Mangok Mathiang and Chinanu Onuaku.

    Obviously, the addition of Damion Lee and Trey Lewis is incalculably important to the Cardinals' scoring cause, but Louisville has been one of the best combinations of shot blocking, offensive rebounds and two-point field-goal defense over the past half-decade with Gorgui Dieng and Montrezl Harrell. If Onuaku and Mathiang can keep that trend going and keep Skal Labissiere from taking over the game in the paint, the Cardinals will have more than a puncher's chance in this fight.

    A byproduct of that elite interior defense, Louisville's perimeter defense has had the luxury of selling out for turnovers and forcing opponents to take a significant number of ill-advised three-point attempts. Louisville's opposition has shot 32 percent or worse from downtown in seven of the past eight seasons, so the Wildcats can't simply count on Jamal Murray, Isaiah Briscoe and Tyler Ulis to bail them out with triples. They need to establish Labissiere, and Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress, as interior offensive weapons early and often in order to avoid being upset in a low-scoring affair.

2. Duke vs. Kentucky

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    Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

    When: November 17

    Where: Chicago, IL

    Individual Battle: Grayson Allen vs. Jamal Murray

    Time to find out what Grayson Allen can do when he's actually part of the opposing team's scouting report.

    I watched at least 25 of Duke's games last season, had Allen listed as one of Duke's underrated players to watch in the title game and was still completely flabbergasted that he dropped 16 points on Wisconsin and basically won the title for the Blue Devils. From the looks of things, the Badgers weren't exactly prepared for him, either.

    This year, though, he might be the second-most important player on Duke's roster behind Brandon Ingram. At any rate, Kentucky almost has to prepare for Allen to be the go-to guard for the Blue Devils.

    How will the 5-star stud respond? For Duke's sake, hopefully better than Kentucky's 5-star stud who suddenly became nationally relevant in the previous year's tournament.

    Marcus Lee was a ghost for most of the 2013-14 season before a breakout performance against Michigan in the Elite Eight that led many to expect a monstrous sophomore season. It never transpired. Lee was pretty clearly the 10th-most important player in the oft-discussed platoon system.

    Can Allen avoid a similar fate? Will Lee finally have that breakout season as a junior? Or, perhaps more intriguing than both of those questions combined: How much of an impact will Jamal Murray make for Kentucky?

    When the Wildcats lost seven players to the NBA draft and subsequently whiffed on the plethora of 5-star candidates still available at the end of the tournament, it seemed Kentucky might be poised to take a sizable step backward from its historic 2014-15 season.

    It was only when Murray reclassified and signed with John Calipari that the Wildcats firmly reclaimed their spot as a projected No. 1 seed in the 2016 NCAA tournamentnot much unlike Duke's sudden shot in the arm when Derryck Thornton reclassified to become the Blue Devils' projected primary point guard.

    If Murray is immediately as good as he advertised in this summer's Nike Hoop Summit and Pan-Am Games, Kentucky could win this one comfortablyideally for viewership, though, it won't be as lopsided as the Wildcats' 32-point win over Kansas in last year's Champions Classic.

1. Maryland vs. North Carolina

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    Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

    When: December 1

    Where: Chapel Hill, NC

    Individual Battle: Melo Trimble vs. Marcus Paige

    The 2014 ACC-B1G Challenge featured a pairing of eventual No. 1 seeds who just so happened to also battle for the national championship.

    Et tu, Maryland and North Carolina?

    In early July, I had the Terrapins and Tar Heels respectively projected for the No. 1 and No. 2 overall seeds in the 2016 NCAA tournament. Even if you don't agree with them as the two very best teams in the country, your rankings probably don't count for very much if Maryland and North Carolina aren't both in your top five.

    Not only was Duke vs. Wisconsin a preview of the national championship, but it was also a battle between arguably the two best players in the country: Frank Kaminsky and Jahlil Okafor. If we're checking boxes on how this year's marquee ACC-B1G game is similar to last year's, that's another area where Maryland and North Carolina pass with flying colors. Melo Trimble vs. Marcus Paige is a showdown between two of the best lead guards the nation has to offer.

    This is much more than just a one-on-one skirmish, though. Trimble and Paige will be the main faces advertised in the days leading up to the game, but these teams are evenly matched from top to bottom. Try to find a clear edge in Justin Jackson vs. Rasheed Sulaimon, Theo Pinson vs. Jake Layman, Brice Johnson vs. Robert Carter or Kennedy Meeks vs. Diamond Stone. Even the bench players will make similar impacts with Kenny Williams, Joel Berry and Isaiah Hicks cancelling out Jared Nickens, Dion Wiley and Damonte Dodd.

    I have no earthly idea who will win this game. I'm just thrilled that we're less than three months away from watching it and learning a little bit more about two of the favorites to win the 2016 title.

    Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @kerrancejames.

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