10 Can't-Miss Nonconference Games in the 2017-18 College Basketball Season

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystOctober 10, 2017

10 Can't-Miss Nonconference Games in the 2017-18 College Basketball Season

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    Wenyen Gabriel
    Wenyen GabrielJames Crisp/Associated Press

    The start of the 2017-18 college basketball regular season is just one month away, which means it won't be long until we are gleefully drowning in viewing options on a nightly basis.

    But for those of you who don't have the time or energy to watch college basketball all day every day, we've pinpointed the 10 nonconference games* you simply cannot afford to miss.

    It shouldn't come as any surprise that Kentucky made multiple appearances on this list, but this isn't just a blue-blood bonanza. Cincinnati vs. Xavier landed in the top five, and even what would normally be a nondescript game like Miami vs. Minnesota should have a ton of intrigue this year.

    Games are ranked in ascending order of how upset you're going to be if you miss them.

        

    *Potential championship games in early-season tournaments were not considered, as those matchups aren't guaranteed. If you're curious about which of those tournaments is most worth watching, no need to fear. We ranked the top 10 here.

Honorable Mentions

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    Admon Gilder
    Admon GilderRay Thompson/Associated Press

    Pick a Texas A&M Game

    The Aggies will be a borderline Top 25 team at the start of the season, but that didn't stop them from putting together a ferocious nonconference schedule. They'll open the season in Germany against West Virginia and will play at USC, face Arizona in Phoenix and visit Kansas. If Texas A&M can solve its point guard problem from last season and become a contender, all four of those games could be great.

        

    Louisville at Purdue (Nov. 28) and Louisville vs. Seton Hall (Dec. 3)

    With all the uncertainty surrounding the Cardinals program, it's hard to put either of these games against fringe-Top 25 teams on the list of must-watch matchups. It's worth noting, though, that Louisville put together a solid nonconference schedule for a change. Usually the Cardinals have their annual battle with Kentucky, a solid opponent in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and not much else.

        

    Wichita State at Baylor (Dec. 2)

    Prior to late-season games against Cincinnati, there's not a lot on Wichita State's schedule to get excited about. This game against Baylor is the exception. The Bears have a little bit of rebuilding to do after losing Johnathan Motley and several other key players, but they still have more than enough talent to give the Shockers a run for their money.

        

    Minnesota at Providence (Nov. 13) and Minnesota vs. Alabama (Nov. 25)

    The Golden Gophers are coming up on the next slide, but they have several sneaky-good games in the first three weeks of the regular season. They are this year's somewhat unorthodox team likely to debut in the Associated Press Top 15, and we'll find out in a hurry if they're worthy of that honor.

        

    Cincinnati vs. Florida (Dec. 9) and Cincinnati at UCLA (Dec. 16)

    Another Top 15-ish team that'll get a lot of early tests. Cincinnati's annual showdown with Xavier comes on Dec. 2, followed by consecutive Saturdays against Florida and UCLA. The Bearcats football team hasn't given these students much to root for in 2017, but the basketball team could make up for that in spades.

10. Miami at Minnesota

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    Bruce Brown Jr.
    Bruce Brown Jr.Associated Press

    Details: Nov. 29 in Minneapolis, Minnesota (ACC-Big Ten Challenge)

    From a name-brand perspective, this game is an absolute dud. In the past two decades, Miami and Minnesota have combined for nearly as many losing seasons (seven) as NCAA tournament victories (nine). Each team has been ranked in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 just twice during that time, and neither opened higher than 17th.

    But the times, they are a'changing, as both the Hurricanes and the Golden Gophers should be ranked in the preseason Top 15. We had them at Nos. 14 and 13, respectively, in our Top 25 in June, and CBS Sports' Gary Parrish has them at Nos. 10 and 13 in his latest Top 25.

    It might be hard to believe, but it's possible this could be a showdown between the ACC and Big Ten regular-season champions.

    Miami lost its leading scorer (Davon Reed) and top rebounder (Kamari Murphy), but big things are expected from incoming freshman shooting guard Lonnie Walker IV and the sophomore trio of Bruce Brown Jr., Dewan Huell and Dejan Vasiljevic. It's a young bunch, but it's probably the most talented one that Jim Larranaga has ever coached. This is the only real test the Hurricanes will face until a possible draw of USC on Christmas Day in the Diamond Head Classic championship game, so they'll have something to prove.

    Minnesota brings back all four of its leading scorers from last season, as well as shot-blocking maestro Reggie Lynch (114 blocks last season). There isn't a can't-miss NBA talent on the roster, but in terms of overall impact made in 2016-17, there might not be a better starting five in the country. Depth is a major concern, but if the Gophers can stay healthy and get Nate Mason to score a little more efficiently as a senior, there's no reason this team can't win the national championship.

    Again, the name brands in play here are nothing special. Heck, this might only be the fifth-most watched game of the ACC-Big Ten Challengebehind Louisville at Purdue, Michigan at North Carolina, Duke at Indiana and Notre Dame at Michigan State. But this is a big one that deserves a ton of attention.

9. Alabama at Arizona

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    Allonzo Trier
    Allonzo TrierRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Details: Dec. 9 in Tucson, Arizona (First year of home-and-home series)

    In most seasons, this game wouldn't even register as a blip on the national radar. Arizona is always a contender, but Alabama has lost at least a dozen games in a dozen consecutive seasons. The Crimson Tide have not won an NCAA tournament game since the first round in 2006.

    But thanks to Collin Sexton, this should finally be their yearprovided Kobie Baker's resignation amid an FBI probe doesn't result in Sexton being ruled ineligible.

    Arguably the best backcourt player in this year's recruiting class and easily the best high school talent Alabama has signed in many moons, Sexton is the piece this roster was missing. The Crimson Tide have several quality two-way, multipositional players, but the lack of a true point guard caused them to struggle in 2016-17.

    They committed nearly 14 turnovers per game, finished the season with 84 more turnovers than assists and shot 65.3 percent from the free-throw line. In all three areas, they were one of the worst major-conference teams in the country. Outstanding defense enabled them to win 19 games, but making Dazon Ingram and Braxton Key the primary ball-handlers was an experiment doomed to fail.

    With Sexton on board, this team can make some noise, and this will be one of its first chances to show it.

    The pressure will be on Arizona, though.

    With Rawle Alkins set to miss this game or be on his way back to full strength following a fractured bone in his foot, the Wildcats likely won't be the championship-caliber team we were expecting for most of the offseason.

    They'll still have Allonzo Trier, DeAndre Ayton and Dusan Ristic, along with a bevy of other talented players capable of making an impact. That should be enough to win a home game against an up-and-coming team, but there's a reason they don't play the games on paper.

8. Villanova vs. Gonzaga

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    Jalen Brunson
    Jalen BrunsonMitchell Layton/Getty Images

    Details: Dec. 5 in New York City (Jimmy V Classic)

    Over the past four seasons, Villanova and Gonzaga are tied for the national lead with 129 wins. The Wildcats won their first championship since 1985 and claimed four straight outright Big East regular-season championships by multiple-game margins. The Bulldogs made the Final Four—and national championship game—for the first time in school history.

    You could argue there has been a better college basketball team since the start of the 2013-14 season, but you would be wrong. If these teams had played in December 2016, it would have easily been a top-five nonconference matchup and possibly No. 1.

    But Gonzaga is probably going to take a step backward this season. It wouldn't be a huge surprise if Villanova slips a little bit, as well.

    The Zags lost Nigel Williams-Goss, Przemek Karnowski, Zach Collins and Jordan Mathews. Though they still have a lot of talentincluding a couple of redshirt freshmen (Jacob Larsen and Zach Norvell Jr.) and a freshman (Jesse Wade) who will make his debut after a two-year LDS missionthis isn't nearly the same group of guys that just almost won a national championship. Heck, with Saint Mary's still looking strong, Gonzaga probably isn't even the favorite to win the West Coast Conference.

    Meanwhile, the Cats lost Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds, which means they'll have to replace three guys who started at least 30 games last season. Nova will be in good shape if Phil Booth can get and stay healthy and if Omari Spellman shines as a redshirt freshman, but its streak of four straight seasons as either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament may be in jeopardy.

    Still, it's Villanova vs. Gonzaga. Even if neither one is destined for a second consecutive No. 1 seed, this game is dripping with allure for a national audience.

7. Kentucky at West Virginia

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    Jevon Carter
    Jevon CarterMarcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Details: Jan. 27 in Morgantown, West Virginia (Big 12-SEC Challenge)

    Hope you're ready to watch a lot of Kentucky this season, as this is the first of four appearances the Wildcats make in the top seven on this list. John Calipari cannot guarantee his freshmen they'll win a national championship, but he sure does make sure his guys are given ample opportunity to play on a big national stage during the regular season.

    The Champions Classic game against Kansas ranks much higher on the list, but there's an argument to be made that this is the more interesting Kentucky game because of where it appears on the calendar. A mid-November contest with possibly five freshmen in the starting lineup will probably be sloppier than a Manwich. But by late January, the Wildcats should be at or near their peak for this brutal, physical matchup with the Mountaineers.

    West Virginia lost a bunch of key players. Nathan Adrian, Tarik Phillip, Teyvon Myers and Brandon Watkins graduated. Elijah Macon left a year early to pursue a professional career. Esa Ahmad has been ruled ineligible for the first half of the 2017-18 season. But are we really supposed to believe that will matter after all the attrition this team has endured in each of the past several offseasons?

    Press Virginia just seems to get stronger every year, and the Mountaineers still have their leader, Jevon Carter. With him steering the ship, expect a ton of relentless defense and guys like James Bolden, Lamont West and Sagaba Konate to become stars as the new primary cogs in this machine.

    West Virginia still has Daxter Miles Jr., too, which is sure to be mentioned quite a few times considering his "36-1" guarantee against Kentucky in the 2015 Sweet 16 didn't quite go according to plan.

6. Notre Dame at Michigan State

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    Bonzie Colson
    Bonzie ColsonRobert Franklin/Associated Press

    Details: Nov. 30 in East Lansing, Michigan (ACC-Big Ten Challenge)

    It may not be advertised as such, but this is the most intriguing game of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

    The Michigan State portion of the equation is a no-brainer. In Miles Bridges, the Spartans have arguably the best player in the country. Their rotation is deeper than an ocean, and they are likely going to at least get a few first-place votes when the preseason Associated Press Top 25 comes out later this month. Outside a couple of blue bloods and maybe Arizona, this is the most marketable team in the country in 2017-18.

    And with both Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson back for one final season, it shouldn't be a challenge to get excited about watching Notre Dame, either.

    Farrell was the breakout sensation of the 2016-17 season, averaging 14.1 points and 5.4 assists per game after barely seeing the floor in his first two years. And Colson just gets better every season. He averaged a double-double as a junior and suddenly became a 43.3 percent three-point shooter.

    A team likely to start Rex Pflueger, Temple Gibbs Jr. and Martinas Geben should have no business winning a road game against a team that will probably bring Cassius Winston, Matt McQuaid and Gavin Schilling off the bench, but that's the beauty of college basketball. It's going to be almost impossible to "out-athlete" Michigan State this year, but you can beat the Spartans by converting at the free-throw line, draining some threes and keeping turnovers to a bare minimumotherwise known as the Notre Dame Way.

5. Louisville at Kentucky

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    John Calipari
    John CalipariMark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Details: Dec. 29 in Lexington, Kentucky (Annual rivalry)

    Normally, this game is a stone-cold lock for the top three, if not No. 1. Based on the various Top 25 projections prior to late September, this year's rendition of Kentucky vs. Louisville had the potential to be an all-time great, as both squads were unanimously ranked in the Top 10.

    Then the FBI investigation came to light, and there's no telling what the Cardinals are going to look like anymore.

    John Calipari vs. David Padgett isn't anywhere near as marketable as if Rick Pitino were involved. And if Louisville's top recruit, Brian Bowen II, isn't eligible to playhe was suspended by the team and subsequently hired a lawyer, but there has been no news from the NCAA on his status—the Cardinals won't be as good as they could have been.

    But it'll still be an intriguing rivalry game. It always is.

    Even though Louisville may have lost Bowen, it still has one of the only rosters big enough and talented enough to deal with Kentucky. After all, before Bowen's surprising commitment in June, everyone was buying stock in a starting five of Quentin Snider, V.J. King, Deng Adel, Ray Spalding and Anas Mahmoud with big men Steven Enoch and Malik Williams available as reserves.

    And, who knows, if the NCAA drops the hammer on this program in the next month, this could be the only game of the season that really matters for the Cardinals. Perhaps they'd shock the college basketball world for a second time in three months.

    (Here's hoping Louisville is at least able to keep things more interesting than the postseason-ineligible Ole Miss football team did Sept. 30 in the one game of the year it was supposed to be motivated to play: a 66-3 loss to Alabama.)

4. Cincinnati at Xavier

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    Trevon Bluiett
    Trevon BluiettJohn Minchillo/Associated Press

    Details: Dec. 2 in Cincinnati (Annual rivalry game)

    For as much as college basketball folks love to hype rivalry games, the Crosstown Classic has never gotten the respect it rightfully deserves.

    These loathed rivals in Cincinnati have faced each other at least once per season in every year since the end of World War II (1945). Though Cincinnati owned this battle for more than two decadesthe Bearcats won 22 of 24 games played from 1956-57 through 1978-79neither team has won more than three consecutive games in the past 38 years.

    A lot of people probably remember the infamous brawl in 2011, but normally this is just a good, hard-fought game between underappreciated teams. And as far as the Associated Press poll is concerned, there's a good chance this will be their highest-profile meeting ever.

    Both teams were ranked for just three of the previous 84 games, and neither was exactly a Final Four favorite for those contests. In January 1994, No. 22 Xavier defeated No. 19 Cincinnati 82-76. Two seasons ago, the No. 12 Musketeers knocked off the No. 23 Bearcats 65-55. And last season, No. 19 Cincinnati prevailed over No. 24 Xavier 86-78.

    Things could change drastically in the first month of the regular season, but Cincinnati is a borderline Top 10 preseason team, while Xavier figures to show up in the Nos. 20-25 range. The Bearcats lost a couple of key seniors, but if Sacred Heart transfer Cane Broome is as good as advertised, this should be Mick Cronin's best team yet. And with Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura both back for their senior years, the Musketeers remain a candidate to win the Big East.

    It's not quite the potential national championship preview that some of the other games on the list appear to be, but factor in the deep-seated hatred between these programs and this should be one of the best nonconference tilts of the 2017-18 season.

3. Kentucky vs. UCLA

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    LaVar Ball
    LaVar BallAllen Berezovsky/Getty Images

    Details: Dec. 23 in New Orleans (CBS Sports Classic)

    Despite losing all four of last year's leading scorers, UCLA should remain a factor nationally. The Bruins still have Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh. They're getting Prince Ali and Alex Olesinski back from medical redshirt seasons. As far as Scout is concerned, the incoming recruiting class highlighted by Kris Wilkes, Jaylen Hands and Cody Riley is the fifth-best in the nation.

    And, oh yeah, LaVar Ball is still in the picture.

    Compared to all the hoopla surrounding Lonzo Ball and LaMelo Ball, poor LiAngelo Ball is the neglected middle child of this basketball family. In terms of recruiting stars, he's one of the least noteworthy players on the roster. But if you think that's going to stop daddy dearest from trying to undermine head coach Steve Alford while LiAngelo rides the pine, then you must not be that familiar with LaVar Ball's work.

    The potential media circus isn't what makes this a can't-miss affair, though. Each of these two blue-blood programs has won more national championships than any other, and they'll be in the running to increase their combined total to 20. Surely, Kentucky is the stronger candidate of the two, but UCLA at least has an outside shot if this year's crop of freshmen fares as well as it's supposed to.

    In particular, the matchup at point guard should be fun to watch.

    It won't have quite as much fanfare as last year's pair of showdowns between De'Aaron Fox and Lonzo Ball, but Hands and Quade Green rank in the top five on Scout's list of the best point guards in this year's class. They will almost certainly be tasked with running the show at two of the most iconic programs in the sport. If either one has a clear upper hand in this head-to-head clash, it would be a huge boost for his team with the start of conference play just around the corner.

2. Kansas vs. Kentucky

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    Devonte' Graham
    Devonte' GrahamJamie Squire/Getty Images

    Details: Nov. 14 in Chicago (Champions Classic)

    Over the past six seasons, the Champions Classic has been the ultimate tip-off event for the college basketball season. Regardless of which combinations of Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State partake in the two games, they always rank among the best nonconference tilts of the season.

    In each of the past five years, at least three of the four teams were ranked No. 9 or better in the Associated Press Top 25 and all four teams were ranked at the time of the event. The cream of the crop came in 2013, when No. 1 Kentucky faced No. 2 Michigan State and No. 4 Duke took on No. 5 Kansas.

    Chances are we're headed for a similar situation this year. In one order or another, these four teams and Arizona are likely going to make up the Top 5 in the preseason AP poll. And the matchup between Kansas and Kentucky figures to be the No. 4 vs. No. 5 affair.

    The Jayhawks and Wildcats endured a ton of attrition this offseason, so this game may be a first look at most of these players for most of the nation. Gone are Josh Jackson, Frank Mason III, De'Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo. Even guys like Landen Lucas, Carlton Bragg Jr., Isaiah Briscoe and Isaac Humphries are out of the picture, resulting in a contest that will feature a ton of freshmen and suddenly crucial sophomores.

    This early in the season, though, you've got to think Kansas has the upper hand, right?

    Both teams lost a lot, but the Jayhawks still have Devonte' Graham, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and Lagerald Vick as veterans to anchor the backcourt rotation. They also have Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman, whothough he hasn't yet played a game for Kansashas nearly as much college experience (803 minutes) as Kentucky's entire roster (897 minutes).

    But will that backcourt talent and experience make up for the fact that the Jayhawks will be woefully outmatched in the paint, or are we headed for a repeat of the 2014 Champions Classic in which the Wildcats blocked 11 shots en route to a 72-40 beatdown?

1. Duke vs. Michigan State

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    Miles Bridges
    Miles BridgesRob Carr/Getty Images

    Details: Nov. 14 in Chicago (Champions Classic)

    It's Mike Krzyzewski vs. Tom Izzo.

    It's the 2016 preseason national player of the year (Grayson Allen) against quite possibly the 2017 preseason national player of the year (Miles Bridges).

    It might also be No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the Associated Press poll.

    What's not to love?

    Even NBA fans are going to want to tune in for this one, as there could be as many as eight 2018 first-round draft picks in action: Duke's Allen, Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., Trevon Duval and Gary Trent Jr. and Michigan State's Bridges, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Nick Ward.

    Whether you approach this game as a national championship preview, a scouting opportunity or just a chance to watch some good hoops, you won't be disappointed.

    The haters will tell you the game doesn't matterthat if these are the two best teams in the country, they'll get No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament regardless of the outcome and that neither young team will look the same in March as it does in November.

    But feel free to tell those fun-crushers to shut their pie holes, because this might be the best early-season college basketball game in at least a decade.

        

    Kerry Miller covers college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.

    Recruiting information courtesy of Scout.com. Advanced stats courtesy of Sports Reference and KenPom.com.