Top Nonconference Matchups for the 2020-21 Men's College Basketball Season
In a normal year, the men's college basketball season already would have begun by now. However, the powers that be decided a Nov. 25 start date would be a better move in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Luckily, the first few weeks of the season are jam-packed with can't-miss nonconference matchups.
A lot of schedules are still being pieced together as schools try to figure out the when, where, who and how of what's feasible/permissible right now. That means there may well be a few more heavyweight bouts added to the calendar in the coming days.
Given the information we currently have, here are seven nonconference games within the first month of the regular season that every college basketball fan will absolutely want to watch, plus nine more that most of us cannot wait to devour.
Games are presented in chronological order.
No. 6 Kansas vs. No. 1 Gonzaga (Nov. 26 in Ft. Myers, FL)
Gonzaga was ranked in the top three of the Associated Press poll in each of its final 14 installments last season. Kansas spent the entire season in the top six and had occupied the No. 1 spot in each of the final four rounds of voting. Had there been an NCAA tournament, this likely would have been the projected national championship pairing.
Better late than never, right?
Both teams will look a lot different than they did in March. Gonzaga lost four of its six guys who averaged at least 10 points per game. Kansas must replace its dynamic big-little duo of Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson, as well as one of its best three-point shooters, Isaiah Moss.
As evidenced by their preseason rankings, though, expectations remain extremely high.
This Thanksgiving clash might just boil down to which 5-star freshman combo guard is most prepared to immediately step into the spotlight. Both Jalen Suggs (Gonzaga) and Bryce Thompson (Kansas) figure to start alongside a more veteran leader who has proved capable of running the offense—Joel Ayayi for Gonzaga; Marcus Garrett for Kansas. Each backcourt should be outstanding by the end of the year, but the first game of the season may be a much different story.
I like Kansas to win this game because of its defense.
Garrett is arguably the best individual defender in the nation, and Ochai Agbaji is no slouch on that end of the floor. Those guys are going to cause problems in Suggs' collegiate debut. And unless redshirt freshman Oumar Ballo is ready to thrive right away for Gonzaga, David McCormack and Kansas could hold a slight edge in the frontcourt, too.
Prediction: Kansas 74, Gonzaga 71
No. 13 Michigan State at No. 9 Duke (Dec. 1)
It's going to be weird having the Champions Classic at two different venues, but it's a lot better than not getting this great event at all.
For the most part, Duke has owned this series. The Blue Devils are 3-0 against the Spartans in the Champions Classic, and Mike Krzyzewski is 12-2 overall against Tom Izzo. Granted, Izzo's wins came in two of their five NCAA tournament meetings, so he at least occasionally wins the ones that matter. Then again, that means Coach K is a perfect 9-0 in regular-season matchups with Izzo.
Fans or no fans in the stadium, that trend should continue in this game at Cameron Indoor.
In what has become an annual rite of passage, Duke is in "reloading" mode. It lost the big three of Tre Jones, Cassius Stanley and Vernon Carey Jr., but it also signed six of the top 52 recruits in this year's class, per 247 Sports. There doesn't appear to be anything close to a Zion Williamson or a Marvin Bagley III in the bunch, but that sextet coupled with returnees Wendell Moore Jr., Matthew Hurt and Jordan Goldwire should be more than enough for the Blue Devils to contend for the ACC crown.
By comparison, Michigan State's addition of only two 4-star recruits feels a bit lacking for a team that has to replace Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman. But the Spartans should benefit greatly from getting to use two guys who spent all of last season on the bench.
Joshua Langford missed all of last season and most of the previous one because of a foot injury, but the fifth-year senior was a three-point sniper prior to that. And though Marquette transfer Joey Hauser was forced to sit out last year, the stretch 4 started nearly every game of his freshman year with the Golden Eagles. Both will be indispensable for Michigan State.
Duke should win this game in the post, though. The combined force of Moore, Hurt and star frosh Jalen Johnson figures to be more than the relatively undersized Spartans can handle.
Prediction: Duke 79, Michigan State 73
No. 10 Kentucky vs. No. 6 Kansas (Dec. 1 in Indianapolis, IN)
It has not yet been announced which Champions Classic game will be played first, but we're assuming UK-KU will be the nightcap since it seems like the marginally more entertaining game.
Much like Duke, Kentucky is no stranger to hitting the reset button. However, the Wildcats are really starting over from scratch. They lost all six of their leading scorers as graduates or early-entrants to the draft, plus Kahlil Whitney and Johnny Juzang transferred out of the program. That leaves Keion Brooks Jr. as the only returnee who scored a single point in 2019-20, and he only averaged 4.5 points.
Naturally, head coach John Calipari loaded up on impact freshmen.
Kentucky's 2020 class ranks No. 1, according to 247 Sports. Brandon Boston Jr. and Terrence Clarke are top-10 recruits almost certain to go one-and-done. Devin Askew wasn't a 5-star prospect, but the point guard with lethal range could be a six-inches-taller version of Tyler Ulis. Isaiah Jackson might not be a starter, but he'll be a pivotal part of the frontcourt rotation in his first season.
But Coach Cal also continued his recent trend of snagging key upperclassmen transfers. Between Wake Forest big man Olivier Sarr and Creighton guard Davion Mintz, Kentucky added nearly 4,000 minutes of collegiate experience this offseason. It took a long time for the NCAA to make a decision on his eligibility, but Sarr is probably going to be the SEC Player of the Year now that we know he's allowed to play.
Sarr is also going to be the key to Kentucky potentially winning this game.
As previously mentioned, Kansas' perimeter defense should be sensational. Marcus Garrett and Ochai Agbaji are going to provide a major early challenge to Kentucky's ABC (Askew, Boston and Clarke) backcourt group. But Sarr is much more of a proven commodity in the paint than Kansas' David McCormack is.
Neither big man is a stranger to early foul trouble, though. That's what will probably determine this game, given the lack of depth in both frontcourts.
Prediction: Kentucky 67, Kansas 65
No. 2 Baylor vs. No. 1 Gonzaga (Dec. 5 in Indianapolis, IN)
Gonzaga has never been No. 1 in the preseason AP poll before, and this will be the first time in program history that Baylor opens the year ranked in the Top 10. And they were separated by one measly vote for the top spot, so it's pretty great that they'll be squaring off so early in the season, almost as a means of separating what was basically a tie for the title of preseason favorite.
Baylor gets back all three leading scorers from a team that put together a 23-game winning streak last season. And with Jared Butler, MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell all back in the fold, the Bears have what should be the best backcourt in the country, particularly if you consider Mark Vital—a 6'5" forward who had as many blocks as three-point attempts (17 of each) last season—to be part of the backcourt.
As if that trio wasn't enough, Scott Drew adds two more potential impact guards in Presbyterian transfer Adam Flagler (15.9 PPG in 2018-19; made 108 three-pointers at a 38.6 percent clip) and top-100 freshman LJ Cryer. Whether the Bears can adequately replace Freddie Gillespie will determine their national championship potential.
Gillespie averaged 9.6 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game and was one of the most important players in the country, anchoring a team that didn't have much else in the frontcourt. Tristan Clark was expected to be their star big man, but he just never looked right in his attempt to come back from a serious knee injury suffered in January 2019. If he's able to bounce back to being the player he was at the time of that injury (14.6 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 2.4 BPG), Baylor might be a juggernaut.
But since Clark's effectiveness in 2020-21 is a massive unknown at this point, I have Gonzaga as a slight favorite here. The Zags also have a very strong backcourt situation, but sophomore big man Drew Timme should be the MVP of this top-ranked showdown.
Prediction: Gonzaga 72, Baylor 70
No. 8 Illinois at No. 9 Duke (Dec. 8)
At the moment, this is the only game on the docket for Illinois.
The Illini are expected to open the season in a four-team event with Ohio, Wright State and North Carolina A&T, per CBS Sports' Matt Norlander, but that isn't confirmed yet. They're also rumored to face Baylor on Dec. 2, per CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein. And a full Big Ten slate eventually will be added, too.
But for now, it's just this game.
Illinois at Duke is the clear headliner of the ACC-B1G Challenge, as the Illini's dynamic duo of Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn will wage war with a Blue Devils team that has a lot of talent, albeit spread out across a larger number of players than usual.
There are two big questions about Illinois in the quest to find the true Final Four contenders: Will Cockburn be a more consistent force in the paint as a sophomore? And will the two highly touted freshman guards live up to the hype?
At his best, Cockburn was a one-man wrecking crew. His season-high marks were 26 points, 17 rebounds and six blocks (not in the same game), but it felt like he could go for 40, 20 and 10 if he (and Illinois) really wanted to. But he also had a tendency to vanish for large stretches of games, and he got into early foul trouble a little too often. Had there been a 2020 bracket, Cockburn's maddening inconsistency would've had me torn between picking Illinois to the Final Four and picking it to lose in the first round.
On the freshman front, Brad Underwood signed top-50 overall guards Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo. All last season, we kept waiting for someone to help Dosunmu shoulder the backcourt load. Andres Feliz stepped into that role late in the year, but he graduated, and sixth man Alan Griffin transferred to Syracuse. The Illini do get Trent Frazier back, but it's almost imperative that those two freshmen make an immediate impact for Illinois to have any hope of winning at Duke.
This one is a complete toss-up in my eyes. And in those types of games, Dosunmu had a flair for the dramatic last season. But I just cannot in good faith pick against Duke at home in a nonconference game.
Prediction: Duke 78, Illinois 77
No. 5 Iowa vs. No. 1 Gonzaga (Dec. 19 in Sioux Falls, SD)
If you're having a hard time wrapping your head around the idea of Iowa as the No. 5 team in the preseason AP poll, you aren't alone.
The Hawkeyes have not been ranked—let alone in the Top 5—of the preseason poll since 2005-06. That year was also the last time they finished a season at No. 24 or better. It'd be one thing if Fran McCaffery's guys had actually played some defense in the past four years, but that isn't the case.
All hail the power of Luka Garza returning for a senior year.
As lackluster as Iowa's defense has been, the Hawkeyes were virtually unstoppable on offense last season. Garza averaged 23.9 points per game. If opponents didn't double him every time he touched the ball in the post, it was almost inevitable he would score. If they focused on denying the entry pass, that usually meant a guy like CJ Fredrick or Joe Wieskamp was left wide open. Add in Garza's three-point range (1.3 triples per game at a 35.8 percent clip) and it's a "pick your poison" proposition.
In addition to Garza, Fredrick and Wieskamp all coming back, Iowa also re-welcomes Jordan Bohannon, a three-point sniper who played in only 10 games last season before undergoing hip surgery and preserving a fifth year of eligibility. Not to mention Connor McCaffery, who averaged 4.0 assists and only 0.9 turnovers as the starting point guard.
This Iowa offense should be the best offense in the country.
But if Iowa has the No. 1 offense, Gonzaga might be No. 2. And the Zags have a better defense. That should be enough for them to eke out a win.
Prediction: Gonzaga 82, Iowa 81
Note: When initially published, I had this game marked in my spreadsheet as a home game for Gonzaga rather than a neutral-site affair. Mea culpa. I still like Gonzaga to get the win, but my confidence level is more like 55 percent as opposed to 85 percent.
No. 3 Villanova vs. No. 4 Virginia (Dec. 19 in New York City)
With Baylor, Iowa and Illinois all opening the year ranked in the AP Top 10, at least having Villanova and Virginia both in the Top 5 is a comforting bit of normalcy.
Over the past five seasons, only Gonzaga (161) has won more games than Villanova's 153. And Virginia isn't far behind in fourth place with 141 victories during that time. These two programs have combined to win three of the last four national championships. And the fun part is their styles of play are very different, but the same year in and year out.
For Virginia, it's all about the pack-line defense, which will be interesting following the departures of both Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key. Jay Huff is a great shot-blocker, but he's going to need a lot of help in the post from Marquette transfer Sam Hauser and redshirt freshman Kadin Shedrick. Can either of those forwards follow in the footsteps of the likes of Akil Mitchell, Anthony Gill, Isaiah Wilkins and Diakite?
At least Hauser should help to improve an offense that was downright awful for most of last season, as will highly touted freshman Jabri Abdur-Rahim. (Yes, he is the son of No. 3 pick in the 1996 draft, Shareef Abdur-Rahim. That'll be a fun, frequent reminder of how old I am.)
And then for Villanova, it's all about the deep ball.
In each of the last seven seasons, the Wildcats have both attempted at least 42 percent of their field goals from beyond the arc and made at least 35 percent of them. Saddiq Bey (79-of-175) was Villanova's best perimeter shooter last year, so his jump to the NBA could hurt. Then again, we're talking about a program that lost Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo, Mikal Bridges and Omari Spellman in a single summer and still went out and won the Big East the following season.
The Wildcats still have five returnees who made at least 21 triples last year, as well as Bryan Antoine, who was a 5-star shooting guard in last year's class, but who was unable to make much of an impact in his first season after undergoing shoulder surgery in late May. It would not be the least bit surprising if he swoops right into Bey's 2019-20 spot as the leading scorer of yet another Villanova team with national championship potential.
I like Villanova to get the win, because Virginia's goal on defense—force the opponent to settle for long three-pointers—isn't exactly a deterrent for Villanova's offensive philosophy.
Prediction: Villanova 63, Virginia 60
Other Games That Are 100 Percent Worth Your Time
No. 2 Baylor vs. No. 3 Villanova (Nov. 26 in Uncasville, CT)
We can't officially put this game on the list because it is the projected championship of a four-team tournament. If Baylor were to lose to No. 18 Arizona State or if Villanova were to lose to unranked Boston College, then this second-day-of-the-season Top 3 showdown vanishes before our eyes. Provided things play to form in the first round, though, settle in for a Thanksgiving Day gem.
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 12 Tennessee (Dec. 2 in Indianapolis, IN)
This game—which, back in May, was originally scheduled as part of the Jimmy V Classic in NYC—is only a rumor at this point. Neither team has it listed on the official schedule, although CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein shared word of it in early November. If it does happen, Gonzaga will play four of the teams in the AP Top 12 within the first 25 days of the regular season, which is awesome. It would also be a huge early opportunity for Tennessee to prove that this season is going to feel more like 2018-19 (31-6; No. 2 seed in NCAA tournament) than 2019-20 (17-14).
No. 2 Baylor vs. No. 8 Illinois (Dec. 2 in Indianapolis, IN)
Much like Gonzaga-Tennessee, this game isn't officially on either schedule, so we decided not to include it on the primary list. But I sure hope it does happen, because I would love to see what Baylor can do to try to keep Kofi Cockburn from having an all-you-can-eat buffet in the paint.
No. 3 Villanova at No. 19 Texas (Dec. 6)
This is a make-or-break year for Shaka Smart. It's hard to believe it's already his sixth season at Texas, and he gets back everyone from a team that was smack dab on the bubble when everything shut down. Between this home game against Villanova and the subsequent road game against Baylor on Dec. 13, we could have an early sense of whether Smart will be welcomed back for a seventh year.
No. 16 North Carolina at No. 5 Iowa (Dec. 8)
If any team in the country has the big men to slow down Iowa's Luka Garza, it has to be North Carolina, right? Armando Bacot, Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley all return, plus the Tar Heels added 5-star centers Day'Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler. Guard play is the big question mark for UNC, but perhaps standout freshman Caleb Love will have better luck leading this team than Cole Anthony did.
No. 11 Creighton at No. 6 Kansas (Dec. 8)
Creighton already suffered a big loss with freshman combo guard Rati Andronikashvili tearing his ACL in early November. The hope was that he would help the Blue Jays adjust to life after Ty-Shon Alexander. But they should still be a contender with Marcus Zegarowski back to run the show for a team that will, as per usual, take and make a ton of threes. Whether this guard-heavy rotation can slow down KU's big man David McCormack could be an early indicator of how deep this Creighton team could go in March.
No. 13 Michigan State at No. 4 Virginia (Dec. 9)
We've already highlighted both of these teams elsewhere, but this is easily going to be one of the best games of the ACC-B1G Challenge. The stakes obviously aren't the same, but Virginia will have an opportunity to at least somewhat avenge those upset losses to the Spartans in both the 2014 and 2015 NCAA tournaments.
No. 6 Kansas at No. 12 Tennessee (Jan. 30)
No. 19 Texas at No. 10 Kentucky (Jan. 30)
Late January feels like it's about 27 years from now, but if and when we make it there, the SEC-B12 Challenge will feature a pair of dynamite matchups. Don't sleep on Texas Tech at LSU and Florida at West Virginia, either. There may well be four Top 25 showdowns during this one-day event.