Ranking the Best Remaining Men's College Basketball Games Before New Year's
The first week of the 2021-22 men's college basketball season was full of entertaining matchups, but Duke-Kentucky, Kansas-Michigan State, Villanova-UCLA and Gonzaga-Texas were merely the tip of the iceberg.
So if you missed any or all of those early gems, you can still make up for lost time by catching as many of these top 20 games yet to come in November and December.
This is, of course, a subjective ranking, and by no means is it a comprehensive one. There are way more than 20 games worth watching over the course of the next six-plus weeks, and there might be games outside of our top 20 that rank in your personal top five for one reason or another. There are certainly a few unincluded games that I've had circled on my calendar for a while.
But our stated goal is to identify and rank the can't-miss games, which means we're primarily honing in on the biggest stars, the biggest stories and, for the most part, showdowns between teams in the AP Top 25.
It's a safe assumption we're all going to agree on the No. 1 game, though. With the exception of maybe the Andrew Wiggins-Jabari Parker matchup in 2013, that Nov. 23 battle between Gonzaga and UCLA might be the most anticipated opening-month-of-the-season game in more than a decade.
Potential Matchups That Would Be Fantastic
While we cannot rank games that aren't guaranteed to happen, we would be remiss if we didn't at least mention a few potential gems from the early-season tournaments taking place primarily in the Nov. 20-30 window.
- No. 5 Villanova / No. 17 Tennessee vs. No. 6 Purdue / No. 18 North Carolina in Hall of Fame Tip-Off championship and consolation games (Nov. 21)
- No. 10 Illinois vs. No. 16 Arkansas in Hall of Fame Classic final (Nov. 23)
- No. 12 Oregon vs. No. 15 Houston in Maui Invitational final (Nov. 24)
- No. 9 Baylor vs. one of No. 21 Auburn, No. 23 Connecticut or Michigan State in Battle 4 Atlantis final (Nov. 26)
- No. 3 Kansas vs. No. 14 Alabama in ESPN Events Invitational final (Nov. 28)
Of particular note is the HOF Tip-Off, which might be the greatest four-team early-season tournament ever assembled.
The winner of that Saturday-Sunday event is going to make quite the push in the following Monday's rankings. If it's Purdue, the Boilermakers might even pick up a first-place vote or two. But perhaps even more noteworthy is that one of those four teams is going to suffer losses on back-to-back days. That's likely to be the lowest point in the season for whichever team ends up drawing that short straw, so it might not be a bad idea to plan on looking at national championship odds for that to-be-determined team.
20. Texas Tech vs. No. 17 Tennessee (Dec. 7 in New York City)
Texas Tech's November schedule is a joke, consisting of six games against teams outside the KenPom top 200. But the Red Raiders—who have four minor-conference transfers in their starting lineup—might be a Big 12 contender. This will be our first chance to get a legitimate look at them. We'll have plenty more to say later about Tennessee, which makes four appearances in this top 20.
19. No. 21 Auburn vs. No. 23 Connecticut (Nov. 24 in the Bahamas)
The Battle 4 Atlantis is going to be three straight days of haymakers, and this quarterfinal takes the cake among the guaranteed pairings. Connecticut's Adama Sanogo is looking like a potential breakout superstar in the paint, but Auburn has a young phenom of its own in freshman Jabari Smith. Will be interesting to see what each coach draws up to try to stop the dominant opposing big man.
18. No. 15 Houston at No. 14 Alabama (Dec. 11)
Houston opened the season with an overtime scare against Hofstra, but this team is expected to be a threat for a second consecutive trip to the Final Four once Tramon Mark (shoulder) gets healthy and all the new pieces mesh together. This one should be a fun contrast in tempos, as Houston is a methodical, defensive-minded team while Alabama wants to run the floor and get up at least 30 three-point attempts per game.
17. No. 18 North Carolina vs. No. 6 Purdue (Nov. 20 in Uncasville, CT)
It's not often that North Carolina is overmatched in the paint, but that might be the case in this one against Purdue's Zach Edey, Caleb Furst and Trevion Williams. But with Caleb Love and RJ Davis looking exponentially better than last year through their first two games, this could be one of those seasons in which the Tar Heels score almost at will. Should be a fun one on Saturday.
16. No. 22 St. Bonaventure vs. No. 23 Connecticut (Dec. 11 in Newark, NJ)
Ranked for the first time since January 1971, this looks like the stiffest test the Bonnies will face in the entire regular season. All five starters from last year are back, and they added a key big man to their rotation in Pittsburgh transfer Abdoul Karim Coulibaly. We'll see if what was a very good defense last season can hold up against what might be the best team in the Big East.
15. No. 17 Tennessee at No. 14 Alabama (Dec. 29)
There were a few intriguing early-conference games to choose from, but this potential battle for SEC supremacy was the only one to make the cut. Both of these teams lost a ton of key players from last season, but hopes are high thanks in part to 5-star freshman point guards. Among point guards in the 2021 recruiting class who are actually attending college this fall, Tennessee's Kennedy Chandler and Alabama's JD Davison ranked first and second. Alabama does still have Jahvon Quinerly, too, but this might be Davison's team by late December, in which case we cannot wait for that head-to-head showdown.
14. No. 14 Alabama at No. 11 Memphis (Dec. 14)
Speaking of highly touted first-year players, Memphis' Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren are already looking like two of the best players (regardless of age) in the entire country. Both of these teams love to run, but they both ranked top three in adjusted defensive efficiency last season. Could be the rarely seen fast-paced defensive clash, and with quite a bit of star power.
13. Florida State at No. 6 Purdue (Nov. 30)
The first of three selections from the ACC-B1G Challenge, FSU-Purdue will be a clash of two of the tallest rosters in the country. Can Florida State's 7'4" Naheem McLeod slow down Purdue's 7'4" Zach Edey? The more decisive matchup will likely be FSU's Anthony Polite against Purdue's Jaden Ivey, but, come on, we have to highlight a Goliath vs. Goliath battle.
12. No. 9 Baylor at No. 12 Oregon (Dec. 18)
Might be underselling this one a bit, but Dec. 18 is going to be a fun day of college hoops, featuring four of the games in our top 12. Both Baylor and Oregon shot it well from three-point range and frequently dominated the turnover battle last year, but we're still feeling out what each of these teams will bring to the table in 2021-22. The point guard battle between Baylor's James Akinjo (formerly from Arizona and Georgetown) and Oregon's Jacob Young (formerly of Rutgers and Texas) should be good.
11. No. 18 North Carolina vs. No. 2 UCLA (Dec. 18 in Las Vegas)
North Carolina leads all programs with 20 Final Fours. UCLA is in second place with 19. And they're both a threat to add to that total in the 2022 NCAA tournament. As previously mentioned, UNC's backcourt duo of Caleb Love and RJ Davis looks much improved from last year, but are they good enough to topple Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez Jr.?
10. Louisville at No. 13 Kentucky (Dec. 22)
Louisville has already suffered a home loss to Furman and might not be a tournament-caliber team this season. However, I'm still contractually obligated (not really) to put Louisville-Kentucky in the top 10, as it is arguably the best rivalry in the sport. Even last year when both teams missed the tournament, they delivered an ugly-but-entertaining game that went right down to the wire.
9. No. 5 Villanova vs. No. 17 Tennessee (Nov. 20 in Uncasville, CT)
In addition to last Friday's game at UCLA and the higher-on-this-list road game against Baylor in mid-December, Villanova has a highly entertaining trip to Uncasville to face Tennessee and either North Carolina or Purdue. Quite the star-studded nonconference schedule for Jay Wright and the Wildcats. In this one, let's see how well Villanova's normally turnover-averse three-point barrage holds up against a Volunteers defense that usually generates a lot of blocks and a decent number of steals.
8. No. 7 Duke at No. 19 Ohio State (Nov. 30)
Ohio State needed a last-second bucket to win its opener against Akron and didn't look much better in the subsequent game against Niagara. But E.J. Liddell sure has been great to the tune of 54 points, 16 rebounds, six assists and six blocks in those first two games. He entered the year on the relatively short list of legitimately Wooden Award contenders, and he could make some early noise in that conversation with a good showing against Duke's Paolo Banchero. Should be one of the best head-to-head matchups of the year.
7. No. 14 Alabama vs. No. 1 Gonzaga (Dec. 4 in Seattle)
Who's ready for a race to 100 points in Seattle? Both of these teams love to push the pace on offense, with Alabama preferring to do its damage from the perimeter while Gonzaga thrives both in transition and closer to the rim. Alabama does have 7'0" Charles Bediako to try to contend with Gonzaga's phenomenal freshman Chet Holmgren.
6. No. 13 Kentucky vs. No. 19 Ohio State (Dec. 18 in Las Vegas)
Another massive opportunity for Liddell, this one against Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe. But the big question for the Buckeyes in this game is whether they can stifle what might be the most potent Kentucky perimeter attack of the past decade. Veteran transfers Kellan Grady, Sahvir Wheeler and Davion Mintz (in his second year with the Wildcats) are a combined 15-of-26 from downtown.
5. No. 4 Michigan at No. 18 North Carolina (Dec. 1)
Florida State at Purdue and Duke at Ohio State also featured prominently on this list, but the cream of the crop in this year's ACC-B1G Challenge is Michigan at North Carolina.
Everyone loves to bring up Chris Webber's timeout call in the 1993 national championship every time these two teams square off, but this is a big matchup for reasons beyond that one gaffe nearly three decades ago.
For Michigan, this is the biggest nonconference game by a country mile.
The Wolverines do have home games against Seton Hall and San Diego State, as well as a neutral-site game against either Arizona or Wichita State in Las Vegas. But none of those teams are ranked, so this true road game against the Tar Heels is going to make or break the nonconference narrative about the Wolverines. At any rate, if they lose this one while the likes of Gonzaga, UCLA, Duke, Villanova, Alabama, Tennessee and others are battling through a nonconference slate littered with major hurdles, it's going to be a year-long talking point about Michigan in bracketology circles.
For North Carolina, this will be the third of four massive nonconference opportunities to prove it is still a title contender even without Roy Williams at the helm. And this one in particular is going to test the mettle of the Tar Heels offense, as Michigan has been one of the best defensive teams in the nation over the past half-decade.
The Armando Bacot vs. Hunter Dickinson battle in the paint should be a great one, but will North Carolina be able to contain Michigan's new freshman sensation, Caleb Houstan? The 6'8" wing put up double figures in each of Michigan's first two games, and those combined 24 points were nothing compared to the potential this likely 2022 lottery pick possesses.
4. No. 11 Memphis vs. No. 17 Tennessee (Dec. 18 in Knoxville)
Barring a collapse by either team in the next five weeks, this will be the third all-time matchup between Memphis and Tennessee in which both teams are ranked.
The pièce de résistance came in 2008 when No. 2 Tennessee knocked off No. 1 Memphis by a score of 66-62. They also had a tussle in the teens two years ago in which No. 13 Memphis won 51-47 at No. 19 Tennessee.
But if you pay any mind to recruiting rankings or mock drafts, you've probably had this iteration of Memphis-Tennessee circled for a while.
Headlined by surefire one-and-done guys Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren, Memphis ended up with the top-ranked recruiting class in the nation—as was the case two years ago, though James Wiseman was long gone before the game against Tennessee. The Volunteers weren't far behind with the fifth-best 2021 class, featuring 5-star guard Kennedy Chandler and 5-star forward Brandon Huntley-Hatfield.
Those first-year guys have already made a major impact through the first week of the season, and you can take it to the bank that they'll be even better by mid-December for this game in front of a crowd that just might include an NBA scout or 30.
Which of those freshmen will best navigate a great defense, though? Because not only do Memphis and Tennessee have the best and fifth-best recruiting classes, but they also had the most efficient and fifth-most efficient defenses last season, per KenPom. This could end up being a repeat of that 51-47 game from a few years ago, but I suspect we'll see more scoring in an instant classic.
3. No. 5 Villanova at No. 9 Baylor (Dec. 12)
Kudos to Jay Wright for helping us populate this list by legitimately and repeatedly challenging his guys. You would think a team that won two of the last five national championships could/would just kick back and let the competition come to its house, but Villanova scheduled true road games against UCLA and Baylor, as well as neutral-site games against Tennessee, Syracuse and either North Carolina or Purdue.
With any luck, this Villanova game against the reigning national champions will feature better three-point shooting than it did in the Sweet 16.
This past March, Baylor and Villanova uncharacteristically shot a combined 6-of-36 from downtown in a rather low-scoring affair. However, Villanova is (per usual) making it rain from distance early in this season. And while we're still getting a sense of what Baylor will look like sans Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell, MaCio Teague and Mark Vital, there's no question the Bears can still stroke it with Adam Flagler, Matthew Mayer and LJ Cryer all back alongside newcomer with range James Akinjo.
Even with all that attrition, one area where Baylor may hold a significant edge in this game is on the glass.
The Bears have been a top-10 offensive rebounding team for the better part of a decade, and with eight guys in the rotation who stand 6'8" or taller, that doesn't figure to change any time soon. And even though UCLA was without big man Cody Riley this past Friday, the Bruins were plus-14 in rebounding against Villanova. Baylor might be even more dominant than that on the boards, so we'll see if the Wildcats' three-point barrage is good enough to swing things in their favor on the road.
2. No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 7 Duke (Nov. 26 in Las Vegas)
Duke and Gonzaga have only met once during the regular season in the past decade, but it was one of the greatest regular-season games in recent history.
That showdown came in the championship of the 2018 Maui Invitational, in which Gonzaga's 2019 first-round draft picks Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke were just a little too much for Duke's 2019 lottery picks Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, resulting in an 89-87 victory for the Zags.
Well, from both an offensive explosiveness and a draft potential point of view, we could be looking at something similar in this matchup, as Duke's Paolo Banchero and Gonzaga's Chet Holmgren are squaring off to potentially determine who is better suited for the No. 1 overall pick in June.
They are far from the only future NBA players on these rosters, but that head-to-head battle ensures this will be a must-watch affair, as there aren't going to be many times this season that either big man with range faces an opponent capable of slowing him down.
More telling for the full-season outlook of both teams will be how well Duke can slow down Drew Timme.
Even with Mark Williams and Theo John combining for 10 points, nine rebounds and five blocks as Duke's two-headed center, the Blue Devils were unable to contain Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe (17 points, 19 rebounds) in the Champions Classic. Considering Timme just put up 37 against Texas this past Saturday night, a similar effort against Gonzaga's primary post player would make this game much less competitive than the one in Maui three years ago.
1. No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 2 UCLA (Nov. 23 in Las Vegas)
With the exception of the occasional preseason No. 1 vs. preseason No. 2 pairing in the Champions Classic, games between the top two teams in the AP poll have been few and far between lately.
We previously mentioned the Memphis-Tennessee game in February 2008. That game from 14 seasons ago was the second-most recent non-Champions Classic No. 1 vs. No. 2 battle in college hoops. The most recent one was the triple-overtime extravaganza in January 2016 when Buddy Hield's 46 points weren't quite enough for No. 2 Oklahoma to win at No. 1 Kansas.
(No, I didn't forget about last year's Gonzaga-Baylor national championship. They were Nos. 1 and 2 for just about the entire season, but by entering the NCAA tournament on a seven-game winning streak while Baylor lost to Oklahoma State in the Big 12 tournament, Illinois eked ahead of Baylor for the No. 2 spot in the final rankings.)
In fairness, it's not yet a guarantee that this will be No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 2 UCLA. It's technically possible that UCLA loses to North Florida on Wednesday or that Gonzaga loses to Bellarmine on Friday. But as long as neither of those extremely unlikely things comes to pass, it's going to be No. 1 vs. No. 2 on Nov. 23 in a rematch from last year's Final Four game that ended on a Jalen Suggs half-court heave in overtime.
So, yes, this was an extremely easy choice for the top spot.
In that game last April, UCLA exploited Gonzaga's Achilles' heel with a barrage of mid-range jumpers. And that might be the best option for taking down the Zags again this year now that they've added a legitimate shot-blocker in Chet Holmgren.
Unfortunately, with Cody Riley (14 points, 10 rebounds, five assists in the Final Four) out with a sprained MCL, UCLA might not be at full strength in the post, which could keep this game from living up to the hype. But after counting out the Bruins a few too many times in last year's tournament, I refuse to write off Johnny Juzang, Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Co.