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NCAA basketball’s 50 best non-conference games in 2018-19

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Don’t ignore college basketball until March. The early season schedule is loaded with great games.

For some, the college basketball season is limited to the period of time from the week after the Super Bowl through the end of the NCAA tournament. If you’re reading this, you probably don’t fall under that umbrella, and this list is for you.

Here are the 50 non-conference games that will most demand your attention during the 2018-19 college hoops season.

[Note: The only games eligible for this list are ones guaranteed to take place. Like the double play, potential preseason tournament semifinal and championship games can never be assumed.]

1. Duke vs. Kentucky (Champions Classic) (Nov. 6)

Yes, Kansas and Kentucky are preseason No. 1 and No. 2, but this is the showdown the people want to see to kick off the year. It’s also the one likely to draw the largest TV numbers of any game on this list. It’s opening night, it’s the two biggest names in the sport at the present moment, it’s one of the most exciting and hyped freshman in recent memory, and it’s going to be awesome.

2. Kentucky at Kansas (SEC-Big 12 Challenge) (Jan. 26)

Maybe these will still be the top two teams in the country come Jan. 26, maybe they won’t. Regardless, it seems more likely than not that there will be an awful lot on the line when Kansas and Kentucky take a brief respite from league play and get together at Rupp Arena for their seventh meeting since 2011. Both teams have been ranked in the top 20 for all of those games, with the Jayhawks prevailing in each of the last three.

3. Villanova at Kansas (Dec. 15)

With exams, holidays and a heightened focus on football, December tends to be the slowest month of the college basketball calendar. Smack in the middle of the 2018 installment of the month, however, is an absolutely loaded slate of games highlighted by this showdown in Lawrence. The preseason favorites to win the 2019 national title will take on the program that has captured the crown in two of the last three years. Kansas will also be out for revenge after the 95-79 thumping Villanova put on them in last year’s Final Four.

4. Gonzaga at North Carolina (Dec. 15)

I wasn’t lying when I said this day was loaded. While Kansas and Villanova are set top tip-off at noon (ET), highlight of the evening session will be this clash of preseason top-10 squads. The meeting in the Chapel Hill will be the third of three consecutive games for Gonzaga against preseason top-25 teams (the’ll also tangle with Washington and Tennessee). North Carolina has a tough tilt at Michigan near the end of November, but could very easily be carrying an unblemished when it takes the court to face the Zags.

5. Kansas vs. Michigan State (Champions Classic) (Nov. 6)

It’s odd that the Champions Classic “undercard” will feature the No. 1 team in the country, but here we are. The top-ranked Jayhawks will be tested right out of the gate by a Michigan State squad eager to get the bad taste from the end of last season out of its mouth. How the KU freshman backcourt of Devon Dotson and Quentin Grimes handles the challenge of a more experienced unit led by Sparty’s Cassius Winston will be of particular interest.

6. Gonzaga vs. Tennessee (Jerry Colangelo Classic) (Dec. 9)

The Jerry Colangelo Classic sounds like a made-up thing, but it’s a real event going down in Phoenix this December. This battle of preseason top six teams will kick things off, with another top 10 squad, No. 7 Nevada, facing Grand Canyon in the second part of the double-header.

If you like your non-conference action heavy on the top-level post play, this is a game to circle, even with Killian Tillie sidelined because of an ankle injury. While the matchup would have been even better with a healthy Tillie, Rui Hachimura squaring off against Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield is still pretty great.

7. Michigan at Villanova (Gavitt Games) (Nov. 14)

We don’t get national championship game rematches often enough in college basketball. Thankfully, 2018-19 is going to provide an exception, and in the second week of the season no less.

8. North Carolina vs. Kentucky (CBS Sports Classic) (Dec. 22)

The United Center in Chicago will provide the venue for this meeting of two of the most storied programs in all of college basketball. North Carolina and Kentucky have combined to make 37 Final Four appearances and win 14 national championships. This will be the pair’s first meeting since Luke Maye broke hearts across the Commonwealth in the 2017 South Regional final.

9. Nevada at Loyola-Chicago (Missouri Valley-Mountain West Challenge) (Nov. 27)

It was Loyola-Chicago that won the Sweet 16 thriller and went on to crash the Final Four and achieve March Madness immortality, but it’s Nevada which begins 2018-19 ranked in the top 10 and with many predicting they will end their season as one of the last four teams standing. This is a fun early season games between two really good teams from non-power conferences, but it’s also a massively important contest for both squads. Neither team is going to be helped out much by the strength, or lack thereof, of its conference (especially Loyola), which means notching quality non-conference victories when they’re available is of paramount important for both.

10. Kentucky at Louisville (Dec. 29)

Chris Mack fully embraced the contention inherent in the Xavier-Cincinnati rivalry, so there’s no reason to believe he won’t take the same approach with the Battle for the Bluegrass. Mack was a successful 6-3 in the Crosstown Shootout, but getting off to a winning start in an even higher profile rivalry would require a major upset.

11. Indiana at Duke (ACC-Big 10 Challenge) (Nov. 27)

The combination of Juwan Morgan and freshman sensation Romeo Langford gives Indiana a chance to be top-25 good in year two under Archie Miller. Their first major opportunity to prove that will come inside Cameron Indoor Stadium, where the Hoosiers will hope to capture a little bit of that 2005 (also, 2002) magic.

12. West Virginia at Tennessee (SEC-Big 12 Challenge) (Jan. 26)

When you think about teams that you’d want on your side in the event of a street fight, these two have to be near the top of the list. Expect 40 extremely intense minutes between a pair of teams likely to be nationally ranked and hungry for a quality win to improve their NCAA tournament resume.

13. North Carolina at Michigan (ACC-Big 10 Challenge) (Nov. 28)

With the students virtually on top of the court, the Crisler Center provides one of the best environments in all of college basketball when the game is big enough. This one will fit that billing. Get your Chris Webber jokes in early before the announcing crew steals them all.

14. Washington at Auburn (Nov. 9)

Two power conference programs with oscillating pasts that appear to be headed in the right direction. Washington hasn’t played in a regional final since 1953. Auburn hasn’t made it that far since 1986, and has still never been to a Final Four. Both teams will begin this season nationally ranked and with high hopes of breaking those streaks of futility in the near future.

15. Michigan State vs. UCLA (Continental Tires Las Vegas Invitational) (Nov. 22)

If the football is bad Thanksgiving night, this should provide a healthy viewing alternative. Michigan State is loaded with talent and experience at the guard position and in the post, while UCLA is once again young but gifted and looking to bounce back from a disappointing season. Cassius Winston and Nick Ward vs. Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes has the potential to be all sorts of fun.

16. Purdue at Florida State (ACC-Big 10 Challenge) (Nov. 28)

Despite questions about his supporting cast, Purdue’s Carsen Edwards is a trendy preseason pick for national Player of the Year. He can make an early statement on the campaign trail by lighting up a Florida State team that returns a healthy amount of production from last year’s Elite Eight run.

17. Virginia at Maryland (ACC-Big 10 Challenge) (Nov. 28)

Virginia’s first true road test of the season will come in front of an Xfinity Center crowd that is sure to be out for blood. The UVA frontcourt of Mamadi Diakite and Jack Salt will have its hands full with Bruno Fernando. This could also be the first game where the impact of 6’8 Alabama transfer Braxton Key — who was recently declared eligible to compete by the NCAA — is really felt.

18. Georgetown at Syracuse (Dec. 8)

Who cares how good they are and who cares how high the quality of basketball is. Georgetown and Syracuse meeting up on the hardwood is always appointment television. The Hoyas have taken two of three from their old Big East rivals since the series resumed in 2015, but ‘Cuse clipped Patrick Ewing’s team in overtime last season.

19. Marquette at Indiana (Gavitt Games) (Nov. 14)

Marquette has the offensive firepower (and mindset) to be one of the most entertaining teams in the country this season. Indiana has a must-see freshman and a senior forward who is good enough to wind up being the Big Ten Player of the Year. All of these things come together to make this a must-watch game.

20. Florida at Florida State (Nov. 6)

Florida State will begin its 2018-19 season looking to defeat arch-rival Florida for a fifth consecutive time. The current four-game winning streak that began in 2014 is the longest the ‘Noles have ever owned over the Gators. Leonard Hamilton has won eight games against Florida – more than any other coach in FSU history.

21. Virginia Tech vs. Washington (Atlantic City) (Dec. 15)

This feels like an overlooked 8-9 game during the night session of the NCAA tournament’s opening Thursday or Friday. In reality, it should be a high-quality matchup between a Washington team that should finish in the top three of the Pac-12, and a Virginia Tech team that thinks it can compete for a top four spot in the ACC.

22. Xavier at Cincinnati (Dec. 8)

There was a period of time last season where Cincinnati felt like the center of the college basketball universe. Then both were upset in the second round of the NCAA tournament on the same night and the same court and in eerily similar fashions. Xavier and UC both figure to be taking a step back in 2018-19, but the disdain harbored between these two bitter rivals never changes, which is why this is always appointment viewing in December.

23. Wisconsin at Marquette (Dec. 8)

Speaking of rivalries where the level of contempt never fluctuates. On the same day that Cincinnati and Xavier will be going at it in the Queen City, Wisconsin and Marquette will be meeting for the 80th time. The two teams have split their last 10 meetings, and neither side has won more than two games in a row since 2001. The Badgers own a slight advantage in the all-time series, 42-37.

24. Kansas at Arizona State (Dec. 22)

Arizona State rose all the way to No. 2 at one point last season thanks in large part to a 10-point upset of then second-ranked Kansas in December. The Sun Devils fell apart late in the season, however, a collapse which has Bobby Hurley’s team flying a bit under the radar entering 2018-19. That would certainly change if ASU is able to pull off a second-straight stunner over the Jayhawks.

25. Clemson vs. Mississippi State (Never Forget Tribute Classic) (Dec. 8)

It doesn’t sound exciting, but it’s going to be. Both teams will begin the season ranked in the top 25, and both are led by talented guards with loads of experience. Marcquise Reed vs. Quinndary Weatherspoon promises to be a fantastic battle of terrific college guards who deserve more love.

26. Kansas vs. Marquette (NIT Season Tip-Off) (Nov. 21)

College hoops on Thanksgiving Eve will be more than just the Maui Invitational title game this year. The second half of the NIT Season Tip-Off double-header should be loaded with offense, and it’ll likely feature the No. 1 team in the country.

27. Nevada at USC (Dec. 1)

Nevada is the rare preseason top-10 team whose schedule provides them a limited amount of opportunities to make a national splash. This game in Los Angeles is one of the few exceptions.

28. Nebraska at Clemson (ACC-Big 10 Challenge) (Nov. 26)

Nebraska coach Tim Miles enters 2018-19 sitting on one of the hottest seats in the country. Scoring a road victory over a Clemson team that appears fully capable of making it to the Sweet 16 for a second straight year would be a nice way to calm the critics down early in the season.

29. Tennessee at Memphis (Dec. 15)

It seems like a no-brainer that these two programs should play every year, but this first installment of a new three-year contract will be their first meeting since 2013. It may not be as memorable as the No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown of 2008, but the most hyped Tennessee team since that year traveling to face a Memphis program that has been completely rejuvenated by the hiring of Penny Hardaway will still move the needle.

30. Notre Dame at UCLA (Dec. 8)

It’s nice to see Notre Dame and UCLA resume a series that was once as synonymous with college basketball as just about any other. The home and home deal sets the stage for the unnatural rivals to meet for the 50th time next year in South Bend. This year’s game will be played just a month before the 45th anniversary of the Fighting Irish snapping UCLA’s record 88-game winning streak

31. Marshall at Virginia (Dec. 31)

There’s no better way to put a bow on 2018 than by enjoying this beautiful contrast of styles. It’s Virginia’s methodical but efficient attack against Dan D’Antoni’s freewheeling, analytics-driven offensive onslaught. Marshall will almost certainly be a heavy underdog heading into this game, but the Thundering Herd can take solace in the fact that they won more games in last year’s NCAA tournament than their New Year’s Eve hosts.

32. West Virginia vs. Florida (Jimmy V Classic) (Dec. 4)

The second game of the annual Jimmy V Classic doubleheader should be a solid clash of offense (Florida) vs. defense (West Virginia). Both the Mountaineers and Gators have the potential to be second weekend of the NCAA tournament teams.

33. Kansas State at Marquette (Dec. 1)

This figures to be the first real test for a Kansas State squad that enters the season with more hype than any Wildcat squad since Michael Beasley and Bill Walker were on campus. K-State returns just about everyone from a team that was one win away from the Final Four, but doubters will point out that they still lost 11 games. A win in Milwaukee will go a long way towards silencing those naysayers.

34. Cincinnati at Mississippi State (Dec. 15)

Cincinnati figures to take a step back after losing so much from last season’s 31-win team. The only question is how large that step is. Mississippi State, meanwhile, will start the season ranked in the top 20 despite having not made a single NCAA tournament appearance since 2009.

35. Louisville vs. Tennessee (NIT Season Tip-Off) (Nov. 21)

The first spotlight game of the Chris Mack era at Louisville will come in Brooklyn on the day before Thanksgiving. A Tennessee victory over the Cardinals would set up what might be a top five showdown with Kansas in the title game two days later.

36. Auburn at NC State (Dec. 19)

Few non-conference games in the first two months of the season will feature more exciting guard play than this one. The issue for NC State will be dealing with Auburn’s more complete lineup in the post.

37. St. John’s at Duke (Feb. 2)

This game has a history of getting weird. Take, for example, last year’s meeting where the Johnnies snapped an 11-game losing streak by taking down the fourth-ranked Blue Devils. With Shamorie Ponds and Mustafa Heron making up the backcourt for the Red Storm this season, Chris Mullin’s team should have a shot to pull an upset that would be much less shocking.

38. Auburn vs. Xavier (Maui Invitational) (Nov. 19)

The Maui Invitational is this season’s most loaded early season tournament, and this should be the best of the event’s quarterfinal matchups. Travis Steele will look to make an early statement about his ability to keep Musketeers’ momentum going by winning a couple of games on the island.

39. Seton Hall at Nebraska (Gavitt Games) (Nov. 14)

Seton Hall lost most of the production that made last season so successful, but there’s still enough there for Myles Powell and company to at least be in the mix for an NCAA tournament spot. Taking down a talented Nebraska team on the road would be a solid start.

40. Syracuse vs. Connecticut (2K Empire Classic) (Nov. 15)

Syracuse has won eight of the last 11 meetings with its old Big East rival, a streak which dates back to the famous six overtime game in 2009. That run gives Danny Hurley an opportunity to endear himself to his new fan base with a win inside Madison Square Garden.

41. Wisconsin at Xavier (Gavitt Games) (Nov. 13)

Wisconsin is looking to get back to its usual spot on the college basketball food chain, while Xavier is hoping to avoid falling too far a year after earning its first NCAA tournament top seed. A win here would help either endeavor.

42. Oregon vs. Boise State (Dec. 15/29)

Stick with me here.

This is a bizarre rivalry totally fitting the two college programs that can claim the weirdest hime basketball courts and home football fields in the country. First there was the LeGarrette Blount punch in 2009, then there was another fight in a 2017 bowl game between these two, then Boise State snapped Oregon’s 46-game home winning streak (the longest in the country at the time) with a halfcourt buzzer-beater, and now we have the two programs bizarrely scheduling a home and home ... in the same month.

This has been my case for Oregon-Boise State as the best rivalry currently going in college sports.

43. Davidson at North Carolina (Dec. 29)

You’re likely not going to get many chances to catch Davidson star Kellon Grady on TV this season, so take advantage of this one.

44. TCU vs. USC (Hall of Fame Classic) (Dec. 7)

The Staples Center will play host to this meeting of talented power conference foes who both think they’re being slept on heading into this season.

45. LSU vs. Saint Mary’s (Neon Hoops Showcase) (Dec. 15)

The annual lack of strength on Saint Mary’s non-conference schedule became a national topic of discussion last March when the Gaels were left out of the field of 68 despite owning a 28-5 record. They’ll look to score that ever-elusive non-Gonzaga resume win by upsetting LSU in the Neon Hoops Showcase, which will hopefully be played under a blacklight.

46. South Dakota State at Nevada (Dec. 15)

Mike Daum versus a Nevada team with more than enough talent to win a national championship? Hell yes.

47. North Carolina at Wofford (Nov. 6)

It’s not going to get anywhere near the attention that some of the other games on college basketball’s opening night will, but keep your eye on this one. Wofford stunned North Carolina in Chapel Hill last December, and now the Tar Heels are walking into the Terriers’ home gym on day one of the season. Fletcher Magee might be the best shooter in the country, but he’s not going to sneak up on Roy Williams this year.

48. Gonzaga vs. Illinois (Maui Invitational) (Nov. 19)

Brad Underwood is still more than likely a year or two away from having Illinois in a place where it can compete consistently with the top tier of the Big Ten. Ayo Dosunmu has the potential to be one of the most exciting freshman guards in the country, but he’ll have his work cut out for against Gonzaga’s deep and experienced backcourt.

49. Western Kentucky at Washington (Nov. 6)

With Western Kentucky, Marshall and Old Dominion all getting some preseason national love, Conference USA should be a sneaky fun conference in 2018-19. The Hilltoppers and five-star freshman big man Charles Bassey have a golden opportunity to make a statement right off the bat by stunning a Washington team that will start the year at No. 25 in the AP poll.

50. Belmont at Purdue (Dec. 29)

Sure, the first College Football Playoff semifinal will be going on at the same time, but this is Dylan Windler vs. Carsen Edwards. I’m sure the patrons at the sports bar (or your living room) will understand and won’t ask you to change the channel.