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The 50 best non-conference college basketball games of the 2019-20 season

The top two are both going down on night one.

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A collage of Tom Izzo (left) and John Calipari (right)
Michigan State vs. Kentucky is just one great non-conference matchup this college hoops season.

There are some out there who view college basketball as a sport 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, that probably isn’t you. You’re the intended audience for this list, and if you don’t watch every second of all 50 of these non-conference games in the months ahead, you’re a disgrace to yourself. Don’t let that happen.

[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.]

50. East Tennessee State at Kansas (Maui Invitational Mainland) (Nov. 19)

Steve Forbes is going to be coming to a major conference program in the very near future. In the meantime, he’s captaining an ETSU team that should be one of the best mid-major squads in the country from start to finish this season. They’ll get an early opportunity to earn that title when they head to Allen Fieldhouse for one of the “mainland” games of the Maui Invitational.

49. Houston at Oregon (Nov. 22)

Oregon has the preseason hype, but Houston is the program that has won a whopping 60 games over the last two seasons. The Cougars lost a solid chunk of last year’s production, but that was the same knock on Kelvin Sampson’s club 12 months ago, and that team wound up going 33-4. The NCAA clearing former five-star guard Quentin Grimes after his transfer from Kansas only makes this more intriguing.

48. Colorado vs. Arizona State (Pac-12 China Game) (Nov. 8)

Yes, two teams from the same conference are going all the way to China to play a non-conference game on the first Friday of the season. It’s precisely the level of creativity you’d expect from a group that needed an official name for this annual event and couldn’t think of anything better than “Pac-12 China Game.”

47. Notre Dame at Maryland (ACC-Big 10 Challenge) (Dec. 4)

The Fighting Irish were wrecked by injuries last season and would up finishing dead last in the ACC. They’re fully healthy and loaded with young talent this season, which should have Mike Brey poised to pull off one of the biggest bounce backs in the country. They can begin the process of turning heads by keeping things tight in College Park.

46. Vermont at Virginia (Nov. 19)

Vermont returns a healthy chunk of its production from a team that won 27 games and pushed fourth-seeded Florida State to the brink in the first round of the NCAA tournament last season. Chief among that group is All-American candidate Anthony Lamb. Don’t be surprised if the Catamounts put an early season scare into the reigning national champs.

45. Purdue at Marquette (Gavitt Games) (Nov. 13)

I think I speak for all of us when I say the NCAA should let Purdue bring Carsen Edwards back for one night just so we can all watch him and Markus Howard shoot it out. Even without the now-Boston Celtic, this figures to be an entertaining tilt that will serve as a huge early resume-booster for whichever team comes out on top.

44. New Mexico vs. New Mexico State (Nov. 21 and Dec. 12)

The Rio Grande Rivalry gets my vote for the most underrated rivalry in college basketball at the moment. Relations between the two programs had always been tense, but Paul Weir leaving New Mexico State in 2017 to take the head coaching job at New Mexico caused the biggest explosion the state had seen since Gus Fring took his final breath outside that fateful hospital room.

The Aggies, who figure to be one of the best mid-major teams in the country once again this season, have not lost a game to Weir yet, and have taken five straight games from New Mexico overall. The Lobos are hoping an influx of former top-100 recruits who transferred in from power five programs — Jaquan Lyle (Ohio State), JJ Caldwell (Texas A&M), Vante Hendrix (Utah) — will be able to change the tide.

Additional props to these two on playing a home and home every year, something college basketball could use more of with its non-conference rivalries.

43. VCU at Wichita State (Dec. 21)

Last season, the Shockers missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011. Gregg Marshall isn’t going to let that become a trend, but here he’ll be facing a VCU squad that strongly resembles some of the better teams he’s coached in recent years. Charles Koch Arena is one of the more underrated home court advantages in college basketball, and the building figures to be electric for this pre-holiday showdown.

42. Florida vs. Providence (Basketball Hall of Fame Invitational) (Dec. 17)

The middle of the Big East is loaded with quality this season, and one of the teams in the heart of that league is destined to overachieve significantly. That team could be Providence, which returns a star in Alpha Diallo and adds a key piece in UMass transfer point guard Luwane Pipkins. They’ll have their hands full with a Florida team that has eyes on the national title.

41. Tennessee vs. Washington (James Naismith Classic) (Nov. 16)

This will be something of a role-reversal for Tennessee, which now finds itself as a guard-driven team tasked with handling Washington’s inside duo of freshmen blue chippers Jaden McDaniels and Isaiah Stewart. The game is the headliner of a triple-header for this first-time event, which will be played inside Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. Buffalo vs. Harvard and Rutgers vs. St. Bonaventure make up the other two games.

40. Michigan at Louisville (ACC-Big 10 Challenge) (Dec. 3)

It’s a rematch of the 2013 national championship game, but neither program is being steered by the same man who captained them on that Monday evening in Atlanta. Michigan exacted some revenge in the most recent meeting between these two, upsetting the second-seeded Cardinals in the second round of the 2017 NCAA tournament. Though no one knew it at the time, that game would ultimately be Rick Pitino’s last at Louisville.

39. Dayton vs. Georgia (Maui Invitational) (Nov. 25)

The Battle 4 Atlantis may have the better field this season, but the Maui Invitational is always going to be Thanksgiving week’s signature event. The tournament’s best quarterfinal matchup is its first one, as a Dayton team that should contend for an at-large bid battles with Tom Crean’s Georgia Bulldogs.

The individual talent on both sides is more than enough for you to take the afternoon off from work, school or whatever. Dayton has Obi Toppin, one of the best dunkers in the country. Georgia has Anthony Edwards, the No. 2 overall player in the class of 2019 and a surefire lottery pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.

Set the tone right off the bat that watching afternoon basketball is going to be a priority throughout this holiday week.

38. Colorado at Kansas (Dec. 7)

This will be the first meeting between these two former conference mates since Askia Booker stunned Kansas at the buzzer (and after a questionable number of steps) in 2013.

Kansas will likely be a solid favorite in this one, but Colorado returns an experienced core led by McKinley Wright that should give Tad Boyle a chance to take a run at the Pac-12 title.

37. Baylor vs. Washington (Armed Forces Classic) (Nov. 8)

The ninth annual Armed Forces Classic will go down at the Alaska Airlines Center on the University of Alaska Anchorage campus. Baylor and Washington will square off in a double-header that will also feature Alaska Anchorage taking on Coast Guard Academy.

Side note: Alaska is the only state in the country without a Division I basketball program. I say we bring back the Great Alaska Shootout, have it feature all the college basketball teams in the state of Alaska, and the winner goes D-I. We need all 50 states on board here.

36. Texas vs. Georgetown (Empire Classic) (Nov. 21)

Two squads loaded with athletes and a handful of “surprise team” predictions meet inside Madison Square Garden for an early season contest that feels significant for both. The winner will almost certainly face Duke a night later.

35. Memphis vs. NC State (Barclays Center Classic) (Nov. 28)

The ACC has a very well established top tier of Duke, Louisville, North Carolina and Virginia this season. The question is whether any other team in the league can be a pleasant surprise that establishes itself as a legitimate top-25 squad capable of playing deep into the NCAA tournament. Led by explosive point guard Markell Johnson, NC State might be the primary candidate to make that leap. They can start the process of corroborating that belief with an early signature win on Thanksgiving Day.

The worst non-conference schedule in America kept the Wolfpack from dancing last season. Kevin Keatts hopes this game along with scheduled tilts at Auburn and vs. Wisconsin keep that from being an issue in 2020.

34. Auburn vs. Davidson (Veterans Classic) (Nov. 8)

This first Friday contest won’t be quite as fun as it would have been if Bryce Brown and Jared Harper were still suiting up for Auburn, but there’s still plenty to be excited about. The Tigers won’t play at the breakneck pace that carried them to the Final Four last season, but J’Von McCormick, Samir Doughty and heralded freshman Isaac Okoro should keep them entertaining. The task on this evening in Annapolis will be to slow down one of the best backcourts in the country in Davidson’s Jon Axel Gudmundsson and Kellan Grady.

33. North Carolina vs. Alabama (Battle 4 Atlantis) (Nov. 27)

Seven of the eight teams in this year’s Battle 4 Atlantis field seem like realistic candidates to earn at-large bids on Selection Sunday. North Carolina is obviously one of those. Alabama, under new head coach Nate Oats, is hoping to be another. A win over the Tar Heels on the day before Thanksgiving would go a long way towards achieving that goal. Also, Cole Anthony and Kira Lewis on the same court is going to be fun as hell.

32. Florida State at Florida (Nov. 10)

The Seminoles have blasted the Gators in each of the last two seasons, extending their winning streak in the series to five games. Before this run, Florida had never lost more than three straight to its arch-rival. They figure to be sizable favorites to break that streak on the season’s first Sunday.

31. Illinois at Arizona (Nov. 10)

Illinois hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2013, a steak of futility Illini fans are hopeful Ayo Dosunmu and company will be able to snap this season. Beating a preseason top-25 team on its home floor would go a long way towards making that happen.

It’s impossible to see these two names next to one another and not thing about the 2005 Chicago Regional final, one of the most thrilling Elite Eight games ever played.

This is the first game of a two-year deal between the two schools. Arizona will play in Champaign on Dec. 12, 2020.

30. Texas at Purdue (Nov. 9)

It’s year five of the Shaka Smart era in Austin, and Longhorn fans are antsy for something more to hang their Resistols on than an NIT championship. Kicking off the season with a road win over a Purdue team that has made it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament each of the last three years would be a solid start.

29. Syracuse at Georgetown (Dec. 14)

The longtime rivals recently extended their series to make sure the two teams will play one another each year through at least 2022. The “non-conference era” of the series is tied at two, with Syracuse getting the better of Georgetown in each of the last two seasons, including a 72-71 thriller a year ago.

28. Utah State vs. Florida (Orange Bowl Basketball Classic) (Dec. 21)

It seems unfair that Utah State doesn’t get credit for playing a true road game here, since the Orange Bowl Classic in Broward County figures to be a “neutral court” tilt in name only. Regardless, Sam Merrill and the Aggies have a shot to pull off a monumental resume win over a Florida team that has no excuse not to be in the thick of the national title hunt this season. Guards are almost always the focal point in college hoops, but watching NBA prospect Neemias Queta go at it with Florida’s Kerry Blackshear in the post might be the main attraction in this one.

27. VCU vs. Purdue (Emerald Coast Classic) (Nov. 29)

Florida State-Tennessee might be the Emerald Coast Classic game that catches your eye at first glance, but it’s the nightcap of the double-header that might provide more quality. The winners will meet a night later in what should be a highly competitive title game.

26. Baylor at Florida (SEC-Big 12 Challenge) (Jan. 25)

Baylor has been referred to as “underrated” by so many people this offseason that I think the title no longer fits. Both the Bears and Gators figure to be near the top of their respective conference standings when they step out of league play for this SEC-Big 12 Challenge game near the end of January.

25. Utah State at Saint Mary’s (Nov. 29)

Utah State State and Saint Mary’s figure to be two of the best non-power conference teams in the country this season, which means each could really use a resume win at the expense of the other. Outside of its two conference games against Gonzaga, this is the only scheduled game on Saint Mary’s 2019-20 which pits them against a preseason top-25 team. That puts some decent pressure on the Gaels to hold serve at home.

24. Cincinnati at Ohio State (Nov. 6)

Night one of the college basketball season is loaded with showcase games, but Ohio State and Cincinnati don’t want you to forget about night two. New UC head coach John Brannen could make quite a splash if he upsets a top-25 rival in his Bearcat debut.

23. Gonzaga at Washington (Dec. 8)

This is the final game on the original contract between the two most prominent basketball programs in The Evergreen State, but the schools got together this summer and signed an extension that will keep the series going through the 2023-24 season. Gonzaga has won the last five meetings and 12 of the last 13, but a U-Dub squad flush with young talent awaits them on Dec. 8.

22. LSU at VCU (Nov. 13)

It’s hard to imagine Will Wade won’t be thinking of simpler times when he brings another LSU squad to Richmond to face his former program. This isn’t a pity trip though. VCU is the No. 25 team in the preseason AP poll and the runaway favorite to repeat as Atlantic 10 champions. This Wednesday night tilt will be the first real test for both squads.

21. Arizona at Baylor (Dec. 7)

A year ago, Baylor ended Arizona’s 52-game non-conference home winning streak with a 58-49 triumph at the McKale Center. The Bears out-rebounded the Wildcats by a staggering 31, and finished with more total boards (50) than ‘Zona had points. Sean Miller’s team should be better-equipped to compete with Tristan Clark and company this season.

20. LSU vs. Utah State (Jamaica Classic) (Nov. 22)

This figures to be the best game of the Jamaica Classic as a super-talented LSU squad takes on a Utah State team that will start the season ranked in the top 20 but will be hungry for at least one solid resume win before starting Mountain West play. Sam Merrill going head-to-head with Skylar Mays and Javonte Smart should be wonderful.

19. Cincinnati at Xavier (Dec. 7)

Duke and North Carolina is the highest-profile rivalry that annually gives us the best games featuring the best teams. Kentucky and Louisville is the rivalry where the fans and the people around the programs despise one another the most. But I would argue that the Crosstown Shootout is the rivalry where the actual players dislike one another more than any other. It has made for some impassioned moments over the years, and it always makes for appointment television. This year’s edition, which features a first-year head coach in Cincinnati’s John Brannen and two teams that should be fully capable of doing some damage in the NCAA tournament, is no different.

18. Maryland at Seton Hall (Dec. 19)

Each team is loaded with talent, experience and a sense it needs to accomplish something significant in the NCAA tournament this year. Myles Powell vs. Anthony Cowan figures to be one of the best guard matchups we see in the month of December.

17. Villanova at Ohio State (Gavitt Games) (Nov. 13)

Villanova and Ohio State are two teams that have found themselves all over the place in early rankings throughout the offseason. College hoops fans will finally get a first look at how formidable both squads are when they square off in Columbus during the season’s second week.

16. Oregon vs. Seton Hall (Battle 4 Atlantis) (Nov. 27)

The Battle 4 Atlantis is so loaded this season that it features a matchup of two preseason top-15 teams in the quarterfinals. Stay up late on the night before Thanksgiving and let this showdown take the place that the Maui Invitational title game used to hold. On a related note, move the Maui title game back to its old spot, tournament organizers. You’re ruining Thanksgiving Eve for the entire country.

15. Gonzaga at Arizona (Dec. 14)

A West Coast team hasn’t won the NCAA tournament since Arizona cut down the nets all the way back in 1997. These two teams are among those with the best shot at ending the embarrassing streak in 2020. Gonzaga has won its last two meetings with Arizona, including a 91-74 beatdown at the Maui Invitational last season.

14. Louisville vs. Texas Tech (Jimmy V. Classic) (Dec. 10)

Madison Square Garden will be the site for this showdown between Chris Mack and Chris Beard, two men who appear to be at the forefront of the next wave of great college basketball coaches. If Texas Tech is able to win the Las Vegas Invitational and Louisville is able to survive prior tests from Miami and Michigan, there’s a very real shot that both these preseason top-15 teams will enter this game with unblemished records.

13. Ohio State at North Carolina (ACC-Big 10 Challenge) (Dec. 4)

Few preseason top-25 teams will be tested more before the calendar turns to 2020 than Ohio State. The Buckeyes have three non-conference games against teams that will start the season ranked in the top 10, including this true road test inside the Dean Dome.

12. Kentucky vs. Ohio State (CBS Sports Classic) (Dec. 21)

T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas will be the site of this year’s CBS Sports Classic, where the better of the two games (North Carolina-UCLA is the other) figures to be Kentucky and Ohio State meeting for the first time since 2015. If there are questions about Kentucky’s ability to win a national title this season, they all reside with the team’s frontcourt. That frontcourt will receive one of its toughest tests of the season in the form of highly-skilled OSU big man Kaleb Wesson.

11. Memphis at Tennessee (Dec. 14)

In its first year back, the Memphis-Tennessee rivalry gave us a game with 194 total points, a guy pooping on the FedEx Forum concourse during the game because he “had to do what he had to do,” a skirmish at the end of the game, a difference of opinions between Penny Hardaway and Rick Barnes about what took place in said skirmish, and then Hardaway ending his press conference days later by saying: “Rick Barnes, get the f—k out of here.” So, yeah, round two is probably going to be worth your time.

10. Kentucky at Texas Tech (SEC-Big 12 Challenge) (Jan. 25)

As it enters its seventh year, the SEC-Big 12 Challenge has found a niche for itself as a nice little change of pace in the heart of conference play. This year’s headline game will feature a Kentucky team that is typically hitting its stride right at this point in the season heading to Lubbock for what figures to be a physical tussle with reigning national runner-up Texas Tech.

9. Memphis vs. Oregon (Phil Knight Invitational) (Nov. 12)

Coming into this season, there is no team in America more intriguing than the Memphis Tigers. Penny Hardaway’s team will get its first opportunity to prove it’s the real deal when it squares off against a top-15 Oregon team at the Phil Knight Invitational in Portland.

8. Virginia at Purdue (Dec. 4)

This would be a high-profile early season showdown in any year, but it admittedly gets a little bit of a bump after these two played one of the best NCAA tournament games in recent memory last March in the South Region final. Nearly all of the major players from that classic are gone, but Mamadi Diakite — the man who capped off what they now refer to in Charlottesville as simply “the play” — will be back to try and break hearts across West Lafayette for the second time in less than a year.

7. Michigan State at Seton Hall (Gavitt Games) (Nov. 14)

As good as Michigan State is, the Spartans still being an unblemished No. 1 as the calendar flips to 2020 would be something of a shock considering the absolute beast of a non-conference schedule Tom Izzo has lined up. MSU’s second major test of 2019-20 will come in game No. 3 when they hit the road to face an experienced Seton Hall squad ranked No. 12 in the preseason AP poll.

6. North Carolina at Gonzaga (Dec. 18)

North Carolina put a 103-90 whoopin’ on the Zags last year in Chapel Hill. Now Mark Few and company are looking to return the favor. While the neutral court showdowns with blue bloods have been nice, this is the type of true home game Gonzaga fans have been asking to see more of for years. Expect the atmosphere inside of McCarthey Athletic Center on Dec. 18 to be one of the best of the entire season.

5. Kansas at Villanova (Dec. 21)

College basketball fans will be given a treat right before Christmas with what figures to be a highly-entertaining up-and-down tilt between these two perennial powerhouses. A year ago in Lawrence, Kansas exacted some revenge for the beatdown it received in the 2018 Final Four by handling visiting Villanova, 74-71. Now it’s the Wildcats who will be playing host and looking for a slice of redemption.

4. Duke at Michigan State (ACC-Big 10 Challenge) (Dec. 3)

The showcase game of this year’s ACC-Big 10 Challenge is a rematch of last year’s East Region final, where Michigan State stunned No. 1 overall seed Duke and ended the college careers of Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish. The upset improved Tom Izzo’s oft-referenced lifetime record against Mike Krzyzewski to 2-11. The shoe figures to be on the other foot in this meeting, as it’s the Spartans who seem to be just about everyone’s pick to cut down the nets in 2020.

3. Louisville at Kentucky (Dec. 28)

Chris Mack’s second foray into the sport’s most contentious rivalry should see him with a team on more level footing with its in-state counterpart than it was a year ago. Both Kentucky and Louisville are starting 2019-20 ranked in the top five, and there’s a solid chance both will still be in that position when 2019 prepares to flip into 2020. Kentucky ran away with a 71-58 win a year ago, and has taken 10 of the last 12 from Louisville.

2. Kansas vs. Duke (Champions Classic) (Nov. 5)

Final Four Saturday is the only other day on the college basketball calendar where a matchup between the third and fourth best teams in the sport can be the undercard. No. 3 vs. No. 4 in New York should be all sorts of fun.

1. Michigan State vs. Kentucky (Champions Classic) (Nov. 5)

In hindsight, moving the Champions Classic to college basketball’s opening night seems like a no-brainer. A year ago, it gave us a performance from Duke and Zion Williamson that wound up setting the tone for the rest of the season. This year, it’s giving us No. 1 vs. No. 2 inside Madison Square Garden just hours into the 2019-20 slate. It’s impossible to ask for more.