The 30 best college hoops non-con games before Christmas

There have been three pieces this preseason that have completely amped me up for the start of college hoops far more than anything else.

No. 1: Our annual Top 100 (and one) players in the sport.

No. 2: Our definitive (and scientifically irrefutable!) 1-351 ranking of every team in college basketball.

No. 3: What you’re about to read. I hope the anticipation and happiness for college basketball I felt in compiling this is something similar to what you’ll feel as you read through what awaits us all in the next seven weeks.

This is a list of the 30 best guaranteed-to-see-’em non-league games college basketball is offering up in 2015 — all of them presents that arrive before Christmas! But it gets even better. Consider:

A) There will inevitably be games on the schedule now that we don’t see as top 30-good, but can/will become just that within a few weeks of the season starting. This is predestined.

B) There’s a hearty bunch of great matchups that could (and some will) happen, but we don’t know for sure which yet. Yep, all those November tournaments have tasty tilts just waiting to bear fruit. The could-bes are listed at the bottom of the post.

C) Even better? Once Christmas passes, we still have a healthy amount of really nice non-con battles playing out up to New Year’s, then well after. Do you realize Kansas and Kentucky play each other at the end of January? And it’s going down at Phog Allen? That’s an awesome development for college basketball. So, to give you an idea of what comes after Santa leaves, I’ve listed off even more standouts inter-conference games at the very bottom of the story.

But first, here’s what’s around the bend, the 30 best non-conference games taking place before Christmas in 2015. You’ll notice every single game has at least one player from our Top 101, and the numbers in parentheses indicate where the teams were ranked in our 1-351 preseason assembly.

Monday, Nov. 16: Baylor (19) at Oregon (23).

First off, shoutout to Stephen F. Austin, which travels to Baylor this Friday — college basketball’s opening night — and offers up the best game to start the season. SFA can win that matchup, and it’s one to track, certainly. But with Baylor only represented once on this list, I picked its highest-ranked opponent, and Oregon is it. We won’t have to wait long to see this. Rico Gathers will begin his push to be the nation’s best rebounder by going up against an Oregon team that some think will win the Pac-12. Baylor’s Taurean Prince is one of a few guys I’m going to be watching closely in the first couple of weeks.

Top 101 players involved: 3

Tuesday, Nov. 17: Kansas (3) vs. Michigan State (11).

The annual Champions Classic, this year taking place in Chicago, puts Kansas up against Michigan State in a game that could/should see the over/under placed right about 155. MSU has its best-shooting team in years, and if Cheick Diallo is eligible for Kansas, this could be the team best-suited to make a run for the long haul come March.

Top 101 players involved: 6

Tuesday, Nov. 17: Duke (7) vs. Kentucky (2).

Two games feature as many as eight guys on our list of the top 100 (and one) players, and this is one of them. Duke-Kentucky is always must-watch. Jamal Murray is a UK freshman wing who I hope gets matched up on Duke’s best freshman, Brandon Ingram. Both teams are freshman-heavy, yet Duke still has a few vets to rely on. This game should be fun and taken at face value, as Calipari and K teams obviously both tend to evolve to something entirely different by late February from what you see in mid-November.

Top 101 players involved: 8

Tuesday, Nov. 17: Georgetown (28) at Maryland (4).

Hallelujah, we finally get one of the most overdue revivals of a rivalry that should have never been put on ice to begin with. Let’s skip over all the politics to simply praise that this game exists, though I’ll note it’s competing with a lot of other really good games during that 24-hour marathon next Tuesday. Still, check in with Hoyas-Terps. Even if it takes TV powers-that-be to bend the wills of G’town an MD brass, let’s get this game played every season again.

Top 101 players involved: 5

Sunday, Nov. 22: Valpo (41) at Oregon (23).

Valpo, the team we think is the best coming out of any one-bid league this season, has a load of really good games, but this is their toughest. And it’s not totally unlikely Bryce Drew’s guys goes into Eugene and get a win. If the D shows up and Alec Peters holds his own down low (which he should), this could be one of those upsets you miss because of a football Sunday. So don’t miss it!

Top 101 players involved: 1

Wednesday, Nov. 25: UConn (16) vs. Michigan (30).

Big opportunity for Michigan here, as the Wolverines open bracket play in the Bahamas with a chic pick of a UConn club that’s got Huskies fans thinking 25-plus wins this season. Caris LeVert, who went down with a foot injury in January and missed the rest of the season, is an All-American candidate in the eyes of some. The Huskies have Daniel Hamilton, Sterling Gibbs, Rodney Purvis and a new guy named Jalen Adams (No. 18 in our list of the top 25 freshmen) who I think will have a superb season.

Top 101 players involved: 4

Thursday, Nov. 26: Cal (14) at San Diego State (36).

San Diego State is going to get its chances at home against some very nice teams. No non-traditional power is a trendier breakout-team pick this season than Cal, which brings in possible one-and-doner Jaylen Brown, in addition to freshman Ivan Rabb in the middle. To see how this team’s young (and to be honest, Cal is a little soft) guys go up against traditionally stout SDSU is gonna be a good watch.

Top 101 players involved: 5

Sunday, Nov. 29: Wisconsin (17) at Oklahoma (8).

I think Wisconsin can still be fun, will still have some good wins, and Nigel Hayes should play himself into being a first-round pick. That said, this is the only Badgers game listed. Why? Not sure Wisconsin is better than a No. 6 seed this season, to be honest. Bo Ryan — who may or not walk away from the job next spring — takes his team to Oklahoma. This is a great example of what college hoops needs more of. It’s an on-campus, true road game between inter-conference schools. Yes. Please. You’ll notice a lot of the games selected her qualify as that, which is intentional.

Top 101 players involved: 3

Tuesday, Dec. 1: Maryland (4) at North Carolina (1).

And so here we have it, the most anticipated non-conference game on the schedule because it features the two highest-ranked teams in the preseason. UNC fans hope Marcus Paige will be back from his broken hand by then. If he’s not, well it would give Maryland a very good shot at taking one on the road, the kind of win No. 1 seeds boast at the top of a resume. If Paige is healthy, we’re all the better for it because we’ll see two of the best teams in the nation squaring off, with Paige going head-to-head against Melo Trimble, the best sophomore point in the sport.

Top 101 players involved: 8

Will Maryland-UNC wind up being a preview of an NCAA tourney Final Four matchup? (USATSI)

Wednesday, Dec. 2: Indiana (13) at Duke (7).

Indiana can win this game. IU should have the offensive acuity to keep it interesting in Durham. Not predicting a Hoosiers win, but before you automatically think “Duke, reigning champs. Indiana, Tom Crean,” know that the Hoosiers should be better with the ball than Duke this season. Plus, IU has a lot more experience. ACC/Big Ten challenge comes through again.

Top 101 players involved: 7

Wednesday, Dec. 2: Butler (29) at Cincinnati (25).

Yeah, it’ll be a rock fight, but a really engaging one. Both these teams can reach the second weekend of the NCAAs this season. I think Cincinnati is the best team in the AAC. This will be a show-me game of sorts for the Bearcats. Butler, meanwhile, has Kellen Dunham and Roosevelt Jones, both of whom appear on our 100 (and one) list.

Top 101 players involved: 2

Wednesday, Dec. 2: BYU (37) at Utah (18).

Great game going down in the Beehive State. Utah is going to have Jakob Poeltl scoring every which way, almost definitely locking himself up as a lottery pick next June. I think it’s possible we’ve underrated BYU, who will have the best college basketball player on the floor in this game. Kyle Collinsworth had six double-doubles last season. It was an unprecedented achievement, considering the college record for a CAREER was six. And he had just as many in one year.

Top 101 players involved: 2

Wednesday, Dec. 2: Louisville (50) at Michigan State (11).

We’re not big on Louisville, but given all that’s surrounding that program, it’s probably going to lure you in to watch a game or two this season. The annual tilt against Kentucky happens after Christmas, so it doesn’t qualify for the list. (Plus, it’s at Kentucky this season. I expect Calipari’s guys to win that game by 18.) This is Louisville’s second-toughest non-conference test. Damion Lee is probably going to be the star for the Cards this season. On the other side, Eron Harris and Bryn Forbes will get all they can handle in this one.

Top 101 players involved: 3

Thursday, Dec. 3: Kentucky (2) at UCLA (51).

UK’s only road game in the non-con is this one. We remember last year, yes? The horror. UCLA scoring seven points … in all of the first half. An 83-44 UK win. Well, there’s no way it’s going to be that bad this year. I’m saying UCLA scores AT LEAST 25 points in the first half! Also, UCLA’s not terrible. We’re not high on them, but this is probably a coin flip kind of game. And any time you get UK in a true road outside of league play, that’s worth a watch.

Top 101 players involved: 4

Saturday, Dec. 5: Providence (42) at Rhode Island (34).

Few venues will rival that nut house-like vibe that will be happening at the Ryan Center when this game is played. Let’s remember that Providence has Kris Dunn, who I think is the best player in the game. Rhode Island is probably the better team this season, and could well win the Atlantic 10. But PC has Dunn. These teams’ fan bases absolutely despise each other. The smallest state has some of the biggest hate.

Top 101 players involved: 3

Saturday, Dec. 5: Arizona (15) at Gonzaga (10).

Gonzaga gets a good shot at home to avenge last season’s loss, which you could easily argue should have been a win for Mark Few’s team. Now Gonzaga has the older group, probably the better team, and if it wins here it will go a long way to getting the Zags another very nice seed come March.

Top 101 players involved: 5

Saturday, Dec. 5: Syracuse (43) at Georgetown (28).

Georgetown gets two rivalry games (really three, if you count UConn) restored this season, which is especially good in a season where the Hoyas should be one of the three best teams in the Big East. Syracuse comes to D.C. I’ll always have a soft spot for this series. Fortunately, the schools have set up a short-term arrangement, but it’d be great if we could just go ahead and lock in a 25-year deal for SU and G’town to play every season.

Top 101 players involved: 1

Sunday, Dec. 6: Davidson (45) at North Carolina (1).

Sneaking this one in because Bob McKillop’s offense playing against the secondary break of UNC could mean the likes of an 86-82 ending. Please, please, please give us this. Davidson will against be respectable, and it’s not totally out of the question the Wildcats take this one. It’ll be tough, and might require Paige’s injury to keep him out one more game here if Jack Gibbs and Co. want to take their biggest win of the season.

Top 101 players involved: 5

Monday, Dec. 7: Oklahoma (8) vs. Villanova (12).

This game is happening in Hawaii, and will honor the 74th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s a cool idea, for sure, and the event is all the more noteworthy for pitting two teams who are Final Four-good this season. Oklahoma could have the player of the year in Buddy Hield, not to mention a backcourt (Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard) that will go up against a solid group of guards from Nova (Ryan Arcidiacono, Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart).

Top 101 players involved: 3

Tuesday, Dec. 8: Maryland (4) vs. UConn (16).

The Jimmy V Classic offers up a tasty matchup here. Keep an eye on the progress of Diamond Stone, the freshman, who I rank No. 13 among all first-year guys, could go up against Amida Brimah here. Robert Carter is the other big man for Maryland that people are expecting to be extremely good this season. Of all the 30 games listed, I think this one qualifies in the top five for potential of being the most entertaining.

Top 101 players involved: 7

Saturday, Dec. 12: Utah (18) at Wichita State (9).

I’m abnormally excited for this one, because Utah’s 69-68 home overtime win against WSU last season of one of the best games in 2014-15. Now Gregg Marshall’s team gets the rematch.

Top 101 players involved: 3

The Wichita State-Utah game was a thriller last year. Now the Shockers get one at home. (USATSI)

Saturday, Dec. 12: Cincinnati (25) at Xavier (39).

Yes, please. Queen City’s best basketball game returns to campus venues. Xavier is maybe a smidge below UC this season, but getting the game at the Cintas Center should swing it the Muskies’ way.

Top 101 players involved: 1

Saturday, Dec. 12: North Carolina (1) at Texas (33).

Roy Williams is never afraid to send his team on the road to play games against quality clubs. He’s doing it against Northern Iowa and Texas this season. If UNC is unable to keep a grip on the No. 1 or No. 2 spot in the polls early, don’t fret. The Paige injury combined with some tough games could mean people sell on the Heels. I’d hold, personally. As for Texas, this would be the definition of a statement win for Shaka Smart in Austin.

Top 101 players involved: 5

Saturday, Dec. 19: Indiana (13) vs. Notre Dame (20).

Few one-on-one guard matchups will be as physical and fast as Demetrius Jackson vs. Yogi Ferrell. Love the Crossroads Classic. Notre Dame isn’t going to be as high-octane as last season, but it’s still going to be NCAA Tournament-good. Irish can win this one, absolutely.

Top 101 players involved: 5

Saturday, Dec. 19: Villanova (12) at Virginia (5).

Battle of the Vs. What a matchup. It’s entirely possible this game goes down, and at the time of the tip, Villanova and Virginia are both ranked in the top five. Tony Bennett’s team loses Justin Anderson and Darion Atkins off last year’s group — and that’s it. Nova’s maybe even better than last year. Awesome game here. Awesome, awesome game.

Top 101 players involved: 4

Saturday, Dec. 19: Kentucky (1) vs. Ohio State (52).

The CBS Sports Classic will go down in Brooklyn, and if Ohio State is able to find some magic with freshman JaQuan Lyle, this might be a surprise game. The Buckeyes will dearly miss all that D’Angelo Russell brought to the floor, and this team will be young, but keep an eye on a guy named Marc Loving. He should be the breakout guy for OSU this season. Given the roster matchups, by the way, I think this is a game that sees Skal Labissiere go for 20 and 12.

Top 101 players involved: 4

Tuesday, Dec. 22: Cal (14) at Virginia (5).

Virginia gets to host two of the 15 best teams in the country in a span of four days. And the styles are so very different. If UVa is able to get to Christmas with two losses or less (very possible), then it will be in position in all bracketology forecasts for a No. 1 seed. For Cal, this would be a season-defining win. It’s probably too much to ask of that team.

Top 101 players involved: 5

Tuesday, Dec. 22: Vanderbilt (22) at Purdue (26).

Hello, centers! Vandy’s Damian Jones (NBA prospect for sure) vs. Purdue’s Isaac Haas and A.J. Hammons. Maybe a little Caleb Swanigan thrown in, too. I’m not sure there’s a matchup between two more evenly balanced teams on this list. Sneaky-good game here.

Top 101 players involved: 3

Tuesday, Dec. 22: Kansas (3) at San Diego State (36).

Remember, SDSU won at KU last season in 2013. Yeah, you read right. And now Steve Fisher’s team gets the home return in 2015. Stop for a second and look at all the games happening on Dec. 22. This is going to be a huge day. Just block out the time. Get the TV and iPads going, brew up some cocoa and wrap all the presents as you watch all the games.

Top 101 players involved: 6

Tuesday, Dec. 22: Iowa State (6) at Cincinnati (25).

Iowa State has to figure on this list, and a road game at Cincinnati is a nice test for a team that seems to have some doubters. Maybe it’s because Fred Hoiberg’s gone. Maybe it’s because people don’t realize how good Monte Morris is going to be this year, or Georges Niang’s game isn’t the most beautiful thing? I don’t know, but either way this definitely qualifies as a top-30 non-con matchup. Octavius Ellis vs. Jameel McKay is a great battle in the paint. Cincy brings back everybody from last season’s tournament team, too.

Top 101 players involved: 3

Please give us these tilts in the November tourneys: Utah vs. Miami (Puerto Rico semifinals on Nov. 20); Indiana vs. Kansas (Maui final on Nov. 25); Maryland vs. Rhode Island (Cancun Challenge final on Nov. 25); Syracuse vs. UConn (Battle 4 Atlantis semis on Nov. 26); Gonzaga vs. UConn (Battle 4 Atlantis final on Nov. 27); Cal vs. West Virginia (Las Vegas Invitational final on Nov. 27); Arizona vs. Michigan State (Wooden Legacy final on Nov. 29); Wichita State vs. Notre Dame OR Xavier vs. Dayton (AdvoCare Invitational final on Nov. 29); Oklahoma vs. BYU (Diamond Head Classic final on Dec. 25).

Great non-con games coming after Christmas: Louisville at Kentucky on Dec. 26; UConn at Texas on Dec. 29; Kentucky at Kansas on Jan. 30; Oklahoma at LSU on Jan. 30; Iowa State at Texas A&M on Jan. 30; Gonzaga at SMU on Feb. 13.


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