The tipoff of the new college basketball season is on Friday with ESPN showing games round the clock throughout the weekend.
But carving out time in your viewing schedule for college hoops in November is a tough task even for the most devoted sports consumer. College and pro football take up most of the weekend and there are sexy NBA matchups demanding attention almost every weeknight.
And while the true hoop degenerates and proud members of #TeamNoSleep are already handicapping potential halftime lines for Southern Illinois at Winthrop, we thought it’d be more prudent to point out the best early games of the season before conference schedule starts up in January.
1. No. 1 Duke Blue Devils vs. No. 2 Michigan State Spartans
Projected Spread: Spartans -3 to -1
When: Nov. 14, 7:00 PM ET on ESPN
It doesn’t get much sexier than this. No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the preseason polls. Krzyewski vs. Izzo. ACC vs. The Big Ten.
Duke brought in another fantastic freshman class including potential first pick in next year’s NBA draft Marvin Bagley III, top point guard recruit Trevon Duval and top two guard recruit Gary Trent Jr.
The Spartans return with potential Player of the Year candidate Miles Bridges and complement him with talented incoming freshman Jaren Jackson.
If you can’t get fired up about this game, allow Duke senior Grayson Allen to turn your amplifiers up to 11. Skip ahead to the 8:15 mark:
2. No. 5 Kentucky Wildcats vs. No. 4 Kansas Jayhawks
Projected Spread: Jayhawks -2 to -1
When: Nov. 14, 9:30 PM ET on ESPN
We’ve got back-to-back jacks of goodness on ESPN Tuesday night. Coach Cal didn’t net the same type of freshman class as he has in past years, but, then again, five top 25 recruits is nothing to shart at.
The Wildcats are turning over almost a completely new rotation with very few contributing players returning to the team. This would be a concern for a lot of teams but not one led by John Calipari.
The Jayhawks netted only two top 100 freshmen recruits – one being highly touted big man Billy Preston. Kansas returns starters Devonte’ Graham and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk – last year’s third and fourth leading scorers on the team.
3. No. 25 Texas A&M Aggies vs. No. 11 West Virginia Mountaineers
Projected Spread: Mountaineers -3.5 to -5.5
When: Nov. 10, 6:00 PM ET on ESPN
This matchup gets an extra bump on our list because it’s the best game on the opening night of the season and will be air in primetime on ESPN. Some of the luster wore off though when the Aggies suspended their preseason All-American Robert Williams. The 6-9 big man averaged 11.9 points and 8.2 rebounds in 31 games for A&M last season.
West Virginia returns three upper classmen starters from last year’s Sweet 16 team including leading scorer and assists man Jevon Carter.
4. Michigan Wolverines vs. No. 9 North Carolina Tar Heels
When: Nov. 29, 7:30 PM ET on ESPN
The basketball ghosts Chris Webber and Eric Montross will be running through the minds of bettors in this rare matchup of college basketball blue blood programs.
The defending national champion Tar Heels lost their top three scorers from last year’s team and, making matters worse, team captain Joel Berry II will miss the first month of the season because he broke his hand punching a wall in frustration after losing a video game to teammate Theo Pinson.
Before we rush to judgement on Berry, last year’s Final Four Most Outstanding Player, let’s remember all the times you wanted to throw your controller at the TV. And we don’t even know how much smack Pinson was talking. He could have been even worse than this guy.
5. No. 6 Villanova Wildcats vs. No. 18 Gonzaga Bulldogs
When: Dec. 5, 7:00 PM ET on ESPN
It’s a matchup of two No. 1 seeds from last year’s NCAA Tournament – with both programs reloading for another run at the national title.
The only thing tighter than the suits Jay Wright wears is the program he runs. The Wildcats are coming off another Big East regular season title and enter the new season without Josh Hart.
No biggie. Nova projects to start four upperclassmen in its starting five including last year’s seconding leading scorer Jalen Brunson and projected NBA lottery pick Mikal Bridges.
The Zags don’t boast the same type of returning depth but head coach Mark Few has a reputation for making lemonade out of lemons.
6. No. 16 Louisville Cardinals at No. 5 Kentucky Wildcats
When: Dec. 29, 1:00 PM ET on CBS
The Rick Pitino era is over in Louisville but the Cardinals chances at winning big this season haven’t flown away just yet. The team welcomes one of the program’s best freshmen classes in ages – I guess that’s what happens when you pay 100K for players – and that’s not even counting top recruit Brian Bowen, who may still be eligible to play this season.
Bottom line is these are two talented teams with a fierce rivarly. Should be great drama.
7. No. 12 Miami Hurricanes at No. 15 Minnesota Golden Gophers
When: Nov. 29, 9:15 PM ET on ESPN2
The U is back on the football field and its basketball program is pretty, pretty, pretty good too. The Canes secured five-star recruit Lonnie Walker who should fit well with sophomore wing Bruce Brown and senior guard Ja’Quan Newton.
This could be the Gophers’ year in the Big Ten for the first time since 1997 when Bobby Jackson was running the show. Their starting lineup returns virtually intact and they add a four-star point guard recruit to the mix in Isaiah Washington.
8. No. 7 Wichita State Shockers at No. 24 Baylor Bears
When: Dec. 2, 2:00 PM ET on ESPNU
This game would normally an important game for handicapping purposes come tournament time. The Shockers normally stream rolled their competition in the Missouri Valley and had few tests against big-time programs before March.
That all changed this season though with Wichita State joining the AAC and playing basketball powers like UConn and Cincinnati on a regular basis.
Still, it’ll be interesting to see how the Shockers look on the road against a Baylor side projected to finish middle of the pack in the Big 12.
9. No. 12 Cincinnati Bearcats vs. No. 8 Florida Gators
When: Dec. 9, 6:00 PM ET on ESPN2
Once again the Gators will be counted on as the top competition to Kentucky in the SEC and this matchup against the ranked Bearcats should give a good barometer of the conference’s strength compared to the American Athletic. Cincy, coming off a 30-6 campaign, is projected as the second best team in the AAC. A Florida win would be a big boost to the SEC and might have alumni like Joakim Noah dancing in the streets.
10. No. 21 UCLA Bruins vs. No. Kentucky Wildcats
When: Dec. 23, 4:00 PM ET on CBS
Three UK games is a lot but there’s no questioning the team’s ambition with its nonconference schedule.
UCLA could be missing some key players for a lengthy period – including Lonzo Ball’s little brother LiAngelo. Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill are being investigated for their roles in a shoplifted incident in Hangzhou, China. They have not been charged but the conviction rate is nearly 99 percent and the sentencing is no joke in China.