- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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We are, believe it or not, just two days away from the beginning of the college basketball season. In case it snuck up on you -- we'll let it slide -- here's a quick look at 25 nonconference games you can't afford to miss between now and New Year's Eve.
(Editor's Note: There are plenty of potential matchups in the early-season tournaments, but we're going to stick with the games we know will happen and cross our fingers that we get some of those tantalizing possibilities.)
Aircraft carrier openers, Nov. 9-11: Maybe this is cheating, and I hope the respective event organizers don't take it the wrong way, but I'm listing all three 2012 carrier games as one entity: Marquette-Ohio State, Florida-Georgetown and Syracuse-San Diego State. The Orange-Aztecs game -- moved from Friday to Sunday due to inclement weather -- is the best one on paper, and the closest thing to a road game we'll see Syracuse play until traveling to Arkansas for the SEC/Big East Challenge. But as we learned with last year's Carrier Classic, early-November basketball on the deck of a U.S. warship (or outdoors at all, really) is less about the sport than the spectacle.
Michigan State versus Connecticut, Nov. 9: MSU helped spearhead the Carrier Classic. Now that it's become a bona fide trend, the Spartans and Huskies are taking things up a notch, playing a game at Ramstein Air Force base in Germany. You can't fault Michigan State's early-season scheduling creativity, that's for sure.
Duke versus Kentucky, Nov. 13: The Champions Classic -- a rotating four-team event featuring Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and Michigan State -- returns for its second season. This time it's in Atlanta, host site of the 2013 Final Four. This one will provide an early look at a totally new UK lineup and a Duke team that needs to make some big improvements (namely, defense) over last season's merely above-average campaign.
Michigan State versus Kansas, Nov. 13: You read that right. Four days after playing a game in Europe, Michigan State will return stateside to play what should be a very good Kansas team at the Georgia Dome. Beware of jetlag.
Wisconsin at Florida, Nov. 14: When Badgers fans first saw this game on the schedule, they assumed they would have forward Mike Bruesewitz and guard Josh Gasser, two of the team's vocal leaders. Bruesewitz is out for four weeks with a gashed leg, while Gasser will miss the rest of the season after tearing his ACL in practice. How UW is set to handle those setbacks will be revealed in no time here.
Memphis versus VCU, Nov. 22 (OK, so the entire Battle 4 Atlantis): This is the most intriguing of the first-round games in the Battle 4 Atlantis -- a loaded Memphis squad against a rip-roaring defensive bunch in VCU -- and since the outline of this piece requires these games to be the ones we know we'll get, this would be the definite matchup I'd select. I can't exactly list off all the permutations available in the B4A. (A possible Memphis-Duke, Louisville-Missouri semifinal? Yes please.) But let's just let this serve as a reminder of just how awesome this entire early-season tournament is going to be.
Creighton versus Wisconsin, Nov. 23: This tilt in Vegas is important for Creighton, one in which it can establish its nonconference NCAA tournament bona fides early. But more than anything, pitting the Bluejays' unrelenting Doug McDermott-led uptempo attack against the Slowest Team In College Hoops (TM) should result in a fascinating contrast of styles.
North Carolina at Indiana, Nov. 27: The Hoosiers' nonconference schedule is merely so-so, which makes this the biggest test they'll face. For a young and revamped Carolina squad, it will also be the biggest test, a road trip to an insanely loud arena to face a veteran, No. 1-ranked team. If they somehow pull it off, we can start expecting big things from the Baby Tar Heels right away.
NC State at Michigan, Nov. 27: Another of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge's best games, this one pits two teams that have confounded analysts in the early portions of the season. Many human voters rank Michigan and NC State among the best six teams in the country; statistical models are far more bearish. This one should help point us in the right direction.
Ohio State at Duke, Nov. 28: The Blue Devils will be looking for some comeuppance for the smackdown the Buckeyes delivered in Columbus last season, while Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas -- and the rest of an emerging cast of characters -- will be eager to prove there is life after Sully.
Kentucky at Notre Dame, Nov. 29: Talk about a contrast of styles. The Wildcats will probably have the five most athletic players on the floor at all times when they travel to South Bend for the Big East/SEC Challenge. But Notre Dame has Jack Cooley, one of the nation's best rebounders, and Mike Brey's patented "burn" offense -- which might be just the way to slow down the high-octane Cats.
Syracuse at Arkansas, Nov. 30: Thanks to the Big East/SEC Challenge, which probably doesn't get enough respect, what is likely to be a top 10-ranked Syracuse team will take its show on the road, to Fayetteville no less, to play an Arkansas team that may be much more dangerous than anyone is yet willing to admit. Keep an eye on two sophomores: Arkansas' B.J. Young and Syracuse's Michael Carter-Williams. They could be two of 2012-13's major breakout stars.
Baylor at Kentucky, Dec. 1: What's the over/under on NBA scouts in attendance at this game? Twenty-five? Thirty? Kentucky has potential one-and-doners Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin; Baylor has arguably the most purely talented player in the country in 7-foot finesse freshman Isaiah Austin (not to mention power forward Ricardo Gathers and a veteran backcourt returning). Tune into this game, and then watch the draft boards fluctuate in its aftermath.
San Diego State versus UCLA, Dec. 1: We don't yet know whether highly anticipated UCLA freshman Shabazz Muhammad will be eligible by Dec. 1, but even if he is still stuck in NCAA Eligibility Center purgatory, it's going to be interesting to see this otherwise revamped Bruins team take on arguably the most experienced top-tier team on the entire West Coast at the Wooden Classic in Anaheim, Calif.
Florida at Florida State, Dec. 5: This rivalry game may never match the football edition, but that's OK. It's still better than it's ever been, with Florida in a sustained period of success under Billy Donovan and Florida State playing some of the best (most defense-oriented) basketball in the program's history under Leonard Hamilton. That defense will try to shut down prolific perimeter scorer Kenny Boynton en route to state bragging rights.
Indiana versus Butler, Dec. 15: Butler's rise to national prominence has coincided with Indiana's long, slow slog back from the depths of the post-Kelvin Sampson abyss. Now, the programs are on relatively equal footing. They'll meet on a neutral court at Conseco Field House in Indianapolis just before Notre Dame and Purdue; an entire basketball-obsessed state will be watching.
Louisville at Memphis, Dec. 15: Before Louisville moved to the Big East in 2005, Louisville and Memphis had faced each other a total of 85 times since 1967, with only a brief break in the early '90s. Then, thanks to realignment (of course), the rivalry took six full seasons off. For shame. Finally, the two schools are back at it again, and with Louisville in the top 5 and Memphis in the top 15, this holds the promise to be a storied edition of a storied rivalry.
Florida at Arizona, Dec. 15: Zona has a handful of solid early-season games, but it may be especially telling to see it play a mostly veteran-led, battle-tested Florida squad. The Wildcats are talented but largely young, and I can't wait to see how Grant Jerrett, Kaleb Tarczewski and the rest of that highly touted class congeals around transfer guard Mark Lyons and do-everything forward Solomon Hill.
Kansas at Ohio State, Dec. 22: These programs are rapidly becoming all too familiar. Last season in Lawrence, KU dealt Ohio State one of its few losses (Jared Sullinger was sidelined with injury) in the first year of this home-and-home series. Then, come springtime, the two met again at the Final Four in New Orleans. Kansas prevailed, and many of the principals (Sullinger, Thomas Robinson, Tyshawn Taylor) have moved on. But both teams are still hunting for a national title this season.
Missouri at UCLA, Dec. 28: I'm not sure there is a team with a more tantalizing mix of storylines than UCLA this season -- Will Shabazz be eligible? Will Larry Drew fit? Can Josh Smith get fit? Can Ben Howland make it all work? -- but Missouri's transfer-heavy squad comes close. Frank Haith will spend much of the nonconference season attempting to mold arguably the greatest transfer class in history into a team capable of taking down Kentucky in the SEC. This will serve as a worthy progress report.
Baylor at Gonzaga, Dec. 28: Give Baylor coach Scott Drew some credit. In 2010-11, his nonconference schedule was abysmal. These days he's playing in the Kennel. That's a major change in philosophy, but a smart one -- playing at Gonzaga, win or lose, is highly unlikely to hurt your RPI. He has the experienced backcourt to handle the road test, and he'll be able to throw his young frontcourt into the road fire just before the start of Big 12 play. Plus, both teams should be very fun to watch. This is a keeper.
UNLV at North Carolina, Dec. 29: When everyone is eligible, UNLV might have the best frontcourt in the country. That will be the case for the first time on Dec. 29, when midseason Pitt transfer and 2011's No. 1 center prospect, Khem Birch, becomes eligible. He'll pair with No. 1-ranked 2012 power forward Anthony Bennett and pro prospect Mike Moser, one of the nation's best rebounders. UNC forward James Michael McAdoo will have a lot on his plate after Christmas break.
Kentucky at Louisville, Dec. 29: No introduction needed here. With all due respect to Duke-Carolina, Kentucky and Louisville have assumed the "Most Hate-Filled Rivalry" mantle in recent seasons, thanks in large part to the success of John Calipari, the tortured relationship UK fans have with Rick Pitino, and the personal animus between the two coaches. It was always a hate-fest, this, but recent dynamics -- say, the Final Four matchup? -- have taken it up a notch. What a perfect way to help close out the calendar year.