We’re gently easing you into some preseason content-type stuff here. Why not, you know? It’s going to be a terrific season, and I’m already eager for the games to get here. Alas, we’ve still got seven weeks until that’s that case. So let’s bide the time by looking at some big events and games coming up. You probably noticed over the past week all of the major conferences unveiled their intra-league schedules.
So let’s see when some of the biggest games in those conferences are going down.
I made a couple of provisions for myself. 1) I didn’t pick the same team more than twice, for variety’s sake, and 2) I didn’t double up on the same game. Both UNC-Duke games would obviously crack the top five of the ACC’s most important tilts of the regular season, but in an effort to mix it up and look elsewhere in every conference, I highlighted a minimum of six programs per league.
Here’s what to keep an eye on by the time we get to the second half of the season.
1. NC State at North Carolina (Jan. 7). I gotta get Dennis Smith, Jr. on this list. He’s going to be the best point guard in the ACC, and he’ll be but a freshman. Fantastic talent, and NC State is out for revenge after dropping both games to UNC by double digits last season.
2. Duke at Louisville (Jan. 14). Any time you get Duke on the road against a ranked team, it’s going to be interesting, since Mike Krzyzewski developed his allergy to scheduling road games in non-conference play. Louisville’s schedule overall is going to be tough, but this is a good opportunity. Duke’s got a loaded roster. Louisville’s going to have one of the best sophomores in the country in Donovan Mitchell.
3. Virginia at Syracuse (Feb. 4). The rematch of the Elite Eight game that Virginia blew in Chicago in March. Syracuse made the Final Four, while Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill and Mike Toby graduated without having broken through to college hoops’ final weekend. Virginia’s going to be very good again, though, and Syracuse will flirt with being a top 25 team all season. Good road test. Style clash. Should be a good watch.
4. North Carolina at Duke (Feb. 9). Goes without saying, but especially because the years in which the UNC-Duke game visits Cameron first, it’s always a big event, being the venue is especially hostile. What will Duke’s record be at this point? Will the Blue Devils even be in first place in the ACC? North Carolina can be a top-10 team again in 2016-17, remember, so it’s not like this will be an automatic W for Duke.
5. Miami at Louisville (Feb. 11). Miami is your under-the-radar ACC team that’s still very good. The Hurricanes went 27-8 last year, and since they lost some big pieces, they’ll probably fade a little — but it’s not like this isn’t a top-six team in the conference. Also, given Louisville’s schedule, this could become a crucial opportunity to earn a top-30 win to keep the Cards on track.
1. Oklahoma State at Baylor (Jan. 7). Baylor’s unpredictable nature automatically means the Bears have to make the list here. Why Oklahoma State? The Pokes are under new management, and Brad Underwood’s coaching style is fairly different from Scott Drew’s. While Baylor has consistently been a top-four program in the conference for almost a decade now, OSU could be the program to flip positions with BU over the next couple of years.
2. Kansas at Iowa State (Jan. 16). The Big 12 isn’t going to be as great as it was last year, and the year before, meaning Kansas is going to be a bigger favorite to win the league (it would be the 12th time in a row) than in 2014 and 2015. So you’ve gotta look for the challenges, and here’s one of them. On the road, and you get KU frosh Josh Jackson, who could be the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft, going against Monte Morris, who’s a better college player right now and could be a First Team All-American.
3. Iowa State at Oklahoma State (Jan. 11). Morris vs. OSU’s Jawun Evans, who will be a top-five point guard in college hoops next season. Evans might wind up being a great player on an average team, the kind of guy who has an unreal year but OSU doesn’t sniff the tournament. Then you look up and see he’s a top-20 pick. I could see that playing out.
4. Kansas at West Virginia (Jan. 24). The Jayhawks on the road against a team that’s likely to be ranked, will be physical, will be ready. WVU isn’t star-studded, but it’s going to again have one of the best defenses in the country, most likely in the top 15. The ‘Eers handled KU at home last season. Wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see Bob Huggins’ crew beat the Hawks again.
5. Texas at Oklahoma (Feb. 14). Mark me down as a fan of what Texas has heading into 2016-17. On the whole, I expect the Longhorns to be the best watch in the Big 12. Oklahoma loses Buddy Hield, most notably, but the program isn’t going to fall off a cliff. The Sooners will will be in the top half of the league. This home game against UT will probably be a pivotal one.
1. Michigan State vs. Penn State (Jan. 7 at the Palestra). It’s an unusual game, a great venue, Penn State is going to be better, and Michigan State is absolutely loaded. Nuff said. Now, let’s get the NCAA to put the tournament at the Palestra next season as well.
2. Indiana at Wisconsin (Feb. 5). Two Top 25-level teams here. Nigel Hayes will give Wisconsin a shot at a top-five seed. He won’t be alone. Bronson Koenig will probably be a Second Team All-Big Ten player. IU gets a good road test, and I wonder if Thomas Bryant will be a Top-25 player in the country by the time we get to February. His development and dominance is more pivotal to Indiana’s success next season than any other player.
3. Purdue at Maryland (Feb. 4). Purdue to the Big Ten is like Miami to the ACC. Both solid teams last year that aren’t falling off the road. The Boilermakers get Caleb Swanigan back. Isaac Haas is still in the fold, and Vince Edwards is the breakout player on this team. Maryland has Melo. The Terps had Final Four sights last season and 2016-17 will be an intriguing year of expectations. This game is in late February so it wouldn’t shock me if the Terps were in a spot of needing a win here to stay on the right side of the bubble.
4. Wisconsin at Michigan State (Feb. 25 or 26). The only meeting between the two, and UW-MSU games are often dramatic. Could be a situation where Hayes is going up against superstud frosh Miles Bridges. That could be really fun. I expect MSU — even though it no longer has Denzel Valentine — to be the best team in the conference. Izzo, fresh off getting into the Hall of Fame, brings in the best recruiting class of his career.
5. Indiana at Purdue (Feb. 28). In-state rivalry that could use a few hateful iterations to get it back to being one of the best series in the country. IU’s probably going to be better next year — now’s your moment, OG Anunoby — but this is a good road test near the end of the conference slate that could vault IU up a seed line with a win. I know Purdue is fairly nondescript from a national perspective, but Matt Painter’s done a fairly good job of keeping that program consistent since he took it over in 2005.
1. Villanova at Creighton (Dec. 31). Creighton’s going to be pretty good, people. Marcus Foster (transfer from K-State) and Mo Watson, Jr. will combo up to be one of the best backcourts in the country. This is Villanova’s first game of league play, and it’s possible the reigning champs begin 0-1 in the Big East.
2. Xavier at Georgetown (Dec. 31). Check out the Big East making itself must-watch on New Year’s Eve. Truth be told, I’ve never liked college hoops scheduling games on Dec. 31 (competes with college football, and in some years the NFL, plus the general NYE festivities means many miss out), but this game is an 11 a.m. tip. That’s terrific planning. The Nova-CU game tips at 1 p.m. Good stuff. Georgetown enters what I think is a crucial year for JT3, but mark me down as a believer that GU gets to the Big Dance.
3. Xavier at Butler (Jan. 14). Butler’s going to need a win like this. I think Chris Holtmann’s got a roster that will have some nice wins, probably a few bad losses, and so the opportunities at home against the best the Big East has to offer need to be taken advantage of. Xavier’s quite possibly going to be better than it was last season, when it set a program record by earning a No. 2 seed. Butler’s going to need a huge year from Kelan Martin, and I think Kethan Savage will adjust quickly.
4. Villanova at Xavier (Feb. 11). The two best teams in the league face off in Cincinnati in the thick of the conference schedule. First place will probably be on the line, and both should have realistic hopes of being in the convo for a No. 1 seed. Nova brings everyone back except Daniel Ochefu and Ryan Arcidiacono. Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins are back. Mikal Bridges is a national breakout player. Xavier will have Edmond Sumner and Trevon Bluiett. All five guys I just mentioned have can be the best player on the court on any given night in any game they play.
5. Marquette at Providence (Feb. 25). Let’s mix it up a bit here and toss in a game that could be crucial to Providence’s NCAA Tournament hopes. PC won’t have Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil back. It’s a rebuild, absolutely, but I think there’s enough offense there (Rodney Bullock, Jalen Lindsey) to make a run. Marquette will get a good year out of Duane Wilson at guard and Luke Fischer in the middle. I think MU will be a top-35 team.
1. Arizona at Cal (Dec. 30). Cal is intriguing because it brings back Ivan Rabb, a gangling power forward who had a chance at being a lottery pick but instead wants to round out his game. Because he’s back, Cal is expected to get to the Big Dance again. Arizona, as normally is the case under Sean Miller, could have the best team in the Pac-12. Lauri Markkanen is a name to know. Stretch 4 from Finland who could be one of the more entertaining players in the country to watch.
2. Oregon at Washington (Jan. 4). Washington has been a letdown too many times to get too excited just yet, but it’s undeniable that the Huskies have a lottery pick on their roster this season. Some think Markelle Fultz will be the No. 1 pick. You’ll want to see UW play for that reason alone. Oregon is going to be right there with Zona and UCLA as the Pac-12’s best. Dillon Brooks, Tyler Dorsey, Jordan Bell, Chris Boucher, Dylan Ennis. Ducks are loaded.
3. Arizona at UCLA (Jan. 21). The rivalry is real between these coaches and programs. UCLA will have a top-five point guard in Lonzo Ball. This one could be critical for UCLA’s confidence in the chase for the conference crown. Another Arizona name to know: Ray Smith. He had an ACL tear that took away his season last year. If he’s healthy and used to his potential, he’ll be one of the 40 best players in college basketball. Subplot: UCLA will have freshman T.J. Leaf, who previously committed to Arizona.
4. Oregon at UCLA (Feb. 9). Guaranteed to entertain. UCLA will have an interesting setup with Ball at the point and Bryce Alford, who’s been running the point, switching up his role. Isaac Hamilton is capable of being an elite player in the Pac-12. UCLA will need him to show up in games just like this one. Also want to see if Prince Ali makes a big jump for the Bruins this season.
5. Cal at Utah (March 2). Utah’s an interesting case here. It’s always well-coached, and I think the Utes can rebound from losing a lottery pick in Jakob Poeltl, plus the graduation departures of Brandon Taylor and Jordan Loveridge. But I wonder if this kind of game will be bubbly for Larry Krystkowiak’s team. For Cal, will Jabari Bird finally have that big year we’ve been expecting since he was a freshman? Also, in case you forgot, Kentucky transfer Marcus Lee will be in the mix for the Bears this season.
1. Georgia at Texas A&M (Jan. 21). In terms of league wins, Georgia has been a top-three program in the SEC under Mark Fox over the past five years. He’s underappreciated and has done fairly well in January and February, all things considered. But winning games like this one is what will help bring Georgia more national pub. The program has not had huge moments, signature wins nor postseason success to vault the overall profile. Here’s a good chance, because A&M should be a top-three team in the SC.
2. Kentucky at Florida (Feb. 4). Florida’s not yet back to what it was under Billy Donovan, but this is just year two for Mike White, who should have UF as a top-25 program again by the end of his third year. That said, Kentucky will be young but developed by the time we get to early February. I’m not convinced UF is a tournament team in 2017, but a win here would probably put the team in a secure spot.
3. Texas A&M at Florida (Feb. 11). If UF can’t be UK on Feb. 4, it gets another good chance at home against a likely tournament team a week later. Here’s what the Gators have in 2016-17: Kasey Hill at the point, KeVaughn Allen as a combo guard, Chris Chiozza as a third member in the backcourt, John Egbunu in the middle and Devin Robinson as a dynamic 4. That’s a flawed but fun quintet. A&M has one of the best rebounders in the nation in Tyler Davis, and a breakout sophomore candid in D.J. Hogg. Freshman J.J. Caldwell could be getting good burn by the time we get to February.
4. Kentucky at Georgia (Feb. 18). The Dawgs have had a few really good games in Athens against John Calipari’s teams over the years. A win here is the type of victory that could secure Georgia as a single-digit seed. I think UGA is set up to be a top-four team in the SEC, but given the schedule is unbalanced, it’s going to have to make sure it lands four or five wins against top-50 competition, because I think the league overall won’t be one of the four best in the country.
5. Vanderbilt at Tennessee (Feb. 22). Vanderbilt now has Bryce Drew running things. He did tremendous at Valparaiso, and I think the talent on Vandy’s roster is enough to eke into the 2017 NCAA Tournament. But I wonder if it will hinge, in part, on a late February game like this. An in-state rivalry could be given some life here, as I don’t think Tennessee is anything but an NIT team, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see Rick Barnes’ club play up when at home against the top half of the conference. My guess is 2017 will be the start of a five-year run wherein Vandy and Tennessee become perennial top-six programs in the conference.
Source: CBS Sports Headlines / The five best conference games in each of the major conferences this season