Believe it or not, college basketball season is upon us.
The regular season gets underway Tuesday with some big-time action. While “Feast Week” will deliver a plethora of great tournaments and individual games, there are a number of games before then that are worthy of a watch, even if teams are still coming into form.
I’ve picked what I believe to be the 10 best games before Feast Week and tried my hand at picking the winners.
Tuesday, Nov. 6
While much of America will be tuned in to news networks on election night, the college basketball season gloriously gets underway, most notably with the Champions Classic in Indianapolis.
The event, which started in 2011, used to be a week or more into the season, but they moved it up to the very first day of the season in an attempt to open the season with a bang.
Smart move. The Champions Classic features four of the top programs in the sport — Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State — playing a double-header at a neutral location on a three-year rotation. The only time an unranked team appeared in the event was Michigan State in 2011.
No. 10 Michigan State vs. No. 1 Kansas — ESPN, 7 p.m.
After losing Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson, Jr. — and ending the season on a sour note with a second-round loss to Syracuse — Tom Izzo is looking to get back to form after receiving much criticism for playing both of those players out of position (and failing to even play Jackson when it mattered most).
Bill Self, who may have one of his best teams since coming to Lawrence, begins the quest for a 15th straight Big 12 regular season title. He brings in a top-five recruiting class, plus the Lawson brothers are now eligible after transferring from Memphis.
Add the new guys to a solid cast of returning players, and you see why the Jayhawks were pegged preseason No. 1 in the AP Poll.
They’ll be too deep and talented for the Spartans, who will probably endure some early-season growing pains, but shape up to be at the top of the Big Ten by season’s end. The Champions Classic hasn’t been too kind to MSU, who is 3-4 overall, but they are 2-0 against Kansas in the event.
Prediction: Kansas 81, Michigan State 69
No. 4 Duke vs. No. 2 Kentucky — ESPN, approx. 9 p.m.
This one is obviously being billed as the marquee matchup of the evening — and of the entire non-conference slate, really — and rightfully so.
Duke brings in the top three recruits in the country, according to multiple outlets at the time of their signings.
Kentucky doesn’t quite have the same type of freshman class as we’re used to John Calipari bringing in, but a solid bunch nonetheless. Pair that with a good amount of experience — including Stanford grad transfer Reid Travis — and the Wildcats will be a ton of fun to watch.
The Blue Devils trio of R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Zion Williamson will probably provide the flashiest highlights this year, but they’re not all that deep beyond the starting lineup. Both of these teams had time to tune up and mesh together in the offseason with international trips, so this is going to be one of the best season-opening products you could ever ask for.
Prediction: Kentucky 82, Duke 79
Florida @ No. 17 Florida State — ESPN 2, 9 p.m.
If for some reason the monumental Duke-Kentucky matchup doesn’t do it for you, flip over to ESPN 2 for a little rivalry action.
Leonard Hamilton and Florida State are looking to build on last season’s Elite 8 run and return a lot of good athletes on the wings. They also get big man Phil Cofer back for one more season.
The Gators, meanwhile, have gone a little under the radar in the lead up to the season. Some people wrote Florida off early in the season last year after losses to the Seminoles, Loyola-Chicago and Clemson — those didn’t turn out to be bad losses at all.
Despite losing Chris Chiozza and Egor Koulechov, Mike White has a lot of returning talent in Kevaughn Allen, Keith Stone and of course Jalen Hudson.
The Seminoles have won the last four meetings in the rivalry, and the Gators will be out for blood. Florida State will have a target on its back getting all the love among in-state teams to start the year. White will find a way to out-duel Hamilton for the upset in a fun, gritty game.
Prediction: Florida 66, Florida State 63
BYU @ No. 7 Nevada — CBS Sports Network, 11 p.m.
If the excitement of the early games has you wide awake late Tuesday night, check this one out.
Nevada is receiving gobs of hype (All aboard the #MussBus!) heading into this season as they return their three top scorers from last year’s Sweet 16 team that lost a thriller against Loyola. They’re also bringing in 6-foot-8 grad transfer Trey Porter (13.2 points, 6.8 rebounds per game at Old Dominion last season) and McDonald’s All-American center Jordan Brown.
Porter and Brown are key additions that will help anchor the middle and give the Wolf Pack options beyond the returning core of Jordan Caroline and twins Cody and Caleb Martin. Their biggest question mark going into the season is whether they can improve defensively (108 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency last year).
While BYU isn’t ranked, or even on many radars, the Cougars are quietly the second best team in the WCC. I included them in my list of non-tournament teams to keep an eye on for this season that I published back in April.
BYU has Yoeli Childs and TJ Haws coming back to a team that made the WCC title game and gave Gonzaga a good fight at The Kennel last year.
This should be a matchup of a very good offense against a potential tournament team with a solid defense. Nevada should win, but this will be a good chance for you to get an early look at a BYU team I’m pretty high on.
Prediction: Nevada 79, BYU 66
Friday, Nov. 9
Buffalo @ No. 13 West Virginia — ESPNU, 9 p.m.
The Bulls will be among the best mid-major teams in the country outside the likes of Gonzaga, Nevada and Loyola-Chicago. If you recall, they delivered one of the bigger upsets on the first night of the tournament last spring, knocking off 4-seed Arizona.
Buffalo gets back its top three scorers from that team and head coach Nate Oats — who was coaching high school ball in Michigan just five years ago — has another year of experience under his belt.
The Mountaineers lost a ton from last year. That includes everyone’s favorite (or least favorite) scrappy defender, Jevon Carter. No more Daxter Miles or DeAngelo Hunter, either. Bob Huggins might have to work a little magic to keep “Press Virginia” alive and well, but they’re going to be pretty solid.
Sagaba Konate will still be swatting shots into the stands, but there are sure to be some hiccups in Morgantown this season. This game might sneak up on them, if they’re not careful.
Prediction: West Virginia 72, Buffalo 61
No. 25 Washington @ No. 11 Auburn — SEC Network, 9:30 p.m.
Bruce Pearl’s Tigers have the highest expectations the program has seen since the Charles Barkley days. They return two of their top four scorers from last year’s SEC title team, plus they add some of their best players who return from NCAA eligibility issues.
The Huskies are on the rise, improving by 12 wins last season in Mike Hopkins’ first year. In his second go round, he’s hoping Jaylen Nowell can improve on an impressive freshman campaign in which he averaged 16 points.
Auburn should have one of the better defenses in the country, and they’ll also play at one of the highest tempos in the game. It will be interesting to watch that style go up against Washington, who is ranked in the AP Top 25, despite being 46th in KenPom’s preseason rankings. Tigers should have the upper hand thanks to a home crowd, where they went 15-1
Prediction: Auburn 78, Washington 70
Tuesday, Nov. 13
Memphis @ No. 23 LSU — SEC Network, 7 p.m.
Penny Hardaway’s first true test as head coach of his alma mater. No promises they will be a great team this year. But the Tigers’ top two scorers are back, Hardaway’s son, Jayden, is coming with him, as are two of his high school players from the team he coached last season.
Expectations are awkwardly high in Memphis for a coach with virtually no experience and not a lot to work with right off the bat. We’ll get our first looks at what kind of coaching style Hardaway has against, in my opinion, one of the more promising teams in the country.
LSU has a heck of a freshman class coming in to join Skylar Mays and Tremont Waters. In his freshman year, Waters averaged 15.9 points, 6.0 assists and 2.0 steals per game while displaying a clutch gene on both ends of the floor.
Waters, Mays, Naz Reid and Emmitt Williams are going to challenge for the top of the SEC. I’m excited to watch this team.
Prediction: LSU 80, Memphis 71
Wednesday, Nov. 14
No. 19 Michigan @ No. 9 Villanova — FS1, 6:30 p.m.
We’re getting a national championship rematch for the first time since Duke beat Butler in December 2010 following their win over the Bulldogs in Indianapolis earlier that year.
Since the 2000 national championship game, there have been six regular season rematches between the teams that squared off for the title the previous spring. Those games have been split evenly, with the champions winning three of them and the runners-up exacting revenge three times.
Villanova won its second title in three years when it beat Michigan (_) in San Antonio back in April. Both teams will look markedly different when they hit the floor this season.
The Wildcats lose a ton — Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman, who all went in the top 33 picks of the NBA Draft — but will still be in the mix for a top 2-or-3 seed come Tournament time. Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, two of the most experienced players in the country, are still around and the Cats add Jahvon Quinerly and Cole Swider, among others.
Michigan also lost a lot. Mo Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson are all gone, but there’s still a lot of talent left to go around. The starting five figures to be players who all saw decent playing time at points throughout last season. Freshmen Ignas Brazdeikis and Brandon Johns will have to play a big role for the Wolverines to get back to the level they were at last year.
Two of the best coaches in the game will be going at it again. Jay Wright is always so good at reloading, and John Beilein can seemingly adapt his roster to the way he wants to play. The big question this year is whether he can get them to build on last year’s defensive masterpiece and take a big step up on the offensive end after losing three of its top four scorers.
Prediction: Villanova 75, Michigan 68
Marquette @ Indiana — FS1, 8:30 p.m.
Like the Michigan-Villanova game, this one is part of the Gavitt Tipoff Games, one of the best inter-conference challenges around.
Marquette and Indiana are both ranked outside the AP Top 25 — 27th and 28th, if you will. What Steve Wojciechowski has been building towards in Milwaukee is coming to a tee, as he has what should be a deep bench and pretty experienced team, including a couple of transfers.
But the Golden Eagles’ prize possession this year is Markus Howard, who led the nation in three-point FG% as a freshman two years ago. His regression in that area last year (down from 54.7 to 40.4 percent) was a product of a struggling team and, if we’re being honest, 40 percent is not bad at all. If Howard can crank it back up even just a little bit this year, watch out.
Indiana high school legend Romeo Langford has Bloomington buzzing again. The Hoosiers will revolve around him and senior forward Juwan Morgan, but Archie Miller’s team has a handful of players beyond the 1-2 punch that could be key role players. In particular, watch out for freshman Rob Phinisee and junior Devonte Green to shoulder the load.
This will be the first tough test of the season for both teams and the first nationally televised game Langford plays in. Assembly Hall will be amped up. Expect Langford to light it up. And if Howard heats up, this could be an absolute shootout.
Prediction: Indiana 78, Marquette 74
Thursday, Nov. 15
No. 16 Syracuse @ UConn — ESPN 2, 7 p.m.
Disclaimer: this is a bit of a cheat game because it’s technically an early-season tournament game (2K Sports Classic). The winner plays Iowa or Oregon.
This would have been one of the season’s marquee matchups about five-six years ago. It will be nice to see this rivalry rekindled.
Since the Orange and Huskies went to separate conferences, they have trended in opposite directions. While Syracuse hasn’t necessarily been Syracuse the last few seasons, UConn did win a national title while in the American. But that was a conference just one year removed from the old Big East that featured a number of great teams, including Louisville.
Since then, the Huskies have gone on to hit rock bottom. The re-build begins this year with Dan Hurley taking over for Kevin Ollie. There are going to be growing pains. Probably some pretty bad ones, at times.
But it will still be fun to see the Huskies and Orange duke it out at Madison Square Garden. Jim Boeheim, in his 43rd season, has the Orange poised for a solid season as they hope to avoid bubble talk this year.
They don’t lose any key players from last year’s team that upset Michigan State in the second round, and they add a ton of depth and three-point shooting. They’ll drown the Huskies in this game, but for nostalgia’s sake, it’ll be a good watch.
Prediction: Syracuse 77, UConn 61