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College basketball’s 30 best non-conference games of 2020-21

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Probably. Maybe. Perhaps.

San Francisco v Gonzaga Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Full disclosure: I have now had to update this list four different times because of game cancelations, including once about an hour before posting after news broke that Tennessee-Gonzaga was off. That being the case, there’s a very strong chance that at least one of the games listed below will wind up not being played. Still, tradition is tradition, and the best non-conference games list must go on.

This is your annual reminder that the only games eligible for this list are ones that are already set on the schedule. Just like the double play, sexy tournament semifinal or championship games — like Arizona State vs. Villanova in the Empire Classic — are never assumed.

We start with a tie at No. 30 because, whatever, this season is going to be full of super weird stuff. The sooner you learn to stop asking questions, the better.

30. Oklahoma State at Marquette (Dec. 1) (Big East-Big 12 Battle)

Oklahoma State plays on ESPN on opening day, but this will be the first real opportunity for Cade Cunningham to make a national splash against a quality opponent. The potential No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA draft will have to make the most of these types of opportunities since his Cowboy team is (at the moment) banned from postseason play.

30. Stanford vs. Alabama (Nov. 30) (Maui Invitational)

The final game of the first day of the Maui Invitational (not played in Maui this year) figures to be the most competitive. Many national college hoops writers believe Alabama is being undervalued, and Stanford is a team that has a senior star in Oscar da Silva and a potential freshman star in Ziaire Williams.

29. Richmond at Kentucky (Nov. 29)

A young Kentucky squad falling to an experienced group of Spiders wouldn’t quite be the stunner that last year’s Evansville triumph at Rupp Arena was, but it would certainly be a hell of a story for the season’s opening week.

28. Florida at Oklahoma (Dec. 2)

This game is now (tentatively) set as the season-opener for Florida, which had to pull out of the Mohegan Sun bubble because of Covid issues, costing them an early season showdown with Virginia.

27. Iowa State at Iowa (Dec. 11)

This is the first of a few instances where Covid canceled the football game between a pair of in-state, non-conference rivals, but the programs were able to work out a meeting on the hardwood. Whether that background makes things less contentious or even more contentious is to be determined. Either way, Iowa should be a sizable favorite to win its third straight in this series.

26. NC State at Michigan (Dec. 9) (ACC-Big 10 Challenge)

While some teams have used the shortened non-conference season to load up on high quality opponents, Michigan ... has not. This is the only non-Big 10 contest the Wolverines will play against anything you could reasonably describe as a quality opponent, and it’s game that was scheduled for them.

25. Saint Louis at Minnesota (Dec. 20)

The Billikens are getting a lot of love after a somewhat surprisingly solid 23-8 campaign in 2019-20. The major players from that squad are almost all back for another run this season, and they’ll get an early opportunity to turn some heads nationally both in this game and when they face LSU on Nov. 28.

24. Louisville at Wisconsin (Dec. 3) (ACC-Big 10 Challenge)

It’s a bit surprising that these two perennial contenders from major conferences have met just once, a 70-53 Louisville win all the way back in 1978. Since joining the ACC, the Cardinals have won all of their home games in the ACC-Big 10 Challenge, but have yet to taste victory on the road. Wisconsin is 10-11 overall in the event, but 6-3 at home.

23. Texas Tech at LSU (Jan. 30) (SEC-Big 12 Challenge)

This may not be the most hyped game of the SEC-Big 12 Challenge, but it might be the most interesting battle of styles. Will Wade’s high-powered offense versus Chris Beard’s vaunted no middle defense should make for a fascinating 40 minutes.

22. Florida at Florida State (Dec. 12)

Covid issues have forced Florida to pause team activities and cancel its planned trip to the Mohegan Sun bubble to start the season, but its rivalry game against Florida State should still be good to go. The Seminoles have blasted the Gators in each of the last three seasons, extending their winning streak in the series to six games. Before this run, Florida had never lost more than three straight to its arch-rival.

21. Purdue at Miami (Dec. 8) (ACC-Big 10 Challenge)

As the season has inched closer to starting, both of these teams have become sort of trendy sleeper picks in their respective conferences. They’ll have an early opportunity to prove their backers correct on Dec. 8.

20. Indiana at Florida State (Dec. 9) (ACC-Big 10 Challenge)

This will be a rematch of last year’s meeting in Bloomington where Indiana rolled to an 80-64 upset of Florida State in a game that seemed even more strange at the end of the season than it did at the time. The Hoosiers are 5-0 all-time against FSU, but the two teams have never played in Tallahassee.

19. Wisconsin at Marquette (Dec. 4)

Perhaps the most underrated rivalry in all of college basketball continues in Milwaukee on the season’s second Friday. Neither side has won more than two consecutive games over the other since a four-game winning streak by Wisconsin from 1998-2001. The Badgers will look to make it two in a row this season after a surprisingly dominant 77-61 win a year ago.

18. Richmond at West Virginia (Dec. 13)

Richmond’s chances of being a legitimate top 15-20 team took a shot in October when senior guard Nick Sherod suffered a season-ending knee injury, but the preseason favorites in the Atlantic 10 still have more than enough weapons to give West Virginia all it can handle in Morgantown.

17. North Carolina vs. Ohio State (Dec. 19) (CBS Sports Classic)

Our first real indication that things might not go swimmingly for North Carolina in 2019-20 came when Ohio State embarrassed the Tar Heels, 74-49 in early December. That loss started a four game slide that dug a hole UNC was never really able to pull itself out of on its way to the worst season of the Roy Williams era in Chapel Hill. It would be a stunner if this year’s contest isn’t far more competitive.

Shoutout to Titus and Tate.

16. Kentucky vs. UCLA (Dec. 19) (CBS Sports Classic)

It’s always fun when the two programs with more national titles than any other in the sport square off. It’s even more fun when both are top 25 good, which figures to be the case this year.

15. Texas Tech vs. Houston (Nov. 29)

Two of the three most successful college hoops programs from the state of Texas over the last five years (‘sup, Baylor) meet in what should be a highly entertaining opening weekend game in Fort Worth. The game may mean a bit more to the Cougars, who don’t have the benefit of playing the type of loaded conference slate that Texas Tech will have waiting for it.

14. Texas at Kentucky (Jan. 30) (SEC-Big 12 Challenge)

We’ve said this before, but it certainly feels like now or never for Shaka Smart at Texas. A monumental win over Kentucky at Rupp Arena would be a nice feather to have in his cap as he takes his team into February.

13. North Carolina at Iowa (Dec. 8) (ACC-Big 10 Challenge)

Typically when you think of these two teams, you’re thinking about an up and down affair loaded with lethal dose of three-point attempts. There will be enough of that, sure, but the main draw will be the big man battle between Luka Garza and Garrison Brooks. Garza is everyone’s preseason national Player of the Year, while Brooks is a preseason All-American and the preseason ACC Player of the Year.

12. Villanova at Texas (Dec. 6) (Big East-Big 12 Battle)

Texas’ first opportunity to prove that this is finally the year it will be a national player under Shaka Smart will come when Jay Wright and Villanova come to Austin on Dec. 6. If Nova rolls, the “Texas is back” jokes will be shot on social media at a rate the 2005-06 Wildcats would be embarrassed by.

11. Kentucky at Louisville (Dec. 26)

Up until a couple of months ago, the Chris Mack era of the Louisville-Kentucky rivalry hadn’t produced the level of venom we’d all grown accustomed to when Rick Pitino and John Calipari were constantly engaging in wars of words. That changed when Mack and Calipari entered into a battle of public statements concerning the fairness of playing this year’s Battle of the Bluegrass game in front of a limited number of fans at the KFC Yum Center. That battle culminated with a two minute and nine second video from Mack that set the college hoops world, and the rivalry, ablaze.

While the off-court aspect of this rivalry may have gotten interesting again, it’s on Louisville to actually start winning some of these games and make the on-court aspect equally worthy of the nation’s attention.

10. Michigan State at Duke (Dec. 1) (Champions Classic)

The Champions Classic will look a little bit different this year with Kentucky and Kansas squaring off in Indianapolis and this game being played at Cameron Indoor. It’s the 10th year this event has been played, and Duke has the best overall record in the series at 6-3. Michigan State, conversely, has the worst record at 3-6. Expect Tom Izzo’s record against Coach K as well as the fact that Sparty knocked Zion out of the tournament to be brought up liberally throughout the evening. Not everything is changing because of Covid.

9. Michigan State at Virginia (Dec. 9) (ACC-Big 10 Challenge)

No program outside of UMBC contributed more to the “Virginia’s style doesn’t work in March” narrative than Michigan State, which knocked UVA out of the tournament in upset fashion in both 2014 and 2015. In total, Sparty is 5-0 all-time against the Cavaliers.

The other major storyline at play for this one will be the showdown between brothers Sam Hauser and Joey Hauser, who transferred from Marquette to these two programs back in the spring of 2019.

8. Creighton at Kansas (Dec. 8)

Two monsters of the Midwest meet for the first time since the 1974 NCAA tournament. The delayed start to the season put this game in jeopardy, but thankfully, the two preseason top 15 squads were able to keep the game on the docket and agree on a later date.

7. Illinois at Duke (Dec. 8) (ACC-Big 10 Challenge)

Illinois is getting an awful lot of hype for a program that hasn’t even made an NCAA tournament since 2013. I know, I know, they would have been safely in a year ago, but still, we’re talking about preseason top 10 legitimate national title contender hype, not just “hey, they might actually be tournament good” hype. They’ll start December with two massive opportunities to prove that all the talk is justified. First against Baylor on Dec. 2, and then at Cameron Indoor Stadium in what could be the showcase game of the ACC-Big 10 Challenge.

6. Kansas vs. Kentucky (Dec. 1) (Champions Classic)

Bankers Life Fieldhouse will be the site for this meeting of bluebloods who had squared off in five straight seasons before the ill-fated 2019-20 campaign. Kentucky snapped a three-game losing streak to KU with a 71-63 win back in January of 2019. The Wildcats, who won 16 of the 17 games played against Kansas between 1950-1984, still lead the overall series, 23-9.

5. Gonzaga vs. Iowa (Dec. 19)

The top two offenses in college basketball last season meet in Sioux Falls for what has the potential to be the most entertaining (and perhaps the best) game of college basketball’s opening month. There will be multiple players on the floor who will have the opportunity to use the game as a springboard to Player of the Year/All-American honors.

4. Illinois vs. Baylor (Dec. 2) (Jimmy V. Classic)

This year’s Jimmy V. Classic doubleheader might be the best in recent memory (UPDATE: change that to “could have been” not that Gonzaga-Tennessee has been canceled). The nightcap will feature these two preseason top 10 squads headlined by preseason All-American guards. While they’ll be far from the only talent on the floor, Ayo Dosunmu vs. Jared Butler alone will be worth staying up late for.

3. Kansas vs. Gonzaga (Nov. 26) (Fort Myers Tip-Off)

There no holiday more synonymous with a sport than Thanksgiving is with football, but this year Turkey Day is also going to be the host for the highest-profile game of college hoops’ opening week. With so many of the first week’s marquee games being canceled, this showdown between No. 1 and No. 6 in Fort Myers feels like an even larger deal than it did just 10 days ago.

2. Villanova vs. Virginia (Dec. 19)

Together they’ve won three out of the last four national championships, so it’s only right that this will be a matchup of the preseason No. 3 (‘Nova) vs. the preseason No. 4 (Virginia). Plus, seeing Jay Wright and Tony Bennett coach against one another will give us all the necessary confirmation that they aren’t actually the same person. So that’s an added bonus.

1. Gonzaga vs. Baylor (Dec. 5)

It can’t get much bigger than No. 1 in the preseason AP poll (and No. 2 in the coaches poll) versus No. 1 in the preseason coaches poll (and No. 2 in the AP poll). Credit to both programs for making this game in Indianapolis happen and giving us all a high quality treat this early in the season.