We may be smack in the middle of college football season, but the 2020-21 college basketball season is coming fast.
The season is set to begin Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving, and the action will be coming fast and furious out of the gate.
Here are 15 must-see non-conference games for college hoops junkies to put on the calendar.
Kansas-Gonzaga, Fort Myers Tip-Off, Nov. 26
Led by Preseason All-American Marcus Garrett, Kansas enters the 2020-21 campaign as a consensus top-10 program. The Jayhawks returned to the top of the Big 12 last season and finished the season as the No. 1 ranked team in the Associated Press poll. Head coach Bill Self enters his 18th season with the Jayhawks and owns a 501-109 record with the program. Kansas has made three Final Fours, claimed the 2008 NCAA Championship and has never been lower than a four seed in the NCAA Tournament under Self. In addition to Garrett, Kansas returns juniors Ochai Agbaji and David McCormack, who started 31 and 18 games, respectively, for the Jayhawks last season. KU’s four newcomers include 2020 McDonald’s All-American guard Bryce Thompson along with junior college All-American transfer Tyon Grant-Foster.
Gonzaga, a 31-win team last year, welcomes back an experienced nucleus of talent, led by Preseason All-American Corey Kispert, along with all-conference caliber standouts Joel Ayayi and Drew Timme. The Bulldogs, who boast six 30-win campaigns in the last eight years – including each of the last four seasons – also add three top-100 freshmen to its roster, headlined by top-10 prospect Jalen Suggs. Head coach Mark Few, now in his 22nd season at the helm of the Gonzaga program, owns a 599-124 career record, an .828 winning percentage – a mark that ranks second all-time in NCAA history. Few has guided the Bulldogs to the NCAA Tournament every year, including the 2017 national championship game, and to a No. 1 ranking in three of the last four seasons.
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Villanova-Baylor, Empire Classic, Nov. 25 or 26
Villanova is the No. 1 team in the CBSSports.com preseason rankings, with Baylor at No. 3. (Gonzaga is No. 2).
Under coach Jay Wright, the Wildcats have won two of the last four NCAA championships (2016 and ‘18) and will be among the favorites to win again this year. They will be led by Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, the sophomore forward who withdrew from the NBA Draft, Collin Gillespie, Justin Moore and Jermaine Samuels.
Under coach Scott Drew, Baylor was picked to win the Big 12 ahead of Kansas and features guard Jared Butler, the Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year, and honorable mention selections MaCio Teague and Mark Vital.
We’re cheating here a little bit in that the Empire Classic has not yet to announce matchups for an event that also features Arizona State and Boston College. It’s been assumed that Villanova and Baylor will be on opposite sides and would potentially meet in the championship game, but they could be paired up in the first round. If one team loses its first game, this game wouldn’t happen. Let’s hope we get it.
Iona at Fordham, Nov. 25
The Rick Pitino Era begins at Iona with a trip to historic Rose Hill Gym.
The only man to lead two schools to NCAA championships (Kentucky and Louisville), Pitino has compared Iona to Providence, which he led to the 1987 Final Four. Iona was picked second in the MAAC behind Siena despite Pitino bringing in virtually an entirely new roster.
“I’ve been to seven Final Fours, we won two championships [at Kentucky and Louisville], I’ve had a great run,” Pitino said. “But my favorite two years in all of basketball was Providence College, away from the lines.”
He said the MAAC school will be his last stop.
“So for me,” he said, “it’s a great way to end my career and I’m very proud to be an Iona Gael.”
Baylor at Seton Hall, Big East/Big 12 Battle, Nov. 29
A year ago, Michigan State was the preseason No. 1 team in the nation, but was No. 3 when they arrived in Newark. Myles Powell went for 37 points but the Pirates lost a tough one, 76-73.
Now Seton Hall’s first home game (after two in Louisville) will be against a Baylor team that was picked to win the Big 12. The new-look Pirates lost Powell to the NBA Draft and will rely on Harvard grad transfer Bryce Aiken, unanimous First-Team All-Big East forward Sandro Mamukelashvili, wings Jared Rhoden and Myles Cale and 7-foot-2 big man Ike Obiagu. A win by the Pirates here would serve as a signature win for their NCAA Tournament resume.
Kansas-Kentucky, Champions Classic, Dec. 1
Kentucky and Kansas rank 1 and 2 all-time in men’s college basketball victories. This season, CBSports.com ranks Kansas No. 6 in its preseason rankings, with Kentucky at 10. A location has to be announced but it’s expected to be in Indianapolis. Kentucky features projected one-and-done wings B.J. Boston and Terrence Clarke and also brought in graduate transfers Olivier Sarr and Davion Mintz to what could be another Final Four team. The Wildcats are 2-1 vs. the Jayhawks in Champions Classic matchups.
Michigan State at Duke, Champions Classic, Dec. 1
Duke played at Michigan State last Dec. 3 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, with Vernon Carey going for 26 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks to help the No. 10 Blue Devils dominate the No. 11 Spartans, 87-75.
This year’s game will be played at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium instead of a neutral site, much to the consternation of Michigan State fans. Duke, ranked No. 12 by CBS VIAC , returns sophomores Matthew Hurt and Wendell Moore while bringing in another crop of freshmen stars in Jalen Johnson, Jeremy Roach and D.J. Steward. No. 13 Michigan State will feature Marquette transfer Joey Hauser along with returnees Aaron Henry, Joshua Langford, Foster Loyer, Rocket Watts, Malik Hall and Marcus Bingham Jr., as well as highly touted freshman big man Mady Sissoko.
Oklahoma State at Marquette, Big East/Big 12 Battle, Dec. 1
This will be the first chance for many Americans to see Oklahoma State freshman Cade Cunningham, the 6-foot-7 point guard who is the projected No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, per ESPN.com.
“Cade is a transcendent talent,” he coach Mike Boynton told me for The New York Times NYT . “He could be an N.B.A. guy now. I mean, he’s got real, real ability. Those are the type of guys that can truly elevate your program from being a middle-tier team to being a national contender, so it means a lot.”
Cunningham chose the Cowboys over Kentucky and other suitors in part because it’s close to his home in Texas and also because his brother, Cannen, is on Boynton’s staff. He stayed committed even after Oklahoma State was handed a postseason ban by the NCAA for their role in the college basketball bribery scandal. The Cowboys are appealing the ban and it will be interesting to see how the year plays out for Cunningham and his teammates.
Illinois-Baylor, Jimmy V Classic, Dec. 2
After wing Ayo Dosnumu and big man Kofi Cockburn withdrew from the NBA Draft, Brad Underwood’s team was installed as a favorite to win the Big Ten and is ranked No. 4 by CBSSports.com.
“I came back because I saw that we have the opportunity to do something big and ultimately win a national championship, especially with Ayo retuning that increased our chances,” the 7-foot Cockburn told ZAGSBLOG.
The Illini also bring in freshmen studs Adam Miller, Andre Curbelo and Coleman Hawkins.
This should be a tantalizing matchup between top-5 teams.
Gonzaga-Tennessee, Jimmy V Classic, Dec. 2
Gonzaga is No. 2 in the CBSSports.com poll, while Tennessee is No. 15.
We addressed the Zags above. Tennessee may feature the best starting five in the SEC. Senior forward John Fulkerson averaged 13.7 points and 5.9 rebounds last season, Josiah Jordan-James averaged 7.4 points and 5.5 rebounds and senior Yves Pons 10.8 points and 5.4 boards. Several outlets have picked Tennessee to beat out Kentucky for the SEC title.
Gonzaga-Baylor, Dec. 5
Both teams are playing really strong non-conference schedules, with the Zags facing Kansas (Nov. 26), Auburn (Nov. 27). Tennessee (Dec. 2) and Baylor (Dec. 5) in a 10-day span. They also play Big 10 power Iowa Dec. 19 in Sioux Falls, S.D. The Baylor game will happen in Indianapolis.
Baylor, meantime, could play three top-5 ranked teams in their first five games, with potentially No. 1 Villanova in the Empire Classic, followed by No. 4 Illinois in the Jimmy V and No. 2 Gonzaga.
Illinois at Duke, ACC/Big Ten Challenge, Dec. 8
Going into Cameron Indoor Stadium is never an easy task but could be much different if fans aren’t permitted or are limited due to COVID restrictions.
Both teams feature players who could have entered the NBA Draft, but returned to campus. Illinois’ Cockburn and Dosunmu both withdrew from the draft, while Duke’s Hurt opted to forego the draft and return. Duke freshman Jalen Johnson is also a projected Top-10 pick in 2021.
Michigan State at Virginia, ACC/Big Ten Challenge, Dec. 9
The Spartans will play three ACC opponents in the non-conference, including road games at Duke and Virginia and a home MTE with Notre Dame to begin the season.
This game will not only feature a battle between two top coaches in Tom Izzo but Tony Bennett, but between brothers when Joey Hauser of Michigan State takes on his older brother Sam Hauser of Virginia. Both transferred out of Marquette before sitting out last season.
Virginia, No. 5 in the CBSSports.com poll, also returns guards Kihei Clark and Casey Morsell.
Kentucky-UCLA, CBS Sports Classic, Dec. 19
When these two blue bloods square off, it’s always an event. The two schools are 1-1 in this event, which this year takes place in Cleveland (as does North Carolina-Ohio State). Kentucky is 8-7 all-time against UCLA, which this year features guard Chris Smith, who withdrew from the draft, along with point guard Tyger Campbell, shooting guard David Singleton, and bigs Jalen Hill and Cody Riley.
Villanova-Virginia, Dec. 19
This was a game everyone had circled when it was first announced because these two programs have combined to win the three of the last four NCAA titles — Villanova in 2016 and ‘18 and Virginia in 2019. The game was set for Madison Square Garden, but MSG hasn’t hosted an event since March due to the pandemic. Villanova coach Jay Wright has said he’s optimistic the game will happen, although a venue has yet to be announced.
Texas at Kentucky, SEC/Big 12 Challenge, Jan. 30
This game will feature three projected lottery pick one-and-dones in B.J. Boston and Terrence Clarke of Kansas and Greg Brown of Texas, who chose the Longhorns over Auburn, Kentucky, Memphis and Michigan — as well as potentially playing in the NBA G League.
Texas brings back all five starters in Matt Coleman, Andrew Jones, Jericho Sims, Courtney Ramey and Jase Fabres from last year’s 19-12 squad, while adding Brown and big man Will Baker.