With the 2020-21 college basketball season tipping off Nov. 25 — two weeks later than its scheduled start date due to the coronavirus pandemic — there’s a smorgasbord of early-season games worth paying attention to, including several during Thanksgiving week.
While the major power conferences — ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Big East, Pac-12 and SEC — have all announced their league schedules for the upcoming season, the season’s early intrigue will start with a long list of non-conference duels. A majority of these games have been moved to alternative locations to adhere to COVID-19 precautions.
These key matchups all could hold postseason implications, with the NCAA tournament likely to be hosted in its entirety from Indianapolis.
Here’s a look at the top nine non-conference games to watch in the early season.
No. 5 Kansas vs. No. 2 Gonzaga (Nov. 26, Fort Myers Tip-Off). Coach Bill Self’s Jayhawks will challenge a national title contender ‘Zags team. KU’s Marcus Garrett is the best defensive player in the country and junior college transfer Tyon Grant-Foster will be a key addition. Corey Kispert is Gonzaga’s go-to player this year, and he’ll have an intriguing one-on-one matchup with Garrett.
No. 5 Kansas vs. No. 9 Kentucky (Dec. 1, Champions Classic). KU will face off against coach John Calipari’s freshmen-laden roster. Likely one-and-done wings B.J. Boston and Terrence Clarke will make the Wildcats a national contender once again.
No. 12 Michigan State vs. No. 8 Duke (Dec. 1, Champions Classic). Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski both lost a lot of talent. But these blue-blood battles are always top-notch and will serve as an introduction to new talent.
Oklahoma State at Marquette (Dec. 1, Big East/Big 12 Challenge). This will be the first major look at freshman sensation Cade Cunningham, a projected No. 1 pick in next summer’s NBA draft. The do-everything guard should showcase his takeover abilities.
No. 10 Illinois vs. No. 1 Baylor (Dec. 2, Jimmy V Classic). The Illini have two preseason All-Americans in guard Ayo Dosnumu and big man Kofi Cockburn. Look for Illinois coach Brad Underwood’s team to make a statement in this clash.
No. 2 Gonzaga vs. No. 1 Baylor (Dec. 5, regular season). If rankings stay the same, we could be looking at an epic No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup. We also could be getting an early snapshot of what the national title game might look like come April.
No. 10 Illinois at No. 8 Duke (Dec. 8, ACC/Big Ten Challenge). Arguably the best of the Big Ten going head-to-head with the best of the ACC. Look for these teams to battle it out with a Final Four vibe.
No. 12 Michigan State at No. 4 Virginia (Dec. 9 ACC/Big Ten Challenge). There’s a reason Virginia coach Tony Bennett has a team ranked in the top-five regularly without an influx of talent. His system works and that methodical offense and pack-line defense will be on display here in a top-tier battle with the Spartans.
No. 9 Kentucky vs. No. 21 UCLA (Dec. 19, CBS Sports Classic). Coach Mick Cronin turned around last season’s team to vault the Bruins into the NCAA tourament bubble. Now, expect UCLA to climb the rankings because that group is back.
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.