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Brian Mull | | September 24, 2015

College Basketball: 10 must-watch early season games

  Perry Ellis returns to Kansas this season and KU hopes to avenge last season's loss to SDSU.

Sure, we’re in the middle of college football season. Leaves are turning, temperatures are dropping and teams are jockeying for position in the playoff, striving for bowl game eligibility -  or trying not to fall too far behind in the conference race.

But as each Saturday comes and goes, we inch another week closer to the start of college basketball, the wonderful five-month season that spans the major holidays and culminates with the 68 teams who earn a bid to the NCAA tournament.

We've selected 10 nonconference games worth your time and attention. There are the usual rivalries (don’t worry hoops-lovers of the Bluegrass state) and games featuring teams with new faces on the court or the bench. We've also tried to identify games that could prove important when the selection committee huddles in that boardroom on conference tournament weekend.

Let's go, hoops fans. The highlight-reel dunks, upsets and buzzer-beating 3-pointers will soon return.  

1. Duke vs. VCU, Nov. 20, Madison Square Garden, NYC

Both squads bring a fresh look to this meeting in the 2K Classic Benefitting the Wounded Warrior Project. The Blue Devils landed another elite recruiting class - led by 6-foot-8 forward Brandon Ingram - to replace their four leading scorers from last season’s team which delivered coach Mike Krzyzewski his fifth national championship. VCU averaged 27 wins and reached the 2011 Final Four in six seasons under coach Shaka Smart, but he left for Texas during the offseason. His former assistant Will Wade, who led Chattanooga to a 40-25 record the last two seasons, has the task of keeping the program relevant nationally. He’ll lean on junior guard Melvin Johnson - he made 86 3-pointers and averaged 12.4 points last season.

2. Auburn at Coastal Carolina, Dec. 2nd, HTC Center, Conway, S.C.

Expectations are high entering coach Bruce Pearl’s second season at Auburn, and avenging last season’s four-point home loss to Coastal Carolina would confirm the progress of his rebuilding efforts. Powerful forward Cinmeon Bowers (12.5 ppg, 9.6 rpg) and a talented six-man recruiting class ranked in the top 30 nationally by make the Tigers optimistic they can improve on last season’s 15-20 record. Coastal Carolina won the Big South Conference the last two seasons and coach Cliff Ellis would love nothing more than to complete the sweep against Auburn, which he led to 186 victories and an SEC title from 1994 to 2004. Junior guard Elijah Wilson (11.3 ppg) is one of two returning Chanticleers who averaged double-figure scoring a year ago.

3. Butler at Cincinnati, Dec. 2, Fifth Third Arena, Cincinnati, Ohio

Cincinnati welcomes coach Mick Cronin back to the sidelines while Butler looks to make another magical March run in a meeting of two teams likely to be ranked in the national polls. The Bearcats reached the Round of 32 in the NCAA tournament last season while Cronin sat out with a vascular condition known as arterial dissection. He was cleared to coach in late March and the top five scorers return to a unit that was 14th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Butler, which also reached the Round of 32, was even better defensively (7th in efficiency) and is loaded with scorers, led by 6-6 senior Kellen Dunham (16.5 ppg, 41.3 pct. on 3-pointers). The Bulldogs could also receive a boost from small and speedy point guard Tyler Lewis, a transfer from N.C. State.

4. Northern Iowa at Richmond, Dec. 5, Robins Center, Richmond, Va.

Each team enters 2015-16 with postseason aspirations, and this matchup provides an opportunity for a resume-boosting victory. Northern Iowa was one of just nine teams in the top 30 nationally in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency last season as it compiled a 31-4 record. But the Panthers must replace their top two scorers. Still, coach Ben Jacobson has a strong senior class led by guard Wes Washpun (7.6 ppg last season). Richmond returns five of its top six players from a 21-14 club that earned a No. 1 seed in the Postseason NIT and reached the quarterfinals. The Spiders will be among the favorites in the rugged Atlantic 10, because versatile forwards Terry Allen (13.0 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and T.J. Cline (11.8 ppg, 50 3-pointers) are a formidable frontcourt and point guard ShawnDre’ Jones (10.3 ppg) could have a breakout season.

5. Florida at Michigan State, Dec. 12, Breslin Center, East Lansing, Mich.

Florida could be searching for an identity when it travels north to face perennial power Michigan State. The Gators (16-17 last season) won 71.5 percent of their games and the only two national titles in school history during 19 seasons under coach Billy Donovan, who departed after the season for the NBA to coach the Oklahoma City Thunder. His replacement Mike White, 101-40 in four seasons at Louisiana Tech, inherits leading scorer Dorian Finney-Smith (13.1 ppg) and a top-20 recruiting class. In December, the Spartans have rarely developed into what they’ll become. Tom Izzo, who has led the program to 495 wins and seven Final Fours since 1995, has a young team but welcomes back Denzel Valentine, who scored 14.5 points per game for a 27-12 team that lost to Duke in the national semifinals.   

6. Marquette at Wisconsin, Dec. 12, Kohl Center, Madison, Wisc.

It’s always interesting when these two in-state rivals get together. Steve Wojciechowski’s first season at Marquette ended with a 13-19 record. The former Duke player and assistant wasted little time finding talented players who fit his blueprint for building a program. He lured a top 10 recruiting class to the Milwaukee campus, highlighted by skilled big man Henry Ellenson, rated the No. 2 power forward in 2015 by It was a strange offseason for the Badgers, who faded in the second half of the national final against Duke to fall just shy of the first title since 1941. Veteran coach Bo Ryan announced his retirement in the spring, then reconsidered in June and is back for at least one more season. The Badgers must replace two NBA first round draft picks - national player of the year Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker.

7. California at Virginia, Dec. 22, John Paul Jones Arena, Charlottesville, Va.

Expect both teams to be ranked in the top 10 in the nation when they face off over the holidays. Cuonzo Martin’s second season at the helm for Cal should be remarkably better than the 18-win debut. Tyrone Wallace (17.1 ppg) is among the frontrunners for Pac 12 Player of the Year and he’ll have help via two other double figure scorers and prized prospect Jaylen Brown (6-7, 225 pounds). The host Cavaliers are coming off consecutive 30-win seasons, although falling short of the second weekend of the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row left another nasty taste lingering in the offseason. The inside-outside combination of Malcolm Brogden (14.0 ppg) and Anthony Gill (11.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg) should ease the departure of swingman Justin Anderson, who was selected with the 21st pick in the NBA Draft.  

8. Maryland at North Carolina, Dec. 1st, Smith Center, Chapel Hill, NC

What a great year for these two old conference foes to reunite in the ACC - Big 10 Challenge. The Terrapins return dynamic point guard Melo Trimble (16.2 ppg), and add former Duke starter Rasheed Sulaimon along with five-star center Diamond Stone for what is surely Mark Turgeon’s most talented team in College Park. The Terps expect to contend for their title in their new conference, and they’ll certainly find out where they stand against a veteran UNC squad. Point guard Marcus Paige (14.1ppg) is one of four double figure scorers returning for the Tar Heels, who were always competitive last season but often unable to finish off opponents. Justin Jackson is another matchup problem on the perimeter. He surged late last season, scoring in double figures in 11 of the last 12 games, including the season-ending loss to Wisconsin in a NCAA tournament regional semifinal.

9. Kansas at San Diego State, Dec. 22, Viejas Arena at Aztec Bowl, San Diego, Calif.

Two of the nation’s most consistent programs complete a home-and-home series that saw San Diego State pull the shocker at Allen Fieldhouse in Jan. 2014. When SDSU knocked off KU last January, they ended the Jayhawks 68-game inning streak against non-conference opponents. The Aztecs return leading scorer Winston Shepard (11.1 ppg) but have questions elsewhere with little proven scoring back from a 31-5 squad that reached the NCAA tournament round of 32.  This game should offer a firm road test for Kansas before it pursues an amazing 12th consecutive Big 12 regular season championship under coach Bill Self. To no one’s surprise, the Jayhawks are loaded again. Perry Ellis led the Jayhawks in scoring last season (13.8 ppg) and the 6-8 senior returns, joined by junior guards Frank Mason III (12.6 ppg) and Wayne Selden Jr. (9.4 ppg). Chieck Diallo (6-9, 218) is one of the nation’s most promising freshmen.

10. Louisville at Kentucky, Dec. 26, Rupp Arena, Lexington, Ky.   

It’s fitting that the nation’s most heated nonconference college basketball rivalry closes the list: blueblood programs separated by 77 miles, coached by a Hall of Famer, winner of a national title in the last five years. What more could anyone want from a late December basketball game? With his top four scorers gone, Louisville coach Rick Pitino must dig deep into his well of coaching knowledge to produce a consistent winner. Versatile wing Deng Adel (No. 32) is the highest rated freshman in a top 15 recruiting class.

The Wildcats lost their top seven scorers from a team that entered the Final Four unbeaten, but lost in the national semifinal to Wisconsin. No problem, coach John Calipari reloaded yet again with the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation, per The names to remember are center Skal Labissiere, shooting guard Jamal Murray and point guard Isaiah Briscoe - each named No. 1 in the 2015 class at his position.  

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