By John Fanta
FOX Sports College Basketball Writer
There has been no shortage of storylines in the college basketball offseason.
With major star talent returning for the 2022-23 season, including Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, North Carolina’s Armando Bacot, Gonzaga’s Drew Timme, Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson and others, the sport is in a healthy place.
While some nonconference schedules are still being finalized, let’s have some fun and look ahead to 10 of my favorite nonconference matchups in the upcoming season.
There are two important rules in this column to up the ante: I could not use a team twice (which was difficult), and I did not choose any Thanksgiving week matchups because those could be in their own category. This was a challenge to select because there were several strong candidates!
The following games are in the order they’ll appear on the calendar.
Nov. 15: duke vs. KansasGainbridge Fieldhouse
The reigning national champion Jayhawks squaring off against first-year head coach John Scheyer and the Blue Devils in the second week of the season? That sounds beautiful.
This matchup is why the Champions Classic continues to be such a resounding success: It pits the biggest brands in the sport in an early-season showcase. The matchup in the backcourt between Duke’s Jeremy Roach and Kansas’ Dajuan Harris should be fantastic.
It will also be interesting to see how a pair of new-look frontcourts square off, as the Blue Devils usher in Kyle Filipowski and Dereck Liveley, while Kansas has Texas Tech transfer Kevin McCullar and freshman Ernest Udeh. This will be a great early-season measuring stick for two programs that once again expect to be in the national championship picture come March.
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Nov. 18: Villanova vs. michigan stateBreslin Center
This is one of two Gavitt Games headliners (the other being Xavier hosting Indiana) in the annual Big East-Big Ten conference challenge. Tom Izzo’s Michigan State team will be happy to be back home for this marquee matchup after facing Gonzaga on an aircraft carrier in San Diego and Kentucky in Indianapolis in the previous two games.
Meanwhile, Kyle Neptune will face his first major challenge as head coach at Villanova, as a new-look Wildcats team will take on a stern road test at the Breslin Center. For both of these teams, the question is quite simple: Do they possess an alpha who can score late in games and finish for their team?
The Spartans will look to AJ Hoggard or Malik Hall to fill that role, while the Wildcats are counting on Caleb Daniels or Brandon Slater to pick things up with Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels gone. In terms of freshman flavor in this early-season game, keep an eye out for Villanova’s Cam Whitmore, a five-star recruit who should be the Big East Preseason Freshman of the Year.
Nov. 27: Saint Louis did AuburnNeville Arena
I know what you’re thinking. These aren’t two massive college basketball brands. But this is arguably the best team in the Atlantic-10 getting a precious opportunity against one of the best teams in the SEC.
The backend of this home-and-home series is what college basketball could use more of, giving a team outside the Power 6 that could very well have NCAA Tournament credentials an opportunity to compete with a premiere program. Credit to Bruce Pearl for going to Saint Louis last season, a game the Tigers won 74-70.
This is a tremendous spotlight game for Yuri Collins, who is returning to the Billikens for a fourth season after averaging 11.1 points and 7.9 assists (!) last season. On the other side, Auburn has Wendell Green and KD Johnson back to highlight the backcourt, but the losses of Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler to the NBA mean the Tigers will have a different look on the interior.
Five-star recruit Yohan Traore highlights the incoming freshmen for Pearl, while Dylan Cardwell and Morehead State transfer Johni Broome will contribute in the paint as well. This could be a Top-25 matchup, but more than anything, these are two NCAA Tournament-level teams committing to play each other without a conference challenge or Thanksgiving week tournament creating the matchup. For that reason, we’re highlighting it.
Nov. 30: North Carolina did IndianaSimon Skjodt Assembly Hall
Two massive brands. Two programs with expectations to win their conference titles and compete for a national championship. Two teams with four of five projected starters expected to be returning players.
This is a matchup between two heavyweights at Assembly Hall, with Hubert Davis and Mike Woodson pacing the sidelines. The frontcourt matchup between the Tar Heels and Hoosiers features a pair of the best units in the country. UNC has Bacot and Pete Nance, while IU will counter with Trayce Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson.
Between these four players, you get a combined 16 years of college basketball experience. RJ Davis and Caleb Love charge North Carolina’s backcourt, while Indiana also has experience in fifth-year point guard Xavier Johnson. This game has freshman flavor, too, with five-star IU prospect Jalen Hood-Schifino headlining the matchup. College basketball is better when Bloomington is rocking, and this game will put that on full display.
Dec. 1: Creighton did TexasMoody Center
One of the headliners for the 2022 edition of the Big 12-Big East battle, the Bluejays and Longhorns squaring off could be a top-15 showdown at Texas.
Creighton is receiving buzz as a top-five team in the country in the preseason poll, as the Bluejays bring four of their five starters back and welcome the reigning Summit League Player of the Year, South Dakota State transfer Baylor Scheierman. On the flip side, Chris Beard enters Year 2 at the helm with one of the nation’s best transfer pickups, Iowa State’s Tyrese Hunter, as well as Marcus Carr back for his fifth season of college basketball to anchor the backcourt.
This matchup will also see Texas big man Christian Bishop facing his former team. He played an integral role on the Jays’ Sweet 16 team in 2021 before heading to Austin. Both teams are stacked, and this should be a prime road test for Creighton, which will be the Big East favorite entering the season.
The Longhorns are trying to take a leap under Beard, and this is a precious home game and summary opportunity to do so.
Dec. 2: Gonzaga vs. BaylorSanford Pentagon
College basketball’s only two programs to be ranked No. 1 in each of the past three seasons will square off in South Dakota on the first Friday of December. This is a rematch of the 2021 championship game that saw the Bears blow out the Zags in Indianapolis.
This type of game is why Timme is back at Gonzaga: to avenge a loss that ended perfection and capture the elusive national title for Mark Few’s program. Meanwhile, Scott Drew has elevated Baylor basketball to a consistent force in the Big 12 and nationally. He will have LJ Cryer and Adam Flagler back to charge the backcourt, while Flo Thamba will have the task of dealing with Timme.
Gonzaga has a backcourt with returning experience in Nolan Hickman, Rasir Bolton and Julian Strawther. There’s no question about Gonzaga, who could be ranked No. 1 or 2 in the preseason poll, but both of these programs should be locks for the preseason top 10. Credit to these two programs for making this heavyweight matchup happen.
Dec. 3: West Virginia did xavierCintas Center
Bob Huggins vs. Sean Miller. In 2004, these two coaches were meeting in the Crosstown Shootout between the Cincinnati Bearcats and Xavier Musketeers.
In the upcoming season, the Big 12 and Big East have made it possible for Huggins, who is being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in September, to return to the Queen City, where he used to be heckled by Musketeer fans as part of the pageantry and character of the UC/XU rivalry. This time, he’ll bring his West Virginia team to the Cintas Center with the Miller 2.0 era on the other side of this conference challenge matchup.
Xavier could very well be a Top-25 team and a top contender in the Big East, while WVU figures to be around the middle of the Big 12. This will be a test for Texas transfer Tre Mitchell and a new-look Mountaineers frontcourt as they meet Jack Nunge and Zach Freemantle. The Cintas Center should be buzzing for this nostalgic coaching matchup.
Dec. 7: UConn vs. FloridaExactech Arena at Stephen C. O’Connell Center
Dan Hurley vs. Todd Golden in Gainesville seems…interesting. The Huskies and Gators are finalizing a home-and-home that began in 2019, when Connecticut took a 62-59 win over UF in Storrs. The rematch brings a quality opportunity for both teams, as Golden looks to make Florida a factor again in the SEC, and UConn is hoping for a breakthrough month of March in the upcoming season.
The star watch will be on UConn’s Adama Sanogo and Florida’s Colin Castleton in the frontcourt. In terms of guard play, it will be interesting to see St. Bonaventure graduate transfer Kyle Lofton to Florida in the coming season, and he will get a good challenge in this one against the Huskies’ tough defense. This might be a bit of an underrated nonconference game, but these two programs could end up looking back at this one as a significant win for their summaries ahead of league play.
Dec. 17: Kentucky vs. UCLAMadison Square Garden
These two brands at The World’s Most Famous Arena with the holiday season in New York City in full swing? Yes, please. Between these two programs, you get a combined 19 national championships.
Jaime Jaquez and the Bruins will be the Pac-12 front-runners this season, while John Calipari’s Kentucky team is highlighted by Tshiebwe and five-star recruits Cason Wallace and Chris Livingston.
The point guard matchup is a fascinating one between a pair of seniors, as the Wildcats’ Sahvir Wheeler will meet the Bruins’ Tyger Campbell. The two court generals combined for 11.2 assists per game this past season.
In terms of larger storylines, Calipari enters a critical season in Lexington after a first-round exit in the NCAA Tournament last year and an absence from the Big Dance the season before. Meanwhile, Mick Cronin enters Year 4 at the helm of the Bruins riding a lot of momentum.
UCLA added a pair of five-star prospects in combo guard Amari Bailey and center Adem Bona, both of whom will be counted on to make an immediate impact with Johnny Juzang, Jules Bernard, Peyton Watson and Myles Johnson gone. That said, the Bruins made it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back seasons and could be a top-five team again with Jaquez leading the way.
TBD date: Alabama did HoustonFertitta Center
Last year, these two teams produced one of the wildest games in the regular season, with the Crimson Tide edging the Cougars in controversial fashion after a Fabian White Jr. tip-in attempt was blocked by JD Davison to end the game. Davison’s block was questioned and thought to be a goal tend, and Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson would not let the officials leave the court.
Alabama head coach Nate Oats waited for a handshake, resulting in this wild scene in Tuscaloosa.
So, yeah, the rematch should be fun.
The Tide might not be a Top-25 team, but Oats has a highly-touted recruiting class, highlighted by five-star freshmen Brandon Miller and Jaden Bradley. With Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark back from injuries and four of the Cougars’ five projected starters returning to the program, Kelvin Sampson has a team that could get back to the Final Four.
More than anything, the first leg of this home-and-home was a thrill, and the rematch could produce some more drama and a revenge opportunity.
John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.
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