This year's slate has some lulls in the early morning and mid-afternoon but it packs a major punch in the evening time slots with a pair of potential top-five showdowns and two more games worthy of national attention. Here's the list of games in order from most to least intriguing:
1. Michigan State vs. Kentucky (from Chicago), 7:30 p.m. EST
Comment: The first test for Kentucky's latest batch of highly touted freshmen will be a showdown against a Michigan State team likely to also begin the season in the top five in the polls. The Wildcats will probably bring a future first-round pick or two off their bench next season, but the Spartans hold the edge in experience. Adreian Payne, Gary Harris and every other key player besides Derrick Nix returns from last season when Michigan State won 27 games and reached the Sweet 16.
2. Kansas vs. Duke (from Chicago), 10 p.m. EST
Comment: The nation's first glimpse of prized Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins in a big college game will come against the program that has been better in November and December than anybody else recently. Duke has lost one game pre-New Year's Day the past three years combined and only seven since 2001. The Blue Devils boast a powerful enough roster to continue that trend next season too, with wing Rasheed Sulaimon and forwards Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker leading the way.
3. VCU at Virginia, 7 p.m. EST
Comment: In Jan. 2012, Shaka Smart made waves when he insisted VCU and fellow CAA powers George Mason and Old Dominion had been better programs of late than their more well-known in-state ACC brethren, and "it's not even close." Now the Rams will have the chance to prove it head-to-head when they face Virginia for the first time since 1998. Bragging rights won't be easy to obtain, however, for either side. VCU returns the core of last year's NCAA tournament team, while Joe Harris-led Virginia appears capable of a top five finish in the ACC. The contrast in tempos also promises to be intriguing.
4. Florida at Wisconsin, 9 p.m. EST
Comment: The last time Florida met Wisconsin, the Gators pounded the Badgers 74-56 in Gainesville last November behind 24 points on 10 of 10 shooting from forward Erik Murphy and 15 points from guard Mike Rosario. Things promise to be different this November, though, since Murphy and Rosario have graduated and this year's matchup is in Madison. Wisconsin returns another solid roster highlighted by sophomore forward Sam Dekker and guards Ben Brust and Josh Gasser. Florida could be top 10-good if top freshman Chris Walker gets eligible and suspended point guard Scottie Wilbekin gets reinstated.
6. NC State at Cincinnati, 5 p.m. EST
Comment: Despite a tantalizingly talented roster featuring a handful of NBA prospects, NC State looked disinterested on defense last season and only played to its potential in spurts. That's why there's hope this season's Wolfpack can match last year's 24 wins even without the services of stars Lorenzo Brown, C.J. Leslie, Scott Wood, Rodney Purvis and Richard Howell. The first big test for the youthful, perhaps harder working Wolfpack will be a Cincinnati team hoping to return to the NCAA tournament this spring. The Bearcats return standout guard Sean Kilpatrick but will need to find more scorers to complement him than they had a year ago.
6. BYU at Stanford, 11 p.m. EST
Comment: Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins is under pressure to secure an NCAA bid this season after failing to do so his first five years in Palo Alto, but the good news is he has a roster capable of achieving that goal. Every key player returns from last season's 19-win team, including all-conference forward Dwight Powell, defensive standout Josh Huestis and talented point guard Chasson Randle. BYU will miss the interior production of Brandon Davies, but the Cougars' backcourt of Tyler Haws, Matt Carlino and Kyle Collinsworth is good enough to propel the team into NCAA tournament contention.
7. LSU at UMass, 11 a.m. EST
Comment: This has the feel of a game that will matter more in March than it might seem in November. It would be a disappointment if LSU can't play its way into NCAA tournament contention this March considering forward Johnny O'Bryant delayed his NBA dreams to return to school for another year and point guard Anthony Hickey is back as well. Aspirations are similarly lofty this season at UMass, which will boast one of the nation's most exciting backcourt tandems in Chaz Williams and Western Kentucky transfer Derrick Gordon.
8. South Carolina at Baylor, 3 p.m. EST
Comment: Frank Martin's first recruiting class should provide the foundation for South Carolina's rebuilding process, but that's likely more of a longterm process than an instant transformation to contenders. As a result, a win -- or even a competitive loss -- in Waco against a talented Baylor team is likely too much to ask, especially if promising forward Isaiah Austin is fully recovered from offseason shoulder surgery for the Bears.
9. New Mexico State at Hawaii, 5 a.m. EST
Comment: This one might be worth an early wakeup call on the East Coast or a late night out West if only for a glimpse of 7-foot-5, 34o-pound Sim Bhullar. The New Mexico State sophomore came on late last season, averaging 15 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4 blocked shots in the semifinals and finals of the WAC tournament. His 7-foot-3 brother also will be an incoming freshman for the Aggies, but it's unclear if the younger Bhullar will play right away or redshirt.
10. Western Kentucky at Wichita State, 1 a.m. EST
Comment: A midnight crowd at the Roundhouse promises to provide a great backdrop, but it's too bad ESPN couldn't help Wichita State lure a better opponent. Yes, Western Kentucky has been to two straight NCAA tournaments. Yes, the Hilltoppers have a proud basketball history. But there's little reason to believe Western Kentucky will pose much of a threat to a Wichita State team that returns many of the key players from last year's Final Four run including forward Cleanthony Early and guards Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet.
11. West Virginia at Virginia Tech, 1 p.m. EST
Comment: West Virginia finished below .500 last year and lost most of the best players on that team either to transfer or graduation. Virginia Tech was a one-man show last year, and that one man, guard Erick Green, is now playing professionally in Europe. That doesn't bode well for a matchup that seems like a prime candidate for an early-afternoon nap before the big games later in the day.
12. Akron at Saint Mary's, 3 a.m. EST
Comment: From Patty Mills, to Omar Samhan, to Mickey McConnell, Saint Mary's has managed to remain relevant year after year under Randy Bennett despite the graduation of its high-profile stars. This year, we'll find out if the Gaels can do the same now that point guard Matthew Dellavedova is gone. It would have helped if standout recruit Cullen Neal hadn't reneged on his commitment to play for his father at New Mexico, but Saint Mary's still has some decent backcourt talent, most notably shooting guard Stephen Holt. Perennial MAC power Akron should provide an early test for the Gaels, but the Zips are dealing with personnel losses of their own with all-conference center Zeke Marshall having graduated.
13. Hartford at Florida Gulf Coast, 7 a.m. EST
Comment: When we last saw FGCU, the high-flying Eagles were tossing high-risk lobs and throwing down sensational fast-break dunks en route to a Sweet 16 appearance last March. Coach Andy Enfield and star Sherwood Brown both have moved on, but this one could be worth a quick peek just to see if Dunk City is still as energetic even at 7 a.m.
14. Quinnipiac at La Salle, 9 a.m. EST
Comment: Everyone besides senior leader Ramon Galloway is back for La Salle from a team that went from the First Four to the Sweet 16 last month. Still, it's hard to get too excited about a game that begins at breakfast time and includes Quinnipiac.
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