The 25 most intriguing non-league games of the 2016-17 season

The Dagger
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaab/players/131558/" data-ylk="slk:Isaiah Briscoe">Isaiah Briscoe</a> and Kentucky make five appearances on this list (AP)
Isaiah Briscoe and Kentucky make five appearances on this list (AP)

Our 2016-17 season preview continues with a look at the 25 most intriguing non-conference games. Check back every day for the next five weeks for more college hoops preview content.

1. Duke vs. Kansas, Nov. 15 (New York): The first real test for likely preseason No. 1 Duke could be the premier non-conference game of the 2016-17 season. Even if prized freshman Harry Giles doesn’t recover from his latest knee surgery in time to participate, this clash will still feature five McDonald’s All-American freshmen, a slew of returning standouts and two teams with legitimate national title aspirations.

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2. Kentucky at Louisville, Dec. 21: College basketball’s most hostile rivalry pits a Kentucky team loaded with its usual array of elite freshmen against a Louisville team with a pair of sophomores who could be poised for breakout seasons. If guard Donovan Mitchell and forward Deng Adel can help replace the scoring void created by the graduation of Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, the Cardinals have top 10 potential.

3. Kansas at Kentucky, Jan. 28: With the Big 12 likely a bit down and the SEC lacking much pizzazz besides Kentucky, the annual challenge between the two leagues doesn’t have too many must-see matchups. Of course the lone exception is Kansas’ late-January visit to Rupp Arena, where the Wildcats will try to avenge last year’s 90-84 overtime loss to the Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse.

4. Michigan State at Duke, Nov. 29: No other program in the country will endure a tougher November schedule than Michigan State, which could play as many as five games against Top 25 opponents before December — all away from East Lansing. This Big Ten-ACC Challenge matchup with Duke might be the toughest of all since the Spartans’ star-studded freshman class will be playing its first road game.

5. Villanova vs. Virginia, Jan. 29 (Philadelphia): The last time these two national powers met, Virginia’s London Perrantes scored 15 of his 19 points in the second half last season as the Cavaliers pulled away from the Wildcats. Virginia will need more of that from Perrantes as it tries to find other ways to generate half-court offense now that Malcolm Brogdon has graduated.

6. Kentucky vs. Michigan State, Nov. 15 (New York): Two of the nation’s most decorated freshman classes face off when the Spartans and Wildcats meet at the Champions Classic in New York. Michigan State is 3-2 in Champions Classic games so far and defeated Kentucky in 2013 in the previous meeting between the two programs.

7. North Carolina vs. Kentucky, Dec. 17 (Las Vegas): How good can North Carolina be without Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige? This game should offer an early barometer. Point guard Joel Berry II is primed to build off his strong finish to last season, but the Tar Heels also need Isaiah Hicks to emerge as a consistent low-post threat and Justin Jackson to live up to his potential.

8. Michigan State vs. Arizona, Nov. 11 (Honolulu): Four days before its Champions Classic clash with Kentucky, Michigan State will open its season six time zones away against an Arizona team far more talented than last year’s version. High-scoring guard Allonzo Trier is a Pac-12 player of the year candidate and stretch forward Lauri Markkanen headlines a potent freshman class.

9. Kansas vs. Indiana, Nov. 11 (Honolulu): Like Michigan State, Kansas will try to pull off the Honolulu-to-New York double to open the season. Thomas Bryant and breakout candidate O.G. Anunoby will pose a challenge for the Jayhawks’ frontcourt, but the Hoosiers’ unproven perimeter corps may have a hard time matching up with the Kansas backcourt of Frank Mason, Devonte Graham and Josh Jackson.

10. Arizona vs. Gonzaga, Dec. 3 (Los Angeles): Has Przemek Karnowski fully recovered from the back injury that cost him almost all of last season? How quickly can Gonzaga’s three standout transfers mesh with last year’s returners and this year’s incoming freshmen? The answers to those questions should determine the Zags’ chances of ending their recent losing streak against the Wildcats.

11. UCLA at Kentucky, Dec. 3: Two years ago, Kentucky ran UCLA off the floor in Chicago. Last year, the Bruins enacted revenge at Pauley Pavilion. For UCLA to have any chance of winning the rubber match, Steve Alford will need highly touted freshman point guard Lonzo Ball to make a speedy transition to a slower-paced, more structured style than what he was used to in high school.

12. North Carolina at Indiana, Nov. 30: This rematch of a Sweet 16 game won by North Carolina will feature only a few of the players who starred in that game. The Tar Heels will try to reload behind familiar names like Joel Berry, Justin Jackson and Isaiah Hicks. Indiana could be a more frontcourt-oriented team next season with Thomas Bryant and O.G. Anunoby both back and Yogi Ferrell having moved on to the professional ranks.

13. Syracuse vs. Connecticut, Dec. 5 (New York): Give these two longtime Big East powers credit for finding a way to restart this rivalry as non-league foes. Syracuse holds a 55-36 edge in the all-time series and won the most recent game during the Battle 4 Atlantis semifinals in 2015. The Orange also were victorious in the most famous matchup, a six-overtime game in 2009.

14. Indiana vs. Louisville, Dec. 31 (Indianapolis): Four years after Indiana’s longtime series with Kentucky fell apart, the Hoosiers will begin a similar one with fellow regional rival Louisville. In addition to this season’s neutral-court game at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse, the Cardinals and Hoosiers will also play on one-another’s home floors the following two years.

15. Villanova at Purdue, Nov. 14: This is a fascinating contrast in styles if ever there was one. Reigning national champion Villanova boasts its usual array of perimeter standouts including all-American candidate Josh Hart. Purdue counters with a massive frontcourt that includes former McDonald’s All-American Caleb Swanigan, 7-footer Isaac Haas and versatile forward Vince Edwards.

16. Washington at Gonzaga, Dec. 7: It’s inexcusable that a decade passed without Gonzaga and Washington scheduling each other because this series was must-see every year in the early 2000s. The Huskies are hoping for a marquee win to help end a five-year NCAA tournament drought, but the Zags have won 9 of the past 10 meetings including an 80-64 win last season at the Battle 4 Atlantis.

17. Georgetown at Syracuse, Dec. 17: One of the few bright spots in Georgetown’s otherwise deflating 2015-16 season was a 79-71 win over Syracuse in the first matchup between the two longtime rivals since the Orange left the Big East. The rematch will be a big challenge for the Hoyas with Syracuse at home and boasting a roster that Jim Boeheim really likes.

18. Xavier at Cincinnati, Jan. 26: Seven times in the past nine years, Xavier has defeated its crosstown rival including last season’s 65-55 home win. Behind guard Edmund Sumner and forward Trevon Bluiett, the Musketeers should once again be favored next season, albeit by a slimmer margin on the road against another solid Bearcats team.

19. Maryland at Georgetown, Nov. 15: Melo Trimble’s down-to-the-wire decision to return for his junior season gives Maryland hope of avoiding a rebuilding season despite losing its other four starters. Questions abound about the quality of Trimble’s supporting cast, but heralded freshman guard Anthony Cowan, Duquesne transfer L.G. Gill and returning wings Jared Nickens and Dion Wiley should help fill some holes.

20. Wichita State vs. Oklahoma, Dec. 10 (Oklahoma City): Will Oklahoma remain a Big 12 contender now that national player of the year Buddy Hield is in the NBA? Can Wichita State avoid a steep decline now that longtime stalwarts Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet have graduated? This intriguing matchup should offer some early answers as to where these two stand.

21. Syracuse at Wisconsin, Nov. 29: While UConn and Georgetown are the most intriguing games on Syracuse’s non-league schedule, Wisconsin may be the Orange’s most difficult early opponent. The Badgers return every key player from last year’s Sweet 16 team and will undoubtedly start the season in the top 15 in the polls.

22. San Diego State at Gonzaga, Nov. 14: Behind Kawhi Leonard and Billy White, upstart San Diego State first gained national recognition in Nov. 2010 when it upset 11th-ranked Gonzaga in Spokane. Six years later, a far more well-established Aztecs program returns to Spokane to try to repeat the feat against a Zags team that again could be ranked in the top 15.

23. Oregon at Baylor, Nov. 15: Besides the loaded Maui Invitational, this is probably the biggest non-conference test for an Oregon team that made the Elite Eight last season and could start this year in the preseason top five. Standout forward Dillon Brooks is not expected to be healthy in time to play at Baylor, but returners Tyler Dorsey, Jordan Bell and Chris Boucher still form a strong core.

24. Wisconsin at Creighton, Nov. 15: This is a sneaky tough road game for Wisconsin. Thanks to a talented backcourt featuring senior point guard Maurice Watson and Kansas State transfer Marcus Foster, Creighton has aspirations of not only returning to the NCAA tournament but also perhaps challenging Villanova and Xavier in the Big East.

25. Iowa State at Iowa, Dec. 8: Iowa lost four starters from last year’s NCAA tournament team, but will rebuild around high-scoring wing Peter Jok, rapidly improving swingman Dominique Uhl and prized freshman forward Tyler Cook. But the Hawkeyes have questions at point guard, which is concerning in this rivalry game since Iowa State’s Monte Morris may be the best at his position nationally.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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