Let’s get this out of the way: College basketball’s opening day is a dud. It doesn’t have the pageantry of baseball or the pent-up anticipation for football. For the most part, the matchups are lackluster. Not even every team starts on the same day.
That said, college basketball may have the most interesting first two months. Showcase games on neutral courts. Non-conference games in opposing gyms. And preseason tournaments that give us unexpected matchups.
The best part is that they all mean something. These are the games that will show up in NCAA Tournament resumes come March.
These are the best games of the early portion of the season or at least through December when the conference challenges begin.
1. Michigan State vs. Kentucky (Nov. 12, 7:30 p.m., ESPN)
*in Chicago (Champions Classic)
The talk of Kentucky becoming the first undefeated team in college basketball since 1975-76 Indiana will be ramped up if the Wildcats can defeat Michigan State. The Wildcats’ freshmen are supremely talented, but this will still be their fifth game together against a veteran Michigan State team with national title ambitions of their own.
2. Duke vs. Kansas (Nov. 12, 9:30 p.m.m ESPN)
*in Chicago (Champions Classic)
Gobs of talent for both teams, but a ton of newcomers who haven’t played together before. For most, this will be the first time we see the Jayhawks’ Andrew Wiggins in a college uniform (Kansas opens with Louisiana-Monroe today). Wiggins have is work cut out for him on both ends of the court against Duke’s versatile small forwards — Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood and freshman Jabari Parker — who will be making their first big splashes, too.
3. Ohio State at Marquette (Nov. 16, 1 p.m., Fox)
How good would this game be if Deshaun Thomas and Vander Blue — both of whom left school early and didn’t make NBA rosters — stayed in school. Even so, Ohio State and Marquette have plans to win their respective conferences. Marquette’s Davante Gardner will face a team still finding its way on the glass while Ohio State’s Aaron Craft will be up against a freshman point guard.
4. Florida at Wisconsin (Nov. 12, 9 p.m., ESPN2)
Wisconsin never played at full strength last season as Josh Gasser missed all year with an injury. Meanwhile, the Gators have major roster concerns. Dorian Finney-Smith, Damontre Harris and Scottie Wilbekin are suspended. Will Yeguete and Eli Carter are hurt. Michael Frazier is sick with mono. That leaves perhaps only four scholarship players visiting the Kohl Center.
Best potential games
• Michigan vs. VCU (Puerto Rico Tipoff semifinal, Nov. 22)
• Connecticut vs. Indiana (2K Sports Classic final, Nov. 22)
• Oklahoma State vs. Michigan State (Coaches vs. Cancer final, Nov. 23)
• North Carolina vs. Louisville (Hall of Fame Tipoff final, Nov. 24)
• Baylor vs. Gonzaga (Maui Invitational semifinal, Nov. 26)
• Baylor vs. Syracuse (Maui Invitational final, Nov. 27)
• Arizona vs. Duke (NIT final, Nov. 29)
• Kansas vs. Tennessee (Battle 4 Atlantis final, Nov. 30)
• Creighton vs. Marquette (Wooden Legacy final, Dec. 1)
5. Arizona at San Diego State (Nov. 14, 10 p.m., CBS Sports Network)
Arizona has a young team, led by freshman Aaron Gordon, but the Wildcats believe they can contend for the Final Four. San Diego State is rebuilding without do-it-all guard Jamaal Franklin, but the Aztecs bring in a big-time transfer in Josh Davis from Tulane who should keep San Diego State in Mountain West contention.
6. Colorado vs. Baylor (Nov. 8, 10 p.m. Fox Sports Net)
Two non-traditional teams meet for the real gem of college basketball’s opening night. Colorado has hopes for a third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance even without rebounding machine Andre Roberson. The absence of Roberson will be an intriguing storyline against 7-foot-1 Baylor sophomore Isaiah Austin and senior Cory Jefferson.
7. Marquette at Arizona State (Nov. 25, 9 p.m., Fox Sports 1)
Arizona State may be a bubble team this season, but the Sun Devils will have one of the Pac-12’s most dynamic players in Jahii Carson. This continues an interesting first month for Marquette before it tries to win the reconfigured Big East. Buzz Williams has been able to replace key players with great success before, but he’ll have a good idea of where he stands this season before Thanksgiving.
8. Georgetown vs. Oregon (Nov. 8, 7:30 p.m., ESPN)
*in Pyeongtaek, South Korea
It’s a shame both teams won’t be close to full strength when the Hoyas and Ducks face each other in the Armed Forces Classic in South Korea. Oregon point guard Dominic Artis and forward Ben Carter will miss nine games due to NCAA violations. Georgetown lost Greg Whittington to a torn ACL in July. Still, Oregon recently learned Houston transfer Joseph Young will be able to play immediately along with UNLV transfer Mike Moser.
9. St. John’s vs. Wisconsin (Nov. 8, 7 p.m., Big Ten Network)
*in Sioux Falls, S.D.
St. John’s returns nearly its entire roster from last season while adding five-star freshman Rysheed Jordan and getting God’sgift Achiuwa back from a redshirt. The Red Storm are considered a dark horse in the Big East, but they won’t be under the radar if they can defeat Wisconsin on the first day of the season.
10. Arizona State at UNLV (Nov. 19, 10 p.m., CBS Sports Network)
UNLV is rebuilding without No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett plus mainstay Anthony Marshall and transfer Mike Moser. There’s still plenty of talent for Dave Rice to make a run in a depleted Mountain West. Keep an eye on two quick point guards: Carson for Arizona State and junior college transfer Deville Smith for UNLV.
11. Iowa State at BYU (Nov. 20, 9:30 p.m., ESPNU)
Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg has another team that could be led by a transfer with the arrival of Marshall statsheet-stuffer DeAndre Kane. BYU’s Tyler Haws will be one of the nation’s leading scorers (and
12. Purdue vs. Oklahoma State (Nov. 28, noon, ESPN2)
*Old Spice Classic
The Old Spice Classic starts with a matchup between and Oklahoma State team with Final Four potential against a Purdue team trying to work its way up the Big Ten standings.
13. Tennessee at Xavier (Nov. 12, 9 p.m., Fox Sports 1)
A lack of quality non-conference wins hurt Tennessee’s bid to be in the NCAA Tournament under Cuonzo Martin. Xavier might not be a major trophy, but it’s not a game the Volunteers would like to have on the NCAA resume.
14. Xavier vs. Iowa (Nov. 28, 7 p.m., NBC Sports Network)
*Battle 4 Atlantis
Xavier and Iowa missed the NCAA Tournament last season, but both expect to be in the field in 2014. Semaj Christon (Xavier) and Roy Devyn Marble (Iowa) are names you need to know.
15. VCU at Virginia (Nov. 12, 7 p.m., ESPN2)
VCU’s havoc faces Virginia’s plodding offense and Joe Harris. A nice clash of styles early in the season.