Sam’s Section: Previewing the 5 best non-UConn non-conference games this season 

Arizona forward Keshad Johnson (16) drives past Morgan State guard Demajion Topps, right, during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Monday, Nov 6, 2023, in Tucson, Ariz. Photo by Rick Scuteri/AP Photo.

College basketball is back in action, picking up the craziness that the sport left us off with in April. On the opening day, James Madison upset No. 4 Michigan State, Princeton shocked Rutgers and Louisville nearly lost to UMBC. 

Even though this week is not loaded with highly anticipated matchups, it’s time to look at some of the best non-conference games we will see this season. While UConn’s non-conference schedule includes some of the best teams in the country, this article will focus on the other massive battles between national championship contenders that could meet again in the NCAA Tournament. 

No. 12 Arizona at No. 2 Duke (Friday, 7 p.m., ESPN2) 

Arizona does not have All-Pac-12 forward Ąžuolas Tubelis anymore, who averaged 19.8 points and 9.1 rebounds per game last season. The defending Pac-12 Tournament champions are strong, with All-Pac-12 center Oumar Ballo returning. He will go up against preseason ACC Player of the Year Kyle Filipowski as the Wildcats take on Duke on Friday at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Both teams have a strong backcourt. Arizona’s starting guards are North Carolina transfer Caleb Love and preseason Pac-12 Honorable Mention Pelle Larsson. The Blue Devils are deep this season, especially in the backcourt. Tyrese Proctor and Jeremy Roach do not receive enough love, as they have made a significant impact throughout their collegiate careers. Duke has a talented freshman class, led by guards Jared McCain and Caleb Foster. It’s a rematch of the 2001 National Championship Game, where the Blue Devils earned their third banner. 

No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 16 Kentucky (in Chicago) (Tuesday, 9:30 p.m., ESPN) 

I would have put the Duke-Michigan State game, but considering the Spartans’ loss to James Madison, the second game of the State Farm Champions Classic replaces that one. Kansas is loaded this season, with one of the best players in college basketball in Michigan transfer Hunter Dickinson. Along with him is preseason All-Big 12 guard Dajuan Harris Jr., creating an unstoppable backcourt on paper with three-time All-Big 12 guard Kevin McCullar Jr. It’s a blue-blood battle in the Windy City as the Jayhawks take on Kentucky. With the fans in Lexington questioning Hall of Fame head coach John Calipari, the Wildcats will be a very interesting team to follow this season. Kentucky will have preseason first-team All-SEC guard Antonio Reeves return for his final season. In the backcourt, Reeves will be paired with five-star freshman Justin Edwards, who was named to the All-SEC Second Team. Much like the Arizona-Duke game, this is also a rematch of a national championship game, as the Wildcats defeated Kansas in 2012. Since 2019, the results have alternated each time they have met, with the Jayhawks winning in January last season. 

Kansas center Hunter Dickinson (1) goes up for two points against North Carolina Central during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Lawrence, Kan., Monday, Nov. 6, 2023. Photo by Reed Hoffmann/AP Photo.

No. 3 Purdue vs. No. 11 Gonzaga (in Honolulu) (Nov. 20, 5 p.m., ESPN2) 

Reigning national player of the year Zach Edey returned to West Lafayette in hopes of helping Purdue bounce back from their historic first-round exit last season. Also returning is sharpshooter guard Fletcher Loyer, who was named to the preseason Jerry West Award Watch List (nation’s best shooting guard). They will take on Gonzaga in the quarterfinal round of the Maui Jim Maui Invitational. These two teams met last year, as the Boilermakers blew the doors off the Zags in the semifinal round of last season’s Phil Knight Legacy Tournament. Drew Timme isn’t the face of the Bulldogs anymore. There isn’t a clear star in Spokane, but head coach Mark Few’s team has a threatening trio of forwards Graham Ike and Anton Watson, along with Creighton transfer guard Ryan Nembhard, one of the nation’s best true point guards. 

No. 19 North Carolina vs. No. 16 Kentucky (in Atlanta) (Dec. 16, 5:30 p.m., CBS/Paramount+) 

There are not two bluer blue bloods than North Carolina and Kentucky, so it is always a must-watch when they meet in the NCAA Tournament or the CBS Sports Classic, the latter being the site of this season’s battle. We’ve already previewed Kentucky, in its first season without former Wooden Award winner Oscar Tshiebwe, with a talented backcourt of Edwards and Reeves. North Carolina was last season’s preseason No. 1 before failing to make the NCAA Tournament in head coach Hubert Davis’s second year as Roy Williams’ successor. College basketball has many talented bigs, including UNC’s Armando Bacot, a first-team All-ACC player in back-to-back seasons. While Love has transferred out of Chapel Hill, the backcourt will now have preseason Naismith Trophy Watch List guard R.J. Davis leading the way. The Tar Heels are not limited to just those two, as Stanford transfer Harrison Ingram was named to the Julius Erving Award Watch List (nation’s best small forward). They also have the ACC Preseason Rookie of the Year in five-star guard Elliot Cadeau, who will join Davis in the backcourt. 

No. 11 Gonzaga at No. 16 Kentucky (Feb. 10, 4 p.m., CBS/Paramount+) 

The college basketball world was ecstatic when the news came this past summer that Gonzaga and Kentucky would meet in a home-and-home series, first in Lexington this February. We’ve already previewed both teams, so let’s focus on the short history between the two programs. In a semi-home game for the Bulldogs, taking place last November, the Zags defeated the Wildcats by 16 points. That was the second-ever meeting between the two programs, with the first coming during the 2002 Maui Invitational. Kentucky won that game, so the series is all even at one game apiece. While most teams will be deep into conference play at the time, this one will be a must-watch. 

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