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(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The best non-conference matchups for the 2023-2024 college basketball season

College basketball is a month away, and with that comes the excitement of non-conference basketball. Of course, every top tier team will schedule a handful of “buy games” against severely inferior opponents, but we are also in an age where coaches actively look to schedule games against fellow elite programs. There are probably 50 games that are worthy of recognition, but I will only highlight ten of them. A couple of limits are in place, however, as I will not include games from multi-team tournaments like the Maui Invitational and I will only feature a team twice at most. Without further ado, get ready to mark your calendar with these matchups.

10. Kentucky vs Kansas, Champions Classic (in Chicago, IL), November 14

Kentucky and Kansas are two of the most historic programs in the sport, and these two blue bloods will clash for the fourth year in a row to open the season in Chicago. Both squads will be highly ranked when this matchup comes around, but a different dynamic surrounds each team. Kansas will be one of the most experienced teams in the nation, led by Michigan transfer Hunter Dickinson and Bob Cousy Award favorite Dajuan Harris Jr. On the other side, Kentucky will be led almost exclusively by freshmen. DJ Wagner and Justin Edwards are an extremely talented freshman backcourt duo, while grad transfer Tre Mitchell gives the Wildcats a steady presence down low. Both teams will be looking to make an early statement in what should be another exciting battle between Bill Self and John Calipari.

9. Tennessee at North Carolina, ACC/SEC Challenge, November 29

The brand new ACC/SEC challenge (thanks, conference realignment) debuts this year, with this matchup headlining the event. Tennessee will be entering the season as a top 10 team, while North Carolina looks to avenge one of the most disappointing campaigns in college basketball history. The atmosphere at the Dean Smith Center will be rocking, as they hope RJ Davis and Armando Bacot can pick up a big win to wrap up the first month of the season, and fully rid themselves of last year’s disaster. It will be a formidable task for a revamped UNC roster, as the Volunteers will be an extremely tough defensive team. The big question mark for Tennessee coming into this game will be if star point guard Zakai Ziegler has returned from his ACL injury, suffered on February 28 of last season. No matter what, though, this will be a rock fight from the beginning as both programs look to finish off November strong.

8. Michigan State vs Baylor (in Detroit, MI), December 16

Guards, guards, and guards. Michigan State and Baylor have gotten quite the reputation for their ability to develop elite perimeter players, and on December 16, we will get to see Scott Drew’s Bears take on Tom Izzo’s Spartans. Michigan State returns their excellent trio of guards from last year in Tyson Walker, AJ Hoggard, and Jaden Akins. Baylor’s backcourt is facing the complete opposite situation, as they will be utilizing mostly newcomers there. Toledo transfer and 2023 MAC player of the year RayJ Dennis will be the alpha, while freshmen Ja’Kobe Walter and Miro Little have the talent to contribute. Michigan State will have the upper hand in this matchup with their experience togeter, but if Baylor’s young guards can hit their ceiling, then this will be a fun faceoff in the holiday season.

7. Florida Atlantic vs Arizona (in Las Vegas, NV), December 23

The Owls of Florida Atlantic look to build off of their Final Four run last year, and this matchup against Arizona will be the most anticipated regular season game in the history of their program. FAU returns nearly everyone from last year’s squad, and the most crucial of those returning might have been head coach Dusty May, who signed a contract extension through the 2033 season after a lot of speculation that he might take a job at a high-major program. May will be relying on the strong duo of Alijah Martin and Johnell Davis to fill it up for the Owls, while 7-footer Vlad Goldin presents a matchup issue for teams in the post. Arizona has had the makings of an elite program since the hire of Tommy Lloyd in 2021, but they have had two disappointing NCAA tournament losses in both seasons, never advancing past the Sweet 16. Despite the loss of All-American Azuolas Tubelis, Arizona fans still have lofty expectations for this team. Lloyd attacked the portal this summer, adding North Carolina Caleb Love and San Diego State transfer Keshad Johnson to infuse scoring and playmaking. Despite that, the key to Arizona’s success will be Kylan Boswell, the 18-year old sophomore, who could be poised to breakout as one of the elite floor generals in the nation. At the end of the day, both of these teams are explosive offensively. Whoever can get more stops will be walking away with a big win for Christmas.

6. Texas at Marquette, Big East-Big 12 Battle, December 5

The battle of Shaka Smart. Fortunately for Smart, the Golden Eagles will be hosting this matchup, thus avoiding a potentially hostile environment in Austin. This season could potentially be the most crucial in Smart’s coaching career, coming off of a season where Marquette doubled up on the Big East regular season and tournament titles before bowing out of the NCAA Tournament in the second round. This season, Smart will have to prove that he has not already peaked at Marquette, and this matchup is the perfect opportunity for that. Tyler Kolek and Kam Jones are one of the most dynamic backcourt duos in the nation, and they will get to face Texas’ backcourt duo of Tyrese Hunter and Oral Roberts transfer Max Abmas. In addition to that matchup, the coaching matchup is one to watch as well. There’s the aforementioned Smart, but Rodney Terry is now the full-time coach at Texas and must prove that he can win without Chris Beard’s players for the most part. Overall, this is a big time “Prove It” game and the winner will be on the right track to do just that.

5. Duke at Arkansas, ACC/SEC challenge, November 29

Bud Walton Arena will be electric for this one. Duke is arguably the best team in the nation coming into this season, and Arkansas isn’t too far behind them. Eric Musselman has proven himself to be one of the better coaches in America, while Jon Scheyer showed a lot of promise in his first year at the helm of the Blue Devils. In atypical fashion, several of the star freshmen from last year’s Blue Devils squad return in Tyrese Proctor, Kyle Filipowski, and Mark Mitchell. Adding that trio to another elite recruiting class and a pair of seniors in Jeremy Roach and Ryan Young gives the Blue Devils one of, if not, the deepest and most talented roster in the country. Meanwhile, Arkansas returns Devo Davis and Trevon Brazile, while adding an army of guards through the transfer portal. Of those guards, Houston transfer Tramon Mark stands out, who is like a swiss army knife and can do a little bit of everything. This will be an intense matchup between two of the best programs in America, in one of the best atmospheres possible.

4. UConn vs Gonzaga, Battle in Seattle, December 15

Gonzaga has been waiting for this one, after UConn obliterated the Zags in last year’s Elite 8 en route to their national championship. This time around, Dan Hurley and Mark Few will meet in Seattle with significantly lower stakes. UConn will be defending their national title, but witout Adama Sanogo and Jordan Hawkins. Those seem like huge losses, but Hurley has done an exceptional job at building depth and developing talent. Donovan Clingan is poised to become one of the best big men in the country, while Rutgers transfer Cam Spencer is a flamethrower from deep. Tristan Newton also looks to be one of the nation’s best at point guard, along with five-star recruit Stephon Cassell. For the Zags, they will have to move onto life without Drew Timme. Mark Few realized this, and got busy in the transfer portal, adding Graham Ike from Wyoming and Ryan Nembhard from Creighton. The key for the Zags season, and this game, will be Anton Watson. Watson showed flashes of being one of the nation’s best “do it all” guys last season down the stretch, and if he can consistently fill the stat sheet, then the Zags will be a formidable opponent. This matchup looks to be a lot of fun, with two of the best coaches in the nation at the forefront in their second meeting of the calendar year.

3. USC vs Gonzaga, Legends of Basketball Las Vegas Invitational, December 2

Coming into this season, USC and Gonzaga look to be two of the best teams on the west coast. Fortunately for all the college basketball fans out there, they will square off in Las Vegas on December 2nd. USC head coach Andy Enfield will have his best team yet, led by senior guard Boogie Ellis and 5-star freshman Isaiah Collier, who is referred to as many by the best player in the high school class of 2023. And of course, there is Bronny James, who is still recovering from cardiac arrest and his near-future is unknown. With all of that aside, USC also has two excellent rim protectors in Joshua Morgan and Vincent Iwuchukwu, giving them what should be one of the best defenses in the nation. There is a lot to like about borh programs in this go around, and this matchup will come down to whoever can be more efficient from outside.

2. Arizona at Duke, November 10th

It’s very rare that you see two programs of this status schedule a home-and-home with each other, but that’s exactly what the Wildcats and Blue Devils have done. Both of these teams will likely be in the top 10 of the AP poll when they meet, only adding to the anticipation behind this matchup. Within the game itself, there are so many fun matchups. Caleb Love makes his return to Cameron Indoor, after famously sending Coach K into retirement with is iconic three in the 2022 Final Four. Kylan Boswell and Tyrese Proctor will be running the point for their respective teams, both of whom are 18-year-old sophomores with a season of play now under their belts. Down low, Kyle Filipowski is a favorite for National Player of the Year, but nothing will be easy when he goes against Arizona’s Keshad Johnson, who was an anchor for San Diego State’s elite defense last season. This will be a physical battle between two big and bruising teams. The X-factor in this matchup will be Arizona’s center, Oumar Ballo. If Ballo can assert his dominance early, Duke might not have an answer for it. All in all, this will be an excellent watch and will set the early tone for the top of the AP Poll.

1. UConn at Kansas, Big East-Big 12 Battle, December 1

What more can you ask for than two of the best teams in America meeting in the best venue in America? That’s exactly what you get when the UConn Huskies travel to Allen Fieldhouse to take on the Kansas Jayhawks. Both of these teams have championship aspirations, and an early season matchup like this will be a good litmus test for these programs as they continue onward in the 2023-2024 season. When it comes to player vs player matchups, Hunter Dickinson vs Donovan Clingan might be as good as it gets in the world of college basketball. Dickinson is a very talented scorer in the post, but Clingan can match his size with excellent rim protection. The big test for the Jayhawks will be if their backcourt can deal with the length that the Huskies have. Dajuan Harris is one of the best point guards in the country, and will need to have his fingerprints on this game if the Jayhawks want to be victorious. All in all, this is going to be a big-time showdown, and it might come down to if Danny Hurley or Bill Self can adjust better during the game.

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