68 Must-See Games of 2011-12: #68-52Posted by zhayes9 on October 12th, 2011
26 days. That’s all that separates us and live, meaningful, regular season college basketball.
Every week from now until opening night, I’m here to be your tour guide for the 68 must-watch games of the upcoming season. The list includes 15 conferences from the Pac-12 to the CAA and covers everything from rivalry games dating back a half century, non-conference RPI-boosting tilts and intense battles for state supremacy. Games in February and March, when the margin for error is slim to none, are valued more than contests in November and December. The large majority of these games will have a lasting effect when the bracket is unveiled on that early spring late afternoon in March.
Get your pens and calendars out, folks. These are 68 games that college hoops fans can’t afford to miss (all rankings derived from RTC’s post-draft deadline top 25 and all times EST).
68. January 19: #1 North Carolina at Virginia Tech (9 PM, ESPN)- The Tar Heels have some challenging tests on their schedule prior to this trip to Virginia Tech, including home/neutral dates with Michigan State, Wisconsin and Texas and road swings to Kentucky and Florida State. If the ultra-talented Heels can navigate those treacherous waters, their #1 ranking will be put to the test in Blacksburg. Tech returns a handful of intriguing players primed to make a leap forward, including double-digit scorer Dorenzo Hudson and breakout candidate Erick Green. Freshman Dorian Finney-Smith is a smooth and skilled freshman forward that could make an immediate impact for the Hokies.
67. February 4: Detroit at Butler (12:00, ESPN2)- If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. Detroit aims to claim their first Horizon League title since 1999 behind the guard play of Wooden Award watch list honoree Ray McCallum and all-conference second teamer Chase Simon. The Titans hope forward Eli Holman, a double-double threat who is currently on a leave of absence from the team to address personal matters, returns in time to bang bodies with a strong Butler frontcourt bolstered by the skilled Andrew Smith and athletic Khyle Marshall.
66. February 16: #11 Arizona at Washington State (9:00, FSN)- Many folks expect Arizona to win another Pac-12 title despite losing both their superstar forward Derrick Williams to the lottery and their starting point guard MoMo Jones to a transfer. The reason: the remarkable depth Sean Miller has assembled in Tucson to help sustain those personnel losses. The likes of Kevin Parrom, Jesse Perry, Solomon Hill and Kyle Fogg will join forces with a star-studded freshman class featuring blue-chippers Josiah Turner and Nick Johnson. Their mid-February visit to Pullman is a major upset trap with Reggie Moore dishing out assists and Faisal Aden filling it up from deep.
65. February 2: #13 Gonzaga at BYU (11:00, ESPN2)- As soon as BYU announced their intentions to move from the Mountain West to the WCC in basketball, there was immediate anticipation that the Cougars would replace St. Mary’s as Gonzaga’s premiere rival. The Zags are once again favored to win what would be Mark Few’s 12th consecutive league title, while BYU may take a step back without their formidable backcourt duo of Jimmer Fredette and Jackson Emery. Dave Rose hopes his team can rely on forwards Brandon Davies, Noah Hartsock and Charles Abouo to not only tame the likes of Elias Harris and Robert Sacre, but provide consistent production throughout the season.
64. March 3: Washington at UCLA (2:00, CBS)- While the surprising decisions of Washington’s Isaiah Thomas and UCLA’s Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee tempered expectations for these two proud programs, it also presents opportunities for others to shine. Freshman point guard Tony Wroten will take the reins in Seattle and team with Abdul Gaddy and form an enviable backcourt, while the Bruins are more big-oriented behind Reeves Nelson, the Wear twins and their bruising sophomore Josh Smith. Rebounding and shot-blocking specalist Aziz N’Diaye will have his hands full defending UCLA’ s bulk up front in this late March clash.
63. February 25: George Mason at VCU (TBA)- With most of Old Dominion’s rotation gutted by graduation, this meeting on the last day of the CAA regular season could have major implications. George Mason lost Luke Hancock to transfer, but Ryan Pearson is the conference POY frontrunner for new head coach Paul Hewitt. For VCU, Bradford Burgess returns as one of the top shooters in the entire country. With Joey Rodriguez and Jamie Skeen moving on, Burgess is option #1 for the Rams. Shaka Smart also hopes talented forward Juvonte Reddic can make major strides.
62. January 11: #18 Texas A&M at Texas (9:00, ESPN2)- Despite losing their coach this past spring, A&M is locked and loaded to win a Big 12 title this season with Kansas and Kansas State transitioning, Baylor lacking a point guard and Missouri dealing with a much more tenuous coaching transition. The Aggies wing spots and frontline are loaded with Khris Middleton a potential all-Big 12 performer and an abundance of depth including Washington transfer Elston Turner. The matchup to watch is at point guard, though: A&M defensive stopper Dash Harris vs. Texas’ playmaking freshman point guard Myck Kabongo.
61. February 19: Michigan State at #21 Purdue (1:00, CBS)- These two teams are difficult to peg this preseason. Purdue loses four-year contributors E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson, but Robbie Hummel is finally healthy. As for the Spartans, they hope addition by subtraction results in a rebound season after falling from preseason #2 to #10 seed a year ago. Two players who could make an impact in this game and all year long: Purdue’s Lewis Jackson, who finished near the top of the Big Ten in assist rate as a junior, and Michigan State’s Keith Appling, who is oozing with breakout potential and has the endorsement of his head coach.
60. February 18: #16 Kansas at Texas (4:00, CBS)- Yet another test for the young and untested Longhorns deep into Big 12 play. A silver lining for Rick Barnes is not just the parity expected in the conference this year, but also Kansas’ vulnerability. Bill Self’s team is still likely to be ranked for a healthy portion of the campaign, but with a roster decimated by the loss of key contributors, it’s not a vintage KU roster plastered with NBA-caliber talent. Barnes hope Kabongo can run the show like a senior, J’Covan Brown is a reliable scoring option at the wing and one or two of his other freshmen improve enough throughout the season to peak in March.
59. February 2: #11 Arizona at California (11:00, FSN)- If UCLA and Washington aren’t battling for the Pac-12 crown into February and March, Arizona and California will gladly oblige. Doug Gottlieb has the Bears pegged as his Pac-12 favorite and for good reason. Allen Crabbe can bust out for 30 points at any time. He just posted one of the most impressive freshman seasons of any rookie in the country. Jorge Gutierrez has added a respectable offensive game to his already headstrong defense, while Harper Kamp is an underrated frontcourt cog. Don’t sleep on the boys from Berkeley.
58. November 15: Michigan State vs. #9 Duke (7:00, ESPN)- The first of two at the Champions Classic at MSG is a rematch of last year’s #1 vs. #2 battle in Durham. Although I think folks are undervaluing a potentially dangerous Spartans team this season, the Blue Devils should handle them on this night, especially in front of their normally healthy contingent of fans in NYC. Duke will be much more ready to win in mid-November than a largely untested State team Tom Izzo will have to develop as the season wears on. This will be our first glimpse at Austin Rivers against a solid defense.
57. February 18: UNLV at New Mexico (1:00, CBS)- Last season, San Diego State and BYU crossed paths for three unforgettable clashes that received national exposure and a tremendous amount of hype. Think of UNLV-New Mexico as the poor man’s 2012 version. Overcoming the loss of steady senior Dairese Gary is no small matter, but Steve Alford’s squad returns near every other contributor from a year ago. I expect Drew Gordon and Kendall Williams to become household names among college hoops fans by next March, while Chace Stanback and Oscar Bellfield are back to anchor a new uptempo attack for Dave Rice and UNLV.
56. January 10: #3 Ohio State at Illinois (9:00, ESPN2)- The Buckeyes are the near-unanimous Big Ten favorites, but there’s a few stumbling blocks on the road in conference play they’ll need to navigate: Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue and even an unproven but dangerous Illinois team. The McCamey-Tisdale-Davis triumvirate never quite lived up to lofty expectations; head coach Bruce Weber hopes that a new trio of Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Meyers Leonard leads Illinois to their first Sweet 16 since 2005 in what is really a two-year plan in Champaign. Paul may be most important to Illinois’ success, but Leonard’s performance at the U-19 games in Latvia was extremely promising and could lead to big things once he adds strength and gains more experience.
55. February 13: #16 Kansas at Kansas State (9:00, ESPN)- This matchup has truly become one of the best conference rivalries in all of college basketball because of the job Frank Martin has done building up a Kansas State program everyone anticipated would fall back down to earth post-Michael Beasley. Now with Jacob Pullen gone, a new batch of Wildcats must make their mark. The Octagon of Doom could rattle the erratic Jayhawks tandem of Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson, a duo that poses a stark contrast to the more steady Will Spradling and Rodney McGruder.
54. January 30: #7 Pittsburgh at West Virginia (7:00, ESPN)- Though more known for its gridiron clashes, the Backyard Brawl is also quite intense on the hardwood. Pitt has the better overall team in 2011-12, but the Mountaineers are still an NCAA Tournament contender, especially if Bob Huggins instills a “nobody believes in us” mentality. West Virginia will rely on Deniz Kilicli and Kevin Jones up front, but Huggins desperately needs Darryl Bryant to give him more offensively. With Pitt’s plans to play Ashton Gibbs at the point more this season, this will be one of Bryant’s many tough assignments in Big East play.
53. November 11: #1 North Carolina vs. Michigan State (7:00, ESPN)- If my premonition that Michigan State will be much more threatening in March than November comes true, this one could get even uglier than the 2009 national championship. Carolina holds the positional advantage across the board, but the one game-changer could be Spartans forward Draymond Green. He must have a triple-double type performance. If State even keeps this relatively close for 40 minutes, that’s something for Tom Izzo to build on.
52. January 4: #9 Duke at Temple (7:00, ESPN2)- Although this game will be played in Philly, it’s at the Sixers arena and not on Temple’s campus. Duke will certainly be favored, this is a potential upset special. The Owls retain everyone not named Lavoy Allen and should be an elite defensive unit in 2011-12. Juan Fernandez and Ramone Moore constitute quite a backcourt tandem while Scootie Randall and Khalif Wyatt are those valuable secondary pieces – Wyatt did an especially outstanding job containing Talor Battle in last year’s NCAA Tournament — every successful team needs.