68 Must-See Games of 2011-12: #17-1

Posted by zhayes9 on October 31st, 2011

Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court. You can follow him on Twitter @zhayes9 and check out the previous editions of 68 Must-See Games: #68-52, #51-35, #34-18.

17. February 25: Missouri at Kansas (4:00, CBS)- A rivalry that dates back to the Civil War could soon be extinct due to Missouri’s anticipated move to the SEC, so enjoy one of the last few meetings between these bitter border foes. Both squads have tempered expectations heading into the season – Kansas due to the departures of six main contributors and the ineligibility of two freshmen, Missouri because of Laurence Bowers’ crushing ACL injury. Kansas’ Thomas Robinson and Missouri’s Marcus Denmon are reasons enough to watch, though. Robinson has the tools to make a leap to All-America status, while Denmon is criminally underrated and one of the nation’s true elite guards.

16. December 2: Vanderbilt at Louisville (9:30, ESPN)- I must admit: the powers-that-be who determine the matchups for the ACC/Big Ten and SEC/Big East challenges know exactly what they’re doing (well, except for sending St. John’s to Kentucky). The non-conference schedules for Vandy and Louisville were already daunting before this battle of potential top ten teams popped up on the slate. The absence of center Festus Ezeli, given he doesn’t return in time following a sprained PCL/MCL suffered last week, negates what could have been a major post advantage for Vanderbilt in light of Terrence Jennings’ early departure. The Cards will look for a resume-building win behind a clear point guard edge, a raucous home court advantage and their relentless full-court pressure.

Scoop Jardine and the Orange make quite a few appearances on this list

15. December 2: Florida at Syracuse (7:30, ESPN)- Electric guard play will be on full display at the Carrier Dome with Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche and impact freshman Michael Carter-Williams leading the charge for Syracuse and the foursome of Erving Walker, Kenny Boynton, Brad Beal and Mike Rosario filling it up for Florida. The trump card for the Orange could be 6’7 wing Kris Joseph, a preseason Big East first teamer. Billy Donovan will employ plenty of three or four-guard lineups this season, which could create a mismatch opportunity for Joseph. Cancel all plans for December 2 with this game and Vandy-Louisville on the docket.

14. February 18: Arizona at Washington (4:00, FSN)- Two years ago, Arizona basketball was a program in serious transition with four head coaches in four years, Lute Olson’s awkward departure and an embarrassing coaching search. Heading into 2011-12, the Wildcats are now the favorites to claim their second straight Pac-12 title in what has been an epic turnaround under Sean Miller. One of the stumbling blocks towards that goal could be this mid-February tilt in Seattle. How a backcourt that will depend on significant contributions from two freshmen – point guard Josiah Turner and off-guard Nick Johnson – handles such a raucous atmosphere will go a long way in not only determining the outcome of this game, but how Arizona fares in their first season post-Derrick Williams.

13. February 4: Ohio State at Wisconsin (2:00, ESPN)- Ohio State players, notably Jared Sullinger, Will Buford and Aaron Craft, distinctly recall their undefeated season coming to a crashing halt last year in Madison. Given Wisconsin’s incredible dominance at home under Bo Ryan, it’ll be difficult for the Buckeyes to exact revenge, especially since the Badgers are equipped with dynamic point guard Jordan Taylor. If the tenacious Craft can limit Taylor, Ohio State’s superior talent across the board should reign supreme. Easier said than done.

12. February 6: Connecticut at Louisville (7:00, ESPN)- Expect major Big East flavor as this list winds down. Few games in that esteemed conference will top Connecticut and Louisville on this much-anticipated Big Monday. If any team in the league can render Louisville’s full-court pressure a liability, it’s Connecticut and their mind-boggling speed and athleticism. Shabazz Napier is a jet, backup Ryan Boatright can leap out of the building and Andre Drummond runs the floor as well as any center in the nation. The Cardinals hope to counter with superior depth and three-point shooting.

11. January 14: North Carolina at Florida State (2:00, ESPN)- Last season, top-ran ked Duke traveled to Tallahassee and were greeted rudely, suffering a 66-61 defeat behind Derwin Kitchen’s 22/10. Kitchen is gone, but the ‘Noles suffocating team defense has proven sustainable from year to year. If Carolina survives a few non-conference tests, notably a trip to Rupp Arena, they’ll face FSU in the exact same situation as their bitter rival down Tobacco Road.  Not many squads can come close to matching the triumvirate of John Henson, Tyler Zeller and James Michael McAdoo down low for UNC, but Leonard Hamilton has assembled quite a loaded, deep, long and athletic frontcourt boosted by Bernard James, whose had another summer to further refine and develop an already explosive game.

10. November 29: Duke at Ohio State (9:30, ESPN)- The headliner of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge always seems to involve Duke. This season is no different. Pretty much the only instance we’ll see Duke in a true road environment prior to ACC play is their Challenge opponent, and it doesn’t get much more challenging this season than a visit to Columbus. The improvement of Miles Plumlee is the hot topic coming out of Duke camp; if he can limit the powerful Sullinger and force the Buckeyes to sink perimeter jumpers, his hard work this offseason will have paid major dividends. Aaron Craft’s ability to stick to Seth Curry like glue for 40 minutes is another matchup to watch.

9. February 18: Ohio State at Michigan (9:00, ESPN)- The gridiron version of this rivalry hasn’t produced much drama in recent years, but the basketball side is really compelling. It would have surely been a top-ten matchup had Darius Morris stayed in Ann Arbor, but nearly every other contributor is back, including potential all-Big Ten guard Tim Hardaway. Knowing Jon Beilein’s style, Michigan will have to hit their fair share of threes to come away victorious, but the Wolverines are a more complete team than most realize, finishing 24th in the nation in two-point percentage at 51.7% last season. If the Buckeyes can limit Hardaway’s effectiveness, force Michigan to live and die by the three, and establish Sullinger against the likes of Jordan Morgan and Evan Smotrycz, they’ll survive a tough road contest.

8. March 3: Pittsburgh at Connecticut (12:00, ESPN)- This Big East headliner during the last weekend of the season is sure to have major seed implications for the top lines. The question for the Panthers will be whether their inexperienced bigs – notably Dante Taylor, Talib Zanna and freshman Khem Birch – can handle the Connecticut twin towers of Alex Oriakhi and hyped newcomer Andre Drummond. Another determining factor will be the ability of gritty defender Shabazz Napier to track Pitt sharpshooter Ashton Gibbs.

7. March 3: Louisville at Syracuse (4:00, CBS)- Same date, same potential implications. Although losing star freshman Wayne Blackshear to a torn labrum was a major setback, it’s not crippling to a Cardinals team that also introduces talented rookie Chane Behanan to an already deep rotation buoyed by jet-quick point guard Peyton Siva and emerging center Gorgui Dieng. The only team in the conference that can match Louisville’s quality depth is Syracuse with a bench that’s projected to include Dion Waiters, C.J. Fair, Michael Carter-Williams, James Southerland and Rakeem Christmas. That’s better than most starting lineups around the country.

6. March 4: Kentucky at Florida (12:00, CBS)- On the surface, Florida actually matches up pretty well with Kentucky. Patric Young has the athleticism to contain Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones has the physical edge on Erik Murphy but tends to float around the perimeter too often and the Gators boast a five-man backcourt rotation as talented as any in the country. The issue is that all five measure 6’3 or lower, creating a mismatch problem against UK’s physical wings Darius Miller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Donovan may have to dig deeper into his bench in hopes that one of Casey Prather, Will Yeguete or Cody Larson take a major leap forward. He’ll know by the last day of the regular season when these two SEC rivals square off with a number one seed potentially up for grabs.

5. February 25: Syracuse at Connecticut (9:00, ESPN)- The two teams ranked #1 and #2 atop the preseason Big East coaches poll is also my Big East Game of the Year, especially considering the late February date. There’s a remarkable amount of talent on these two rosters, dispelling any notion that their Hall-of-Fame coaches are in any way slowing down. The issue for Syracuse and Connecticut could be finding a go-to player when the chips are down. Whether it’s Scoop Jardine’s erratic play or Kris Joseph’s passivity, Cuse has unanswered questions late in games. UConn has to find someone to take and make big shots post-Kemba. The most likely candidate to step into that role is sophomore Jeremy Lamb.

4. December 31: Louisville at Kentucky (12:00, CBS)- Ah, yes. The premiere non-conference rivalry in the sport. An electric Rupp Arena with CBS in the house. Two coaches and fan bases that despite each other. Former Louisville commit Marquis Teague starting at point guard for Big Blue.  The storylines and potential are endless when these top ten teams butt heads on New Year’s Eve. Kentucky has emerged victorious in each of the last two years, first at home following DeMarcus Cousins’ infamous elbow to the noggin of Jared Swopshire and last year when the young Wildcats left the brand-new Yum Center with their heads held high. I’d caution Rick Pitino against playing at his preferred frenetic pace in this matchup; with Anthony Davis athleticism and guard skills at the 5, they might be playing right into Kentucky’s hands.

3. February 11: Kentucky at Vanderbilt (9:00, ESPN)- One of UK’s numerous stumbling blocks on the road in SEC play last season was in Nashville when John Jenkins torched the Wildcats for 32 points and the normally robust UK defense surrendered 81 total. Bad news Kentucky: Jenkins is back with his friends Jeff Taylor, Festus Ezeli and Brad Tinsley. Kevin Stallings also added two potential impact freshmen in the backcourt in Dai-Jon Parker and Kedren Johnson to a team that ranked #13 in offensive efficiency a season ago. The Wildcats should be more equipped to win on the road this season with far and away the top recruiting class in the country joining a bevy of talented returnees.

Tyler Zeller and UNC are part of the top two games of the season

2. March 3: North Carolina at Duke (7:00, ESPN)- Do I really need to expand on this choice? It’s the greatest rivalry in sports in primetime on the last weekend of the season. Both teams are expected to remain near the top of the polls all season long. What could negate the home-court advantage for Duke: Carolina boasts five future first round picks, the Blue Devils likely only one (Austin Rivers).

1. December 3: North Carolina at Kentucky (12:00, CBS)- Although UConn adding Andre Drummond late may have closed the gap and Ohio State has a certain Jared Sullinger on their side, the near-unanimous best two teams in the country are North Carolina and Kentucky. They meet for the hardwood version of LSU-Alabama in early December. These two powerhouses clash every year around this time, but no previous matchup will be as dissected, anticipated and hyped as 2011’s. The sheer breadth of talent on the floor is off the charts. As soon as Harrison Barnes and Terrence Jones skipped the lottery for another year on campus, UNC-Kentucky instantly became the best game of the 2011-12 season and a potential national title preview.

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