Ranking the 2012 ESPN “College Gameday” Match-ups

Posted by Chris Johnson on August 9th, 2012

Christopher Johnson is an RTC columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.

For college hoops fans, winter Saturdays are an overwhelming blur. With so many games spaced out throughout various networks, sitting down and selecting an optimal day-long viewing experience can be somewhat bewildering. When in doubt, the consensus gravitates towards ESPN, where the “College Gameday” crew doles out a constant flow of college hoops action, providing insightful commentary along the way. Starting at 10 AM ET with a studio show staged at that week’s featured game site, a raucous crowd howling in the backdrop, the panel lays out the day’s action, capped with a late-show pick ‘em segment which invariably has the effect of inciting the avid supporters on hand. Then it’s a day’s long succession of enticing fixtures, spanning different leagues, time zones and intrigue levels. The crew — Rece Davis, Digger Phelps, Jay Bilas and for the first time this year Jalen Rose, plus whoever else graces the courtside stage in any given week —  puts a bow on the day’s action with an hour-long recap show, which leads into that week’s marquee matchup. There are few things better than a “Gameday” Saturday: a highly entertaining and energetic crew of college hoops enthusiasts sandwiching a whirlwind of hoop with enlightening breakdowns and analysis about the day’s happenings.

Loved or Hated, Everyone Watches Gameday

In this early-August college hoops lull where the happenings on the gridiron seem to take precedent at most every power conference university, we long dearly for those delightful, couch-side Saturdays. Fortunately, ESPN provided a sneak peak of just how magnificent those Saturdays might be. The network released its “Gameday” schedule Wednesday, and the lineup – at least as far as I can tell from a rather distant August viewpoint – is the best I’ve seen in quite a long time. Maybe ever. The bad news is that January 19, the first Saturday of viewing, seems a pretty long ways away. Not to worry. Before you know it, Midnight Madness will arrive, November and December will slide by and the eight-week selection of action-packed Saturdays will commence. To pique your interest, I’ve put together a ranked list of the eight featured games. There’s no hard and fast criteria here; take this as a simple preferential ordering of which match-ups I feel carry the most appeal. Longstanding rivalries, interesting venues and conference/national title implications will all factor into this 100%-for-fun exercise. On paper, it’s hard to find fault with the selected games. But between now and January, a bad start or two could dampen the hype factor around some of these games. All we can hope is that the scheduled contests maintain their outwardly riveting stature throughout the winter months.

Note: All game times ET.

1. March 9: Syracuse at Georgetown (12 PM), Duke at North Carolina (9 PM)

On the final Saturday of this season’s “Gameday” slate, the on-site team is stepping up its game to bring you two marquee matchups, each a decades-long rivalry with plenty of bad blood between the two teams. First, in what stands to be the final installment of a long and storied East Coast conflict (unless they decide to rekindle the rivalry once the Orange relocate to the ACC the following season), Syracuse and Georgetown will settle their differences on the hardwood one last time, with possible conference title implications ratcheting up the intensity. Will an Otto Porter-led Hoyas squad hold up against Brandon Triche, James Southerland and a host of talented forwards? Later that day, “Gameday” will travel southward for a pre-game show leading up to the Tobacco Road Rivalry, the light blue variant of the annual two-part series. From afar, North Carolina appears to be the more complete team. Of course, the same could be said in the lead-up to last year’s showdown at Chapel Hill; Austin Rivers had other plans. Both teams will be largely freshman-reliant, leaving Mason Plumlee and James Michael McAdoo to duke it out in what figures to be a highly entertaining frontcourt battle.

2. February 2: Michigan at Indiana (9 PM)

Two Big Ten title contenders square off at Assembly Hall, where a rabid fan base is sure to be more geeked up than for any other regular season contest. With their unified roars creating one of the nation’s best and loudest college hoops environments, the Hoosier faithful might make the Gameday crew’s early morning parlance borderline inaudible. Indiana, talented as it may be, could use some help from the home court sixth man for this match-up. This is inarguably Michigan’s most talented team of head coach John Beilein’s tenure, but can Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway, Jr., and a promising crop of incoming freshmen handle the raucous environment? Indiana lost at home only once last season; this could be their toughest test in the cozy confines. Not only is this a huge game for the Hoosiers’ league title hopes, it provides a spotlight national stage for Cody Zeller to flaunt his excellence and stake his claim in the national player of the year race. Wings Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey will fill in nicely around Zeller to facilitate a potent inside-out attack.

3. February 23: Missouri at Kentucky (9 PM)

After a disappointing second-round defeat in the NCAA Tournament at the hands of #15 seed Norfolk State, the Tigers are leaving behind some fond memories in the Big 12 — not to mention a time-tested gem of a rivalry against Kansas — for the SEC, a football-motivated realignment move that leaves the Tigers in a slightly less competitive hoops league. I say that with a caveat, because when you share conference affiliation with Kentucky, nothing comes easy. As long as John Calipari, per the usual, continues to replenish the recruiting ranks with NBA talent, the Wildcats will forever remain a powerful fixture atop the SEC standings. This year is no different, with center Nerlens Noel headlining another loaded recruiting class. The Tigers are the one team with the means and will to take down the Wildcats. Coach Frank Haith tapped the increasingly lucrative transfer wire for his reinforcements. The result: former UConn center Alex Oriakhi, highly-touted guard Jabari Brown, WCC scoring machine Keion Bell and combo-guard Earnest Ross, all of whom are eligible next season. Throw Laurence Bowers into the mix, back for a final season after an ACL tear, and Mizzou seems well-equipped to go toe-to-toe with the reloaded Wildcats, even at hostile Rupp Arena.

4. March 2: Arizona at UCLA (9 PM) 

Last year’s Pac-12 comprised one of the worst all around samplings of talent for a Super Six league in recent memory. For a good part of last season, it didn’t require a huge stretch of the imagination to forecast the watered-down conference producing only one NCAA Tournament team. While it won’t rival the likes of the Big 12, Big Ten and Big East next year, the league is, on the whole, much better than it was last season. It starts at the top, where Arizona and UCLA, bolstered by star-studded recruiting classes, are the early frontrunners to take the conference crown. Transfer Mark Lyons will be a major component of Sean Miller’s plans, as will returnees Nick Johnson and Solomon Hill. Super frosh Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson should have their sea legs in time for this early March showdown, and the Bruins could be gunning for a #1 or #2 seed when they welcome the Wildcats to an upgraded Pauley Pavilion. Ben Howland’s frustratingly slow offensive scheme will meet its polar opposite in Sean Miller’s up-tempo system. The clash of styles should serve as one of the more entertaining litmus tests for old school-new school doctrinal wisdom.

The Bruins and Wildcats should compete for a conference title this season after both programs took a step back in 2011-12 (Photo credit: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images).

5. January 26: North Carolina at NC State (7 PM)

Mark Gottfried has built the Wolfpack into a bona fide national title contender, the type of team NC State fans have missed for a long time. Forwards Richard Howell and C.J. Leslie return to form one of the nation’s most talented and versatile frontcourt tandems, McDonald’s All American Rodney Purvis – provided he overcomes what appears to be a credibly worrisome eligibility roadblock — will add scoring punch on the wing and junior point guard and floor leader Lorenzo Brown is the cohesive force making sure everything goes according to plan. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels will counter with a roster depleted by last year’s mass NBA exodus (Tyler Zeller, John Henson, Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall are all gone) but still formidable enough to compete for a league title. It’ll be interesting to see how underused forward and projected lottery pick McAdoo fares against the Wolfpack’s talented low block duo. NC State has the upper hand here, and red-clad supporters at PNC Arena will relish the opportunity to see their team take down a hated local rival.

6. February 16: Texas at Kansas (9 PM)

Losing your top three scorers plus a conference player of the year would cripple most programs. Par for the course in Lawrence, Kansas, where the Jayhawks have won or held a share of an unfathomable eight consecutive Big 12 regular season championships. Allen Fieldhouse is to college basketball fans what the Louvre is to art connoisseurs; it’s pure college hoops euphoria. With Rock Chalk Jayhawk serenading the festivities, Kansas – who returns rim-protecting center Jeff Withey along with experienced guards Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson – will be the odds-on favorite to defend home court against a young but talented Texas squad. Skilled point guard Myck Kabongo provided glimpses of stardom last season, but will be charged with shouldering a far greater share of the scoring load now that trigger-happy guard J’Covan Brown has left the program. The Jayhawks should be in line for another conference title by the time this highly anticipated clash takes place. An upset is unlikely here, but it’s hard not to appreciate a late-night dose of Jayhawk pride.

7. February 9: Pittsburgh at Cincinnati or Louisville at Notre Dame (9 PM)

With four teams well-equipped for league championship and deep tournament runs, ESPN is avoiding the unfavorable scenario of locking itself into the lesser of two mouth-watering Big East matchups. Flex scheduling at its finest, here. The Panthers should return to familiar league juggernaut territory after an unexpected comedown last season. Point guard Trey Woodall is back, ready to lead a typical Pittsburghian lineup – veteran forwards Dante Taylor, Talib Zanna and 7’0″ Australian center Steven Adams promise to be an active band of glass-cleaning workhorses — to greener pastures. For Cincinnati, the stigma of last year’s #zipemup brawl was somewhat washed away with the Bearcats promising Sweet Sixteen run last season. A starting backcourt of Cashmere Wright, Jaquon Parker and Sean Kilpatrick will be a tough defensive assignment for the frontcourt-oriented Panthers. In the other matchup, Louisville fans can make a legitimate claim to having the nation’s best team heading into next season, but South Bend has produced its fair share of monumental takedowns in recent years. Just ask Syracuse. Even for the Cardinals’ vaunted pressure defense, Mike Brey’s free-flowing offense could prove lethal, not to mention Big East player of the year front-runner Jack Cooley.

8. January 19: Gonzaga at Butler (9 PM)

Contrary to what this list suggests, there is no mid-major bias at work here. In their inaugural year in the Atlantic 10, the Bulldogs welcome the 2000s gold standard for mid-majors to Hinkle Fieldhouse, a historic venue well-suited for this sort of national exposure. Anything short of a WCC crown will be a disappointment for the Zags, particularly with the flock of adept playmakers it returns this season. NBA hopeful Elias Harris will front a multi-dimensional offensive attack, with guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell serving as facilitators for a versatile frontcourt featuring rangy forward Sam Dower and Polish import Przmek Karnowski, Mark Few’s latest prize on the foreign recruiting market. A 27.2% three-point shooting percentage precluded another national championship game run last season – getting there for a third consecutive season would have been miracle work, even with a respectable showing from three-point land — but Brad Stevens took extreme measures to ensure the Bulldogs’ long-range marksmanship  ascends from the dismal depths it reached in 2011-12: Freshman Kellen Dunham and Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke are known first and foremost for their prowess from beyond the arc. Still, if Butler aspires to establish some measure of Zags-like consistency in the A-10, it will need a stronger pool of frontcourt talent than next year’s group. The Bulldogs’ (the Western variety) fearsome interior threesome will pose a stern challenge for Butler, but it would be foolish to count out the plucky group with an established track record for giving bigger and more talented opponents all they can handle.

Chris Johnson (290 Posts)

My name is Chris Johnson and I'm a national columnist here at RTC, the co-founder of Northwestern sports site Insidenu.com and a freelance contributor to SI.com.

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