ACC Non-Conference Games: Ten Worth Watching

Posted by Matt Auerbach on October 23rd, 2018

Even in the face of fervent anticipation, the start of the college hoops season has a way of sneaking up on us. Now only two weeks away and with the brutal gauntlet of a full conference slate coming seven weeks after that, it feels like a good time to preview the 10 most compelling non-conference match-ups that ACC members will encounter during the upcoming campaign. This list excludes preseason tourneys (Duke heading to Maui, for example, among others) and the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge, which we will preview in more depth ahead of those events. Here we go, in calendar order, starting with the Champions Classic on opening night.

It’s Always Must-See College Basketball when Duke Meets Kentucky (USA Today Images)

  • November 6- Duke vs. Kentucky (Champions Classic, Indianapolis). In a very off-brand, sensible decision, the NCAA has stopped burying the season’s annual tip-off on a pedestrian Friday night and instead will utilize the grand stage of the Champions Classic to get things going. In the nightcap game of the Indianapolis event, two teams with legitimate championship aspirations and talent galore will meet once again. For Duke, the nation’s top-rated incoming class features do-everything wing R.J. Barrett along with explosive man-child Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones (brother of Tyus Jones, the 2015 NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player). In an unusual turn of events, it will be Kentucky that is armed with the more experienced roster, as the Blue Devils’ leading returning scorer will be junior big man Marques Bolden (3.9 PPG), while the Wildcats retained sophomores Quade Green, P.J. Washington and Nick Richardsfrom last year’s Sweet Sixteen squad.
  • November 6: Florida at Florida State. This annual tussle will serve as the rivals’ season opener this year, as the Gators look to avenge a home thrashing by the Seminoles last season. Florida State returns seven of its top nine scorers, including leading man Phil Cofer, from a squad that was within a whisker of the Final Four a year ago. The cupboard is not bare for Mike White, either, as Florida features a dynamic, experienced tandem on the wings in seniors KeVaughn Allen and Jalen Hudson. Numerous explosive athletes on both sides of the floor will make this game worth flipping to during the commercial breaks of the Duke/Kentucky tilt.
  • November 15: Connecticut vs Syracuse (Madison Square Garden). Two old Big East foes will rekindle their long and storied rivalry at a familiar venue in New York City. The Orange return all of their top pieces from last year’s Sweet Sixteen squad, including the ACC’s third-leading scorer, Tyus Battle. He will be joined by a pair of exciting rising sophomores in Oshae Brissett and Marek Dolezaj along with freshmen Jalen Carey and Buddy Boeheim, giving Syracuse a roster that should easily result in a top-half ACC finish. New Connecticut head coach Danny Hurley will begin the process of getting this proud program back on track after consecutive sub-.500 seasons that led to the ouster of onetime championship coach Kevin Ollie.

  • November 21: Tennessee vs. Louisville (Barclays Center). The first big game of the Chris Mack era in Louisville will take place in Brooklyn during Thanksgiving week as the Cardinals match up with preseason top-10 Tennessee in Brooklyn. Mack embarks on year one of his rebuilding campaign, seeking to replace four of Louisville’s top five scorers from last season and move past all of the turmoil that has surrounded the program over the last four years. He’ll have plenty of time in which to develop his team, but the former Xavier head coach tends to get the maximum from his guys, so it will be interesting to see how the Cardinals fare against a team with superior talent in the early part of the season.

Texas and UNC Have Played Some Fun Games Over the Years (USA Today Images)

  • November 22: Texas vs. North Carolina (Las Vegas). Shaka Smart’s three years in Austin have been surprisingly blasé. At 40-40 overall (23-31 Big 12), this is a big season for the former wunderkind who finally has a roster in place ready to compete at an elite level. His charges will get an early test in North Carolina, which is loaded yet again with double-double machine Luke Maye inside, a healthy Cameron Johnson and freshman Nassir Little on the wings, and McDonald’s All-American Coby White at the point. The sophomore frontcourt trio of Garrison Brooks, Brandon Huffman and Sterling Manley are of particular note — all three showed signs of improvement down the stretch last season. Given their surrounding talent base, if any of the three makes a big leap, look out for the Tar Heels.
  • December 8: Pittsburgh at West Virginia. After the disaster that was the two-year Kevin Stallings era in Pittsburgh, new head coach Jeff Capel would do well to simply field a competitive squad in year one at the helm. The former Duke assistant was able to convince several of Stallings’ holdovers to remain with the program while also pulling in two top-150 recruits (representing the school’s highest-rated class in five years). He’ll get no sympathy from Bob Huggins in this early December trip to Morgantown, however, as Capel will experience his inaugural Backyard Brawl without facing the now-graduated Jevon Carter.
  • December 8: Louisville at Indiana. Chris Mack’s team could very likely be 4-4 when the Cardinals visit Assembly Hall in the second year of Archie Miller’s tenure at Indiana (and the first and likely only year in Bloomington for superstar freshman Romeo Langford). And while patience is being preached to the Louisville fan base, a loss here that results in a sub-.500 record through nine games is not something they are accustomed to.
  • December 8: Clemson vs. Mississippi State (Newark). Head coach Brad Brownell finally broke through a year ago in a big way, as Clemson made its first NCAA Tournament since his debut season in 2010-11. Can the Tigers sustain the momentum? Three senior returnees, led by leading scorer Marcquise Reed, will combine with potential breakout star Aamir Simms to square off against what should be Ben Howland’s finest team since taking the helm in Starkville.
  • December 15: Gonzaga at North Carolina. The Zags’ tradition of “play anyone, anywhere” has never been illuminated more clearly than taking on the challenge of traveling cross-country to visit the Tar Heels at the Dean Smith Center in mid-December. A rematch of the 2017 NCAA Championship game, the Bulldogs have the look of a team that could make a return trip next March.
  • February 2: St. John’s at Duke. The Blue Devils play host to the Red Storm in the annual meeting between the programs, a year after the Big East cellar-dwelling Johnnies stunned Duke at Madison Square Garden. This iteration of Chris Mullin’s squad should instead rank among the top half of the Big East, as marksman Shamorie Ponds (who lit Duke up for 33 points) returns to the lineup and will be bolstered by the addition of Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron. This game in early February will be an interesting litmus test for a young team seeking to shore up its chemistry heading down the conference home stretch into March.
Matthew Auerbach (70 Posts)

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