Zach Hayes is an RTC editor, contributor and bracketologist.
College basketball fans: get your calendars out. Over the next few Wednesdays until opening night arrives on November 8, we’ll unveil a portion of our 68 Can’t-Miss Games of 2010-11, a countdown of the matchups that you need to make sure to see this season. From the early season headliners to the best rivalries conference play has to offer, this list has you covered with the game, date, time (ET), network and a brief synopsis of what to expect. Remember, folks: this list doesn’t even include another eight to ten must-see early-season tournament games, for which we’ll have a separate post later this month. Without further ado, here is the fourth installment of the list — set your Tivos/DVRs now.
To see the #14-68 games on this list, click here.
#13. January 18 – Michigan State at Illinois, 7 pm (ESPN) – The Illini are one of the more intriguing teams in the preseason. It’s a big leap of faith to project a team to bolt from NIT to the top 15 without a Harrison Barnes-type impact freshman, but many believe Illinois has the tools to accomplish such a feat, even while playing in the best conference in college basketball this season. With Demetri McCamey back at the point, the improving D.J. Richardson manning the other backcourt spot, incoming McDonalds All-American wing Jereme Richmond and the twin towers of Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale in the post, it’s evident that Bruce Weber has one of the most complete starting fives in the nation. His team knocked off Michigan State last year at Assembly Hall; of course, that victory came without Kalin Lucas on the floor. He should be back to 100% when the rematch occurs in mid-January, an early crucial conference clash in the Big Ten.
#12. February 27 – Purdue at Michigan State, 2 pm (CBS) – Full disclosure: This game was #1 on the list prior to Robbie Hummel’s ACL tear. A late February game possibly for the Big Ten title between two of the top three teams in the preseason was an easy call to head the must-see games of 2010-11. Unfortunately, when Hummel’s knee buckled on the first day of practice, Purdue slid from potential top dog in a loaded conference to third fiddle behind the Michigan State and Ohio State. Even if it’s not the best game of the entire season, the importance cannot be overstated. Counting Purdue completely out of the Big Ten race would be foolish, especially considering preseason First Team All-American JaJuan Johnson is still manning the middle and head coach Matt Painter always receives maximum effort from his troops. Enhancing this matchup even further is the revenge factor that Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers and the rest of the Spartans should feel after E’Twaun Moore put on his Superman cape last year at the Breslin Center.
#11. March 6 – Kentucky at Tennessee, 12 pm (CBS) – The last day of the regular season produces one of the top rivalries in the sport: Kentucky vs. Tennessee amidst the shouts of Rocky Top at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville. Question marks surround the Vols program from their head coach to their post play and whether Scotty Hopson can perform at an all-SEC level on a consistent basis. Much like victories over #1 Kansas (and eventual #1 Kentucky) distracted the Tennessee faithful from the Tyler Smith situation a season ago, a successful year on the court will take the spotlight away from Pearl’s past indiscretions off the court. There’s no better way to endear yourself to those orange-clad faithful than downing Kentucky, especially on the final Sunday of the season and with a possible SEC championship on the line. Unless freshman Tobias Harris is an immediate star, Hopson is the entire key for the Vols this season. His periodic disappearing acts from the offense cannot be tolerated.
#10. February 20 – Ohio State at Purdue, 1 pm (CBS) – This Big Ten grinder could come down to which post stud has the superior game. Purdue’s JaJuan Johnson will need to take on an even bigger load this season with the absence of Hummel. The preseason All-America is a lanky, talented shot-blocker extraordinaire that runs the floor and can hit the mid-range jumper for Matt Painter. This is a crucial year for Johnson, not only in taking on more of a leadership role in West Lafayette, but also vaulting his draft stock into the first round. He’ll be matched up against the Buckeyes’ own stud in the paint, heralded freshman Jared Sullinger. The Columbus native has game beyond his years and can play with the likes of Johnson, Jon Leuer, Rodney Williams, Mike Tisdale and other forwards/centers in the rugged Big Ten. Mark it down: whoever has a better all-around game between Johnson and Sullinger will give their team the edge in what promises to be a physical battle.