16 nonconference men's basketball games that could impact the bracket in March

Thursday, October 26, 2023

The nonconference portion of the men's college basketball season is a measuring stick of sorts. It's a test of new coaches at new programs. Of a team's cohesiveness after adding freshmen and transfers over the summer. Nonconference games offer us a data-backed look at a team's ceiling, and what it needs to improve before the year turns and conference play begins. They're looked at closely by the selection committee in March, to determine bubble teams' fates.

Beyond the NCAA tournament implications, nonconference games can simply be fun. They're an opportunity for in-state rivals to face off again. New rivalries can form. Early-season tournaments pit star players against each other. Blue bloods take on other blue bloods. New eras begin (see: Syracuse).

ESPN's Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway, Joe Lunardi and Myron Medcalf pick out 16 games in the first two months of the 2023-24 season you won't want to miss, for any of the above reasons.

New Hampshire Wildcats at Syracuse Orange

7 p.m. ET | Nov. 6 | Syracuse, New York | ACCN

When Adrian Autry sends the Orange on the floor on opening night of the 2023-24 season, it will mark the first time that's been done by a full-time Syracuse head coach not named Jim Boeheim since March 13, 1976. -- John Gasaway

Drexel Dragons at La Salle Explorers (Big 5 Classic)

6:30 p.m. ET | Nov. 7 | Philadelphia | ESPN+

Well below the radar, the legendary Philadelphia Big 5 made significant changes in the offseason. First, the longstanding round-robin games format has been replaced by a pod system culminating in a championship triple-header in December. Second, Drexel -- which opens the Big 5 series -- has finally and formally been added to the group, creating a "City Six" and perhaps bringing new life to an institution dominated in recent years by Villanova (36-2 in their past 38 Big 5 games). -- Joe Lunardi

New Mexico Lobos at Saint Mary's Gaels

10 p.m. ET | Nov. 9 | Moraga, California | ESPN+

This is terrific early-season scheduling by both schools. Both have legitimate NCAA tournament aspirations, and both need out-of-conference tests they can count on being "counted" in March by the committee. These are precisely the type of games we Bracketologists focus on, especially early in the season in true home-court environments. For the Lobos, a rare visitors win in Moraga would almost certainly fall into the Quad 1 column down the road. -- Lunardi

Charleston Cougarsvs.Duquesne Dukes (Veteran's Classic)

6 p.m. ET | Nov. 10 | Annapolis | CBS Sports Network

This is another instance of smart scheduling in the mid-major domain. The Dukes have their best team in decades, and we saw last year the magic Pat Kelsey has brought to Charleston. This neutral-court encounter in Annapolis will end up in the "quality win" column for someone (provided Navy finds a way to keep the court dry, that is). -- Lunardi

Arizona Wildcats at Duke Blue Devils

7 p.m. ET | Nov. 10 | Durham, North Carolina | ESPN2

Blue bloods colliding in the nonconference season on one team's home floor? Yes, please, let's do this more often. The hosts project to be both talented and, even with returning stars like Kyle Filipowski, Jeremy Roach and Tyrese Proctor, fairly young by mid-2020s standards. For its part, the Wildcats will ride with at least three grizzled veterans, one of whom --North Carolina transfer Caleb Love-- requires no introduction in Durham. -- Gasaway

Michigan Wolverines at St. John's Red Storm (Gavitt Tipoff Games)

6:30 p.m. ET | Nov. 13 | Madison Square Garden | FS1

We could see both of these teams in Dayton for the "First Four" come March. That's how close they project to the NCAA bubble at this point. And the storylines extend far beyond Bracketology. Rick Pitino returns to Madison Square Garden as coach of the ascendent Red Storm. Juwan Howard hopes to return from major heart surgery sometime in November to lead the Wolverines. If not, Phil Martelli helms Michigan in a return to the big stage. Very tasty, indeed. -- Lunardi

Duke Blue Devils vs. Michigan State Spartans (Champions Classic)

7 p.m. ET | Nov. 14 | Chicago | ESPN

The first game of the Champions Classic doubleheader will pit two of the top four teams in most preseason rankings. It's the battle on the perimeter that most intrigues me, with the Blue Devils and Spartans possessing two of the elite backcourts in the country. Jeremy Roach, Tyrese Proctor and Jared McCain on one side, Tyson Walker, A.J. Hoggard and Jaden Akins on the other. Does Michigan State have an answer for Kyle Filipowski up front? -- Jeff Borzello

Marquette Golden Eagles at Illinois Fighting Illini (Gavitt Tip-Off Games)

8 p.m. ET | Nov. 14 | Champaign, Illinois | FS1

The last time we saw Tyler Kolek, he'd played through pain in a loss to Michigan State in the second round of the NCAA tournament. But his thumb injury is healed now and a Marquette team with four returning starters is eyeing a national championship run under Shaka Smart. A matchup against Terrence Shannon Jr.(17.2 PPG) and the Fighting Illini is the beginning of a tough nonconference slate for Marquette that will also include matchups against Wisconsin, Texas, UCLA and a potential clash with Kansas in the Maui Invitational. -- Myron Medcalf

Kentucky Wildcats vs. Kansas Jayhawks (Champions Classic)

9:30 p.m. ET | Nov. 14 | Chicago | ESPN

Kentucky will begin the season ranked 16th in the AP preseason poll -- the team's lowest preseason ranking under John Calipari. But the Wildcats won't have to wait long to prove they were deserving of a higher spot. Beating the preseason No. 1 Jayhawks won't be easy, though. The battle between Hunter Dickinson and Kentucky's fleet of big men, including Croatian freshman Zvonimir Ivisic, could decide the outcome. -- Medcalf

Saint Mary's Gaels vs. San Diego State Aztecs (Continental Tires Main Event)

9:30 p.m. ET | Nov. 17 | Las Vegas | ESPN+

For just the second time in 22 years, Gonzaga was not picked to win the WCC in the league's preseason poll. Aidan Mahaney and the Gaels instead secured that honor after last year's 27-win season. The Aztecs, which lost to UConn in the national championship in April, will turn to Lamont Butler, who scored 13 points in that loss, as it seeks to make another Final Four run. This is one of the best non-Power 5 matchups of the nonconference slate. -- Medcalf

Purdue Boilermakers vs. Gonzaga Bulldogs (Maui Invitational)

5 p.m. ET | Nov. 20 | Honolulu, Hawaii | ESPN2

Both teams feel they have something to prove. Zach Edey returned to West Lafayette for another season after the Boilermakers suffered the second 16-over-1 loss in NCAA tournament history. Mark Few, meanwhile, moves forward with a team that's less familiar than past Gonzaga squads. He'll turn to Ryan Nembhard, who transferred from Creighton, and other new pieces after losing more than 60 PPG from the roster. We should learn a lot about both teams and their Final Four dreams after this one. -- Medcalf

North Carolina Tar Heels vs. Villanova Wildcats (Battle 4 Atlantis)

12 p.m. ET | Nov. 25 | Paradise Island, Bahamas | ESPN

This is a potential matchup in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis -- UNC would have to beat Northern Iowa, and Villanova would need to get past Texas Tech. If this happens, it will pair arguably the two most disappointing teams of last season. So it should be a litmus test to see whether both programs are poised to bounce back. Carolina returns Armando Bacot and R.J. Davis and adds passing wizard Elliott Cadeau. Villanova has a healthy Justin Moore and three instant-impact transfers. -- Borzello

UConn Huskies at Kansas Jayhawks

9 p.m. ET | Dec. 1 | Lawrence, Kansas | ESPN2

It's the preseason No. 1 hosting the reigning national champion. We'll already have a feel for both teams by the time they meet -- the Jayhawks play in the Maui Invitational, while the Huskies face Indiana and possibly Texas in the Empire Classic. But there are two reasons why this game separates itself as a must-watch tilt: it's played on campus, unlike so many of the marquee nonconference games; and the head-to-head battle between Donovan Clingan and Hunter Dickinson. -- Borzello

Alabama Crimson Tide vs. Purdue Boilermakers (Hall of Fame series)

1:30 p.m. ET | Dec. 9 | Toronto | Fox

Zach Edey returns to his hometown north of the border for what could be a top-10 clash with the Tide. Nate Oats is relying on seasoned types like Mark Sears and Hofstra Pride transfer Aaron Estrada to lead Alabama boldly into its post-Brandon Miller era. As for Edey and the Boilermakers, they're seeking to replicate precisely what former 1-seed Virginia did after losing to a 16-seed in March 16, 2018: win a national championship the following year.-- Gasaway

UConn Huskies vs. Gonzaga Bulldogs

10 p.m. ET | Dec. 15 | Seattle | ESPN2

Dan Hurley can't be accused of scheduling cupcakes, give him that. Two weeks after playing the AP preseason No. 1 Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse, the reigning national champs will cross the continent to face the Zags at Climate Pledge Arena. Donovan Clingan will be tested by Wyoming transfer (and 2022-23 Mountain West preseason POY) Graham Ike, who sat out last season due to injury. -- Gasaway

Florida Atlantic Owls vs. Arizona Wildcats

3 p.m. ET | Dec. 23 | Las Vegas | FOX

FAU's lofty preseason ranking has been the subject of debate in the offseason -- and while the Owls will have difficult tests before this game, a pseudo-road game against Arizona might be the first time they're considered underdogs in 2023-24. Arizona built itself differently this offseason, leaning more into dynamism and toughness -- we'll have to watch how that translates into Tommy Lloyd's offensive system. Is FAU a legitimate top-10 team? Is Arizona the Pac-12 favorite? Questions will be answered in Vegas. -- Borzello