The 2016-17 college basketball season begins Friday, and the Big Ten is again expected to be one of the deepest and most intriguing conferences in the nation. There are four teams in the top 15 of the preseason AP Top 25 poll, and the league will be striving for a conference-record eight NCAA tournament bids.
While some fans might be distracted by football, this college basketball season is going to start with a flurry of great games during the opening weekend. Three of the four top-15 teams in the Big Ten will face another top-15 team before the season is four days old.
There are lots of great games early in the season, even before the ACC/Big Ten Challenge at the end of the month.
Here are the 10 must-see contests during the first two weeks of the season:
No. 10 Arizona vs. No. 12 Michigan State (Friday)
It has not been a great offseason for Sean Miller and the Wildcats. Their top-ranked recruit in the Class of 2016, Terrance Ferguson, decided to play in Australia instead of Tuscon, Ariz. Then a 5-star recruit from the Class of 2015, Ray Smith, sustained a third major knee injury and decided to stop playing basketball before ever playing in an official game for the Wildcats.
Now another 5-star player from 2015 and Arizona’s top returning scorer from last season, sophomore forward Allonzo Trier, has been held out of exhibition games and might not play against the Spartans. Miller has been silent on the matter, but there’s been plenty of speculation about a potential suspension looming for Trier. Oh, by the way, Arizona has to replace three starters, not counting Trier.
Michigan State has plenty of uncertainty heading into this season, but Miller would probably trade spots with Tom Izzo in short order right now. This should be an interesting start to a doubleheader at the Pearl Harbor Naval base in Hawaii.
No. 11 Indiana vs. No. 3 Kansas (Friday)
The second half of that doubleheader should be a fantastic game. Indiana has to replace seven-year point guard Yogi Ferrell (it only seems like it) and forward Troy Williams, who left early for the NBA.
The Hoosiers are going to be really deep and have at least three NBA prospects with Thomas Bryant, James Blackmon, Jr., and OG Anunoby, who could be one of the Big Ten’s breakout stars this season.
This might be the best time to catch Kansas, too. The Jayhawks, 12-time defending champions in the Big 12, have a loaded roster. There are several new players to blend into a lineup that includes Frank Mason, Devonte Graham and Carlton Bragg. Not all of Bill Self’s 5-star freshmen become dynamic players right away (or at all, in the cases of Cliff Alexander and Cheick Diallo).
No. 4 Villanova at No. 15 Purdue (Monday)
The defending national champions are coming to West Lafayette, Ind., on the fourth day of the season. Villanova lost two starters, and 5-star recruit Omari Spellman is ineligible for the season, but All-America candidates Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins are back, and the Wildcats added an interesting transfer from Fordham, Eric Paschall. He was the Atlantic 10 freshman of the year two seasons ago.
The Boilermakers, who could have one of the best front courts in the nation, add two intriguing pieces in the backcourt. One is graduate transfer Spike Albrecht from Michigan. The other is 4-star point guard Carsen Edwards. Figuring out how to get enough minutes for P.J. Thompson, Albrecht and Edwards could be a challenge for Matt Painter.
No. 25 Maryland at Georgetown (Tuesday)
Georgetown was a disappointment last season, finishing eighth in the Big East and recording the fewest wins for the program since 2003-04. The Hoyas should be better this season with a couple of talented transfers adding to an already pretty veteran-laden roster.
Even if the Hoyas were going to be worse, this would still be a game to watch. The rivalry was renewed last season, when the highly regarded Terps eked out a four-point win at home. Now the venue shifts downtown to Verizon Center, which should be a wild atmosphere with fans from both teams filling up the arena.
No. 12 Michigan State vs. No. 2 Kentucky (Tuesday)
The Champions Classic is always a marquee event at Madison Square Garden. This year, the top three teams in the preseason AP Top 25 poll will compete.
Kentucky lost some great players and added a bunch more. Five 5-star freshmen join Isaiah Briscoe and other former blue-chip recruits. The Wildcats are likely going to be great, but they aren’t always so at this event because the reloading process can take some time.
This game will feature nine of the top 41 recruits in the Class of 2016. Counting the nightcap between No. 1 Duke and No. 3 Kansas, 17 of the top 41 will be in the arena this night. That is absurd.
Penn State vs. No. 1 Duke (Nov. 19)
The Nittany Lions could be the most improved team in the conference this season. They are going to be deep and are going to attempt to play at a much faster tempo.
This will be a mighty test early in the season at Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut. The Blue Devils bring back a national player of the year candidate, guard Grayson Allen, and add two more with freshmen Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum.
They’re also going to bring McDonald’s All-Americans off the bench and terrorize teams most nights. It will be interesting to see if Penn State can make an early statement about progress to come.
Northwestern vs. No. 21 Texas (Nov. 21)
Now that the Cubs have won the World Series, the most-talked about drought in Chicago is … OK, it’s probably the Bears not winning the Super Bowl for 30 years. But, after that, it’s certainly Northwestern’s streak without an NCAA tournament bid.
The Wildcats will get a strong early test against the Longhorns in the Legends’ Classic in Brooklyn, and then another potential resume-building game the following day against Notre Dame or Colorado, both teams that received votes in the preseason AP poll. They also have a game Nov. 16 at Butler, another top-40ish team. If Northwestern manages to win two of those three games, there will be November chatter about the Wildcats being poised to possibly make a charge at their first NCAA bid.
No. 9 Wisconsin at the Maui Invitational (Nov. 21-23)
The Badgers open with Tennessee, but a semifinal matchup with No. 5 Oregon the following day could be great theatre. The Ducks had a huge season in 2015-16, winning the Pac-12 and reaching the Elite Eight. They might not have All-America candidate Dillon Brooks yet because of a foot injury, but the Ducks should still be formidable.
No. 6 North Carolina and No. 18 Connecticut also loom on the other side of the bracket. The Badgers have everyone back from a Sweet 16 team, and are the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten. There could be two or three strong tests for them in Maui.
No. 12 Michigan State at the Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 23-25)
This seems like an awfully audacious schedule for a very young Spartans team, doesn’t it? Izzo’s crew will play Arizona, Kentucky and St. John’s before Thanksgiving, and then add Baylor or VCU on turkey day in the Bahamas. A game against No. 13 Louisville is possible on the final day of the tournament.
Oh, they are also going to play Duke at the end of the month in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The freshmen are certainly going to find out about top-flight college basketball in a hurry.
Illinois vs. No. 20 West Virginia (Nov. 24)
This is an afternoon tip off on Thanksgiving, which could be a nice escape from the NFL. Someone has to finish second in the Big 12 behind Kansas, and the Mountaineers are, along with Texas and No. 24 Iowa State, the leading contenders to do so.
The Illini will have Malcolm Hill, the best player on the floor and leading returning scorer in the conference. The Mountaineers have a deep team but are replacing their top two scorers from last season.