The stage was set last season for the ultimate nonconference college basketball showdown. Gonzaga and Baylor were scheduled to play on Dec. 5 in Indianapolis in a meeting of No. 1 vs. No. 2. Then, like so often during the past two years, complications from COVID-19 disrupted the plan. The highly anticipated matchup was scrapped hours before tip after a Gonzaga player tested positive for the coronavirus.
In the end, the two juggernauts did meet in Indianapolis, although it was four months later with a national championship on the line and Baylor coming out on top. But the canceled regular-season meeting underscored the frustrations of the 2020-21 college basketball season, which was fraught with disruptions before the rollout of a widely available vaccine.
With other sports enjoying successful seasons without COVID-19-related disruptions, it appears college basketball is in for a mostly normal season as well. That means we can look forward to the nonconference schedule without too much fear of cancelations or postponements.
As preseason practices begin for teams all over the country, our writers are looking ahead to their favorite nonconference matchups on the docket for the 2021-22 season.
Gonzaga vs. Duke (Nov. 26)
There are a lot of fascinating nonconference matchups on this season’s schedule — at least four of which include Gonzaga. But if forced to pick my favorite, I’m going with Gonzaga vs. Duke in Las Vegas the day after Thanksgiving. That’s two of the biggest brands in college basketball meeting for the first time since the Zags beat the Blue Devils in November 2017. It’ll be the seventh game of Mike Krzyzewski’s final season at Duke. It’ll also be the seventh game for Mark Few’s Zags, who are 62-3 over the past two seasons and the betting favorite to cut nets at the conclusion of the 2022 NCAA Tournament.
But it’s way more than that, too.
This game will also feature the prospects most believe will go No. 1 and No. 2 in the 2022 NBA Draft: Duke’s Paolo Banchero and Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren. It’s a massive matchup from an NBA Draft perspective and could play a role in determining which five-star freshman is ultimately selected first. At least one representative from every NBA franchise will be in attendance. That’s fun. And I haven’t even mentioned Drew Timme yet. He’s not the same kind of NBA prospect as Banchero or Holmgren, but he’s expected to be the leading candidate for National Player of the Year. And if the Zags do indeed win their first national title this season, there’s no denying the mustachioed bucket-getter will be a big part of it.
This game checks every box. It has three player of the year contenders and two candidates to be selected No. 1 overall in the next NBA Draft. It has two national title contenders and two all-time great coaches. Friday isn’t typically a great day for college basketball, I acknowledge, but this Friday after Thanksgiving will be tremendous. — Gary Parrish
Gonzaga vs. UCLA (Nov. 23)
I mean, how can it not this be the game?! We are getting something extremely rare in major college sports: a near-immediate rematch of an epic, unforgettable game from the prior postseason. In this case, it was on the biggest stage: the Final Four. Gonzaga’s 93-90 overtime win not only extended the Bulldogs’ undefeated season — which would be destroyed two nights later by Baylor — but it also marked the first time during the entire season Gonzaga was actually tested. UCLA played its best game, an incredible game, and it was enough because Jalen Suggs’ winner from 37 feet instantly went into the pantheon of greatest shots in basketball history.
Two weeks into the 2021-22 season, we’ll have these two teams not only playing each other again, but both will probably be ranked in the top five of the AP poll — and perhaps even No. 1 and No. 2. The setting will be Las Vegas, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. That’s always a great week for college basketball, and this game will probably be the highlight because of when it’s played. (Duke-Gonzaga will also be good, but it’s landing on the Friday night after Thanksgiving.)
What will Johnny Juzang do this time vs. Gonzaga? Will Drew Timme or Chet Holmgren be the Zags’ MVP through the first two weeks of the season? Will UCLA win, or is this going to be the deal where Gonzaga, just like last season, storms out of the gate and ruins a bunch of power conference teams? For me, Zags-Bruins is the No. 1 nonconference game on the slate heading into ’21-22. The fact it’s the top two programs in the West only makes it that much better. The sport needs as much power and relevance from the West Coast as it can get. — Matt Norlander
Kentucky at Kansas (Jan. 29)
I mean, is there an easier pick on the schedule than Kentucky at Kansas? John Calipari vs. Bill Self? The remade transfer titans vs. the other remade transfer titans? All of the storylines!
Calipari and his ‘Cats head to Lawrence, Kansas on Jan. 29, 2022, as he looks to get ahead in the head-to-head battle vs. Self after falling to the Jayhawks last season. That evened their all-time record against one another to 4-4 (at their respective current programs).
More than the coaching matchup, though, these two teams figure to be top-10 caliber this season. Kansas has a veteran roster featuring Ochai Agbaji, Jalen Wilson and David McCormack, as well as several impact transfers led by Remy Martin. Kentucky has its own veteran roster — especially by Kentucky standards — led mostly by impact transfers in Oscar Tshiebwe, Kellan Grady, Sahvir Wheeler and CJ Fredrick. Plus, it has two incoming five-stars in TyTy Washington and Daimion Collins to bolster the talent.
College basketball only gets a few of these matchups each year — that is, big-name programs playing in a non-neutral court environment — and this one may take the cake as the best game with the best environment all of next season. — Kyle Boone
Memphis vs. Tennessee (Dec. 18)
With no plans to continue the series after this season, this could be the rubber match of a three-game series between Penny Hardaway and Rick Barnes. Tensions escalated when they met in the 2018-19 season, and it culminated with Hardaway saying “Rick Barnes, get the f— out of here,” after Barnes scoffed at Hardaway’s assertion that Tennessee’s players had balled up their fists and wanted to fight.
Tennessee won that game 102-92 in Memphis, so it was no surprise that Hardaway was a bit salty. But his Tigers got revenge on the Volunteers in Knoxville during the 2019-20 season. Now comes the finale on a neutral court in Nashville. NBA scouts will be out in abundance to see the plethora of talent on both squads, and it wouldn’t be surprising if this game gets chippy.
You’ve got a Memphis team with the nation’s No. 1 freshman class going up against a Tennessee team with the nation’s No. 4. class. Oh, and by the way, the top-rated player in that Volunteers’ class is a Memphis native: point guard Kennedy Chandler. Memphis’ star freshmen tandem of Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren aren’t from Tennessee and may need to be indoctrinated on the importance of the series, but there will be plenty of locals on the Memphis roster who can explain it to them as these in-state foes square in a marquee nonconference battle. — David Cobb