One of the biggest debates among college basketball coaches revolves around scheduling. From January on, teams are largely locked into their conferences schedules, with only a handful of opportunities to schedule intriguing non-conference games. But in November, and especially in December, we gain a window into many coaches' belief systems.
As fans, we frown on coaches like Jim Calhoun of Connecticut, who year after year refuses to make his team's December schedule interesting, often going weeks at a time playing not only creampuffs, but also creampuffs in his own state. Clemson famously jumped out to a 17–0 start last year, only to collapse and fail to make the NCAA tournament, having gotten fat on an easy early-season schedule.
By contrast, more and more coaches are learning the benefits of scheduling tough non-conference foes early in the year. Such matchups can help toughen a team up for conference, offer a barometer on their early-season progress, and enhance their résumé once Selection Sunday rolls around.
With all that in mind, here are seven must-see games for December, plus three bonus picks:
DEC. 1: NORTH CAROLINA AT KENTUCKY
The AP's no. 1 team heads to Lexington to battle a Kentucky team that's already lost at home to Gardner Webb and is ranked outside the top 25, a rarity for UK. But make no mistake, this game could be a barn-burner. North Carolina is a much more vulnerable team with point guard Ty Lawson at less than 100%, and Kentucky's got three dangerous scorers in senior guards Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley and freshman sensation Patrick Patterson. This one has major upset potential.
DEC. 2: KANSAS AT USC
As if this weren't enough, the Trojans travel across the country to face Memphis just two days later, making this the toughest back-to-back non-conference matchups for any team this year. The Trojans have already beaten two tough mid-majors in Miami (OH) and Southern Illinois. Kansas may have more talent than any other team in the country, but Brandon Rush isn't up to full speed yet, and Sherron Collins is out with a broken foot. If Rush guards Trojans superfrosh O.J. Mayo and holds him in check, the Jayhawks will win going away and we'll know that Kansas has its star back.
DEC. 2: TEXAS AT UCLA
Another great matchup in the Pac-10 vs. Big 12 challenge, UCLA will have its hands full dealing with the Longhorns' D.J. Augustin and A.J. Abrams, one of the best pairs of scoring guards in the country. As it is with UNC and Lawson, UCLA must also get its All America-caliber point guard healthy. Texas has already proven its mettle sans Kevin Durant against one elite team, blitzing Tennessee by 19. Kevin Love is a beast as a down-low presence for the Bruins, but if Darren Collison isn't running the point and clamping down on Augustin, Texas could run and gun its way to another big win.
DEC. 5: WASHINGTON STATE AT GONZAGA
The Cougars play a weak nonconference schedule, as teams generally don't want to travel to Pullman, so this should serve as a great test for a Wazzou team considered a Final Four contender by many. For Gonzaga, this is par for the course for the nation's premier mid-major program. The Zags also play Tennessee, Memphis, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, St. Joseph's, and other tough non-conference opponents this year, and the West Coast Conference should be better too, with St. Mary's looking especially feisty.
DEC. 8: MARQUETTE AT WISCONSIN
This might be the best non-conference rivalry in the country right now. The Badgers aren't quite as talented without Alando Tucker, but they still trot out their usual assortment of big men who can shoot and a disciplined motion offense that befuddles opponents. Meanwhile Marquette's four-guard attack of Dominic James, Wesley Matthews, Jerel McNeal, and David Cubillan causes matchup nightmares for everyone.
DEC. 20: DUKE AT PITTSBURGH
At the beginning of the year, the concern for Duke was its lack of size, with 6-foot-8-inch Lance Thomas its biggest significant contributor. So far it's been other teams that have had to adjust to Duke's style of play. The arrival of freshman Kyle Singler and the emergence of Gerald Henderson make this a more athletic team than we're used to seeing. Pitt's also gone smaller with Aaron Gray and Levon Kendall both graduated, looking good against some weaker opponents. Still, we could be looking at a matchup of 10–0 teams at Pitt, where you know the Oakland Zoo will try to outcrazy the Cameron Crazies.
DEC. 22: GEORGETOWN AT MEMPHIS
Like Mark Few at Gonzaga, John Calipari regularly assembles one of the toughest schedules in the country for Memphis, in large part to make up for playing against weak competition in its conference. The combination of Chris Douglas-Roberts slashing, Joey Dorsey intimidating inside game, and Derrick Rose running the point (and causing NBA scouts to swoon) will be tough to beat. Then again, will Memphis have an answer for 7-foot-2-inch future lottery pick Roy Hibbert and an able supporting cast? The team that controls the pace — the half-court offense whizzes of Georgetown vs. the mile-a-minute Tigers — likely takes this game.
Dec. 8: BYU at Michigan State: Trent Plaisted and company could give Drew Neitzel and Raymar Morgan everything they can handle, even at the raucous Breslin Center.
Dec. 22: Tennessee at Xavier: The Vols have the nation's gutsiest short in Chris Lofton and a fast-paced game, but Xavier's veteran core and tougher defense could prevail at home.
Dec. 28: Southern Illinois at Butler: Few teams execute their offense better than A.J. Graves and the Bulldogs; few teams cause more nightmares with their defense than the Salukis.
Mr. Keri ([email protected]) is a writer for ESPN.com's Page 2 .