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Key bracket games for Top 25 teams

No. 1-seed hopes for John Henson, Harrison Barnes and UNC will once again run through Duke. Lance King/Icon SMI

Yes, it's early in the college basketball season, but when it comes to Selection Sunday, games in November can weigh just as heavily on seeding as games during Championship Week.

With that in mind, I'm taking a look through the ESPN.com/ESPN The Magazine Top 25 preseason rankings to see which games on their schedules could have the biggest bracket impact. The bolded battles are the clashes I see as the biggest of the season.

1. North Carolina Tar Heels

Nov. 13 -- vs. Michigan State (Carrier Classic)

Dec. 3 -- @ Kentucky

Mar. 3 -- @ Duke

It's hard to argue with the historical significance of the Carrier Classic, but UNC's trip to Kentucky is a legitimate national championship preview. It features the nation's two winningest programs and the most talented rosters of 2011-12.


2. Kentucky Wildcats

Dec. 3 -- North Carolina

Dec. 31 -- Louisville

Feb. 11 -- @ Vanderbilt (College Gameday)

UK gets Louisville at home on New Year's Eve in the annual Pitino-Calipari grudge match. A win, ironically, would just about guarantee a spot for the Wildcats at the Cardinals' KFC Yum Center for the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament.


3. Ohio State Buckeyes

Nov. 15 -- Florida

Nov. 29 -- Duke (Big Ten/ACC Challenge)

Feb. 4 -- @ Wisconsin

If it comes down to Ohio State and Duke for the last No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday, the results of their Big Ten/ACC challenge encounter will be hard to ignore. It's rare for any team to get a shot at the Blue Devils outside Durham in nonconference play.


4. Connecticut Huskies

Feb. 6 -- @ Louisville

Feb. 18 -- Marquette

Feb. 25 -- Syracuse (College Gameday)

"College Gameday" debuted at UConn in January 2005 and makes a return for a Big East showdown against Syracuse. It will be the second meeting in two weeks between the Huskies and the Orange, and a sweep either way would keep No. 1-seed hopes alive.


5. Syracuse Orange

Dec. 2 -- Florida (Big East/SEC Challenge)

Feb. 11 -- Connecticut

Mar. 3 -- Louisville

Chances for big non-league wins are few and far between for the Orange. Syracuse plays only one true road game out of conference, so its Big East/SEC Challenge date with Florida takes on added importance. The Cuse must defend the home court.


6. Duke Blue Devils

Nov. 29 -- @ Ohio State (Big Ten/ACC Challenge)

Jan. 4 -- @ Temple

Mar. 3 -- North Carolina

Duke ends the regular season with the Cameron Crazies on hand for a shot at the preseason No. 1 team. Should the Blue Devils somehow grab an outright ACC title, it will be hard to keep them off the top line of the NCAA tournament bracket.


7. Vanderbilt Commodores

Nov. 28 -- Xavier

Dec. 2 -- @ Louisville (Big East/SEC Challenge)

Feb. 11 -- Kentucky (College Gameday)

The most anticipated season in Vandy history peaks with Kentucky's annual visit to Memorial Gym. Don't let the funky sight lines fool you -- the Commodores are Final Four-good and get to show the rest of us when "College Gameday" comes to town.


8. Florida Gators

Nov. 15 -- @ Ohio State

Feb. 4 -- Vanderbilt

Mar. 4 -- Kentucky

The SEC East is the place to be this season, with three of the country's top eight teams. Florida's four-game gantlet of Kentucky and Vanderbilt concludes on the last day of the season as UK invades Gainesville, with both SEC and NCAA seeding on the line.


9. Memphis Tigers

Dec. 17 -- @ Louisville

Dec. 22 -- @ Georgetown

Feb. 4 -- Xavier

Three marquee nonconference matchups, plus the Maui Invitational, will determine the Tigers' seeding in March. Look for both Memphis and Xavier to be in the top 10 when they collide in February, and the winner to be a protected seed a month later.


10. Louisville Cardinals

Dec. 2 -- Vanderbilt (Big East/SEC Challenge)

Dec. 31 -- @ Kentucky

Feb. 6 -- Connecticut

Louisville's best shot at a season-defining win comes halfway through Big East play against the defending national champions. Both teams figure to be at their peak by then with implications for winners and losers stretching deep into March.


11. Pittsburgh Panthers

Jan. 16 -- @ Syracuse

Jan. 21 -- Louisville (College Gameday)

Mar. 3 -- @ Connecticut

We can probably throw a blanket over the top four teams in the Big East. If Pitt is going to emerge from that group, it will need to win its only home date against the other three. "College Gameday" may have its loudest stop of the year at The Pete.


12. Baylor Bears

Dec. 17 -- @ BYU

Jan. 2 -- Texas A&M

Jan. 16 -- @ Kansas

The Bears may be a default favorite in the Big 12, but no one really wins that conference without showing their chops at Allen Field House. A breakthrough victory at The Phog would almost certainly propel Baylor back to the NCAAs.


13. Wisconsin Badgers

Nov. 30 -- @ North Carolina

Jan. 12 -- @ Purdue

Feb. 4 -- Ohio State

When you play the No. 1 team in the country, nothing could be bigger. And the Badgers are exactly the kind of team that can frustrate North Carolina. The Tar Heels would surely win a best-of-seven, but Wisconsin only has to survive 40 minutes.


14. Kansas Jayhawks

Nov. 15 -- vs. Kentucky (Champions Classic)

Dec. 10 -- Ohio State

Jan. 16 -- Baylor

KU could prove its demise has been greatly exaggerated by notching a win against a likely No. 1 seed (Ohio State) at Allen Field House. It's more probable than an upset of Kentucky and would be enough to lift Kansas off any potential bubble in March.


15. Xavier Musketeers

Nov. 28 -- @ Vanderbilt

Dec. 10 -- Cincinnati

Dec. 31 -- Gonzaga

There is Final Four talk at Xavier, but it's not clear the Musketeers are the best team in their own city. That will be settled at Cintas Center in one of the country's most unheralded yet fiercest rivalries. Bad blood always abounds between X and UC.


16. Arizona Wildcats

Dec. 7 -- @ Florida

Dec. 17 -- Gonzaga

Feb. 25 -- UCLA

Arizona would remain in the national spotlight -- not to mention a likely NCAA protected seed -- with a road win at Florida. The Wildcats are close to re-establishing their one-time status as "Best in the West" and perennial No. 1 seed contender.


17. Marquette Golden Eagles

Dec. 3 -- @ Wisconsin

Dec. 29 -- Vanderbilt

Feb. 18 -- @ Connecticut

Marquette could give itself a little NCAA cushion before the Big East grind with a win over likely top-10 Vanderbilt. That game marks the start of seven straight against 2011 tournament teams for the Golden Eagles, so it'll be no rest for the weary.


18. Alabama Crimson Tide

Jan. 19 -- Vanderbilt

Jan. 21 -- @ Kentucky

Feb. 14 -- Florida

It's possible for Alabama to win the SEC West without beating any of the East Division beasts. Then again, that's how West champions have missed the NCAAs of late. Look for the Tide to break through at least once on their way to the Big Dance.


19. Cincinnati Bearcats

Dec. 10 -- @ Xavier

Jan. 18 -- @ Connecticut

Feb. 23 -- Louisville

After breaking a long NCAA tournament drought, Cincinnati can dance again by knocking off a portion of the Big East elite. Louisville is the most likely candidate, as the Bearcats travel to most of the other conference contenders this season.


20. UCLA Bruins

Dec. 3 -- Texas

Jan. 5 -- Arizona

Feb. 11 -- California

With Pauley being renovated, who knows what kind of advantage the Bruins will have in their home(s) away from home? What we do know is that UCLA is going to have to beat Arizona at some point to move into the top half of the NCAA bracket.


21. Texas A&M Aggies

Dec. 17 -- vs. Florida (Orange Bowl Classic)

Feb. 1 -- Baylor

Feb. 22 -- Kansas

The transitioning Aggies could actually win the Big 12 in their final season in the league. To do so, home wins over co-favorites Baylor and Kansas will be essential. There's not a whole lot on the nonconference schedule to bolster at-large hopes.


22. Michigan Wolverines

Nov. 21 -- vs. Memphis (Maui Invitational)

Jan. 8 -- Wisconsin

Feb. 18 -- Ohio State (College Gameday)

Michigan's opener at Maui could be critical. Not only is Memphis a potentially nice at-large win, but the winner likely faces Duke in the next round. So the Wolverines could come home from the islands with an NCAA bid pretty much in their back pocket.


23. Gonzaga Bulldogs

Dec. 10 -- Michigan State

Dec. 17 -- vs. Arizona (Battle in Seattle)

Dec. 31 -- @ Xavier

The Musketeers could end up being Gonzaga's highest-ranked opponent in the regular season. So this all-Jesuit matchup will have serious NCAA seeding implications for both schools, as each has at least Sweet 16 potential.


24. California Golden Bears

Dec. 23 -- @ UNLV

Feb. 2 -- Arizona

Feb. 11 -- @ UCLA

If California is going to make a return to the NCAA tournament, it will come via a strong Pac-12 record. So the round-robin with Arizona and UCLA is especially critical, with Cal's home game against the Wildcats being the best chance to shine.


25. Michigan State Spartans

Nov. 11 -- vs. North Carolina (Carrier Classic)

Nov. 15 -- vs. Duke (Champions Classic)

Mar. 4 -- Ohio State

Michigan State's biggest game is among the nation's first. If the Spartans can pull the upset of No. 1 North Carolina on the USS Carl Vinson, it could be the start of an overachieving season. Almost anything is better than Sparty's bubble saga of 2011.