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Top 10 early-season bracket games

11/13/2012

There's no doubt that the most anticipated games of this year's Tip-Off Marathon are at the State Farm Champions Classic in Atlanta. The Michigan State-Kansas/Duke-Kentucky twin bill is itself worthy of a Final Four.

There's only one problem. These two great matchups -- and many others like them -- are more sizzle than steak when it comes to Bracketology. We know that all four teams will be in the NCAA tournament, we know all four teams will be protected seeds and we know all four teams are contenders for the Final Four in April.

When evaluating the biggest bracket-impact games of the nonconference season, we have to dig a little deeper. We have to think ahead to the most likely bubble scenarios of Selection Sunday and work backward to the games that could make or break teams at the final cut line.

So while many college basketball fans will be watching marquee matchups in prime time, I'll be dialed into the following 10 games more than any others (at least until conference play begins).

1. Wichita State Shockers at Virginia Commonwealth Rams (Nov. 13, ESPNU)

This 2012 NCAA tournament rematch features a pair of potential bubble teams, especially in the case of Wichita State. If the Shockers hope to avenge last year's tourney upset and return to the NCAAs in 2013, they'll need to win one of two major road challenges on an otherwise mediocre nonconference slate (at Tennessee, Dec. 13).

2. Saint Joseph's Hawks vs. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (Nov. 16)

The Hawks look to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years and the Irish may be the highest-ranked team they face all season. Notre Dame, meanwhile, has unusually high expectations for 2012-13 and this Coaches vs. Cancer pairing is no bargain for the favorite.

3. Drexel Dragons vs. Saint Mary's Gaels (Nov. 22, ESPN2)

The Dragons already lost this season at Kent State in overtime. So this opener of the DirecTV Classic in Anaheim is even bigger for the Colonial Athletic Association favorites. Beating the Gaels would be great; gaining better opponents in the next two rounds would be even better for Drexel. The same could also be said of Saint Mary's if the Gaels struggle in West Coast Conference play.

4. San Diego State Aztecs at USC Trojans (Nov. 25)

It's quite possible that the Aztecs are overrated and the Trojans are significantly underrated heading into the season. If so, this becomes a potential bubble game for both teams. Southern Cal, in particular, needs to defend its home court and grab as many decisive nonconference wins as possible.

5. Syracuse Orange at Arkansas Razorbacks (Nov. 30, ESPN)

The Hogs get a huge opportunity in the relatively obscure Big East/SEC Challenge. The number of times a team like Syracuse goes to a place like Fayetteville is, well, just about zero. I hope Jim Boeheim doesn't suffer too many ill effects from leaving his home state so early in the season (aircraft carriers don't count).

6. Colorado State Rams at Colorado Buffaloes (Dec. 5)

A whole lot more than in-state bragging rights are at stake in this one. Both teams snuck into the 2012 NCAA tournament as No. 11 seeds, and neither figures to be more than a bubble team this season. I'm just glad the rivalry continued after the Buffaloes, who lost a one-point game in Fort Collins a year ago, moved to the Pac-12.

7. Iowa State Cyclones at Iowa Hawkeyes (Dec. 7)

This matchup serves as another in-state bragging-rights game with high stakes. Iowa State is currently just inside the projected NCAA cut line, and Iowa is just out. The Cyclones and Hawkeyes may trade places more than once as the season unfolds, with the first real movement coming after their encounter in Iowa City.

8. Northern Iowa Panthers at UNLV Rebels (Dec. 19)

First, I love the fact that there's a Missouri Valley-Mountain West Challenge to begin with. Second, it's great that a very underrated Northern Iowa team gets a shot at UNLV and all the NCAA brownie points that come with it. Ali Farokhmanesh, where are you? The Panthers need an encore ...

9. Kentucky Wildcats at Louisville Cardinals (Dec. 29)

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming of bubble games for one that could determine the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. Even without that hanging over them, we know how much these schools like each other and how friendly it is when they get together over the holidays (yeah, right).

10. Temple Owls at Kansas Jayhawks (Jan. 6)

If the Owls are to dance in their final Atlantic 10 season, their prospects would be greatly enhanced by an upset win in a Chaney-esque four-week stretch that includes Duke (Dec. 8, Meadowlands), Syracuse (Dec. 22, Madison Square Garden) and the Jayhawks at Phog Allen.