Circle The Date: Men's Basketball Schedule Planner


Oct. 23, 2006

By Bryan Armen Graham



Bryan is a basketball editor for and contributes on a regular weekly basis.
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Each week since the beginning of May, I've devoted a corner of my hoops column to one of this upcoming season's most intriguing and anticipated contests. From heated and historic in-conference rivalries to traditional regional turf wars to made-for-TV blockbusters featuring the day's contemporary powers, each "Circle The Date" selection has a meaty, compelling storyline to make matters that much more interesting.


With the start of the season just around the corner, a glance at the marquee matchups that grace the list is enough to put some of the hoop-starved basketball junkies I know into cold sweats. In the interest of digestibility, I've chosen the three best games from each month leading up to March for this compendium of the year's best battles.




Nov. 18: Wichita State vs. George Mason at the Patriot Center (Fairfax, Va.)


The return trip from last season's BracketBusters thriller is a double-revenge game for the Shockers, who suffered a 63-55 loss to the Patriots in the Washington regional semifinals at the MCI Center -- a game played just 18 miles from Mason's campus. The Pats lose Lamar Butler, Jai Lewis and Tony Skinn to graduation, but return Folarin Campbell and Will Thomas while welcoming prized juco transfer Andre Smith to supplement a strong recruiting class. Wichita State coach Mark Turgeon returns four of five starters, including built-tough forward Kyle Wilson and one of the nation's most talented backcourts: Matt Braeuer, P.J. Couisnard and Sean Ogirri.


Nov. 25: Kansas vs. Florida at the Las Vegas Convention Center (Las Vegas, Nev.)


Don't be surprised if this Las Vegas Invitational meeting just two days after Thanksgiving finds both of its contestants in the top five of the national polls. The Jayhawks will have one of the deepest teams in the country, with blue chips Darrell Arthur, Sherron Collins and Brady Morningstar joining the program's top seven scorers from a year ago (including Wooden Award candidate Brandon Rush). However, last season's Big 12 regular-season co-champs will have their hands full in Sin City; with Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Lee Humphrey, Al Horford and Joakim Noah headed back to Gainesville, the Gators return all five starters from a team that finished 33-6 and won the school's first-ever national championship.


Nov. 29: Ohio State vs. North Carolina at the Dean Smith Center (Chapel Hill, N.C.)


The headliner of the eighth annual ACC-Big Ten Challenge pits two of the most stacked recruiting classes in recent memory against one another. Most celebrated among Carolina's blue chips are the nation's top-rated point guard (Virginia's Ty Lawson), the top-rated two guard (Philadelphia's Wayne Ellington) and the top-rated power forward (Tennessee's Brandan Wright). The Buckeyes welcome a dream class of their own known as the Thad Five: All-World center Greg Oden (who will still be sidelined due to a wrist injury), second-rated shooting guard Daequan Cook, fourth-rated point guard Mike Conley, gifted swingman David Lighty and juco stud Othello Hunter.




Dec. 21: Gonzaga vs. Duke at Madison Square Garden (New York, N.Y.)


This pre-Christmas jaunt will mark the first-ever meeting between the only two programs in college hoops without a single 10-loss season over the past eight years. Both teams may be "down" by their lofty standards -- Duke loses twin All-Americans J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams to graduation while the Zags must compensate for Adam Morrison's exodus to the early entrants pool. But both the Bulldogs and Blue Devils have their share of returning talent and will contend for their respective conference championships.


Dec. 23: Florida vs. Ohio State at the Value City Arena at the Jerome Schottenstein Center (Columbus, Ohio)


Ohio State's Oden will be the best big man in college basketball the minute the seven-footer steps on the court. Which begs the burning question: When will that be? Having undergone surgery on June 16 to repair a torn ligament in his right wrist, there's no guarantee that the Indianapolis native will be ready to run for this pre-Christmas showdown with the defending national champs, one of those "event games" that will command attention in Columbus and Gainesville -- and everywhere else for that matter -- during the height of bowl season. Even without Oden, Thad Matta's freshman-stacked Buckeyes will be a mouthful for Billy Donovan's Gators.


Dec. 23: Boston College vs. Kansas at Allen Field House (Lawrence, Kan.)


On the same night as Florida-Ohio State, two of the most accomplished programs in college basketball over the past several seasons will meet for just the second time in their histories. Al Skinner's Eagles don't enjoy the same retention rate as the Jayhawks (losing Louis Hinnant and Craig Smith to graduation), but still return a healthy total of principals from a Sweet 16 team that finished 28-8 -- establishing a school record for victories -- and seventh in the final Associated Press rankings.


Dec. 30: Washington vs. UCLA at Pauley Pavilion (Los Angeles, Calif.)


UCLA opens its Pac-10 title defense with a weekend two-step against the Washington schools at Pauley Pavilion with this premier conference matchup on the back end of a Thursday-Saturday set. Lorenzo Romar may have lost conference Player of the Year Brandon Roy to graduation, but the fifth-year coach of the Huskies welcomes to Seattle the most heralded recruiting class in program history. McDonald's All-American Spencer Hawes headlines the group, but Phil Nelson, Adrian Oliver and Quincy Poindexter will all contribute in their first year. Jordan Farmar's early departure for the NBA draft probably cost the Bruins a spot in the preseason Top 10, but this Arron Afflalo-led group should be the prohibitive conference favorite in its fourth year under Ben Howland. Look for this game to set the tone for what promises to be a fight to the finish in the Pac-10.




Jan. 6: Connecticut at Louisiana State at the Maravich Center (Baton Rouge, La.)


Three months prior to last season's Final Four breakthrough, John Brady's Tigers were still a regional phenomenon -- a group whose eleventh-hour run to close the 2004-05 season had garnered underground buzz, but not quite the national respect they deserved. In fact, many casual fans around the country hadn't even gotten the opportunity to see Glen "Big Baby" Davis and the eventual SEC champs until a nationally-televised contest on Jan. 7 against then-No. 2 UConn at the Hartford Civic Center. Only after Darrel Mitchell's potential game-winning three found iron as time expired did the Huskies escape with a 67-66 victory -- but the near-upset of the Huskies served notice that Louisiana State was for real. Three hundred sixty-four days later, a UConn team that barely resembles last year's 30-win club will return the trip to Baton Rouge. Between oft-sidetracked point guard A.J. Price and a whopping eight freshmen, Jim Calhoun will welcome a total of nine new faces into the fold. With Brady returning three starters from last year's national semifinalists -- along with Tack Minor, who redshirted last season after starting every game as a sophomore -- expect the Huskies to find themselves cast in the underdog role for the rematch.


Jan. 27: North Carolina vs. Arizona at the McKale Center (Tucson, Ariz.)


Two of the great coaches of our generation -- North Carolina's Roy Williams and Arizona's Lute Olson -- meet in a rematch of a Final Four battle from a decade ago this season, when Olson's youthful Wildcats stunned a stacked Tar Heels team that featured future NBA stars Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison. No one would be surprised if these two storied programs met in Atlanta come April.




Feb. 10: Hofstra vs. George Mason at the Patriot Center (Fairfax, Va.)


Had the NCAA had made the monumental mistake of expanding the NCAA Tournament when the National Association of Basketball Coaches forced the issue this summer, pouting purists would have pointed the finger at Hofstra, the school which became the poster boy for deserving mid-majors overlooked by the committee during George Mason's run to the Final Four. A refresher: The Pride clipped the Patriots twice during a 10-day span at the tail end of last season, including a humbling result in the CAA Tournament semifinals that had many Mason supporters believing their dancing dreams were dashed. But there was no room at the inn for Tom Pecora's club (RPI No. 30) on Selection Sunday while Jim Larranaga's side snuck into the field as a No. 11 seed -- and the rest, as they say, is history. Due to the unbalanced schedule in the CAA, Hofstra and Mason meet just once during the regular season -- on this date in Fairfax -- in a nationally televised contest.


Feb. 11: Connecticut vs. Georgia Tech at the Georgia Dome (Atlanta, Ga.)


The class of players that took Georgia Tech to the national championship game in 2004 had graduated and standout point guard Jarrett Jack had left early for the NBA, but that didn't stop coach Paul Hewitt from hyping up his Yellow Jackets prior to last season. Yet when the dust cleared, Tech has amassed a disappointing 11-17 record including a miserable 4-12 mark in ACC play. This year's team -- tabbed for fourth place in the ACC -- includes a number of older, wiser holdovers from last year's bunch. But if top-flight recruits Javaris Crittenton and Thaddeus Young live up to advance billing, Tech could make a swift return to the national elite. A tangle with Big East standard-bearer Connecticut will be no breather for the Jackets amid the heat of ACC competition.


Feb. 25: Duke vs. St. John's at Madison Square Garden (New York, N.Y.)


The Devils caught a major break when 6-foot-10 power forward Josh McRoberts decided to remain in Durham for his sophomore season. Also returning is the backcourt tandem of Greg Paulus - who is expected to be back from his foot injury in time for this one - and DeMarcus Nelson. Add to the mix a first-rate recruiting class --  Gerald Henderson, Jon Scheyer, Brian Zoubek and eleventh-hour signee Lance Thomas -- and the Blue Devils should be right back in the thick of the national title hunt when they travel to Manhattan for a late-February meeting with a St. John's team that returns everyone from last year's improved squad. Last January, Georgetown topped Duke in a non-conference thriller that marked the first true signature win of the JT3 regime. Could this one be Norm Roberts' turn?



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