With the college basketball season underway, it’s the first chance for most fans to get a glimpse of the guys projected to go at the top of the 2016 draft. While NBA teams and draft gurus have watched guys like Ben Simmons, Skal Labissiere and Brandon Ingram for years, it’s much easier for everyone else to watch them play on national TV than to scour down game tape from international tournaments and high-school All-Star games.
The best way to evaluate them is to watch them against the best of the best. The non-conference season features the top teams playing a lot of glorified exhibition games against outmatched competition and how NBA prospects perform in environments like that doesn’t tell us all that much about how they will fare at the next level. What you want to see is how they perform in environments that more closely resemble what they will see in the NBA. How do they fare against other players with NBA size and speed? In other words, how do they fare against each other?
With that in mind, here are the 10 NCAA games over the next two months that NBA fans should check out. How the top prospects perform in those environments will tell us a lot more about their games than the type of statistics they rack up against Directional U.
1.Duke vs. Kentucky, November 17 (in Chicago)
With Mike Krzyzewski stealing a lot of John Calipari’s thunder when it comes to bringing in the top one-and-done prospects, Duke vs. Kentucky has become the most intriguing rivalry in the sport. There’s no individual match-up like Jahlil Okafor vs. Karl Towns this season but the amount of talent on the floor will be absurd. There are three freshmen with the chance to go in the Top 5 - Skal Labissiere and Jamal Murray for Kentucky and Brandon Ingram for Duke - and five other players - Isaiah Briscoe, Derryck Thornton, Grayson Allen, Tyler Ulis and Alex Poythress - in the DraftExpress Top 100. It’s the closest thing to an NBA game you are going to see outside of the NBA.
2. LSU vs. Marquette, November 23 (in Brooklyn)
LSU didn’t upgrade their non-conference schedule to account for the high profile recruiting class they brought in so this game will be the only chance to see Ben Simmons go up against NBA-level talent until the calendar turns to 2016. The potential No. 1 overall pick will be going up against another freshman PF projected to go in the lottery in Henry Ellenson in a match-up that will tell us a lot about both. Can Simmons guard Ellenson? Can Ellenson guard Simmons? When it comes to evaluation, the chance to watch two potential lottery picks play 1-on-1 is worth its weight in gold.
3. San Diego State vs. California, November 26 (in Las Vegas)
Cuonzo Martin has Cal playing with the big boys and they might have the most talented team in the country this season. They have a potential Top 3 pick in Jaylen Brown, another projected lottery pick in Ivan Rabb and two guys on the fringes of the first-round discussion in Tyrone Wallace and Jabari Bird. How Cuonzo integrates Brown and Rabb with a veteran-laden roster will be one of the most closely watched storylines of the season.
They will get their first big test on Thanksgiving against one of the top programs on the West Coast in San Diego State. Under Steve Fisher, SDSU recruits elite length and athleticism at every position and tries to win games by overwhelming teams on defense, turning them over and scoring in transition. SDSU has the athletes to run with Cal - the question is whether they will have enough skill and shooting to keep up. Playing against Malik Pope (6’10 205) and Winston Shepard (6’8 210) will be the closest thing Brown sees to an NBA defense all season.
4. Maryland at North Carolina, December 1
This match-up between the two former ACC rivals ranked in the Top 3 of the pre-season polls could be the best game on this list in terms of the actual quality of play. There’s only one projected lottery pick (Maryland freshman Diamond Stone) but each team features a ton of experienced talent trying to play their way into draft consideration. There are intriguing individual match-ups at every position - Melo Trimble vs. Marcus Paige at PG, Rasheed Sulaimon vs. Theo Pinson at SG, Jake Layman vs. Justin Jackson at SF, Robert Carter vs. Brice Johnson at PF and Kennedy Meeks vs. Diamond Stone at C.
5. Arizona at Gonzaga, December 9
The annual game between the two premier programs in the West Coast has become one of the highlights of the non-conference season. After sneaking out an OT win in Tucson last year, Arizona travels to Spokane to play in what will be an absolutely raucous environment. With both teams losing a lot of talent on the perimeter, the match-ups to watch will be in the paint - Przemek Karnowski vs. Kaleb Tarczewski and Dusan Ristic at C and Kyle Wiltjer vs. Ryan Anderson at PF. The key will be where Gonzaga plays Domantas Sabonis, a projected mid first-round pick who can slide between either frontcourt position.
6. Indiana at Duke, December 2
How Brandon Ingram fares against Indiana junior Troy Williams on both sides of the ball will tell us a lot about how ready he is to play in the NBA. Williams is one of the best athletes in the country and he has the speed to attack Ingram on offense and the size to press up on him on defense. Williams will try be physical with the spindly freshman (6’10 200 with a 7’3 wingspan) and push him off his spots. On the other side of the ball, trying to stay in front of Williams will be a great test of Ingram’s lateral quickness.
7. Kansas at San Diego State, December 22
This game would be higher on the list if we knew that Kansas freshman Cheikh Diallo (a projected lottery pick) would be eligible. Either way, San Diego State vs. any perimeter prospect is always a must-watch, as the waves of NBA-caliber athletes on the perimeter that SDSU can throw at teams makes them a perfect test for how a player’s game will translate to the next level. If you want to know what Kansas wings Wayne Selden and Sviatovslav Mykhailiuk are all about, watch what they do in this game.
8. Duke vs. Utah, December 19 (in New York City)
After more than holding his own against Jahlil Okafor in the Sweet 16, Jakob Poeltl surprised many when he chose to return to school for his sophomore season. The rematch with Duke could be his toughest individual test of the non-conference season and he will still have a huge advantage over senior Marshall Plumlee (who has the body but not the game) and freshman Chase Jeter (who has the game but not the body). The question is whether Coach K will allow Poetl to go 1-on-1 against his big men or whether he will force Utah to beat him from the perimeter, which could be a theme for the Utes all season.
9. Louisville at Kentucky, December 26
There isn’t quite as much excitement about this year’s edition of the Bluegrass Showdown with Louisville starting the season unranked and playing under the shadow of a high-profile prostitution scandal. Nevertheless, Rick Pitino always coaches up his teams and the match-up upfront between Skal Labissiere and Chinuanu Onuaku (a projected late first-round pick) should be worth the price of admission. This will be a good test to see how Skal fares on both sides of the ball against a broad-shouldered big man like Onuaku (6’10 230) who can try and out-muscle him.
10. Vanderbilt at Purdue, December 22
You have to be a real NBA draft nerd to get up for this match-up. Vanderbilt’s Damian Jones (6’10 250) is a projected mid first-round pick and he will be going up against two big men at Purdue with NBA size and skill in AJ Hammons (7’0 260) and Lukas Haas (7’2 300). Jones will spend most of the season facing overmatched competition that will try to pack the paint against him - this will be the rare chance to watch him play 1-on-1 on a level playing field.