The nonconference schedules have been released, which means it's time to identify the biggest games of the season. There are some matchups that simply can't be missed.
Here's the thing about the 2015-16 season: It's wide open. Yes, it's an overused cliché. But so is the one about what to do with a shoe that fits.
Maybe, by April, Maryland or North Carolina or Kentucky will be wrapping up a title march so imperious as to retroactively hard wipe the current narrative. It's possible! It also doesn't seem likely. When there is a clear favorite (or favorites), we almost always know -- and agree on the specifics -- in advance. Not this fall. Some have the high-upside Terps as their preseason No. 1, but just as many rankers prefer the Heels or Cats. That uncertainty doesn't stop at the top. You could argue that any of the top 11 teams in this list will be the best in the country in 2015-16 and not be treated like a complete crazy person. Every team has strengths; every team has flaws. That wasn't the case last September. It almost never is.
Which means the following must also be true: Oklahoma's Dec. 7 matchup against Villanova offers every bit the potential Final Four preview as Maryland-North Carolina or Kentucky-Kansas. What both teams lack in mainstream sizzle they more than make up for with solid programs. Maybe Oklahoma, led by Buddy Hield, is really a top-three team. Maybe Villanova has another 33-win campaign ahead. Who knows? That's the thing about 2015-16. Wear it.
Why are Villanova and Oklahoma playing in Honolulu, exactly? Technically, they're not. Dec. 7 will mark the 74th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and so the teams will actually meet at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, in Bloch Arena, part of what Fox Sports 1 is calling a "weekend-long remembrance" designed to "[enlighten] Americans about the world-altering events" by "using sports as a backdrop." Navy and Oregon will play immediately after Oklahoma and Villanova.
Historic patriotism aside, the draw is fairly multifaceted. Again, these are two very good teams, both top-10-worthy in a year when the difference between No. 10 and No. 1 is imperceptible. But it is also a crucial nonconference game for both teams' respective resumes, and (probably) the first time either will be genuinely tested in the 2015-16 season. Before the trip, Villanova's best opponent is either Stanford or St. Joe's. The Wildcats travel to Virginia for a massive road test on Dec. 19, which helps. Oklahoma, meanwhile, plays Memphis (away) and Wisconsin (at home); this is by far the best nonconference game on the Sooners' schedule. Either way, it's a marquee fixture early in a season in which both programs will harbor realistic Final Four expectations. This is a big game.
And that's before you get into the actual basketball players involved.
Oklahoma is led by likely All-American guard Buddy Hield, who spurned at least some NBA draft interest by returning for his senior season. Hield's arrival and subsequent improvement have correlated directly with coach Lon Kruger's resuscitation of the post-Jeff Capel Sooners, and the star guard's decision to return was as much about besting last season's Sweet 16 finish as business sense. He has a team that can reach that goal, particularly in the backcourt: Isaiah Cousins is a lockdown perimeter defender and 45 percent 3-point shooter, while Jordan Woodard is a steady on-ball distributor at the point. The Sooners already had one of the nation's best defenses a season ago; if they can effectively replace departed senior TaShawn Thomas' interior scoring, they may end up even better overall.
That composition makes for an especially interesting matchup with Villanova, itself a guard-dominant outfit with experience and bright young talent. The experience comes primarily in the form of fourth-year point guard Ryan Arcidiacono, the reigning co-Big East Player of the Year, who has presided over a 62-8 combined record in the Wildcats' past two seasons. Senior big man Daniel Ochefu is also back, but the real strength -- and the reason why Villanova is expected to be able to replace Darrun Hilliard, JayVaughn Pinkston and Dylan Ennis and still easily win the Big East -- is the backcourt. From Phil Booth to major breakout candidate Josh Hart to elite 2015 recruit Jalen Brunson, Villanova coach Jay Wright has built a dynamic and self-sustaining mix of year-over-year perimeter talent.
The chance to see these two backcourts -- as simultaneously solid and dynamic as any in the country -- figure each other out for 40 minutes makes Dec. 7 a must-watch nonconference game, almost by itself.
That said, less than a month into the season, Villanova is more likely to be figuring itself out, too. Brunson's addition offers the chance to elevate the Wildcats from an individual-talent standpoint, and a go-to combo guard might be just what Nova needs in tough spots in March. But in the near term, Brunson's arrival may require a feeling-out process absent from Wright's past two teams. (And Hilliard scored plenty, thank you very much.) We'll take a slightly more polished, cohesive OU team in a close win.
We'll also take this opportunity to point out that our predictions mean nothing -- especially in 2015-16. Say it with us, belt it loud and proud: Who knows?