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The games that next year’s potential bubble teams really, really, really should win

You can’t say must-win in August, but these games are big opportunities.

NCAA Basketball Tournament - First Round - Salt Lake City Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology update on Thursday was, in reality, utterly pointless. No one is taking a late-summer bracket seriously.

But you know what? Let’s take a late-summer bracket seriously for just a second. Let’s say the season plays out exactly as Lunardi predicted on Thursday, Aug. 17. These would be your mid-major schools in at-large territory (note he has some of these as conference champions, but a loss in a random game in March is always possible):

Gonzaga, St. Bonaventure, San Diego State, Rhode Island, Saint Mary’s, Nevada, Middle Tennessee

Princeton, UT Arlington, and Vermont are all listed on the 12-seed line, which is fringe at-large territory, but let’s be real: the Ivy, Sun Belt, and America East are never going to be two-bid leagues. Heck, I’m pushing it with Conference USA and Middle Tennessee as it is.

The margin of error for many of the above schools is razor-thin, making any marquee non-conference games of the utmost importance. While a win in these contests does not guarantee anything, a loss would be a devastating missed opportunity. Here is a game that each of these teams should circle in the non-conference:

Rhode Island at Nevada, Nov. 13

This is the first game of a home-and-home, reported by Jon Rothstein on Thursday. It’s strange to see a game like this announced so late in the offseason, but take a look at the date. It’s the Monday after the season starts. That makes this a perfect candidate for one of the opening games in the annual ESPN College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon. Put that one on at 9 or 10 p.m. ET and I will happily tune in. Rhode Island, led by conference Player of the Year candidate E.C. Matthews and rising senior Jared Terrell, should be the clear favorite in the Atlantic 10. Nevada will deal with a ton of roster turnover, particularly the duo of Cameron Oliver and Marcus Marshall, but Jordan Caroline should be a force in the Mountain West.

Gonzaga at San Diego State, Dec. 21

Credit Gonzaga and San Diego State. They’re both power programs stuck in mid-major conferences, and they both go out of their way to schedule well in the non-conference. Both teams will also begin new eras in 2017-18, with the Bulldogs losing the bulk of their national runner-up team from last year and the Aztecs beginning life post-Steve Fisher, who retired after the season. By the time this game rolls around, we should know more about both teams. Gonzaga will face a brutal field in the PK80, beginning with Ohio State, then either Florida or Stanford in game two. They’ll also play Creighton and visit Washington in early December. As for San Diego State, a potential title-game tilt with Saint Mary’s or Harvard at the DirecTV Wooden Legacy will be one to watch.

Middle Tennessee vs. Florida Gulf Coast, Nov. 21 and Dec. 2

As a pair of mid-major teams expected to be strong in 2017-18, Middle Tennessee and Florida Gulf Coast faced a similar problem: quality opponents were not willing to schedule them and risk a loss that would be more humiliating than actually harmful. So they did something that hopefully more teams in similar positions will start to do: They scheduled an in-season home-and-home. This gives each squad two quality non-conference games, one at home and one on the road. They will be strong RPI boosters, a great test before conference play, and could be the difference between seed lines if all goes well in March. The Eagles aren’t thinking at-large, and the Blue Raiders would be an at-large long-shot at best, but these will still be tough, meaningful games. It’s a much better alternative than wasting a guarantee on a Division II program that MTSU or FGCU would learn nothing from.

Saint Mary’s vs. Harvard, Nov. 23

The aforementioned Wooden Legacy kicks off with a doozy of a first-round matchup when the Gaels face the Crimson. If you love guard play, tune into this one, as Saint Mary’s returns the WCC’s leading assist man Emmett Naar, who can also hit from three and takes exceptional care of the ball. 43 percent three-point shooter Calvin Hermanson returns alongside him. Harvard counters with now-sophomore Bryce Aiken. As a freshman, Aiken led the Crimson in scoring (14.5 points per game) and was the team’s most valuable player per KenPom. The question in this game for Harvard will be if it can find any way to contain potential all-American Jock Landale inside. The Crimson do not return a player who can match the 6’11 center’s size or counter his efficiency inside.

St. Bonaventure vs. Vermont, Dec. 16

Sure, the Bonnies will have opportunities against Maryland and Syracuse as well, but they lose pretty much nothing with losses in those games. If St. Bonaventure is going to make the tournament as an at-large however, a win over Vermont is almost crucial. By now, everyone knows the Catamounts are for real, and they just might sweep through the America East for a second straight year. It would help the Bonnies’ resume more than some will think when the game is actually played. Oh, and if you were wondering, yes I am positively giddy over the idea of seeing Jaylen Adams play against Trae Bell-Haynes. Adams is, without question, one of the best players in the nation, but Bell-Haynes should be one of the most efficient in the America East. Advantage Adams for now, but throw in rising sophomore Anthony Lamb on Vermont’s side, and this game should be a hidden gem on the 2017-18 college basketball schedule.