ESPN+ college hoops viewer's guide: Baylor can send a message

The return of Tristan Clark should lift a Baylor team with Big 12 championship aspirations. AP

After surviving 211 days without college hoops, the season jumps back into full swing this week with four bluebloods in the Champions Classic and many other intriguing storylines. While two matchups at Madison Square Garden will capture the nation's attention, we cannot forget about the underrated games that make up opening week.

ESPN+ is your one-stop shop for Big 12 action, mid-major thrillers and a chance to see some of the top breakout players in the nation. Whether it's a star player or a critical affair that could have NCAA tournament implications down the road, this week we kick off a season-long series that ranks the 10 best games featured across ESPN's streaming service.

Our first list features a sleeper squad, a challenger to Kansas and multiple dangerous mid-majors.

1. Central Arkansas Bears at No. 16 Baylor Bears (Tuesday, noon ET, Big 12 Now on ESPN+)

The first game of the season on ESPN+ features arguably Kansas' biggest threat in the Big 12, matched up against a Central Arkansas team that could emerge as a sleeper in the Southland Conference.

Scott Drew led Baylor to 19 wins and an appearance in the second round of the NCAA tournament last season despite losing second-leading scorer Tristan Clark to a knee injury halfway through the season. With the preseason All-Big 12 Team member back alongside dynamic sophomore Jared Butler and physical guard Mark Vital, the Bears were picked to finish second in their conference's preseason poll. This is also a chance to get a first look at how transfers MaCio Teague (UNC Asheville) and Davion Mitchell (Auburn) fit into Drew's system.

Central Arkansas was picked fifth in the Southland by league coaches but has unusual size for a mid-major team. With three 7-footers on the roster, coach Russ Pennell's squad could give Baylor, whose tallest player stands at 6-foot-10, potential fits.

2. North Texas Mean Green at No. 25 VCU Rams (Friday, 7 p.m. ET)

After a 25-7 campaign that resulted in a first-round loss in the NCAA tournament, VCU returns its top six scorers, including bucket-getter Marcus Evans, versatile De'Riante Jenkins and the underrated Marcus Santos-Silva. The Rams have been the definition of consistency in the Atlantic 10 and were picked to finish at the top of the league in the preseason coaches poll.

North Texas will try to replace its best all-around player, Ryan Woolridge, who transferred to Gonzaga. Umoja Gibson, a 6-1 guard and the team's leading scorer last season, will have to show an extra dimension and prove he can handle a raucous environment against a VCU team with second-weekend potential.

3. North Dakota State Bison at Kansas State Wildcats (Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET, Big 12 Now on ESPN+)

After reaching the Elite Eight in 2018, Kansas State suffered a disappointing finish last season when it was upset by UC Irvine in the opening round of the Big Dance. Now without three key veterans, including the oft-injured Dean Wade, the Wildcats will try to right the ship with many question marks. Xavier Sneed, Cartier Diarra and Makol Mawien all return, but Bruce Weber's team is searching for a go-to scorer.

And its first game is no cake walk.

North Dakota State was picked to finish first in the Summit League after making its third NCAA tournament appearance since 2014 a year ago. The Bison should be one of the top mid-majors in the country as they return all five starters including all-league first-teamer Vinnie Shahid (13.1 PPG). NDSU could give Kansas State a run for its money, especially as the Wildcats try to adjust to roster turnover.

4. Oral Roberts Golden Eagles at Oklahoma State Cowboys (Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET, Big 12 Now on ESPN+)

If there's one team that could vastly exceed expectations in the Big 12, it's the Oklahoma State Cowboys. Mike Boynton returns four of his top five scorers from a 12-20 team, including senior Cameron McGriff and potential breakout star Lindy Waters III, and features ESPN's 24th-best recruiting class in the country. OSU also added former Rutgers and UMass guard Jonathan Laurent for more experience.

The Cowboys will open their season at Gallagher-Iba Arena against an Oral Roberts program that was projected to finish third in the Summit League and has two All-League first teamers in senior Emmanuel Nzekwesi and sophomore Kevin Obanor.

Oklahoma State is motivated after the bottom fell out from its 2018-19 season, but don't expect Oral Roberts -- with five seniors on its roster -- to roll over.

5. Vermont Catamounts at St. Bonaventure Bonnies (Friday, 7 p.m. ET)

A vital early-season game? Check. A chance to watch a superstar? Check.

As the heavy favorite in the America East and coming off an impressive showing against Florida State in the NCAA tournament, Vermont enters this season with an immediate opportunity to boost its résumé. The Catamounts travel to western New York to face the Bonnies, who were selected fifth in the A-10 preseason coaches' poll.

As for the star, Vermont's Anthony Lamb (21.2 PPG, 7.8 RPG) is expected to once again be one of the most productive players in the nation. He should have plenty of more help this season, though, as Stef Smith is back as another double-digit scorer, Everett and Robin Duncan should take leaps forward and former Ohio State and Alabama big Daniel Giddens provides necessary Power 5 experience.

6. Austin Peay Governors at Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET)

Western Kentucky was expected to be a rising mid-major last season with the addition of five-star recruit Charles Bassey, but it finished with a disappointing 20-14 record. With Bassey back for his sophomore season and the return of three other double-figure scorers, including veteran Taveion Hollingsworth, Rick Stansbury's unit should be among the nation's most feared Cinderellas.

After hosting Tennessee Tech in their opener, the Hilltoppers will be challenged by a dangerous Austin Peay team led by Ohio Valley Preseason Player of the Year Terry Taylor. The Governors lost Chris Porter-Bunton and Steve Harris, but should create plenty of mismatches offensively due to Taylor's inside-out presence.

This will be a revealing showdown as the Hilltoppers try to prove that they've taken a step forward while Taylor attempts to best a potential future pro in Bassey.

7. Belmont Bruins at Illinois State Redbirds (Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET)

The Bruins and Redbirds are two teams that lost significant talent from last season but have very different expectations.

OVC favorite Belmont says goodbye to first-round pick Dylan Windler and Kevin McClain, and will begin a new era as former Lipscomb coach Casey Alexander takes over for the retired Rick Byrd. With Nick Muszynski and Grayson Murphy still in the fold, Alexander has two experienced players with big-game chops to lead his roster.

Illinois State will have the home-court advantage but loses point-forward Milik Yarbrough, Phil Fayne and Keyshawn Evans from a 17-16 team. The Redbirds were selected to finish seventh in the Missouri Valley Conference and has a young roster featuring eight freshmen and sophomores.

Call it an intriguing game between two teams with a lot of questions.

8. Indiana State Sycamores at Dayton Flyers (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET)

After failing to reach the NCAA tournament in Anthony Grant's first two seasons, Dayton should compete for an Atlantic 10 title in Year 3. The Flyers have a perfect mix of experience and incoming talent from Power 5 schools including Jordy Tshimanga (Nebraska) and Ibi Watson (Michigan).

But the main reason to watch this early-season showdown is Obi Toppin.

The Flyers' sophomore guard averaged 14.4 points and 5.6 rebounds last season while shooting an extremely efficient 66.6% from the field and 52.4% from 3. With top-notch physical tools, Toppin has a chance to develop into a first-round pick in the 2020 NBA draft if he is able to improve his playmaking skills while maintaining his efficiency in an even larger role.

Indiana State may not prove to be the strongest test for UD -- the Sycamores were picked to finish sixth in the MVC by coaches -- but Toppin will be must-see TV every time he takes the floor.

9. Dartmouth Big Green at Buffalo Bulls (Friday, 7 p.m. ET)

This one gives viewers their first look at new Buffalo coach Jim Whitesell, who succeeds Nate Oats (now at Alabama) and brings 34 years of coaching experience -- including four years as an assistant with the Bulls -- into his new role.

Oats departed and star CJ Massinburg graduated, but the roster remains stocked with plenty of talent. Middle Tennessee transfer Antwain Johnson joins veterans Davonta Jordan and Jayvon Graves to form a lethal backcourt, while potential future star Jeenathan Williams and Houston transfer Gabe Grant lock down the forward positions.

Dartmouth lost by 39 to Buffalo last season, so Friday will offer a chance for both teams to try to gauge their progress.

10. Bradley Braves at Saint Joseph's Hawks (Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET)

Following an NCAA tournament appearance in which they gave Michigan State a scare in the opening round, Bradley returns four of its top five scorers including senior guard Darrell Brown. The Braves have higher goals this season with limited chances to beef up their résumé.

Later in the nonconference schedule, Brian Wardle's squad faces Northwestern in the Fort Myers Tip-Off, will play either Pittsburgh or Kansas State in the next round and will travel to No. 14 Memphis. Other than those three matchups, Bradley doesn't face a ranked or Power 5 opponent for the remainder of the regular season and plays just two nonconference road games.

Saint Joseph's, meanwhile, begins the Billy Lange era after the school fired Phil Martelli in March. The Hawks are projected to finish 13th in the Atlantic 10 preseason coaches poll after losing Charlie Brown Jr. and Lamarr Kimble.