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7 can't-miss games on BYU basketball's 2015-16 schedule

There aren't as many big names, but the Cougars' schedule is as tough as ever.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

After a lengthy delay and much fan anticipation, the BYU Cougars' 2015-2016 basketball schedule is finally out.

The Cougars will meet a mixture of familiar foes and new faces as they attempt to return to the NCAA tournament without the school's all-time leading scorer, Tyler Haws. Of course, they'll play their standard 18-game round-robin in West Coast Conference play, including high-profile home-and-homes with Gonzaga and Saint Mary's. But in recent years, BYU has consistently relied on difficult non-conference schedules with multiple road or neutral games against top teams to help boost its RPI and bolster its tournament resume — and it appears this year is no different.

It may not seem that way at first glance. If you're scanning the schedule looking for the bold-faced names of years past — the Stanfords and Texases of the world — you're bound to be disappointed. Outside of their appearance in the Diamond Head Classic and their annual game with Utah, BYU only has one game with a team from a so-called "Power 5" conference on the books — a December 12th road tilt with Colorado, a team that suffered through a rough season in 2014-15 and, therefore, can't necessarily be considered a surefire "quality opponent."

If you're only examining the Cougars' slate looking for sexy names, you might think that Dave Rose's men are in trouble.

But closer examination reveals that BYU's upcoming slate is every bit as challenging as last year's, even without as many seemingly marquee games. The 2014-15 Cougars faced five non-conference opponents that ended the previous season in the RPI Top 100; the 2015-16 squad will face a minimum of four such opponents, with a likely fifth to be added depending on how the Diamond Head Classic shakes out. (More on that in a bit.)

If you pull back the lens to include the RPI Top 150 from the previous year, BYU played seven of those schools in 2014-15 and are slated to improve on that number in 2015-16 — they already have seven Top 150 opponents locked in, with the potential to add two more in Hawaii if things break right.

So even though there may not seem to be as many big-name contests on the Cougars' calendar for the upcoming campaign, the schedule may be even more difficult. Strong mid-major opponents lurk around every turn, and a young BYU team will certainly be tested early and often before hitting the grind of WCC play. It figures to provide tons of fun for fans and no shortage of competitive hoops.

In case you're not already psyched enough for basketball season to start, here are seven can't-miss games to get excited about:

1. December 2 at Utah: The Holy War is always circled on both teams' calendars, but this year fans should break out their thickest blue sharpies and circle it a few more times for good measure. The Utes represent the toughest confirmed challenge on BYU's schedule (this may change if BYU makes it to the championship game of the Diamond Head Classic), and the Cougars will certainly be looking for payback after losing a heartbreaker at home to their rivals last season. Utah may be down a bit from a year ago (losing Delon Wright will do that to you), but not by much. There's still plenty of talent up in Salt Lake City, and coach Larry Krystkowiak will have his team ready to play. I'm already excited.

2. February 27 vs. Gonzaga. This battle between WCC heavyweights is always competitive, no matter when it happens. But throw in the fact that the Zags' annual visit to Provo will come on the last day of the regular season and things get even more interesting. While the Bulldogs lost conference player of the year Kevin Pangos and defensive ace Gary Bell, Jr. to graduation, Kyle Wiltjer, Domantas Sabonis, Przemek Karnowski and company will ensure that Mark Few's squad remains right at the top of the WCC heap. If BYU wants to finally break through and win a conference title, getting a "W" here is crucial. The Marriott Center will be packed to the gills and ready to roar — I think I can already hear the crowd.

3. December 25 vs. Oklahoma/Northern Iowa. This one's not guaranteed to happen — BYU needs to win two games to get to the championship game of the Diamond Head Classic, and then hope one of the two top teams on the opposite side of the bracket can advance as well — but if it does, it will likely be the Cougars' best chance for a marquee, resume-defining win. Think about it: A prime-time ESPN2 tip-off, on a holiday where everyone ultimately ends up sitting around watching TV, likely against a squad that finished 11th or 20th in RPI the previous year? That sounds like a recipe for major national exposure if I've ever heard one.

4. December 22 vs. Harvard. Another game that will take place in Honolulu — although we're guaranteed to actually see this one. Tommy Amaker has built a strong program in Cambridge over the past few years (it's about time someone figured out how to use an education from the world's most prestigious university as a recruiting tool), and the Crimson only figure to get better moving forward. This will be a fascinating contrast in styles — BYU ranked sixth in the nation in adjusted tempo last season, while Harvard came in way down at 325th. Rose will try to speed up the game's pace, while Amaker will work to slow it down. Whoever succeeds will likely come away victorious.

5. January 14 at Gonzaga. BYU notched perhaps the signature win of the post-Jimmer era last season when they knocked off the then-No. 2 Zags on their home floor. That high-profile late-season victory may have single-handedly gotten the Cougars into the tournament, and it snapped the longest home winning streak in college hoops to boot. Don't think that Few and his Bulldogs have forgotten about that. They'll be coming for their pound of flesh when BYU returns to The Kennel for the first time since the incident. Can Rose and his team pull off a second consecutive shocker in Spokane?

6. December 18 vs. Central Michigan. This is one of those games that doesn't seem all that exciting on paper, but when you look closer, it actually figures to be a sneaky tough challenge for BYU. Central Michigan went 23-9 and finished 70th in RPI last season, before ultimately losing to eventual MAC champion Buffalo in the conference tournament. And it wasn't just a fluke. The 2015-16 Chippewas' will return virtually ever major player from a year ago and will roll into Provo with an experienced roster featuring six seniors. This is a game BYU should win — it's in the Marriott Center after all — but the test may prove far more difficult than many fans might expect.

7. December 31 at Saint Mary's. The idea of potentially opening WCC play on the road in Moraga (which is likely to be the case, as BYU and San Diego will need to reschedule their December 23 game due to conflicts) should terrify every loyal Cougar supporter. BYU hasn't performed well out of the gate in conference play over the last two years, and when you combine that with the likelihood of lingering jet lag from the team's return trip from Hawaii a few days earlier and the already difficult task of walking into a hostile environment and matching up against a top conference foe, you can start to see why there might be cause for concern. Nevertheless, there are few teams that Cougar fans love to hate more than the Gaels, and there are few things more satisfying than a piping hot helping of #GaelTears after a big road win. I'm planning to bring my biggest mug.