Opening weekend insights, Champions Classic picks and more
I hope you had a lot of fun over the weekend, because all I did was work.
Of course, I am defining "work" as watching a lot of college basketball. Didn't exactly get blisters on my hands.
It was a joyful weekend of work as the 2013-14 season got underway. My job was to hunker down and go wall-to-wall in an effort to see as much of the action as I could. Between the DVR, the iPad, the laptop and -- get this -- actual live television, I saw substantial portions of 13 games between Friday night and Sunday afternoon. What did I learn after all those hours slaving away at the office? Roll up your sleeves and find out:
UConn 78, Maryland 77
This was the first big game of the opening weekend, and it was a humdinger. Connecticut did everything it could to give away a 17-point second-half lead, including missing the front end of two late one-and-ones. Maryland, however, surrendered its own opportunities down the stretch, mostly in the form of poor shot selection by Dez Wells. The 6-foot-5 junior guard who transferred from Xavier before last season still needs to learn the difference between an open shot and a good shot -- especially in crunch time.
Still, I give the Terrapins credit for fighting back without injured point guard Seth Allen. I also liked what I saw from Charles Mitchell, their 6-8, 260-pound sophomore forward. He is a bulky but fundamentally sound power forward who will remind Terps fans of Lonny Baxter.
As for UConn, while Shabazz Napier (18 points, 7 assists, 7 rebounds) showed why he is a potential POY in the AAC, it was a little mystifying why 6-foot junior guard Ryan Boatright didn't take his first free throw until there were less than three minutes remaining. (So much for those new rules that are supposed to send dribblers to the foul line.) The Huskies are going to get pushed around inside this season, but I was impressed by Amida Brimah, their 7-foot freshman center from Ghana. During his 15 minutes on the floor, Brimah had three blocks -- but he also committed four fouls. He is the very definition of raw talent, but if he can develop quickly, it will really enhance UConn's chances of returning to the NCAA tournament.
Duke 111, Davidson 77
I was disappointed this was not a more competitive game. Duke jumped out to a 32-19 lead and never looked back. Even so, it was a real pleasure to watch Jabari Parker play his first college game. This freshman has an old man's game, scoring his 22 points every which way: catch-and-shoot threes, pull-up midrange jumpers, baseline reverse layups, post-up turnaround floaters. The main knock on Parker is supposed to be his lack of athleticism, but in reaching high for an alleyoop that point guard Quinn Cook lofted from well behind the three-point line, Parker showed that he can sky with the best of them.
Duke always seems to begin in midseason form. This team will be no exception. Coach Mike Krzyzewski loves to play small ball. His starting center, 6-9 sophomore Amile Jefferson, only played 11 minutes. And I like the way Coach K is bringing sophomore guard Rasheed Sulaimon off the bench; he had 20 points on 6-for-9 shooting and added seven rebounds. This team isn't just good, it's highly entertaining.
Kansas 80, Louisiana-Monroe 63
It's a little hard to judge the Jayhawks because they were playing without starting point guard junior Naadir Tharpe, who was serving a one-game suspension for playing in an unsanctioned summer league. I know that Bill Self is high on Tharpe's freshman replacement, Frank Mason, who had five assists and zero turnovers, but the Jayhawks really missed Tharpe on defense. In fact, Kansas looked disorganized in general on defense, which is to be expected from such an inexperienced team.
Give Andrew Wiggins credit for an impressive debut. It wasn't just that he led the team in scoring with 16 points, it was the way he scored them. This kid is no pig. He scored on catch-and-shoot baskets, one- or two-dribble pull-ups, and one gently deposited two-handed breakaway dunk. Wiggins gets criticized for being too passive, but there is something to be said for his desire to be a team player.
Meanwhile, Tarik Black, the 6-9 senior transfer from Memphis, won't get as much hype as his younger teammates; but in many ways, he will be this team's MVP. Black had seven rebounds in 21 minutes. As the game wore on and KU had trouble shaking the Warhawks, Black showed the most emotion and leadership. He's the old man on this team, and he looks comfortable in that role.
Baylor 72, Colorado 60
For much of this game, the basketball matched the atmosphere -- which is not a compliment. This was the last of a triple-header played in American Airlines Arena in Dallas, and the place was nearly empty. While I give Baylor credit for controlling the game from start to finish, I was a little mystified as to why the Bears didn't go more to forwards Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson. Austin only took five shots and made two, finishing with five points and four rebounds. Not exactly what you'd expect from a 7-1 guy with his talent.
Baylor's main problem is that it does not have a break-you-down point guard in the mold of Pierre Jackson. Senior guard Gary Franklin made his first college start and acquitted himself well, but he only had one assist in 23 minutes. Kenny Chery, the junior college transfer, had four assists but shot 1-for-5 from three-point range. Scott Drew also has to be concerned that his team gave up 18 offensive rebounds.
So there's a lot to work on here, but when you can play poorly and still beat a good team, that's a hopeful sign.
As for Colorado, the Buffaloes were godawful shooting the ball (2-for-19 from three), which might be expected in the season opener. They may miss Andre Roberson's defense, but CU has a budding star in Josh Scott, the 6-10 sophomore forward. Scott is still a little soft, but he looks more confident. He can score in a variety of ways. If Colorado is going to challenge Arizona and UCLA in the Pac-12, the Buffs will need Scott to have a big season.
Syracuse 82, Cornell 60
The Orange played this one without 6-8 sophomore forward Jerami Grant, who was suspended for one game for playing in an unsanctioned summer league. They missed him badly -- for about 20 minutes. The Big Red led by 14 points midway through the first half and by six at intermission.
In the second half, however, Cornell ran into a red-hot Trevor Cooney. The 6-4 redshirt sophomore did his best Gerry McNamara impression by going 7-for-8 from behind the arc and finishing with a career-high 27 points. One of his non-three-pointers was an emphatic, breakaway, two-handed slam. Who says white men can't jump?
Aside from Cooney's heroics, it was a pretty workmanlike win for 'Cuse. C.J. Fair added 19 points, but he also had seven turnovers. Freshman Tyler Ennis failed to score a field goal, but he looked pretty poised in an eight-rebound, seven-assist effort. I was more concerned with the spotty offensive play turned in by the frontcourt trio of Baye Moussa Keita, DaJuan Coleman and Rakeem Christmas. I realize Grant is a more established offensive player than any of those guys, but after bidding adieu to last year's sensational backcourt of Brandon Triche and Michael Carter-Williams, the Orange could use a dependable post scorer. Right now I'm not sure they have one.
Oregon 82, Georgetown 75
It was a terrific scene as these two teams donned camouflage uniforms and put on a great show for hundreds of soldiers serving at Camp Humphreys, a U.S. Army base in South Korea. And being the best and the brightest, it's no surprise the spectators rooted and hooted every time Georgetown center Josh Smith drop-stepped in the post and converted a bucket.
The perennially overweight, underachieving Smith is taking advantage of the controversial opportunity that the NCAA gave him by declaring him eligible right away after he transferred from UCLA as a junior. Smith is listed on the Georgetown roster at 6-10 and 350 pounds, but he carried it pretty well. His conditioning is always going to be an issue, but it was heartening to see a young man thrive after everything he has been through. Let's hope he has many more such outings.
Still, Smith was not the best transfer in the game. That title belonged to Oregon's Joseph Young, a 6-2 transfer from Houston who went 12-for-12 from the foul line and finished with 24 points. The Ducks got a good performance from another transfer, Mike Moser, who left both UCLA and UNLV because of a lack of playing time. Moser had 15 points, seven rebounds, six steals and three assists. While I'm skeptical Moser can truly carry this team because of his track record, this was certainly an encouraging start.
Keep in mind the Ducks were also without two potential starters, point guard Dominic Artis and forward Ben Carter, both sophomores. When they're at full strength, they will definitely be a Pac-12 contender.
Wisconsin 86, St. John's 75
These are not your older brother's Wisconsin Badgers. Gone are the slow-it-down-and-punch-you-in-the-mouth plodders who were constantly compared to the dentist's chair. They have been replaced by a cutting, slashing, guard-oriented group that scores in bunches.
The best sight, however, wasn't the offense, it was the guy running it. Wisconsin junior point guard Josh Gasser missed all of last season with a torn ACL, but you wouldn't have known it by watching him slice through the St. John's defense for 19 points. Sophomore forward Sam Dekker looked stronger, too; he grabbed eight rebounds and finished with 19 points. Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan only played seven guys double-digit minutes, so it looks like his team will have a thin bench. Given how infrequently Ryan's teams have always fouled, I don't think that will be much of a concern.
Despite the loss, I still think St. John's is an NCAA tournament team. The Red Storm are strong, athletic and -- finally -- experienced enough to get there. DeAngelo Harrison (27 points) and Jakarr Sampson (21) will be an effective inside-outside combo in the Big East. Freshman point guard Rysheed Jordan, who started the game, showed some flashes of potential during his 24 minutes.
But for me, the biggest revelation of the evening was Orlando Sanchez, St. John's 24-year-old senior forward from Dominican Republic who is playing his first year of Division I ball. You wouldn't know it from Sanchez's stat line (5 points, 3 rebounds, 4 fouls in 18 minutes), but he showed incredible ball skills in the open court for someone who stands a bullish 6-9, 215 pounds. Trust me on this: Sanchez is an NBA talent.
Cincinnati 74, North Carolina Central 61
Of all the games I watched, this was the one most "ruined" by the new rules governing physical play. The teams combined to commit 51 fouls and shoot 59 free throws. That was especially a problem for North Carolina Central, which only had nine available players because of injuries.
The best news for Cincinnati was the maturity of 6-4 senior guard Sean Kilpatrick. He has always been a high scorer, but also a classic chucker. He looks much more efficient now. Kilpatrick scored 22 points on 6-for-13 shooting, and every shot he took was within the flow of the offense. He also added seven rebounds, four assists and three steals. That's a solid day's work.
On the flip side, this is still going to be a spotty offensive team, especially in the halfcourt. The frontcourt players are long and athletic, but they don't have go-to post moves. (Freshman forward Jermaine Lawrence, whom coach Mike Cronin refers to as his praying mantis, has potential as an offensive rebounder, but he made some ill-conceived passes.) Things will run better if freshman point guard Troy Caupain emerges as a dependable starter, but he only played 13 minutes.
Marquette 63, Southern 56
The Golden Eagles didn't beat the Jaguars so much as they grinded them. Marquette led by just four points with 10 minutes to go before it pulled away, doing most of its damage from the foul line. The Golden Eagles shot 53 free throws and converted 62.3 percent. Davante Gardner, the 6-8, 290-pound senior center, shot 15-for-20 from the line.
Toughness and physical play is nothing new for Marquette, but in the past, Buzz Williams has had high-level athletes to get his running game going. This team does not have a Darius Johnson-Odom or Jae Crowder to provide that dimension. It is a veteran team -- Williams started three seniors and two juniors. Junior guard Todd Mayo came off the bench to score 20 points, but this team is really missing a quick, playmaking point guard. Williams was hoping 6-2 freshman Duane Wilson would fill that void, but he suffered a stress fracture in his leg and will be out a few more weeks. In the meantime, Marquette will have to get its wins the hard way. It may not be pretty, but it's effective.
North Carolina 84, Oakland 61
I was shocked this game turned into a blowout so early. Oakland is a traditionally strong mid-major program that returns four starters, including 6-5 senior guard Travis Bader, who averaged 22.1 points per game last season. Plus, the Tar Heels were playing without their two best players, 6-5 senior guard Leslie McDonald and 6-6 junior forward P.J. Hairston. McDonald is sitting out while the NCAA reviews his infractions case, and Hairston is still suspended by Roy Williams for a variety of off-court transgressions.
Yet, the Tar Heels took the opening tip and ran the Golden Grizzlies right out of the Dean Dome. Oakland's transition D was horrible as UNC's James Michael McAdoo repeatedly leaked out for easy layups. Sophomore point guard Marcus Paige showed off a brand new shooting touch by draining four three-pointers in the first half, which tied his career high.
The suspensions enabled 6-5 sophomore forward J.P. Tokoto to make his first start, and he showed versatility in scoring 13 points to go along with five assists and four steals. Williams doesn't yet have a dependable big man he can use to post up in the halfcourt offense, but he does have a variety of options he can rotate through depending on who is playing well. Kennedy Meeks, the 6-9, 290-pound freshman, showed some promise by scoring 10 points in 13 minutes, but I don't know that he has the body type to log a ton of minutes in this system.
All in all, a mighty impressive debut for the Tar Heels, but if they are really going to be a factor in March, they will need to have Hairston and McDonald in the fold -- and soon.
VCU 96, Illinois State 58
Lawdy, lawdy, I am telling you to get to a TV screen near you and check out the Shaka Show post haste. Yes, you'd expect the Redbirds to be overmatched given that they have 10 new players, but this was still an overpowering performance by VCU -- especially in the first half, after which, the Rams led 52-22. As I've said several times already, I believe this will be the meanest, fastest, deepest, most Havoc-inducing team that Smart has coached at VCU. He played 11 guys and substituted in waves. You just can't prepare for that kind of unrelenting pressure.
The main takeaway I had from watching VCU is that Juvonte Reddic is a much-improved player. The 6-9 senior forward has always been a factor around the rim, but he has really developed his offensive repertoire, extending his shooting range almost to the three-point line. Reddic is able to roam away from the basket because of the addition of Florida State transfer Terrance Shannon, a 6-8, 240-pound redshirt senior who loves contact, sets ultra-wide screens and is a beast on the glass. In other words ... I spy a Glue Guy!
We'll know a lot more about VCU after it plays a true road game at Virginia on Tuesday night, but regardless of whether the Rams win that one, I could envision them going undefeated in the Atlantic 10 this season. They're that good.
Providence 82, Boston College 78 (OT)
This was the most entertaining game I saw all weekend, and that's saying a lot about a game that saw a combined 55 fouls and 60 free throws. That's largely because it was so much fun to hear Gus Johnson and Bill Raftery call a game together again (they have reunited at Fox Sports 1, which has the Big East package), but it's also because competitive games between power conference teams were hard to come by.
Boston College did its best to slow the tempo, but it could not slow down Bryce Cotton, the Friars' dynamic and diminutive senior guard. Cotton needed 20 shots to score his 28 points, and he was frequently out of control (six turnovers), but he is still fun to watch. The Friars needed him to play that way because their best inside player, 6-9 senior Kadeem Batts, was a step slow all night. He shot 2-for-11 and fouled out in 29 minutes.
Look, I understand that players, coaches, fans and Pete Thamel will get frustrated watching games like this as everyone gets adjusted to the new rules governing physical play. But that's a small price to pay for a better, cleaner game. At least the refs consistently applied the rules from start to finish. They've adjusted to the new rules. The players and coaches will have to do the same.
Michigan State vs. Kentucky, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. ESPN
People can call ESPN the Evil Empire all they want, but give the guys in Bristol credit for creating the Champions Classic as a way to close out their 24-hour marathon. I've already staked my lot by tapping the Spartans as my No. 1 team, but I do believe that Kentucky will have the best player on the floor in Julius Randle. It may not be enough, but it's a start.
Prediction: Michigan State 77, Kentucky 74
Kansas vs. Duke, Tuesday, 9:30 p.m., ESPN
You will notice below that I voted Kansas ahead of Duke in my preseason poll, but after watching each team play its season opener, I've concluded that Kansas might be the better team at the end of the season, but Duke is better right now. The Wiggins vs. Parker storyline is going to be tantalizing, but Parker is surrounded by older players. If this were late February, I could imagine Kansas 7-foot freshman Joel Embiid exploiting Duke's lack of a formidable big man, but the youngster isn't ready to command such a big stage just yet.
Duke 85, Kansas 78
Florida at Wisconsin, Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPN2
Billy Donovan has to be wondering what he was thinking by scheduling a true road game in Madison during the first week of the season. Having to go there with such a depleted roster won't make him feel any smarter.
Wisconsin 74, Florida 66
VCU at Virginia, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN2
We'll find out real quick if my bullishness about VCU is warranted. The Cavs have their best point guard, Malcolm Brogdon, back after he missed last season with an injury, but it's hard to imagine he's ready to handle Havoc so soon.
VCU 70, Virginia 64
Arizona at San Diego State, Thursday, 10 p.m., CBS Sports Network
The Aztecs were picked to finish fourth in the Mountain West after losing three starters from last season, but they do have one of the better homecourt advantages around the country. Will it be enough against Aaron Gordon and his mates? Not quite.
Arizona 73, San Diego State 69
Q. What's your favorite memory from your team's run to the Final Four?
A. You might think it's when we beat Ohio State to get there, but the most memorable moment for me was beating Gonzaga to get to the Sweet 16. My family was somehow able to get through security, so they ran down to the court, and I got to embrace each one of them. Then as I was walking off the court, our pep band was in the same corner as our fans. They started playing the fight song and all our players and coaches and fans were dancing and celebrating. That was really cool.
Q. You had Louisville down by 12 points in the second half at the Final Four. How did it slip away?
A. I remember when we got up 12, Ron Baker had a wide-open three-pointer at the top of the key, but instead of passing it, he threw it inside to our big man, who [got fouled and] missed the front end of a one-and-one. Then their walk-on (Tim Henderson) got consecutive threes. So it went from possibly being a 15-point game to now, all of a sudden, we've got a game.
Q. How many times have you watched the game?
A. I have not watched that game. I remember a lot about it, though. It was a painful memory.
Q. It used to be that a mid-major coach who had success like you would be a near-automatic to take a "bigger" job. How come guys like you, Mark Few and Shaka Smart keep turning down those opportunities to stay where you are?
A. Qualify of life, good situation. I enjoy the type of people I work for. I never dreamt that the money I'm making now I could ever make at Wichita State. Same thing when I was at Winthrop. I remember when I was at Winthrop, John Calipari said to me, "What you've done is make Winthrop your 'next job.' That's what I did at UMass." That's what we've done at Wichita State as well.
Q. What's the best piece of advice you've ever gotten?
A. When I was at College of Charleston working for John Kresse, I interviewed with Greg White at Marshall. He asked, "What's wrong with you?" He wanted to know why I was still an assistant. He said to me, "You need to aspire for bigger and better. You can do this." It was great advice. Two years with him, and I was a Division I head coach.
Q. Your team was ranked 16th in the AP's preseason Top 25. Last year you guys weren't even in Others Receiving Votes at the start. Are you as good as you were last year?
A. Well, we've got to replace Carl Hall and Malcolm Armstead, two of the four seniors we graduated. Fred VanVleet will be able to lessen the blow from losing Malcolm, but the key is how we're going to be inside. Kadeem Coleby, Darius Carter and Chadrack Lufile have to combine to give us the output that Hall and Ehimen Orukpe gave us last year.
Q. It sounds like you've got lots of living creatures around your house. Tell me about it.
A. Well, I have a son who is a junior in high school and a daughter who's in eighth grade, but we also have four dogs and three cats. We're huge animal lovers. They require a lot of time and they have a lot of energy. All of them are rescue dogs. We also have some koi (Japanese goldfish) in the pond out back. My wife grew up on a farm so she takes care of 'em mostly, but I don't mind it, obviously. It's a full life.
1. Michigan State
9. Ohio State
10. North Carolina
11. Oklahoma State
15. Wichita State
21. Notre Dame
25. New Mexico
None of my top 25 lost on the opening weekend, so this is how my preseason ballot looked when I submitted it a week ago. I thought I was going out on a limb by not picking Kentucky as my top team, but Michigan State actually garnered 22 first-place votes among the writers compared to Kentucky's 27. By contrast, the Spartans received just three first-place votes in the coaches' poll, while the Wildcats got 16. Hmmm. (Somehow, Louisville got seven more first-place votes than Michigan State in the coaches' poll but ended up being ranked one spot behind at No. 3. Go figure.)
This being college basketball, where such matters get decided in the field of competition, this will all get hashed out one way or another, and we are all going to enjoy the show. But I just can't quite get to the point where I'm tapping a team that will start at least four freshmen as my championship pick. I realize Kentucky has special freshmen but so do Duke and Kansas. The difference is that, unlike UK's 2012 champs, this team does not have experienced returnees that have proved to be reliable. On the other hand, I've maintained that if I had to win a college game tomorrow, I would pick Julius Randle over any other freshman, and perhaps any other player not named Marcus Smart. So if UK does fall short of winning it all as I'm predicting, it is not going to fall short by much.
Elsewhere, it appears that my ballot bears an uncanny resemblance to the final results of the preseason poll. Don't worry, I will try not to let that happen again. Among teams that are ranked, the biggest discrepancies between me and my fellow voters are regarding Baylor (I voted 'em eight spots higher), Creighton (I voted 'em eight spots higher), Harvard (13 spots higher), Tennessee (six spots higher). My fellow voters ranked UCLA at No. 22, Oregon at No. 19 and Virginia at No. 24, and none of those appear on my ballot. But when you get below 12 or 15 on a preseason ballot, everything's a crapshoot anyway. Nobody is right and nobody is wrong. That's the beauty of this time of year.