|The Weekend Forecast|
|Lehigh at No. 19 Baylor |
I love that this is technically the first game of the season, because it will give America an opening glimpse of Lehigh senior guard C.J. McCollum. When McCollum hung 30 points on Duke in last season's NCAA tournament, he took folks by surprise. He won't be a surprise now, and neither will Lehigh, which returns three other starters from that team. Unfortunately, that also means Lehigh won't catch Baylor by surprise, either. The Bears have an experienced and effective backcourt duo in Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip, and they have one of the nation's premiere freshmen in 7-foot forward Isaiah Austin. I like Baylor because it's at home, but if Austin has more three-point attempts than rebounds (a distinct possibility), it will be a red flag for the Bears moving forward.
|No. 14 Michigan State vs. UConn at Ramstein AB, Germany |
Conventional wisdom holds that Kevin Ollie is facing an impossible task. I disagree. The Huskies' first six players can compete with anyone's in the country. The key will be keeping everybody healthy. Still, having to open against the Spartans is not an easy way to get the Kevin Ollie era rolling. I'm especially looking forward to watching Michigan State guard Gary Harris in action. For most of the preseason, Tom Izzo has heaped lavish praise on Harris' defensive play, comparing him to Charlie Bell, only with better offensive skills. I can't think of a greater compliment.
|No. 4 Ohio State vs. Marquette, USS Yorktown, Charleston, S.C. |
The Golden Eagles got some bad news this week when sophomore guard Todd Mayo (O.J.'s brother) was declared academically ineligible for the first semester. Since Marquette lost its heart (Jae Crowder) and soul (Darius Johnson-Odom) from last year's Sweet 16 squad, it needs all hands on deck -- and not just because this game is being played on an aircraft carrier. This game should give us a sense of whether Ohio State's 6-11 sophomore center Amir Williams is ready for prime time. If he is, it could be lights out in Columbus this season.
|No. 3 Kentucky vs. Maryland in Brooklyn |
I was tempted to pick Maryland in a stunner even before the NCAA gave Terps guard Dez Wells, a transfer from Xavier, a wavier to play this season. Now that that waiver has been granted, I'm ready to take the leap. I'm not saying that Wells is the second coming of Juan Dixon, but he gives the Terps some badly-needed offensive versatility in the wake of Terrell Stoglin's departure. Sure, Kentucky is more talented, but it is also less experienced than any of John Calipari's previous teams in Lexington. And in 7-1 sophomore center Alex Len, Maryland has one of the few players in the country who can match up with Nerlens Noel (at least in November).
|Georgetown vs. No. 10 Florida on the USS Bataan at Naval Station Mayport |
Billy Donovan's decision to indefinitely suspend junior point guard Scottie Wilbekin is a big-time setback for Florida. In the first place, the Gators badly need Wilbekin's on-court, pass-first leadership. With him out of the lineup, Kenny Boynton now shifts to the point, which puts Boynton in the uncomfortable position of throwing passes when he should be catching them. Florida will also be without 6-6 junior forward Casey Prather, who is recovering from two concussions. Even if the Gators were at full strength, I would have gone with Georgetown. The Hoyas will have the best player on the court in 6-8 sophomore forward Otto Porter, and I think they have a sleeper freshman in 6-3 guard D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera.
|Virginia at George Mason |
When Paul Hewitt took over for Jim Larranaga last year at George Mason, he inherited not just a really good team, but also a first-rate program with a foundation for long-term success. So I'm not put off by the fact that the Patriots lost CAA Player of the Year Ryan Pearson. They return three other starters from the group that won 24 games and went 14-4 in the conference. Meanwhile, Virginia is in rebuilding mode following the loss of three starters plus two reserves who transferred out in mid-season. Tony Bennett will try to grind out a win, but George Mason knows how to grind, too, and the Patriots are playing at home.
|Miami (Ohio) at No. 6 N.C. State |
I know how long Wolfpack fans have starved for a winner, and I honestly believe Mark Gottfried has the horses to deliver. The word out of Raleigh is that all three freshman McDonald's All-Americans have been superb, and I believe 6-5 junior point guard Lorenzo Brown has a chance to be special. What's also special is the chance to open at home against a Miami (Ohio) team that won't put up much of a fight. Longtime coach Charlie Coles retired last season, and he didn't leave the program in very good shape.
|Indiana State at No. 13 UCLA |
Ironically, even though we still don't know when -- or if -- the NCAA will declare UCLA freshman forward Shabazz Muhammad eligible, there is a chance he will suit up against the Sycamores. That's because Muhammad is still operating within the standard 45-day grace period while his case is being investigated. The only question, then, is his injured shoulder, which Ben Howland said is getting better by the day. Aside from that, this is going to be a sentimental game for the Bruins. It will mark the re-opening of Pauley Pavilion, the House That Wooden Built, and the opponent will be the school where Wooden was coaching before he came to UCLA in 1948. The Sycamores lost four starters from a team that finished eighth in the Missouri Valley Conference last season. So with or without Muhammad, UCLA better take care of business.
|No. 20 San Diego State vs. No. 9 Syracuse on USS Midway, San Diego |
This is the best matchup of the opening weekend. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I think the talent here is pretty even. Syracuse has more NBA prospects and better depth, but the Aztecs will have the best player on the floor in 6-5 junior guard Jamaal Franklin, the reigning Mountain West Player of the Year. I'm also psyched to get a gander of the Aztecs' ballyhooed freshman, Winston Shepard, a versatile 6-8 swingman from Las Vegas. San Diego State won't have the same atmospheric advantage it would have enjoyed if this game were being played in front of The Show at Viejas Arena, but it will still be a friendly crowd, and the Aztecs won't let them home folks down.
|Manhattan at No. 2 Louisville |
Most coaches prefer not to schedule teams coached by their friends, much less their former players. But Rick Pitino has thrown a bone to his protégé Steve Masiello, who played for Pitino at Kentucky and was an assistant at Louisville, by inviting the Jaspers to open the season at the KFC Yum! Center. And this is no easy game, either: Manhattan returns its entire starting lineup from a squad that finished third in the MACC. During my visit to Louisville a few weeks ago, Pitino told me that he was concerned about sophomore forward Chane Behanan's lack of humility, and a few days later Pitino suspended Behanan for the exhibition opener and banned him from talking to the media for the first semester. Still, as I mentioned in my postcard, freshman forward Montrezl Harrell is a big-time addition. The Cards are ready to come out firing.