Saturday November 15th, 2014

When the curtain came down on college basketball’s 2014 season, Connecticut was celebrating as national champions. When the curtain went up on the new season Friday night, the new-look Huskies reminded us that this sport is worth watching right from the first game: anything can, and often does, happen.

Despite playing at home against something named Bryant -- which is actually a Northeast Conference school that used to be in Division II and is eligible for the NCAA tournament for just the third time -- No. 17 UConn trailed by nine points in the second half. Ryan Boatright, a senior guard and preseason All-America candidate, scored 16 of his 24 points in the second half of the Huskies' 66-53 win. It may not have been a Kemba/Shabazz-type rescue operation but it was vital nonetheless in helping UConn avoid embarrassment.

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Michigan State barely did likewise, edging Navy by just five points, 64-59, thanks to senior guard Travis Trice, whose 25 points were nearly twice as many as any other player. The 18th-ranked Spartans led by just three in the final minute and survived a missed three-pointer from the Midshipmen with 10 seconds left that would have cut the deficit to one.

Aside from those early tastes of madness, everything else went according to plan on college basketball’s opening night. In all, 23 of the Associated Press’ top 25 teams were in action and all 23 won, often by comfortable margins. That includes No. 25 Harvard’s 21-point win over MIT in what will likely feature the highest combined SAT scores of any two teams this season.

Without any Day 1 upsets, what follows is a brief look at the biggest takeaways from the top 10 teams in the nation and how they fared in their season openers:

No. 1 Kentucky 85, Grand Canyon 45

Here’s something of a shock: The top-ranked Wildcats, better known as One-and-Done U, started only one freshman in their season opener. That frosh, 6-11 forward Karl-Anthony Towns was impressive, with eight points, eight rebounds and three blocks, but it was his twin tower, 7-0 junior center Willie Cauley-Stein who was most worth watching on this night. Cauley-Stein suffered an ankle injury during the NCAA tournament that may have been the difference as Kentucky lost in the national championship game to UConn, but he returned with 12 points, on 6-of-7 shooting, five rebounds and four blocks in 23 minutes against the Antelopes.

Two other returning Wildcats, actual twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison, played just as much, and junior Alex Poythress logged 24 minutes. In all, head coach John Calipari gave at least 13 minutes to 10 different players, not quite the 20/20 spit between two groups of five that had been rumored, but enough to suggest that Kentucky may have almost as much depth as it does talent.

No. 2 Arizona 78, Mount St. Mary’s 55

Speaking of big men coming back from injury, Wildcats forward Brandon Ashley stepped right back into a starring role for Arizona, scoring a career-high 21 points on 9-of-10 shooting in his first game since tearing a ligament in his foot Feb. 1. The Wildcats’ hallmark last year was defense, when they held opponents to 38.0 percent shooting from the floor. In the opener, Arizona limited the Mountaineers to 38.5 percent.

No. 3 Wisconsin 62, Northern Kentucky 31

The Badgers are a popular national title pick this season. Nothing that happened Friday should change that perception, and it could be awhile before we’ll know if anything should.  Forwards Frank Kaminsky (16 points), a preseason All-America, and Sam Dekker (15) scored as many points combined as the Norse did on the night. There are four more blowouts waiting to happen before Wisconsin will face a legitimate opponent, and that will come at the Kohl Center in Madison on Dec. 3 against a very legitimate opponent: No. 4 Duke.

The anticipated battle between Kaminsky and Blue Devils super-freshman Jhalil Okafor promises to be one of the best of the non-conference season, and yet another example that college basketball has plenty of compelling games to offer long before the calendar turns to March.

No. 4 Duke 113, Presbyterian 44

Yes, this was not exactly high-level competition. And yes, he has already been tagged with some lofty expectations, including being named a preseason first-team All-America. Nevertheless, it was hard not be impressed by Okafor, a 6-11 center from Chicago, in his first college game. Last year’s high school player of the year, and the early favorite to be the No. 1 pick in next summer’s NBA draft, scored 19 points and missed only one of his 10 shots. Okafor displayed a wide range of skills, running the floor for dunks and utilizing some nice post moves around the basket.

He wasn’t the only freshman standout to stand out for the Blue Devils either. Grayson Allen (18 points), Tyus Jones (15) and Justise Winslow (15) combined to outscore the Blue Hose by themselves.

Even with the blowout, Okafor and his fellow fabulous frosh have little time to rest. Duke plays again on Saturday against Fairfield in another tuneup before next Tuesday’s showdown with Michigan State in the Champions Classic. The Blue Devils had ample opportunity to distribute minutes on Friday, as head coach Mike Krzyzewski gave nine players at least 13 minutes. This looks to be the rare Duke team that Coach K will be comfortable going more than six or seven men deep, and those early minutes could pay off during this busy opening slate.

No. 5 Kansas 69, UC-Santa Barbra 59

No Andrew Wiggins, no Joel Embiid, no problem, right? Even without two of the top three picks in last June’s NBA draft, the Jayhawks are expected to be the class of the Big 12 yet again, thanks partly to another strong freshmen class that includes forward Cliff Alexander and guard Kelly Oubre. But those two combined for just nine points (all by Alexander) and 16 minutes (12 by Alexander) on Friday, leaving Perry Ellis to remind everyone that he might just be the best player in the conference. The efficient 6-8 junior forward had 13 points (while taking just seven shots from the floor) and 10 rebounds to help offset the first of what could be many long nights from outside for KU (2-of-10 from 3-point range).

The best player on the court, however, was Alan Williams. The Gauchos’ 6-8 senior center flew under the radar last year despite averaging a double-double (21.5 points, 11.3 rebounds) and he was right on those averages against the Jayhawks (22 points, 13 rebounds). This was the highest-profile game on UCSB’s schedule this season, but try to catch Williams later this year, maybe on Dec. 8 against No. 22 SMU or Dec. 22 at Oregon, so you know what you’re talking about when people start discussing him as a first-team All-America come the new year.

No. 6 North Carolina 76, NC Central 60

Multiple times this preseason, Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams had to stop practice to remind his players that junior point guard Marcus Paige was the best player on the floor. They may need another reminder. Paige, the preseason ACC player of the year and a preseason first-team All-America, took only eight shots against the Eagles (five North Carolina players took at least six) in 31 minutes (by far the most on the team) and scored eight points, less than half his average of 17.4 last year.

Nevertheless, UNC never trailed against NC Central, an NCAA tournament team last season, though this was never a blowout. The Heels used their size, depth and athleticism to break out to leads of 11-0 and 18-4 but NCCU played them mostly to a standstill for the next 26 minutes and trailed by 12 with 8:40 remaining before Carolina finally pulled away.

No. 7 Florida 68, William & Mary 45

When last we saw the Gators they were being handled with shocking ease at the Final Four by UConn, which ended Florida’s 30-game winning streak, and the careers of a quartet of senior starters, with a 63-53 win. This year’s Gators are without those four graduated stalwarts, point guard Scottie Wilbekin, shooting guard Casey Prather and forwards Will Yeguette and Patric Young, and the only returning starter, Michael Frazier II, had 12 points against the Tribe.

Frazier is a fine player but he will have to get help elsewhere if Florida is to contend for another Final Four berth. Dorian Finney-Smith, last year’s SEC Sixth Man of the Year, is the most likely candidate to step up, and he did indeed have a team-high 15 points on Friday. He also had to get X-rays on his left wrist after the game, though it isn’t expected to be a serious injury. Newcomer Jon Horford, a Michigan transfer, may not have the same polished game of his brother Al, who starred on the Gators’ back-to-back title teams of 2006 and ’07, but he did have 11 points in his UF debut, just the seventh time in his collegiate career that he’s cracked double figures.

If Frazier, Finney-Smith and Horford can adequately replace the departed stars from last season, and if sophomore forward Chris Walker, a former McDonald's All-American who was suspended for an unspecified violation of team rules, ever proves to be as good as advertised, Florida may yet have enough to reach at least its fifth straight Elite Eight.

No. 8 Louisville 81, Minnesota 68

This was billed as Pitino vs. Pitino, as the Cardinals’ Rick coached against his son, the Golden Gophers’ Richard, for the second time. It should have just been set up as the first episode of the Montrezl Harrel Show, for that promises to be season-long appointment viewing. Louisville’s 6-8 junior may have had the year’s most promising opener, scoring 30 points and utilizing a new tool – a smooth shooting form – to get many of them.

Harrell had returned to the Cardinals in part to diversify his game with an eye not just on leading his team to its third consecutive conference championship in its third different conference – Louisville won the Big East in 2013 and the American Athletic Conference last year before joining the ACC for this season – but also to winning the second national title of his career to match the one he was a part of as a freshman. Harrell made five jumpers on Friday and, perhaps more impressively, nine of his 10 free throws after making just 47.7 percent in his first two seasons combined.

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No. 9 Virginia 79,  James Madison 51

After winning 30 games and the ACC regular season and conference titles it should come as no surprise that the Cavaliers have their highest preseason ranking in more than three decades. It also shouldn’t come as a surprise if they suffocate opponents this season as effectively as they did the Dukes on Friday. Virginia’s Pack-Line defense allowed JMU to make just 28.3 percent from the floor, better than any performance the Cavs had defensively during their magical season a year ago.

The expected cast of veterans contributed the bulk of the offense, as junior guard Justin Anderson had 18 points, senior forward Anthony Gill had 15 and senior guard Malcolm Brogdon scored 14. But keep an eye this year on freshman forward Isaiah Wilkins, and not just because he’s the stepson of Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins. The younger Wilkins provided some highlights of his own in his first collegiate game, though they may have been more modest than the kind his stepdad produced. Still, an eight-point, five-rebound, three-assist,  two-block, two-steal stat line suggests he’ll be able to help out in multiple ways as head coach Tony Bennett looks to replace Joe Harris, last year’s second-leading scorer, and Akil Mitchell, last year’s leading rebounder.

No. 10 Texas 85, North Dakota State 50

Everything is bigger in Texas, including the hopes for this year’s Longhorns, especially after last year’s team put together a 24-11 season. Those aspirations are directly attributable to Texas’ sizable frontline, which features 6-9 center Cameron Ridely, 6-9 junior Connor Lammert, 6-8 senior Jonathan Holmes and now, 6-11 freshman Myles Turner. That quartet combined for 24 rebounds and helped the ‘Horns to a 51-32 rebounding edge against the Bison, which pulled one of the NCAA tournament’s biggest upsets last March by beating Oklahoma as a No. 12 seed.

Because Rick Barnes has all five starters back from last year, Turner, the No. 2 recruit in the nation, came off the bench Friday, but it might be hard to keep him there if he keeps playing as he did in his debut. Turner had 15 points and six rebounds in just 20 minutes despite being, as Barnes told reporters afterward, “very, very nervous before the game.” More performances like that are sure to make opposing coaches very nervous during games.

 

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