Weekend Picks: Top 25 teams start season with strong slate of games
No. 7 Iowa State vs. Colorado
Friday, 5 p.m., Sioux Falls, South Dakota, ESPN2
Already people are circling around Steve Prohm, wondering how he will fill Fred Hoiberg’s leather loafers in Ames. It’s as if people forget that Iowa State was upset by UAB in the opening round of last year’s NCAA tournament. At any rate, Prohm shouldn’t worry too much. His senior forward Georges Niang is one of my favorite players, and not just because he drinks green juice. Niang is efficient, savvy, poised and creative. The Buffaloes, on the other hand, are in rebuilding mode after missing out on the tournament last year, but 6'10" senior center Josh Scott (14.5 ppg, 8.4 rpg last season) will be tough to deal with.
Iowa State 77, Colorado 65
Pittsburgh vs. No. 9 Gonzaga
Friday, 7 p.m., Okinawa, Japan, ESPN
There is no team in college basketball that is so firm in one area of the game (frontcourt) while being so suspect in another (backcourt). Mark Few has some decent choices among his guards, but the best case scenario would be for redshirt freshman Josh Perkins, who only played five games last year before breaking his jaw, to emerge as the heir to Kevin Pangos. I don’t think Pittsburgh is ready to win this game, but the Panthers could be dangerous. They return four starters from a team that won 19 games, including 6'3" senior James Robinson, a four-year starter at point guard.
Gonzaga 71, Pitt 66
Mount St. Mary’s at No. 3 Maryland
Friday, 7 p.m., BTN
The Terps were my choice for preseason No. 1, and I am anxious to see if Robert Carter, the 6'9" transfer from Georgia Tech, validates the chatter that has been coming out about him from College Park. Mount St. Mary’s was the coaches’ preseason choice as favorites in the Northeast Conference, so this is a nice opening test for Maryland.
Maryland 80, Mount St. Mary’s 63
No. 1 North Carolina vs. Temple
Friday, 7 p.m., Annapolis, Md., CBS Sports Network
Losing Marcus Paige for a few weeks because of broken hand is obviously not ideal, but the Tar Heels can get by without him in the short term. In fact, there is much to be gained by giving extra minutes to Nate Britt and Joel Berry II. Temple will have a hard time replacing guard Will Cummings, and while Fran Dunphy is capable of mucking things up, I have a hard time envisioning the Owls being able to slow down the Tar Heels’ frenetic attack.
North Carolina 78, Temple 60
Friday, 7 p.m., ESPNU
Out with the new, in with the new. The Blue Devils lost three freshmen from the NCAA champs (not to mention invaluable senior guard Quinn Cook), but Mike Krzyzewski reloaded with another stellar freshman class. Unlike Tyus Jones, this year’s freshman point guard, Derryck Thornton, will not be handed the offense from Day 1, but there are a lot of interchangeable parts on the perimeter. Siena, which only won 11 games last season, will be badly overmatched, but at least the Saints have 6'8" forward Brett Bisping back in the fold after he missed all but six games last season with a toe injury.
Duke 83, Siena 56
Stephen F. Austin at No. 22 Baylor
Friday, 9:30 p.m.
Baylor was on the business end of the NCAA tournament’s most magical moment last March, so I imagine Scott Drew and his crew are anxious to get the new season rolling. Taurean Prince will move up from being the team’s sixth man, and Rico Gathers, the rebounding behemoth who was my All-Glue captain last season, will anchor the post. The Bears’ guards, however, are a little too green for my taste right now, and Brad Underwood’s Lumberbacks, the Gonzaga of the Southland Conference, return four starters from a team that won 61 games the last two seasons.
Stephen F. Austin 70, Baylor 67
Texas vs. Washington
Friday, 10 p.m., Shanghai, China, ESPN
The Shaka Smart era is set to begin at Texas. His Longhorns have a roster that is incredibly deep—the ideal asset for his end-to-end havoc system. Senior center Cameron Ridley is in the best shape of his career, and the three-man freshman class (particularly 6'3" jumping jack Kerwin Roach) will have an immediate impact. On the other hand, Lorenzo Romar is replacing all but three scholarship players from last season. It’s going to be a long season for the Huskies.
Texas 85, Washington 70
Saturday, 7 p.m.
The Friars bring back point guard Kris Dunn, who is being tapped in many quarters as the preseason national player of the year. At the least, Dunn is the best in the country at playing both ends of the floor, but the Friars are going to have a hard time replacing forward LaDontae Henton, the school’s No. 2 alltime scorer, with a group of talented but untested youngsters. Alas, Harvard is down from where it has been in the last four years. The Crimson reached the last four NCAA tournaments, but they were picked fourth in the Ivy’s preseason media poll.
Providence 73, Harvard 62
Saturday, 8 p.m., SEC Network
Last season, NJIT was the cute and cuddly underdog that won at Michigan in December. The Highlanders were an independent then, but now they finally have a league to call their own (the Atlantic Sun) and return four starters. They are unlikely, of course, to win at Rupp, but it will be interesting to see how John Calipari’s newcomers react handle the immense responsibilities they are being given. Kentucky, which opens on Friday night at home against Albany, is younger than it was last season and not quite as talented, but the rest of college basketball isn’t as good, either.
Kentucky 89, NJIT 69
Iona at Valparaiso
Sunday, 2:30 p.m.
True college hoops geeks know this is the sleeper game of the weekend. Both teams are favorites to win their respective leagues, and both would be a problem for a higher seeded NCAA tournament opponent. They also both have the best offensive players in their leagues—Iona senior guard A.J. English (yes, he’s Alex’s son) and Valpo junior forward Alec Peters. I will go with Valpo because the Crusaders are playing at home, but this is going to be a fun, old-fashioned shootout. I say the first one to 90 wins.
Valparaiso 91, Iona 89