Opening weekend: Five games to watch Friday
The wait is over. After roughly seven months of discussing various NCAA controversies, recruiting, and one North Carolina player’s strange proclivity to drive rented vehicles, college basketball is finally back. With a group of talented returners and one of the most hyped recruiting classes of the modern era, the 2013-14 season could be one of the most exciting we’ve seen in the past decade. There aren’t a ton of great games on opening weekend, but here are five matchups on Friday that you should keep tabs on. I’ve also singled out three players from smaller programs that -- while not partaking in any of Friday’s headliners -- definitely deserve your attention.
(19) Oregon vs. Georgetown; 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
The inaugural Armed Forces Classic pitted Michigan State against UConn at Ramstein Air Base in Germany a year ago, marking the first college basketball game played between Division I teams in Europe. On Friday, Georgetown will face Oregon in the first college basketball game played in Asia since 1982, when Hakeem Olajuwon and Houston took on Ralph Sampson and Virginia in Tokyo. Friday night’s matchup won’t feature the same level of star power, but the Ducks and Hoyas do boast two of the better backcourts in the country. Matching Hoyas guards Markel Starks, D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera and Jabril Trawick bucket-for-bucket would have been a tough task for Oregon in any circumstance. That the Ducks have to do it without Dominic Artis, their likely starting point guard -- who has been suspended (along with forward Ben Carter) nine games for selling "exclusive" shoes issued to him by the school -- makes it much harder. Oregon lost four of the nine games Artis sat out last season while nursing a foot injury. At least the Ducks won’t be shorthanded in the uniform department. Both teams will be sporting some pretty cool threads Friday night.
St. John’s vs. (20) Wisconsin; 7 p.m., Big Ten Network
Preseason opinion on St. John’s seems to range anywhere from “conference championship potential” to “NIT-bound.” Steve Lavin’s team is generally regarded as one of the most talented in the new Big East, but will that talent can amount to anything more than the sum of its parts? The Johnnies return five starters and welcome in five-star point guard RySheed Jordan, who coach Steve Lavin recently told the Associated Press was “the best guard, the most explosive guard I’ve had in college -- and that includes Baron Davis.” If the young talent jells and Jordan lives up to his considerable billing, St. John's could well challenge Georgetown and Creighton atop the new Big East. Or they could turn in a season resembling 2012-13, when they won eight conference games, finished 17-16 overall and ranked 237th in offensive efficiency, according to Kenpom.com. Wisconsin’s trajectory seems much easier to predict. The Badgers have never missed the NCAA Tournament under Bo Ryan (his first season was 2001-02), nor have they finished below a tie for fourth in the Big Ten. Expecting anything different this season is probably not the best idea. In any case, watching sophomore breakout candidate Sam Dekker attack the rim against Johnnies shotblocking ace Chris Obekpa, whose 15.8 block percentage ranked first in the country last season, according to Kenpom, will be a lot of fun.
Colorado vs. (25) Baylor; 10 p.m.
If you were given the opportunity to build your own college basketball team, would you prefer having a strong frontcourt and weaker backcourt, or vice-versa? Your answer to that question might determine how you feel about this game. Askia Booker and Spencer Dinwiddie give Colorado one of the best backcourts in the Pac-12, but the loss of forward Andre Roberson to the NBA means the Buffaloes might not be as formidable on the low block this season (returners Xavier Scott and Josh Scott should hold up just fine, but losing Roberson still hurts). That plays right into Baylor’s biggest strength: frontcourt depth. Likely starters Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson enter this season with first-round pick potential, and Ricardo Gathers, who grabbed a higher percentage (16.7) of his team’s misses than all but six players in the country last season, according to Kenpom, is a beast on the glass. Denver transfer Royce O'Neale, a versatile 6-6 wing, should also be a major contributor. The Bears do have to replace point guard Pierre Jackson, a second-round pick in this summer’s NBA draft. Keny Chery will get his first opportunity to prove whether he can become the next junior college transfer to shine as Baylor's point guard, but don’t be surprised if he can’t contain Booker and Dinwiddie, a preseason All-Pac-12 first team member who averaged 15.3 points and 3.0 assists last season.
(18) UConn vs. Maryland; 6:30 p.m. ESPN2
When UConn opened last season against Michigan State in the Armed Forces Classic, it knew that, no matter how many games it won, going to the NCAA Tournament was an impossibility. The Huskies beat Michigan State anyway and likely would have qualified for the Big Dance had they not been barred from postseason play because of a low Academic Progress Rate score. This season, the Huskies are eligible for the NCAA Tournament, and they’ll need to win games like this one to get there. Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and Omar Calhoun form one of the best backcourts in the country, but it’s uncertain whether the Huskies have enough up front to hang with Louisville in the American Athletic Conference title race this season. Maryland enters 2013-14 with more modest goals; the ACC championship race, which should be decided by Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Notre Dame and Syracuse, is probably of the question. The Terrapins can aim for their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2010, though, and notching a win against a ranked opponent in their first game of the season would be a promising first step towards that goal. Few guards attack the rim as effectively as Maryland’s Dez Wells. If he can outplay Napier, there’s no reason Maryland can’t pull the upset.
Davidson at (4) Duke; 7 p.m. ESPNU
This game might not be as competitive as some of the others, but it would be unwise to overlook Bob McKillop’s team. The Wildcats are the odds-on favorite to win the Southern Conference before joining the Atlantic-10 in 2014-15 and have the one thing -- a really good big man, De'Mon Brooks -- that could pose problems for Duke. Brooks received all-conference recognition last year but was better as sophomore, when he averaged 15.7 points and posted a 114.4 offensive rating while taking 34.2 percent of available shots, one of the 20 highest percentages in the country (per Kenpom). Duke has more perimeter firepower than all but a few teams in the country, but questions remain about whether forwards Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee can match up with elite opposing frontcourts. In this game, it shouldn’t matter too much. Duke’s guards and wings are so talented that, no matter how many points Brooks scores, Davidson probably won’t be able to keep up. The Blue Devils should play some of the most entertaining, fast-paced basketball in the country this season, and college hoops fans will get their first glimpse Friday night -- not to mention the regular-season debut of Sports Illustrated cover boy Jabari Parker.
Other games to track: Boston College at Providence, Oklahoma vs. Alabama, Weber State at BYU, USC at Utah State, Louisiana Tech at St. Mary's, Mercer at Texas
Three players you might not see
G Jake Odum, Indiana State, Sr.
It feels like Odum has been around at least six years; in reality, he’s been a starter – and played at least 73 percent of available minutes, according to Kenpom – for Indiana State since his redshirt freshman season (2010-11). With Odum playing his best, the Sycamores have an outside shot to challenge Wichita State for the Missouri Valley Conference championship this season. Odum and ISU welcome Ball State to Terre Haute on Saturday.
G Elfrid Payton, Louisiana Lafayatte, Jr.
The most surprising addition to Team USA’s gold medal team at the U-19 World Championships in Prague was Payton, a tenacious defender and skilled scorer who averaged 15.9 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists for the Rajin’ Cajuns last season. While his performance over the summer grabbed the attention of plenty of college hoops fans, Payton should maintain relatively low profile this season. I don’t imagine UL Lafayette will be featured on many national broadcasts. Payton will lead his team against Louisiana College on Saturday.
F Jerelle Benimon, Towson, Sr.Remember when Towson, who lost 41 consecutive from 2011-12, was the laughingstock of college basketball? Those days are long gone. Pat Skerry’s team is the favorite to win the Colonial this season, and Benimon, a transfer from Georgetown, is a big reason why. The senior forward averaged 17.1 points, rebounded 23.7 percent of opponent’s misses and played 87.9 percent of available minutes (the latter two figures both ranked 61st in the country) last season. On Friday, Benimon and the Tigers will face Navy at home.