ESPN's annual 24-hour marathon of hoops tips off tonight at midnight, but the real marathon began last Friday at 5 p.m. EST. That's when Lehigh and Baylor tipped off in Waco to set in motion the arduous, uphill, five-month trek to the NCAA tournament. This was not the official, attention-grabbing Opening Day in college hoops that I have long been pining for, but it was the best opening weekend that I can ever recall.
As such, I holed myself up in the Man Cave to watch -- I mean really watch -- as much as I possibly could. Between the TV, the DVR and the laptop, I managed to catch significant chunks of 18 games. It was only a first impression, but what can I tell you -- I was impressed. Here's what I learned:
The main reason I say this is because of 7-foot freshman forward Isaiah Austin, who needed just 17 minutes to score 22 points. Read that sentence again. Austin converted 10 of his 12 shots, including 2-for-4 from three-point range, before leaving the game in the first half with a twisted ankle. (Austin did not play Sunday against Jackson State, but Drew told me he expects him to be back for the Charleston Classic next weekend.) Austin was scoring with such ease, he could have gone for 40 without breaking a sweat.
And what happened after Austin went out? Cory Jefferson, a 6-9 junior forward, took over the post and went for 26 points and 13 rebounds, both career highs. When you consider that the Bears scored 99 points despite shooting 6-for-20 from three-point range, you get a sense of their offensive potential.
Incidentally, make sure you check out McCollum when you get a chance. He scored 36 points (though he did take 32 shots). Maybe it's because he wears the number 3, but he looked a lot like D. Wade out there.
And what of those Wildcats? Do not panic, BBN. I'm not expecting big things from sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow, but he has been battling the flu and is not nearly as bad as he was Friday night. Freshman guard Archie Goodwin needs to learn to play less than full-throttle all the time, but that will come with time. Kyle Wiltjer looked terrific. The pieces are there. The future is bright, but the road to get there won't always be pretty.
The best sign for UConn is the dramatic improvement of junior point guard Shabazz Napier. His 25 points were even more impressive on TV than in the box score. Napier's shot selection was spot on. He made all six of his free throws. He quarterbacked both sides of the floor with confidence and aplomb. If Napier is going to play like this all season, UConn might as well give Kevin Ollie his multiyear contract right now.
Conversely, Michigan State had difficulty guarding the Huskies' dribblers in the first half, and offensively the Spartans were throwing the ball all over the court. (They finished with 15 turnovers, many of which were the forehead-smacking variety.) The greater concern, however, was their inability to score in the post. The guards deserve some of the blame, but most of it goes to the starting centers, Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne, who alternated between irrelevant and awful. Payne only lasted 15 minutes. If those two guys were this ineffective against Tyler Olander, it's hard to see them taking Kansas' Jeff Withey and Perry Ellis to school on Tuesday night in Atlanta.
Look, we know North Carolina is going to score. That is never a concern. My main question is whether this team can defend. The only player on the roster taller than 6-9 is Joel James, a 6-10 freshman. He is built like an NFL tight end but he had zero blocks in the two games. North Carolina's guards (except perhaps Dexter Strickland) are finesse scorers who do not strike me as lockdown defenders -- not yet, anyway. Freshman point guard Marcus Paige was underwhelming (he had six assists versus Florida Atlantic but was also 1-for-8 from the floor), but perhaps that's to be expected. All in all, I saw some nice things from North Carolina, but considering the low-caliber competition, I still have more questions than answers.
Even though Georgetown was trailing at the half, my sense is that the Hoyas would have come back and won. Sophomore forward Otto Porter got off to a slow start, but once he got going he displayed all the polish and versatility I expected. (He had seven points and two assists at intermission.) John Thompson III used an odd, four-forward starting lineup (get used to hearing the word "length" when you watch Hoyas games), but 6-2 junior guard Markel Starks was a real ball hawk on defense. Georgetown is an unusual team that runs a unique system, but it has the type of players who can excel in it. The Hoyas aren't quite good enough to make a run at the Big East title, but they will be firmly entrenched in the league's second tier.
Curry's injury means Duke will rely even more heavily on underappreciated 6-1 junior point guard Tyler Thornton. Thornton showed a pretty good long-range touch (3-for-6 from three-point range), but he really excels on the defensive end. I know a lot of people were predicting that sophomore Quinn Cook would be running the show in Durham, but Thornton will be difficult to pry out of the starting lineup. Also, 6-11 senior forward Ryan Kelly (eight points on 2-for-6 shooting) showed a disheartening lack of aggressiveness. Kelly is the most versatile offensive player on this team. I've often wondered why he doesn't understand just how good he is.
Trae Golden is a solid if unspectacular point guard who does a good job setting up Tennessee's three-point marksmen, Skylar McBee and Jordan McRae. Still, this is a program that needs to rebuild, and there are no freshmen of consequence as far as I can see. I'm a big Cuonzo Martin fan and I think Tennessee can make the NCAA tournament, but I would caution Vols fans not to expect really big things. That way, if this team does accomplish a lot, you'll be pleasantly surprised.
The bad news for UCLA is that 6-10 junior center Josh Smith does not look any slimmer than he did a year ago. It's a shame to see a young man waste all that potential. However, the good news is the Bruins will be less dependent on Smith this season. Though senior point guard Larry Drew II, a transfer from North Carolina, looked steady running the offense, it occurred to me that by giving Drew the ball, Howland is taking it out of the hands of 6-9 freshman Kyle Anderson. Anderson is not a true point guard, but he's not a great athlete, either. He needs the rock. It will be interesting watching Howland manage that situation over the next few months.
Oklahoma State is not a particularly big team, but it is very athletic and fun to watch. Junior guard Markel Brown is an exciting finisher around the rim, and 6-7 sophomore forward Le'Bryan Nash looks like he's settling in for a nice season. UC Davis hung around for most of the game and Travis Ford only played seven guys, so the Cowboys are not operating on much margin for error. Still, I have to say this was a promising beginning.
Elsewhere, senior center Jeff Withey scored a game-high 17 points, but he still looks awkward trying to make moves in the post. If he's in position and catches the ball in close, he will finish, but he's not going to create a lot of buckets by his onesies.
That's why 6-8 freshman forward Perry Ellis will be such a key for this team. He is a far more natural interior scorer than Withey. And while jumping jack freshman guard Ben McLemore had a few highlight-reel offensive rebound slams, it's safe to say the teams in the Big 12 will do a better job blocking out the defensive boards than Southeast Missouri did.
Frank Haith hasn't said when Dixon is coming back, but it's not a terrible thing that the coach has to give more minutes to guys who wouldn't otherwise have earned them. Missouri got lifts from two freshmen off the bench, 6-7 Negus Webster-Chan and 6-11 Stefan Jankovic, who combined to shoot 5-for-7 from behind the arc. I also think Missouri will get much better shooting performances from Earnest Ross, a chiseled 6-5 junior transfer from Auburn who made just 2-for-10 in this game. Missouri doesn't have as many future lottery picks as Kentucky does, but in the end it may prove to be the better SEC team.
Though Brey has had some success the last few years running his "burn" offense, it was Evansville who came in with the intent to grind things to a halt. (I was impressed, by the way, with Ryan Colt, the Aces' 6-5 senior swingman. He earned his 15 points the hard way. Brey said he thinks Colt is a pro.) Irish forward Scott Martin had a horrible day shooting (1-for-6, six points), but he more than made up for it by snaring 17 rebounds. That's how you get Capone.
One of the best things about watching early games is you get the chance to discover players you didn't know anything about. Case in point: Notre Dame's 6-7 freshman swingman Cameron Biedscheid, who hit two key buckets (including one three-pointer) late in the second half to help the Irish put away a pesky, scrappy team. Biedscheid looked pretty comfortable out there, which leads me to believe he can keep playing this way. The Irish are not going to "wow" you a lot this season, but they are going to win a lot of games.
BC is a very, very young team (the Eagles start three sophs and two freshmen) that is unlikely to make the NCAA tournament, but the underclassmen are a promising mix. They're good enough to be effective, but not good enough to turn pro early. That bodes well for the future of this program.
As for FIU, it was pretty cool to see young Richard Pitino strutting the sidelines for his first game as a head coach. Richard is much cooler on the bench than his old man. He'll need that level head until he gets this program off the ground.
But my main takeaway from Villanova is how much better 6-7 redshirt sophomore JayVaughn Pinkston looked. He has always battled his weight, a problem that was exacerbated when he was suspended from school his entire freshman year for getting into a fight at a fraternity party. Pinkston looks slimmer, agile and very much in control of his body. He had seven rebounds -- five on the offensive glass -- but the one place where he looked really bad was on the foul line, where made just 6-of-14 attempts. It will be hard for Jay Wright to play Pinkston at the end of games unless he fixes that.
The move worked largely because Mark Lyons, the 6-1 transfer from Xavier, took over the game, scoring 15 of his 17 points in the second half. Still, it's a little disconcerting that Arizona does not have a true, pass-first point guard. Jordin Mayes, a 6-2 junior, is the closest, but he comes off the bench. And yet, the Wildcats had 25 assists on 27 made baskets, so passing is not the issue. Like every other team in America, the Wildcats are going to have to figure some things out, but clearly the pieces are in place to make a run not just at a Pac 12 title but a national championship. That includes Kevin Parrom, the 6-6 senior who has been to hell and back and looks poised for a terrific final season in Tucson.
It was also good to see 6-6 senior Mike Bruesewitz back in action. Bruiser had suffered a nasty injury to his leg a few weeks ago in practice, but he looked great in his 13-minute stint, sinking all three of his shots (two from behind the arc). More important, Bruesewitz has grown back most of his shaggy red hair he had shaved off for charity last April.
Elsewhere, much-ballyhooed freshman Sam Dekker had a quiet debut (8 points, one rebound in 17 minutes off the bench). That's not very encouraging considering the game was such a blowout. The announcers mentioned frequently that Bo Ryan has concerns with Dekker's defense. At any rate, it won't matter for a while because 6-10 senior Jared Berggren is going to have an all-Big Ten type of season. He scored on a variety of offensive moves and sank all seven of his free throws en route to a game-high 19 points. Berggren also added eight rebounds and four blocks. Solid, solid beginning.
Manhattan played a 2-3 zone the entire game. Until the Cardinals prove they can consistently knock down jumpers, they better get used to that. The good news is they won big while getting minimum contribution from 6-5 sophomore swigman Wayne Blackshear (five points in 16 minutes) and 6-6 junior guard Luke Hancock (3-for-10 from the field). Those guys are going to become bigger factors as the season wears on. Starting guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith led the way scoring-wise for Louisville, but if you're a Cards fan, you have to be especially encouraged by the way forwards Chane Behanan and Montrezl Harrell and center Gorgui Dieng played together. Dieng in particular played a terrific, albeit understated, offensive game. He was limited to 20 minutes because of foul trouble, but he had two real nice assists to go along with nine points. It was a good win, but the Cardinals played sloppier than this score would indicate.
Syracuse, on the other hand, only tried four three-point attempts. The Orange's size, length and athleticism completely overwhelmed the Aztecs. It was quite the impressive display. Junior forward C.J. Fair (17 points, 7-for-15 shooting) showed off a vastly improved outside touch. Guards Brandon Triche and Michael Carter-Williams were brilliant in attacking the rim. I was surprised that heralded freshman center Dajuan Coleman, who started the game, only played nine minutes, but the Orange's frontline is so deep it hardly mattered. Like I said, it's only the opening weekend, but Syracuse was the best team I saw over these three days. There's a long, long way to go this season, and thank goodness for that.