Opening weekend insights, Champions Classic picks and more

Monday November 11th, 2013
UConn guard Shabazz Napier showed his potential as a Player of the Year in the AAC.
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Five Games I'm Psyched To See This Week

Michigan State vs. Kentucky, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. ESPN

People can call ESPN the Evil Empire all they want, but give the guys in Bristol credit for creating the Champions Classic as a way to close out their 24-hour marathon. I've already staked my lot by tapping the Spartans as my No. 1 team, but I do believe that Kentucky will have the best player on the floor in Julius Randle. It may not be enough, but it's a start.

Prediction: Michigan State 77, Kentucky 74

Kansas vs. Duke, Tuesday, 9:30 p.m., ESPN

You will notice below that I voted Kansas ahead of Duke in my preseason poll, but after watching each team play its season opener, I've concluded that Kansas might be the better team at the end of the season, but Duke is better right now. The Wiggins vs. Parker storyline is going to be tantalizing, but Parker is surrounded by older players. If this were late February, I could imagine Kansas 7-foot freshman Joel Embiid exploiting Duke's lack of a formidable big man, but the youngster isn't ready to command such a big stage just yet.

Duke 85, Kansas 78

Florida at Wisconsin, Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPN2

Billy Donovan has to be wondering what he was thinking by scheduling a true road game in Madison during the first week of the season. Having to go there with such a depleted roster won't make him feel any smarter.

Wisconsin 74, Florida 66

VCU at Virginia, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN2

We'll find out real quick if my bullishness about VCU is warranted. The Cavs have their best point guard, Malcolm Brogdon, back after he missed last season with an injury, but it's hard to imagine he's ready to handle Havoc so soon.

VCU 70, Virginia 64

Arizona at San Diego State, Thursday, 10 p.m., CBS Sports Network

The Aztecs were picked to finish fourth in the Mountain West after losing three starters from last season, but they do have one of the better homecourt advantages around the country. Will it be enough against Aaron Gordon and his mates? Not quite.

Arizona 73, San Diego State 69

A Few Minutes With ... Wichita State Coach Gregg Marshall

Q. What's your favorite memory from your team's run to the Final Four?

A. You might think it's when we beat Ohio State to get there, but the most memorable moment for me was beating Gonzaga to get to the Sweet 16. My family was somehow able to get through security, so they ran down to the court, and I got to embrace each one of them. Then as I was walking off the court, our pep band was in the same corner as our fans. They started playing the fight song and all our players and coaches and fans were dancing and celebrating. That was really cool.

Q. You had Louisville down by 12 points in the second half at the Final Four. How did it slip away?

A. I remember when we got up 12, Ron Baker had a wide-open three-pointer at the top of the key, but instead of passing it, he threw it inside to our big man, who [got fouled and] missed the front end of a one-and-one. Then their walk-on (Tim Henderson) got consecutive threes. So it went from possibly being a 15-point game to now, all of a sudden, we've got a game.

Q. How many times have you watched the game?

A. I have not watched that game. I remember a lot about it, though. It was a painful memory.

Q. It used to be that a mid-major coach who had success like you would be a near-automatic to take a "bigger" job. How come guys like you, Mark Few and Shaka Smart keep turning down those opportunities to stay where you are?

A. Qualify of life, good situation. I enjoy the type of people I work for. I never dreamt that the money I'm making now I could ever make at Wichita State. Same thing when I was at Winthrop. I remember when I was at Winthrop, John Calipari said to me, "What you've done is make Winthrop your 'next job.' That's what I did at UMass." That's what we've done at Wichita State as well.

Q. What's the best piece of advice you've ever gotten?

A. When I was at College of Charleston working for John Kresse, I interviewed with Greg White at Marshall. He asked, "What's wrong with you?" He wanted to know why I was still an assistant. He said to me, "You need to aspire for bigger and better. You can do this." It was great advice. Two years with him, and I was a Division I head coach.

Q. Your team was ranked 16th in the AP's preseason Top 25. Last year you guys weren't even in Others Receiving Votes at the start. Are you as good as you were last year?

A. Well, we've got to replace Carl Hall and Malcolm Armstead, two of the four seniors we graduated. Fred VanVleet will be able to lessen the blow from losing Malcolm, but the key is how we're going to be inside. Kadeem Coleby, Darius Carter and Chadrack Lufile have to combine to give us the output that Hall and Ehimen Orukpe gave us last year.

Q. It sounds like you've got lots of living creatures around your house. Tell me about it.

A. Well, I have a son who is a junior in high school and a daughter who's in eighth grade, but we also have four dogs and three cats. We're huge animal lovers. They require a lot of time and they have a lot of energy. All of them are rescue dogs. We also have some koi (Japanese goldfish) in the pond out back. My wife grew up on a farm so she takes care of 'em mostly, but I don't mind it, obviously. It's a full life.

THIS WEEK'S AP BALLOT

1. Michigan State
2. Kentucky
3. Kansas
4. Louisville
5. Duke
6. Arizona
7. Syracuse
8. Michigan
9. Ohio State
10. North Carolina
11. Oklahoma State
12. Florida
13. VCU
14. Memphis
15. Wichita State
16. Marquette
17. Baylor
18. Harvard
19. Creighton
20. Tennessee
21. Notre Dame
22. Iowa
23. Gonzaga
24. UConn
25. New Mexico

None of my top 25 lost on the opening weekend, so this is how my preseason ballot looked when I submitted it a week ago. I thought I was going out on a limb by not picking Kentucky as my top team, but Michigan State actually garnered 22 first-place votes among the writers compared to Kentucky's 27. By contrast, the Spartans received just three first-place votes in the coaches' poll, while the Wildcats got 16. Hmmm. (Somehow, Louisville got seven more first-place votes than Michigan State in the coaches' poll but ended up being ranked one spot behind at No. 3. Go figure.)

This being college basketball, where such matters get decided in the field of competition, this will all get hashed out one way or another, and we are all going to enjoy the show. But I just can't quite get to the point where I'm tapping a team that will start at least four freshmen as my championship pick. I realize Kentucky has special freshmen but so do Duke and Kansas. The difference is that, unlike UK's 2012 champs, this team does not have experienced returnees that have proved to be reliable. On the other hand, I've maintained that if I had to win a college game tomorrow, I would pick Julius Randle over any other freshman, and perhaps any other player not named Marcus Smart. So if UK does fall short of winning it all as I'm predicting, it is not going to fall short by much.

Elsewhere, it appears that my ballot bears an uncanny resemblance to the final results of the preseason poll. Don't worry, I will try not to let that happen again. Among teams that are ranked, the biggest discrepancies between me and my fellow voters are regarding Baylor (I voted 'em eight spots higher), Creighton (I voted 'em eight spots higher), Harvard (13 spots higher), Tennessee (six spots higher). My fellow voters ranked UCLA at No. 22, Oregon at No. 19 and Virginia at No. 24, and none of those appear on my ballot. But when you get below 12 or 15 on a preseason ballot, everything's a crapshoot anyway. Nobody is right and nobody is wrong. That's the beauty of this time of year.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide — from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Grant Wahl, Andy Staples and more — delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.