After college basketball’s most scandal-plagued offseason in years, something came along to provide a much-needed distraction from the discussion of bribery, corruption, subpoenas and wiretaps.
Some actual basketball.
Twenty-one preseason top 25 teams were in action Friday as the new college basketball season tipped off. Here are some snap judgments from opening night:
ARCHIE MILLER MAY NEED AWHILE TO REBUILD INDIANA
In Archie Miller’s fourth season at Dayton, he won 27 games despite a depleted roster with six scholarship players and nobody 6-6 or taller
Coaxing something positive out of his first Indiana team could be much, much tougher.
An 90-69 home loss to Indiana State was certainly a humbling debut for a coach expected to someday return Indiana to prominence. Few projected the Hoosiers to contend in the Big Ten this season after losing three of their top four scorers from last year’s middling team, but getting run out of Assembly Hall by an in-state foe hints that the gap separating Indiana from the league’s upper echelon may be more of a chasm.
Indiana State, projected to finish eighth in the Valley this season, was on pace to hang 100 on the Hoosiers until the final six minutes when it finally eased off the gas pedal. The Sycamores led by as many as 30 points and sank 17 of their first 22 threes, torrid shooting aided by an Indiana defense that appeared confused defending ball screens and was slow to rotate and close out on shooters.
This year’s Indiana team lacks the perimeter firepower to keep pace with an onslaught like that. DeRon Davis offered some interior scoring, but the cold-shooting, mistake-prone Hoosiers shot 4 of 18 from behind the arc, committed 19 turnovers and trailed by 20 or more the entire second half.
By the time the Assembly Hall crowd thinned out midway through the second half, one thing was clear: Miller will need Hoosiers fans to show patience with him. He may someday have Indiana consistently contending for Big Ten titles and Final Four berths, but the roster he inherited has too many holes for it to be right away. It’s going to take time.
FBI PROBE ADDS INTRIGUE, SUBTRACTS STAR POWER
Marquee games were so scarce during college basketball’s opening night that some of the most intrigue stemmed from seeing who didn’t play.
Schools held a handful of significant players out because of eligibility concerns. They didn’t want to risk vacating potential victories by using a player the NCAA later deems ineligible.
USC announced sophomore standout De’Anthony Melton will sit while the school investigates whether he or his family received money in the alleged bribery scheme involving former Trojans assistant Tony Bland. Melton is an NBA prospect whose defensive versatility was important but not irreplaceable for USC.
Oklahoma State will have a tougher time replacing Jeffrey Carroll, who it also will hold out pending the results of an internal investigation into allegations made in the FBI probe. Carroll, the Big 12’s leading returning scorer, would have been counted on to stabilize an Oklahoma State backcourt that already lost Jawun Evans and Phil Forte.
Alabama, Louisville and Auburn each will sit key players too. Among the schools named in the original FBI complaint, only Arizona and Miami seemingly are not holding out any healthy players due to the findings of the federal probe.
In addition to FBI-related absences, there were several other notable players who sat out Friday night.
Arizona suspended assistant coach Mark Phelps and senior forward Keanu Pinder for the Wildcats’ victory over Northern Arizona. Kansas freshman Billy Preston sat out on Friday after missing class and curfew. BYU guard Nick Emery withdrew from school and will miss the entire season amid allegations that he took extra benefits this offseason. And UCLA and Georgia Tech both played without key players due to either shoplifting or impermissible benefits allegations.
MICHAEL PORTER HAS A GOOD CHANCE TO PLAY IN THE NCAA TOURNAMENT
Ben Simmons’ LSU squad turned down an invitation to the NIT two years ago. Markelle Fultz’s Washington team was one of the Pac-12’s worst teams last season.
Many thought Missouri freshman Michael Porter might be the third straight future No. 1 pick in the NBA draft to fail to reach the NCAA tournament, but the Tigers’ performance Friday night suggests those fears may be premature.
Even though the heralded Porter sat out all but two minutes as a precaution after tweaking a hip injury, Missouri still cruised to a 74-59 victory over Iowa State. Forward Kevin Puryear came off the bench to deliver 17 points and 8 rebounds in relief of Porter and freshman Jeremiah Tilmon delivered an efficient 14 points as the Tigers maintained a double-digit lead from nearly start to finish.
That Missouri could dominate a power-conference foe without significant contributions from Porter is an encouraging development. Granted Iowa State is rebuilding after graduating the core of last year’s team, but this is still progress for a Tigers program that finished last in the SEC each of the past three seasons under former coach Kim Anderson.
Many of the top players from Anderson’s final squad are back and new coach Cuonzo Martin upgraded the program’s talent level with an outstanding recruiting class headlined by Porter, his younger brother and Tilmon. Missouri had the look of an improved team even without Porter. The Tigers should be NCAA tournament-caliber with him in the lineup.
THE TOP OF THIS YEAR’S FRESHMAN CLASS IS ELITE
Although Michael Porter’s college debut didn’t last long, college basketball’s other most prized freshmen each lived up to expectation.
Marvin Bagley set a Duke record for points by a freshman in the season opener, tallying 25 in a 97-68 rout of Elon. The versatile forward sank 12 of 18 shots, most notably a soaring two-handed dunk on the last possession of the first half to boost the Blue Devils’ lead to 20.
Nearly as impressive as Bagley was Arizona’s skilled big man DeAndre Ayton, who went for 19 points, 12 boards and 3 blocks in a 101-67 demolition of Northern Arizona. Long, athletic Texas center Mohamed Bamba also produced some fine moments, erupting for 15 points, 8 rebounds and 4 blocks in a 105-59 drubbing of Northwestern State.
Anointing any player based on one game against sub-standard competition is foolish, but these four talented big men should be fun to watch all season. They should stage a four-way battle to see who the No. 1 pick in next year’s NBA draft will be.
TEXAS A&M CAN CONTEND FOR THE SEC TITLE
Its starting point guard was serving a four-game suspension because of an offseason DUI. Its NBA-bound big man was also unavailable due to a season-opening suspension. Its remaining players opened the game with a hail of rushed shots and sloppy turnovers.
Texas A&M certainly didn’t appear poised for success against 11th-ranked West Virginia’s vaunted full-court press, yet … Aggies 88, Mountaineers 65.
There were a lot of reasons for Texas A&M’s turnaround, none bigger than the play of juniors D.J. Hogg, Admon Gilder and Tyler Davis. Hogg scored 16 first-half points and served as a stabilizing presence for the Aggies, Gilder nearly notched a triple-double and appeared more comfortable making decisions with the ball in his hands than at any point last season and Davis showed all-SEC potential in bullying the Mountaineers in the paint with 23 points and 13 boards.
Billy Kennedy’s decision to switch to a zone defense midway through the first half was also key as West Virginia lost its offensive rhythm and never regained it. When the Mountaineers aren’t forcing turnovers or dominating the glass, they can look bad, and Texas A&M made them look bad for long stretches of the second half.
Expectations were modest for Texas A&M entering the season despite a vaunted junior class, the return of potential lottery pick Robert Williams and the eligibility of point guard J.J. Caldwell. The memory of the Aggies struggling with turnovers last season and badly underachieving played a role, as did the early suspensions to a handful of key players.
One dominant win doesn’t erase those concerns, but it’s certainly an encouraging sign. Without Williams and Caldwell, Texas A&M was still good enough to crush West Virginia. With them, the Aggies might be good enough to hang with Kentucky and Florida.
PITTSBURGH WILL BE BY FAR THE ACC’S WORST TEAM
Remember when Pittsburgh supporters were grumbling that their program had plateaued under Jamie Dixon? That Dixon could get the Panthers to the NCAA tournament but he couldn’t build a Final Four contender?
How times have changed since then.
Merely making the NCAA tournament would no doubt satisfy Pittsburgh fans now given the way the program has slipped under new coach Kevin Stallings. The Panthers finished 4-14 in the ACC in Stallings’ debut season and endured a slew of offseason defections, leaving them with zero returning starters and two returning scholarship players.
A season-opening 71-62 loss to Navy on Friday night reinforced just how tough things are going to be this season for a Pittsburgh team projected to be the ACC’s worst team this season. The Midshipmen are improved under coach Ed DeChellis, but they lost 16 games last season and they hadn’t beaten a power-conference opponent this century.
Pittsburgh missed its first 14 field goal attempts after halftime, enabling Navy to build a double-digit lead. The Panthers closed as close as four points, but they never regained the lead.
“We have a slew of things to work on,” Stallings said.
That’s an understatement. At this point, even winning a couple league games would be quite an accomplishment.
SOMEHOW, CAL MAY BE WORSE THAN WE THOUGHT
No one was under any illusions that Cal would be good this season after almost every rotation player graduated or defected last spring, but the season-opening loss the Bears sustained was eye-opening nonetheless.
They fell 74-66 to UC Riverside in a game they once trailed by 23 points.
To put into perspective how dreadful a loss this is, consider that UC Riverside is projected to finish eighth in the nine-team Big West. The Highlanders have one winning season in program history since moving to Division I and they’ve never finished higher than 196th in the KenPom rankings.
With a dearth of guards who can create offense, Cal struggled mightily to score. The Bears needed a late surge just to shoot 30.6 percent from the field. Guard Don Coleman was one of two Bears who managed to score in double figures, but he needed 28 shots to score 32 points.
While the duo of Kingsley Okoroh and Kentucky transfer Marcus Lee form a solid starting frontcourt, Cal’s backcourt is unproven and perhaps not talented enough. The Bears need better guard play the rest of the season if they’re going to exceed expectations — or even win a likely battle with Washington State to avoid last place in the Pac-12.
KENTUCKY NEEDS TO RELY ON DEFENSE TO AVOID A BUMPY START
For a few fleeting seconds, fifth-ranked Kentucky looked like it might be in trouble. A freshman-heavy Wildcats team with only one rotation player back from last season trailed upstart Utah Valley by 12 points less than a minute into the second half.
How Kentucky recovered to grind out a 73-63 victory was very instructive about what the strength of this year’s Wildcats may be. They did it with defense — zone defense no less.
John Calipari despises zone so much he’s gone entire seasons without playing it, but he was smart enough to recognize that it might be an effective weapon for a team with length at every position. When the Wildcats went to it early in the second half, they launched an 18-0 game-changing surge by creating a few deflections and parlaying those turnovers into transition points.
Freshmen Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander combined for eight of Kentucky’s 11 steals. Fellow freshmen Hamidou Diallo turned one of them into a soaring windmill dunk, the most impressive bucket in his 18-point debut.
With no dominant point guard, minimal big-game experience and a dearth of proven outside shooters, Kentucky will probably endure a bumpier-than-usual November and December as its young players adapt to the challenges of the college game. Tuesday’s matchup with experience-laden Kansas will be a tough one for the Wildcats. Heck, even Sunday’s home game against Vermont will be a challenge.
For the Wildcats to get to SEC play with only a couple losses, they’ll need to keep turning defense into offense. Some games that might be man-to-man. Other games that might mean zone. Whatever the formula, the important thing is that it fuels the Wildcats’ lethal transition attack.