Time to start the long march to March, not to mention April. The college basketball season begins Friday, from Manhattan in the morning to Honolulu at night.
Someone has to be first. That would be Vermont at Eastern Michigan and Kean College at Columbia, both tipping off at 11 a.m., hoping to draw in some local school groups at lunch time. And then come 154 more games. Here are nine to liven up the first day on the road to Houston.
North Carolina vs. Temple, at Annapolis, Md.
The Nos. 3 and 6 winningest programs in the annals of the sport – with 3,989 victories between them – haven’t played in 24 years. The top-ranked Tar Heels, with 88 percent of their scoring back, will have to make do awhile without star guard Marcus Paige and his broken hand. It’s usually not a good time to play North Carolina. The Tar Heels are 80-5 in their last 85 season openers.
Temple has three of its top six players back from a team that blossomed from 9-22 to 26-11 in one season. This is the Veterans Classic, which evokes memories of 1971, when private first class Fran Dunphy – better known now as the Temple coach – played on a traveling Army team that included a lieutenant named Mike Krzyzewski.
Siena at Duke.
You could call the Blue Devils defending national champions, but most of ‘em who won it are gone. So this is the first look at Mike Krzyzewski’s new wave, going against a team the Blue Devils have never met. Welcome to Cameron Indoor Stadium, Siena, and which stat would you like to hear first? Duke’s 116-game home winning streak against non-conference opponents, Krzyzewski’s 34-1 record in home openers, or the fact the Blue Devils roster has seven McDonald’s All-Americans?
Colorado vs. Iowa State, Sioux Falls, S.D.
The Steve Prohm era begins at Iowa State, with the Cyclones No. 7 ranking their highest in preseason polls in the history of the school. All-American Georges Niang will lead the way. Iowa State has won 17 consecutive openers, so losing to the Buffaloes would not be a good way for Prohm to help the fans get over the departure of Fred Hoiberg.
Stephen F. Austin at Baylor.
Quick now, what man won more games his first two seasons as a Division I coach than anyone else in history? Time’s up. That’d be Stephen F. Austin’s Brad Underwood, who clocks in at 61-8 after two years. He has four starters back from a 29-5 club, so the Lumberjacks should have No. 21 ranked Baylor’s full attention.
MIT at Harvard.
Maybe it’s not nationally significant, but you’ve got to love this Cambridge battle of high SAT scores. MIT put 10 – count ‘em 10 – on the all-conference academic team last year. That includes guard Ryan Frankel, a computer science and management science major who played 1047 of 1055 possible minutes last season. Harvard’s starting lineup includes two economics majors, an East Asian studies major, and two freshmen. Before 2012, the Crimson had not been to the NCAA Tournament since 1946, but now have gotten greedy about it and gone four consecutive years. There is a lot of firepower to replace, however.
UAB at Auburn.
UAB won’t be surprising anyone this year. The Blazers bring their entire lineup back from the team that shocked Iowa State in the NCAA Tournament, which apparently excited the university administers so much that they changed their minds about ditching football. But this will be no easy start to an encore, what with Bruce Pearl continuing his program building efforts at Auburn with Cinmeon Bowers, who led the SEC last season with 14 double-doubles. Pearl is 19-1 in openers.
Texas vs. Washington in Shanghai, China.
And zao cheng hun luan to you. That’s Mandarin for causing havoc, which is presumably what the Longhorns intend to do, now that Shaka Smart is on the bench. Smart’s era at Texas opens 12 time zones away from Austin against a young Washington team that had a big recruiting year and lists 80 percent of its roster freshmen or sophomores. First thing the Huskies and Longhorns need to learn is how to pack, since they both follow the China trip with the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas. That’s 17,000 air miles in three weeks.
McNeese State at LSU.
The curtain goes up on the Ben Simmons Show in Baton Rouge. Whatever his numbers, nobody will be surprised. Unless they’re low.
Gonzaga vs. Pittsburgh in Okinawa.
Gonzaga’s touted skyline will get a quick test from Pittsburgh, which returns four starters from a 19-15 team that missed the NCAA Tournament. That hasn’t happened very often on the Jamie Dixon watch. For more help, the Panthers have gone heavy on graduate students, bringing in degree holders from Brown, Coppin State and Richmond. They’ll be playing at a Marine Corps base. Semper fi.