The first top-25 upset, in California...a four-overtimer between neighbors in Georgia...a game-winning shot in Alabama by a broken-hearted young man who lost his father the day before...a powerful statement from Gonzaga...honoring a legendary coach in the District of Columbia with a white towel...a triumph in Michigan for a player by just stepping on the court... exciting and important new faces in Virginia and North Carolina and Kentucky and Texas and — well, gobs of places.
College basketball’s heart is beating again, and the first 48 hours were a reminder of why it was missed. On Thanksgiving Day, six games were decided in the final seven seconds of regulation, and two more in overtime. Welcome back.
We already know the theme of 2020-21: A Season Like None Other. There was excitement the first days, but few fans. Genuine emotion, but most of the noise had to be piped in artificially. There was the optimism for the future that is always part of opening the season. But there was also the shadow of present reality — 37 games postponed or canceled by virus concerns. Those won’t be the last. This season will hop from test result to test result.
But even in a mask and glass face shield, with cutouts filling the courtside seats, the season began rich in storylines, as seasons always do. Let us take note of some of the messages from the first 48 hours, with the fragile promise — everything in these uncertain days is fragile -— of many more.
1. Yeah, Gonzaga might be that good again.
A year ago, the Zags led the nation scoring with six players averaging in double figures. Four of those guys are gone. Reload the cannon. The new bunch shot 64.5 percent and put up 102 points against Kansas in the season’s first bout of heavyweights. It wasn’t just holdovers Drew Timme with his 25 points and Corey Kispert with his 23, but also freshman Jalen Suggs, scoring 17 of his 24 in the second half to help put away the Jayhawks by 102-90. Kansas had not allowed 100 points in regulation in nearly 31 years.
“There’s a lot more games like this coming across the season,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. Including for his own team. Next week, the Zags will face both No. 15 West Virginia and No. 2 Baylor, if the virus allows.
2. Villanova has a new go-to Wildcat.
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl propped up Villanova with a big second half as the Wildcats rallied from nine points down to beat stubborn Boston College. Then he scored 28 as they whipped Arizona State to take the Empire Classic. The Big East freshman of the year might be turning into a sophomore star. “We’re definitely a different team when Jeremiah’s on the floor,” coach Jay Wright said.
After pushing Villanova, Boston College knocked off Rhode Island, who nearly upset Arizona State. In other words, the team tabbed to finish next to last in the ACC didn’t look like it. “The people who picked us 14th in the ACC needed to watch the game,” BC coach Jim Christian said.
3. The value of new blood, in so many places.
Gonzaga. Suggs will be of major assistance in keeping the Zags in the upper crust.
Virginia. The defense was on customary display in the 89-54 plastering of Towson, but notice, too, that transfers Sam Hauser (Marquette) and Trey Murphy III (Rice) combined to shoot 14-for-18, and 9-for-11 in 3-pointers. Oh, my. The Cavaliers were hard to beat last season when they were 348th in the nation in scoring, 312th in 3-point shooting, and topped 65 points only twice. Now they’re bombing away and pushing 90? “I think they’ve got a lot more shooting than they’ve had,” said Towson coach Pat Skerry, which rhymes with scary, which is what Virginia will be if it defends like normal, and scores more.
That’s our story and we’re sticking to it. Even if on the third day of the season, Hauser and Murphy would go 0-for-4 from the 3-point line as the Cavaliers were upset 61-60 by San Francisco.
Kentucky. Every point in the 81-45 breeze past Morehead State were scored by the next Wildcat wave. “I’m going to have to be as positive and as patient as I’ve ever been,” John Calipari said of trying to meld 10 new players.
North Carolina. Roy Williams started a freshman backcourt for the first time in 12 years and Caleb Love and RJ Davis scored 17 and 11 in the 79-60 win over Charleston. Day’Ron Sharpe came off the bench for 13 more freshman points.
Oklahoma State. Freshman Cade Cunningham started tentatively but quickly found his place and went for 21 points and 10 rebounds in the Cowboys’ 75-68 win over UT Arlington, confirming what all the fuss has been about.
Nebraska. The Cornhuskers crushed McNeese 102-55 with six players scoring in double figures. None were in a Nebraska uniform last season. Neither were the five top scorers in a tough 69-66 loss to Nevada. If 1-1 doesn’t sound great, consider how the Cornhuskers started last season; dropping their first two games against UC Riverside by 19 points and Southern Utah.
Purdue. Another tree has grown in the forest at Big Man U. With 7-3 Matt Haarms transferred out, 7-4 freshman Zach Edey has moved in, scoring 36 points in his first 37 minutes as the Boilermakers split with Liberty and Clemson. Between Haarms, Isaac Haas, A.J. Hammons and now Edet, Purdue’s roster has included a 7-footer for nine consecutive seasons.
Texas Tech. The Red Raiders blew past Northwestern State 101-58, with 20 points from Georgetown arrival Mac McClung and a double-double from VCU transfer Marcus Santos-Silva.
Michigan. The Wolverines defeated Bowling Green 96-82 with 19 points from Wake Forest transfer Chaundee Brown Jr. and 16 points with eight assists from Columbia transfer Mike Smith. “Coach (Juwan) Howard recruited us for a reason,” Brown said.
Bradley. On Wednesday, Terry Nolan Jr. beat Toledo with a driving layup with 0.8 seconds left. He’s a George Washington transfer who had not played in 20 months. On Thursday, he hit a basket with 12 seconds left to give the Braves the lead against Xavier. After the Musketeers scored to go in front 51-50, Nolan was fouled at 0.4 and had a chance to win another game in the final second, this from the free throw line. He missed. The game giveth and the game taketh away. Bradly has played two games decided by three points, in the last second.
4. San Diego State hasn’t gone anywhere.
The Aztecs lost three starters, including All-American Malachi Flynn, from a 30-2 team. But they’re still fine — and don’t the UCLA Bruins now know it. San Diego State turned to defense to shut down No. 22 UCLA 73-58. “Coach (Steve) Fisher said a long time ago, we’re not a one-hit wonder,” said Brian Dutcher, Fisher’s heir. UCLA was down two injured players, but still. “Total regression,” coach Mick Cronin called it.
By the way, it was nearly a very bad opening night for the Pac-12. UCLA lost, while Arizona State had to rally to get past Rhode Island, USC barely escaped Cal Baptist in overtime and Washington State had to come from eight down in the second half to beat Texas Southern.
5. Georgia State is a trouble-making, and history-making, next-door neighbor.
The Panthers were outscored 41-21 from the line in a free throw-a-thon, but put four players in double figures and outlasted Georgia Tech in four overtimes 123-120. The schools are separated by only three miles but hadn’t played in 12 years. Georgia State had lost 14 in a row to the Yellow Jackets and had never beaten anyone who was a sitting member of the ACC.
6. The beast of Iowa is . . . Drake?.
The Bulldogs hadn’t won at Kansas State since 1923. They have now, 80-70, and while we’re on the subject of Drake, the team’s game notes make it very clear the 44 victories the past two seasons are the most of any Division I program in the state of Iowa. So take that, Hawkeyes. Odd thing about the Drake roster. Four starters and a top reserve grew up within four miles of each other in an area in northwestern Indiana and northeastern Illinois called The Region. Well, it’s worked before. Willie McCarter and Dolph Pulliam were Region products, and were captains on the 1969 Drake Final Four team.
7. There was a powerful message in Patrick Ewing’s white towel.
There it sat on his right shoulder during Georgetown’s win over UMBC, a quiet and poignant honor of his late old coach, John Thompson.
8. The most emotional shot of the first 48 hours may have a game-winner for South Alabama.
Michael Flowers’ 3-pointer in the final seconds pushed the Jaguars past Florida Atlantic 68-66. Flowers scored 20 points the day after his father died after a long fight with cancer. “I’ve been through a lot the last couple of months,” he said afterward. “But so has everybody else in the world.”
9. This was not a good look for the ACC.
St, Francis (Pa.) was 0-29 against Pittsburgh. The Red Flash had not beaten a current ACC member since 1975. Scratch all that, after they forced 23 turnovers, built a 20-point lead and whipped the Panthers 80-70.
10. Happy anniversary, Butler streak.
Aaron Thompson’s 21 points led the Bulldogs past Western Michigan 66-62 for their 59th consecutive victory at home over a non-conference opponent. That’s the longest streak in the nation because 364 days before — almost one year to the day — Duke was shocked by Stephen F. Austin in Durham.
11. Western Kentucky is a handful inside.
How do you win a game when you’re outscored by 42 points from the 3-point line? Mash the opponent with a 44-12 gap of points in the paint. That’s how the Hilltoppers held off Northern Iowa 93-87. The next day they got 21 points, 14 rebounds and seven blocks from center Charles Bassey and outmuscled Memphis’s vaunted defense 75-69.
12. Ben Howland has had better starts.
Howland’s Mississippi State team produced only 42 points in a loss to Clemson, then gave up 19 3-pointers in a defeat by Liberty. That left the Bulldogs 0-2 for the first time in 53 years.
13. The persistence of a Spartan.
Two seasons ago, Joshua Langford was predicted to be a key player for Michigan State. A foot injury wiped out most of the season. He tried to get back last year, hurt his foot again and didn’t play a minute. Wednesday, 23 months after his last game, he scored 10 points for the Spartans in their win over Eastern Michigan. “I’m just grateful to be back out there,” he said.
He felt blessed that college basketball was back. Didn’t everyone?