College Basketball season is here! I’ll be back with a full season preview on Monday to celebrate the “official” tip off of the season and ESPN’s 24-hour college hoops marathon, but in the meantime 23 of the 25 ranked teams in the country are on the court tonight and there are several lines I love to help jump up out to an early season cushion.
Granted, none of those 23 teams in action are playing each other, so it isn’t all appointment television, but there are some quality games, highlighted by Colorado at Iowa State, Pitt vs. Gonzaga (in Japan), and North Carolina taking on Temple without All American point guard Marcus Paige. It is also a chance to see some of the nation’s best in their equivalent of ‘preseason games that count’ as Duke , Kentucky, Kansas and Maryland all take on teams outside of the Top 150 on their home floors.
We will preview the season as a whole on Monday, taking a look at the favorites as well as some dark horses that can make some noise (I gave you Notre Dame as my number one sleeper last year, and have a few teams I like this season as well). But in the meantime, as an appetizer, here is my favorite play on college hoops’ initial Friday slate…
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Today’s Free Picks:
Pitt Panthers vs. Gonzaga Bulldogs -3.5
This is my favorite line of the night. Aside from the uncertainty that accompanies having college kids play in a gym in Japan for their season opener, there is really only one question about the Zags this year. Can they fill the tremendous void that the graduations of Kevin Pangos (four year starting point guard) and Byron Wesley (perhaps their best defender and leader) in the backcourt? If they can plug in with reasonable success, this team could win a national title. Their frontcourt is THAT good and is leaps and bound the best in the country.
Start with National Player of the Year front-runner Kyle Wiltjer. The 6’10’’ stretch-three/four is one of te most versatile and skilled scorers in the nation. Then move under the basket to one of the best true centers in the country, Przemek Karnowski. The 7’1’’ big man has anchored the Zags inside for several seasons and should be able to wreak havoc once again.
But the true X-Factor is sophomore Domatas Sabonis. Yes, his Dad is famous. But this kid is going make his OWN name in 2015. He is my sleeper All-American pick and I think he has a chance to emerge as the absolute heart and soul of a Final Four team. His motor is unquestioned. You will not find a kid playing HARDER than Sabonis this season. But his skill is also great and improving every game.
This is a tough matchup for Pitt. They are a physical, Jamie Dixon-style team. But they lack the offensive punch and depth to match Gonzaga tonight, and unless their guards can create more turnovers than I expect to see, I don’t think they can score enough to keep up with Gonzaga. Pitt limped across the finish line last season and stumbled into a first-round NIT loss. It is tough to see them making inroads in a crowded ACC top half, and I think a similar fate is coming in 2016. A win tonight would be a HUGE prifle builder, but I think Gonzaga ends up covering this game with some room to spare. Don’t be surprised to see Pitt struggle to score 60 points. Offense has rarely been a problem for the Zags.
This game may not be pretty tonight, given the geography, newness of Gonzaga’s backcourt, and the Pitt style of play, but I do think there will be enough flow for Gonzaga to string together a few scoring spurts to get out in front and hold on to cover with room to spare.
*** (There is some talk Sabonis could sit tonight with back spasms – I STILL like the Zags as Pitt can’t score the ball efficiently, but keep an eye on the line as his status becomes more concrete)