The NCAA Men’s Basketball season officially kicked off last night will a full slate of games, including a couple of blockbuster matchups from Madison Square Garden. After a long offseason, college basketball fans were welcomed back to another season yesterday with nineteen out of the top twenty-five in action! The headliner was the Championship Classic in New York City that saw the top four teams in the nation square off.
In the early game, the number four ranked Duke Blue Devils came from behind to knock off the number three ranked Kansas Jayhawks, 68-66. The Blue Devils trailed by as many as nine points in the second half and were led by Tre Jones, who scored fifteen points, as one of four guys in double digits for Duke. The Jayhawks were paced by national player of the year candidate Devin Dotson, who scored seventeen points, but had six costly turnovers in the loss.
In the late game, we had another marquee matchup, as the top-ranked Michigan State Spartans lost to the number two ranked Kentucky Wildcats 69-62. The Cats jumped out to a ten-point halftime lead and held on for the big win, and presumably will take over the number one ranking next week. Freshman Tyrese Maxey was the star of this one as he dropped twenty-six points, including a parking lot three late, that put the game on ice for Kentucky. Cassius Winston, my early pick for national player of the year, did his part in the losing effort for Sparty, as he scored twenty-one points, despite an abysmal 1-7 shooting from behind the arc.
The rest of the top twenty-five remained unscathed as St Mary’s snuck past Wisconsin in overtime, and Louisville knocked off Miami in Coral Gables. All other ranked teams had relatively easy wins in soft early-season matchups. For today’s pick, our first college basketball pick of the year, we will head to Syracuse, where the Orange host the Virginia Cavaliers.
The defending National Champion Virginia Cavaliers start their season out with a true conference road game against the Orange of Syracuse. If this sounds a little wonky for a defending National Champion to start out the season with a tough conference road game, you are right. This is the first time a defending champ has had to open their season with a conference road game since UCLA in 1968.
The Cavaliers lost three star players to the NBA draft after winning the national title last season but still have plenty of firepower returning this year. The Tony Bennet coached Cavs pride themselves on defense, and they have finished the last five seasons in the top ten of Kenpom’s defensive efficiency rankings.
For Syracuse, the Orange won twenty games last season, and snuck into the NCAA tournament, only to lose in the first round to the Baylor Bears. Jim Boeheim lost pretty much his entire team from last year, including four starters and superstar Tyus Battle. Syracuse rarely has to fully rebuild, but this year there are a lot of unknowns in upstate New York.
The Cavaliers are -3.5-point road favorites. The game total over-under is set at 125.5-points. Tipoff is scheduled for 6:00 PM PST from the Carrier Dome in Syracuse.
After losing star players like Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter, and Ty Jerome nobody would blame the Cavs for taking this season off after winning it all last season. But Tony Bennet has made a name for himself by building a true contender in Charlottesville that reloads, not rebuilds. Bennet has won at least twenty-nine games in five out of the last six seasons and has made the NCAA tournament in seven out of the last eight years. And this year should be no different, as the Cavs start out the season just outside of the top ten nationally, at eleventh.
Mamadi Diakite looks to be the star of this team after coming up big in the NCAA tournament last season. Many people thought that Diakite would join the trio of guys that left for the NBA, but he returned and should lead one of the best frontcourts in the nation. Jay Huff and Braxton Key join him in the frontcourt, and that will be the strength of this team that has perennially been led by strong guard play.
Casey Morsell is the guy that they hope can take over for Kyle Guy as the sharpshooting ball handler. Morsell is a top-100 recruit, and he fits the mold of a Toney Bennet guard to the T as he can shoot the deep ball and can lock people down on defense. He will be joined in the backcourt by JUCO transfer Tomas Woldetensae, who can also shoot the ball from deep. While most people aren’t picking Virginia to win the ACC this year, they have gone 33-3 in the league in the last two seasons, so the rest of the league knows they are going to win their fair share of games.
Syracuse seems to always find their way to the NCAA tournament each year. Every year, people come in doubting them, but by the time March swings around, there they are right in the thick of things in the tournament. This year, they come in with a lot of question marks as they lost four out of their five starters from last year’s bubble team. The key returner is Elijah Hughes, who went for fourteen points and four boards last season as a sophomore.
But Hughes won’t be able to do it alone and needs this talented incoming freshman class to start contributing right away. Boeheim can always recruit, and this year is no different as he brings in a couple of top-100 guys in Brycen Goodine and Joseph Girard III.
The guy I have my eye on is Girard III. This kid is a stone-cold killer from deep and averaged nearly fifty points a game as a senior in high school. No, that isn’t a typo, this guy broke the all-time New York state scoring record, averaging thirty-nine points a game in his high school career. We have come to expect elite guard play at Syracuse, and this guy even looks like Gerry McNamara. If the Orange are going to find a way back to the tournament, it will be because he finds a way to translate his epic high school scoring ability to the D-1 game.
What a great game to kick off the season. Usually, a game like this is saved for the conference season months from now. And to be honest, Jim Boeheim is wishing that was the case. I just don’t think this team will be able to get their act together fast enough to compete against a team like Virginia. The Orange are going to need big contributions from their young guys this year, on a completely rebuilt team, and playing an elite defense like Virginia is a really rough way to start that campaign.
Syracuse should be able to shoot from deep this season, but I think tonight, those shots fall flat. As a general rule, I love to back home underdogs in conference play, but in this one, I think that Virginia’s experience and defensive pressure will be plenty to handle the Orange on the road with the win and the cover. These teams match up again in January, and that one has a shot to be really competitive, but for now, Virginia rolls. Give me the Virginia Cavaliers laying -3.5-points tonight from the Carrier Dome!