College Basketball Opening Weekend: Five Ranked Teams On Upset Alert
College Basketball Opening Weekend: Five Ranked Teams On Upset Alert
The only sure thing about a preseason poll is that it will be proven wrong by top teams falling early. No sport holds truer to that axiom than college basketball, which kicks off this weekend.
The opening weekend of college basketball is filled with big matchups between teams with aspirations of deep NCAA Tournament runs in March. It all starts with the first steps, which many teams will take this weekend.
Some of the tip-off games will be early tests for some highly ranked teams. Whenever a team tests themselves like this, there’s always the chance that they come up short. Every team has to go through some growing pains, even the great ones, and sometimes teams can jump on them before they get up to speed and deal them an early defeat.
So now we take a look at the matchups of the weekend and count down the ranked teams that should be on the lookout for their first loss. Are the San Diego State Aztecs for real or a flash in the pan? Can the Syracuse Orange use their length and trademark zone defense to start quick? How will international travel affect the Michigan State Spartans? Who will step up for a suddenly depleted Florida Gators lineup? Is John Calipari just going to reload the Kentucky Wildcats…again?
So without further ado, we count down the top five ranked teams who could see their first loss come on opening night, ranked by how big an upset it would be.
5. No. 20 San Diego State Aztecs
The Aztecs will play the Syracuse Orange in a matchup of Top 25 teams on the deck of the USS Midway. The game was postponed from Friday to Sunday due to weather conditions, but this should still be one of the more intriguing matchups of the weekend.
The Aztecs are being disregarded this year by some after their great run last season through the Mountain West Conference. The team loses star Kawhi Leonard to the NBA, and there are those that suggest that head coach Steve Fisher’s great coaching job last season had more to do with the talent on the team and that it will not be a feat easily repeated this year.
They also have a tough-as-nails Syracuse defense to contend with to start their season. Jim Boeheim brings his patented 2-3 zone with the incredible length of the Orange roster. Things get even more difficult for SDSU with the conditions of the game; being played outdoors, in the elements, with a breeze and an atypical shooting background could all make for a difficult time for the Aztecs jump-shooters.
Syracuse will also be unleashing Michael Carter-Williams, a 6-foot-6 playmaker in the back court that buried on the bench as a freshman last year. He’ll get his opportunity this season and could be a force in this game.
4. No. 9 Syracuse Orange
That isn’t to say that the Aztecs won’t have a shot in this game to stun Syracuse.
San Diego State returns the reigning Mountain West Conference Player of the Year, Jamaal Franklin, who will be asked to lead this team. He averaged 17 points and eight rebounds per game last year, but routinely stepped up his game in big moments, like in a 24-point, 10-rebound performance in a thrilling 69-67 win over the then-No. 12 UNLV Rebels.
Joining Franklin will be the underrated Chase Tapley, who was a sharpshooter for the Aztecs last season. He shot 43 percent from behind the three-point line last year and could be just the answer to loosen up that vaunted Syracuse zone. Steve Fisher will also look to incorporate a pair of transfers, Dwayne Polee II (Saint John’s) and J.J. O’Brien (Utah), along with freshman Winston Shepard, the No. 21 overall recruit from the 2012 recruiting class, into the rotation.
The Aztecs are a dangerous team, playing to prove that they are the real deal. Nothing would bring them validation quicker than knocking off the No. 9 Syracuse Orange. Cuse will have to be on their game despite playing on the other side of the country in a non-typical environment to avoid the early upset.
3. No. 14 Michigan State Spartans
Tom Izzo is feeling very confident about his team for the 2012-2013 season. He has good reason to be, after all, as he returns four of his top six scorers from last season’s team which won the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles and reached the Sweet 16.
But to start the season, he has to take his team across the Atlantic Ocean to play the first game between Division I teams held in Europe. The game will be played at Ramstein Air Base in Kaiserslautern, Germany, against the Connecticut Huskies, who are playing with house money.
The Huskies enter this season without the usual yoke of expectations. They have no opportunity to play in the postseason after failing to meet NCAA academic standards, they are down five players who left the program after the postseason ban was announced, and they will be playing without their Hall of Fame head coach Jim Calhoun, who retired in September. The Huskies are still confident they have enough on the roster to have a successful season, though.
The team is also playing for their new head coach’s job. Kevin Ollie, hand-picked by Calhoun to succeed him, has been an assistant at UConn since 2010, but hasn’t been a head coach on any level before. Because of that, the school decided to give him just a one-year contract so he could “prove himself.” The players are upset about it and will be playing to see Ollie get extended.
For a few of the Huskies, this game will have a little extra significance as well. Junior Niels Giffey and freshman Leon Tolksdorf are from Berlin and junior Enosch Wolf comes from Goettingen. The three German-born Huskies will be playing their first college basketball game in front of their home country, which could give them a little extra juice.
In short, the Huskies have all kinds of reasons to play the upset role on Friday: nobody believes in them, they’re playing for their coach who they like, and it’s a homecoming of sorts for some of the team. If the Spartans aren’t careful, they’ll be flying back home with their first loss as carry-on.
2. No. 10 Florida Gators
The Florida Gators are looking to build off their success of last season, starting with a season-opening game against the Georgetown Hoyas on the deck of the USS Bataan, an amphibious assault ship.
They have reason to be optimistic. The Gators have won 21 consecutive season openers, but this one presents some unique challenges. For starters, the weather will become a factor in this outdoors contest, as temperatures are expected to dip down into the 50s with wind picking up. The chance of condensation on the deck could also create a slick surface for the slippery conditions on the court.
On top of that, Florida keeps losing players. Last month, forward Cody Larson unexpectedly left the program. Then earlier this week, swingman Casey Prather suffered his second concussion in nine days, which makes him unavailable for this game. Yesterday, Billy Donovan suspended starting point guard Scottie Wilbekin indefinitely for an undisclosed reason. All these missing players means that Florida will take five returning players and four freshman into Friday’s showdown with Georgetown.
As for the Hoyas, they are expected to take a step back this year after losing seniors Jason Clark and Henry Sims, along with the early departing junior Hollis Thompson. They were the team’s leading scorers last year, accounting for 56 percent of the Hoyas’ offensive output. Georgetown coach John Thompson III won’t let any of that keep his team from playing their best, however.
With key contributors missing for Florida, the overlooked Hoyas might be able to pull off a shocker on the slippery deck of the USS Bataan.
1. No. 3 Kentucky Wildcats
Kentucky will play their first real game since winning last season’s national championship, but they won’t have to worry about a hangover from that experience because the team is almost entirely new this season.
The Wildcats lose six players from their national title run last season who were all picked in the first two rounds of last season’s NBA Draft. Replacing that amount of talent and 92 percent of last year’s offense will be a tall task, but John Calipari has brought in another top-notch recruiting class to reload his bench, led by 6-foot-10 forward Nerlens Noel, considered the nation’s top recruit.
It will take time to bring all those young guys up to speed, Calipari admits, and doesn’t think his team will be playing at its full capabilities yet in game one. That opens the door for the Maryland Terrapins to come through with a huge upset for second-year head coach Mark Turgeon.
The Terps return several key players, including 7-foot-1 sophomore center Alex Len, 6-8 senior forward James Padgett, and guards Pe’Shon Howard and Nick Faust, who will rely on their character building season last year to come back and find more success this season.
The Terrapins recognize this game as a huge opportunity to make a statement against Kentucky, who will end up being one of the best teams in the country by season’s end. Getting in against them before they are up and running would be a huge win for the Terps, who are frantically trying to stake their claim in the basketball-heavy ACC conference.
If Kentucky’s youth is exposed in their first game, Calipari will be forced to turn up the maturation process in a hurry following a huge upset loss.