College basketball season is officially here.
And while that’s great news (duh!), it also comes with a caveat: A sport which always has a weird, staggered start is especially confusing this year, with so many cancellations, alterations and adjustments, it will make your head spin.
Still, rather than hang our heads about the bizarre, confusing last few weeks, let’s turn our attention to the positive: We’re getting actual games. That is a good thing and should be celebrated.
Therefore, with so much going on in the sports world, and so much confusion, what do you you need to know heading into the first full week of the sport we all love so much?
Here is your Week One viewing guide:
Bad Boy Mowers Classic – Sioux Falls, South Dakota (Wednesday, November 25th-Friday, November 27th)
Field: West Virginia, Memphis, Saint Mary’s, Utah State, South Dakota State, Northern Iowa, VCU, Western Kentucky
Over the last few weeks you’ve probably seen various college basketball writers tweet that this season is some version of a “sh*t show,” “mess,” or “disaster,” and no tournament more signifies the bumpy start to college basketball season than this one. This eight-team event, which was once the “Battle 4 Atlantis” (played at, you know, Atlantis) has moved to South Dakota, and has seen six of the original eight teams drop out. An event which once had the likes of Duke, Ohio State, Creighton and Texas A&M, now has Saint Mary’s, Northern Iowa and the like.
Still, if you’re a college hoops junkie and diehard, this is actually a sneaky fun event for two reasons: It has two legitimately good teams (West Virginia and Memphis), and also a bunch of mid-majors you might need to know come March (Northern Iowa, Western Kentucky, Utah State etc.).
It all starts with West Virginia, the only ranked team in the field, and a sneaky Final Four contender. Bob Huggins has said publicly this is his best squad since the Mountaineers made the Final Four in 2010, and it’s hard to argue with him. They return the most ferocious one-two punch in college hoops down low (Oscar Tschiebwe and Derek Culver) and should get just enough perimeter scoring from guard Miles McBride. They open with South Dakota State on Wednesday at around 7 p.m. ET, while Memphis opens at 2 p.m. ET against a solid Saint Mary’s squad. We all know the Tigers’ deal at this point: Penny Hardaway wanted “all the smoke” last year and got it, but I truly believe he has a good team that should make the NCAA Tournament this season. They have one of the more talented starting five’s in college basketball with Boogie Ellis, Lester Quinones and DJ Jeffries being joined by transfer Landers Nolley and five-star prospect Moussa Cisse.
As for the rest of the field, it’s filled with just solid, across the board teams. Northern Iowa would have been a potential bubble team last year after finishing 25-6 (they actually completed their conference tournament) and return the Missouri Valley Player of the Year AJ Green, while South Dakota State returns all five starters from the Summit League regular season champ. Saint Mary’s is young and talented but rebuilding, and Utah State has a legit NBA prospect in center Neemis Queta. Speaking of “legit NBA prospects” Charles Bassey is still at Western Kentucky, and is a guy with a potential pro future.
This event will run Wednesday-Friday, so will give you something to do when you need to get away from your family over the holiday weekend.
Legends Classic – Mohegan Sun Casino, Uncasville, Connecticut (Wednesday, November 25th-Thursday, November 26th)
Field: Villanova, Arizona State, Boston College, Rhode Island
So this is the first event that will be played at Mohegan Sun Casino’s “Bubbleville,” which is just basically a series of games and events that will take place the first 10 days of the season. This is also another event that was altered by Covid earlier this week, when Baylor was forced to pull out because Scott Drew tested positive. Had Baylor (the preseason No. 2 team in the polls) played, it would have given us the best game of opening night (Arizona State-Baylor) and a potential Top 5 matchup in the championship game on Thursday between Villanova and the Bears.
Still, if you can get past Baylor not being here, we are still in line for what could be a super dynamic final between Villanova and Arizona State. The Sun Devils are a preseason Top 25 team thanks to the return of senior point guard Remy Martin and freshman Josh Christopher, while the Wildcats are a deep and talented squad that returns essentially all but one player off a 24-win squad from a year ago. Also, don’t sleep on Rhode Island’s ability to pull off a potential upset, with senior point guard Fatts Russell (great name) and a pair of big guys, Mahki and Mahkel Mitchell who transferred in from Maryland and are immediately eligible.
In terms of TV viewing, this event will also give you a nice, Covid-safe way to spend the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, with Villanova-Boston College tipping off at 7 p.m. ET Wednesday and Arizona State-Rhode Island right after. The championship game will be Friday night.
Bluegrass Classic – Lexington, Kentucky (Wednesday, November 25th-Sunday, November 29th)
Field: Kentucky, Richmond, Morehead State
This was another field that was altered when Detroit-Mercy pulled out, but if we’re being honest, this event is really about two things: Getting in a few early season games for Kentucky, and a matchup Sunday afternoon between the Wildcats and Richmond, which is a preseason Top 25 team.
The Wildcats will open the college hoops season on Wednesday, with a 6 p.m. tip against Morehead State, and it will be our first chance to get to see this version of the Wildcats, a group that has the size and depth to compete for another SEC title and Final Four berth. Richmond then plays Morehead on Friday, and the event is capped by a Kentucky-Richmond final on Sunday.
For those not familiar with the Spiders, they are the preseason favorites in the A-10, after returning every key player off last year’s 24-win team. They did take a hit in the preseason with the loss of guard Nick Sherod to a season-ending injury, but even with that said, still have three players (Blake Francis, Jacob Gilyard and Grant Golden) back who averaged double-figures last season.
The Spiders are for real, and they’ll have the chance to prove it on Sunday in Lexington.
Wade Houston Classic – Louisville, Kentucky (Wednesday November 25th-Friday, December 4th)
Field: Louisville, Seton Hall, Duquesne, UNC-Greensboro, Winthrop, Little Rock, Evansville, Prairie View A&M
Like Kentucky, Louisville put together it’s own MTE (multi-team event) and to its credit, brought a bunch of really good teams with them. Seton Hall is a perennial NCAA Tournament team, and UNC-Greensboro and Little Rock are two teams that I have in my preseason field of 68 as their conference winners. Duquesne is also a deep NCAA Tournament sleeper, as it returns all five starters off a solid team a season ago.
Still, the story here is Louisville and Seton Hall, the two biggest names in the event, and two teams that will get together on Friday at the KFC Yum Center (4:00 p.m. ET, ESPN). The Cardinals of course lost a ton off last year’s team but do welcome back a pair of really talented sophomores (David Johnson and Samuell Williamson) while Seton Hall enters the post-Myles Powell era with a squad that should again make the NCAA Tournament.
Beyond that, keep an eye out for the Cardinals’ game next Friday, December 4th against UNC-Greensboro. Greensboro is my preseason favorite in the SoCon, they return the league’s best player (guard Isaiah Miller) and to be blunt, this might be their only chance at a good win all season.
I’m not calling for an outright upset, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
San Diego State MTE – San Diego, California (Wednesday November 25th-Friday, November 27th)
Field: UCLA, San Diego State, Pepperdine, UC-Irvine
There’s an old saying that “politics makes strange bedfellows” and in the Covid era in college basketball, it’s the same. UCLA is a preseason Top 25 team, and under normal circumstances, there is no way that they would open on the road against a really good San Diego State team, that frankly could beat them. But with the Orlando bubble cancelled weeks ago, with UCLA smack dab in the middle of LA county (where there are some of the most restrictive Covid protocols in the country) and in need of games, they’re going to take a trip three hours South to face the Aztecs.
Point being, San Diego State-UCLA is actually one of the better games on Wednesday, so stay up late and watch the Bruins and Aztecs, which tips off at 10:30 ET on CBS Sports Network. Even after losing first round pick Malachi Flynn the Aztecs have plenty of offensive pop in the backcourt with Matthew Mitchell, Jordan Schakel and transfer Terrell Gomez, while the Bruins return basically everyone off last year’s Pac-12 runner up.
By the way, Pepperdine and UC-Irvine are pretty darn good in their own right, so be on upset alert when this event resumes on Friday.
Fort Myers Tip-Off – Fort Myers, Florida (Thursday, November 26th-Friday, November 27th)
Field: Gonzaga, Kansas, Auburn, Saint Joseph’s
It’s Thanksgiving Day, and while most of your family will be focused on an awful Lions game, be smart, sneak to a side room and flip on FOX. That’s because, in the single best game of the opening weekend, we get Kansas-Gonzaga, on Thanksgiving Day at 1 p.m. ET.
Quick side tangent here, but I want to give a quick shout out to Gonzaga here. No one has worked harder to get big, out of conference games than the Zags have. Admittedly, part of that is because they need them – which I get. BUT, after the Orlando bubble busted open a few weeks ago, Gonzaga was on the phone and got Kansas to agree to play on basically two day’s notice. It’s kind of incredible, honestly.
So yeah, enjoy Thanksgiving, and then on Friday, don’t forget, Gonzaga will take on Auburn as well.
It’s starting to feel like we might be creeping towards the end of the Bruce Pearl era at Auburn, and on the chance that is happening, let’s enjoy him all while we can.
Maui Invitational – Asheville, North Carolina (Monday, November 30th-Wednesday, December 3rd)
Field: North Carolina, Indiana, Texas, Alabama, Stanford, Providence College, UNLV, Davidson
I mean, where do I even begin: We’ve got the Maui Invitational, not in Maui but instead the North Carolina mountains. Which is bad enough (also, will Bill Walton still be wearing Hawaiian shirts, and talking about “Maui Jim” as if he’s an actual person or not). And two, it’s the week after Thanksgiving, which is damn blasphemous. There really is nothing better than getting out of work mid-day Wednesday, rolling home and catching the Maui Invitational title game, while relaxing, and sipping a beer knowing you don’t have to work for four days.
Still, these are unprecedented times and while the look and location will be different, I’ll say this: This is the single best field of any event in the early college hoops season. And to its credit, it’s the only one so far that has had no covid issues at all, and let’s hope it stays that way.
In terms of the teams themselves, well it’s obvious, right: North Carolina is coming off literally its worst season of any of our lifetime’s, but loaded up this off-season with the No. 2 recruiting class in the country (behind Kentucky). Indiana and Texas are both interestingly in the same spot, with a head coach that needs to start winning to appease their fan-bases, and could meet in the second round of this event. UNLV was a pleasant surprise in the Mountain West last year.
Still, want to know what I’m most intrigued by: Monday’s opener between Alabama and Stanford.
Nate Oats has a deep, crazy athletic and skilled squad, and one that could very well make the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Meanwhile, Stanford has its best team in years, headlined by freshman Ziaire Williams, a five-star who chose the Cardinal over North Carolina, Arizona and others.
It might not be in Maui, and Maui Jim ain’t walking through that door.
But this is still the best tournament of the opening few weeks.
Roman Legends Classic – Uncasville, Connecticut (Tuesday, December 1st-Thursday, December 4th)
Field: UConn, USC, BYU, Vanderbilt
Among the greatest inventions in human history, “day college basketball” has to be up there with the wheel and sliced bread. And a day after Maui kicks off at noon ET on Monday, Tuesday we get day basketball, back at “Bubbleville” at Mohegan Sun. And with a couple genuinely intriguing teams.
In the opener Mark Pope’s BYU squad will face off against USC, in a matchup between two of the best big guys in college hoops. Matt Haarms (of “was once recruited by Kentucky” fame) will play in his first marquee game for the Cougars, while USC is led by seven-foot freshman star Evan Mobley. While Mobley doesn’t get the hype of the other freshmen in this class, he’s a legit Top 5 pick, as a crazy athletic big man who can pretty much do it all.
Then in the nightcap (which actually tips off at 5 p.m.) it’s UConn versus Vanderbilt. UConn was one of the hottest teams in college basketball down the stretch last year (winning its final five and eight of its final 10) and bring back a legitimate NBA lottery prospect in guard James Bouknight. Remember, UConn is back in the Big East this season, and for the first time in a long time, feel like a legit NCAA Tournament team.
Then there is Vanderbilt… where the only real goal of this season should be “don’t finish in last place in the SEC… again.”
Champions Classic (Tuesday, December 1st)
Michigan State vs. Duke – Durham, North Carolina
Kansas vs. Kentucky – Indianapolis, Indiana
If you’ve made this far in the article, or are reading this article at all, it means you’re a college hoops junkie, and because of it, the Champions Classic needs no explanation. It’s the signature event of every college hoops season, one featuring four of the most prestigious programs anywhere in college basketball, and four that generally start the season with national title chances.
And while it won’t all be played under one roof this season, the event won’t be any less intriguing. For Duke, this will be their first big challenge, in a season where they come in with legitimate question marks. To be clear, I actually think Duke will be good, but they got a bunch of dudes, and trying to figure out who plays where and how it all fits will be interesting to watch. As for Michigan State, life without Cassius Winston begins, but Tom Izzo still has a loaded roster, with Aaron Henry, Joey Hauser and Joshua Langford, who is finally returning following an injury that has cost him the last season and a half of basketball.
Then, there is Kentucky-Kansas, and what else needs to be said? What’s especially interesting about this game specifically is this: By the time these two teams play, we should have a pretty good idea on just how good both are, with Kentucky playing Richmond the previous week, and Kansas facing Gonzaga.
Jimmy V Classic – Indianapolis, Indiana (Wednesday, December 2nd)
Field: Gonzaga, Illinois, Baylor, TBA?
Admittedly, the Jimmy V is a full week after the college hoops season starts, but screw it, we’re going to include it anyway. The question is who will be playing. Tennessee was set to play in this event, but following Rick Barnes’ positive Covid test, they are out. And with Baylor battling its own issues, it’s fair to wonder whether they will play.
At this point, I’m being told that the event is working on another opponent for Gonzaga, but truth be told, it wouldn’t surprise me if they just ended up playing Illinois in a one-off game. Regardless, that itself would be a fascinating matchup, as the Illini are – in my opinion – a legit Top 10, thanks to the return of Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn.
Regardless, we will end this article with the way we started it: Regardless of who plays and when, we’re getting real college basketball, starting tomorrow. And that is plenty to be thankful for.
Have a happy holiday everyone.