Who’s ready for college basketball?
Opening days and weeks are kind of tricky. Major League Baseball has it easy — the end of winter has everyone champing at the bit to get outside, and football signals the natural end of summer, even though Labor Day weekend technically isn’t during the Autumnal Equinox.
But the winter sports provide a challenge. The NHL and NBA begin their marathons in October when many minds (myself included this year) are still on baseball playoffs. College hoops has been inching closer over the last couple of decades: in 2000 Georgetown and Maryland tipped off their seasons Nov. 17 and 20, respectively, while this year they will have played two games by Nov. 9.
Let the record show: I love college basketball.
I’ve enjoyed covering Men’s Elite Eights and Women’s Final Fours and even wrote lyrics to the “CBS College Basketball” theme that plays throughout March (Ed. Note: Confirmed). I bask in the wall-to-wall basketball that is Conference Tournament week, and enjoy February as a month where schools get in position to be in position.
Nothing fills the football void better than conference play in January, when you discover how good your team really is or realize it was a byproduct of a soft nonconference schedule. I’m even all-in on December’s intersectional and nonconference affairs, as well as the holiday tournaments.
But early November is where I just have to say, “Please.”
Have you ever eaten eggs Benedict? Savored the poached eggs with hollandaise and ham (or, if you’re adventurous, try the Eggs Norwegian (Alaskan?) with smoked salmon instead)? Imagine you’re eating them one morning for breakfast with incredibly crispy home fries. And then somebody hands you a cheeseburger.
For those of us who cover, follow and love college football, that’s what these early men’s and women’s college basketball games are like.
It’s not that we don’t love college hoops — we do — but give us a chance to enjoy football’s most meaningful month of the regular season (some schools have four games-a third of their regular season-remaining) before giving us double helpings of early-season basketball. They just released the first College Football Playoff rankings this week!
It’s akin to college football starting its regular season in February. Is it too much to ask for a little synergy between the NCAA’s two most popular sports?
November basketball at its best is rather nebulous. Many matchups are tuneups for conference play as well as stocking stuffers, and there’s nothing wrong with Georgetown-Central Arkansas or Maryland-Oakland. Other showdowns receive the natural spotlight, but you know in March everyone will be saying how the “November” Michigan State team that lost to Kentucky is nothing like the Spartans they’re trying to seed higher than come Selection Sunday.
That said, I’m watching.
I’m figuring out Maryland’s rookie rotation and wondering if Georgetown’s commitment to defense is practical or still in theory. I’m curious to see how Virginia performs now that “next year” happened last spring and what sort of buzz a Buzz Williams-less Virginia Tech will generate.
Will the Georges be relevant in the Atlantic 10 Race? Will VCU/Richmond become the showdown to spotlight? Can American or Navy contend in the Patriot League? And will Howard’s streak of nonwinning seasons continue (if their loss to Washington Adventist tells us anything, another season of discontent has already begun for the Bison).
In the immortal lyrics of yours truly, “CBS College Basketball — who do you think will win? Let’s tip off!” (Ed. Note: See?)
Cruising the Commonwealth
Virginia defends its National Championship with a different cast, as Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter have moved on to the NBA.
Even without their top three scorers from last year the Cavaliers are ranked No. 11 to start the new season. The question will be, can Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key make the transition from supporting roles to lead players? They’ll have help in the form of highly-touted freshman Casey Morsell.
Virginia Tech began the post-Buzz Williams era Tuesday with a win at Clemson (I’m assuming the Tiger faithful were more focused on being No. 5 in the first College Football Playoff rankings), a game in which freshman Landers Nolley II scored 30 points. As a guy who never really got behind the “conference games in December” theory, you can only imagine how I feel about league play in November.
The Two Georges
George Mason enters its fifth year under head coach Dave Paulsen, and the Patriots have slowly moved up the Atlantic 10 ladder in his tenure (from 12th to 7th to tying for 5th to sole possession of 5th). Otis Livingston II is gone, but sophomore Jamal Hartwell II keeps the suffix tradition alive in Fairfax. He also scored 12 points in the season-opening win against Navy.
George Washington has a new coach in Jamion Christian, who led Mount St. Mary’s to a pair of NCAA Tournament berths over six seasons at the school before spending last winter coaching Siena. When the Colonials are good, there’s no better place to catch a game inside the beltway than the tightly packed bandbox that is GW’s Smith Center. Hopefully those days will come sooner rather than later.
The True Commonwealth Clash
Say what you will about Virginia-Virginia Tech, that matchup has nothing on VCU-Richmond, two schools that share a city as well as plenty of disregard.
The Rams begin the year ranked 25th nationally and return just about everybody from last year’s 25-win team that made the NCAA Tournament, while the Spiders are dealing with consecutive 20-loss seasons. Winchester, Virginia’s Grant Golden was the bright spot last winter and the junior looks to be the primary weapon again this season.
Patriot League Primer
American and Navy began their seasons on the road this week, with the hopes a little higher in D.C. than in Annapolis.
The Eagles were picked to finish third in the Patriot League, while the Midshipmen are projected to finish ninth. AU also boasts the Preseason Conference Player of the Year in Sa’eed Nelson (19 points and 5 assists per game last winter) while also enjoying the addition of Minnesota transfer Jamir Harris (20 points in the season-opening loss at Siena).
The Mids are two years removed from a 20-win season but need to replace two starters from last year, including leading scorer George Kiernan. But no matter where one stands in November, come January everyone will be chasing preseason Patriot League favorite and defending conference champ Colgate.
Somehow these previews always end with the sad-sack, perpetually struggling Bison.
The program hasn’t had a winning season since 2002, and twice finished right at .500 during head coach Kevin Nickelberry’s nine-year tenure. They had the nation’s leading scorer in James Daniel III on campus and still found a way to lose 20 games. Nickelberry’s final team finished with a flourish, winning its last four regular season games, and needed to win once in the MEAC Tournament to secure a winning mark. Which they did. Only to accept a bid in the CBI Tournament and lose at Coastal Carolina to wrap up the year 17-17.
Former DeMatha Catholic star and Duke captain Kenny Blakeney takes over a program that lost leading scorer R.J. Cole to transfer, but there is talent in the form of senior Charles Williams. The forward scored a team-high 19 points in Wednesday’s aforementioned loss to NAIA Division II Washington Adventist.
The long road to March is just underway in more ways than one.