Today is the big day: The Carrier Classic. It's exciting. It's fun. It's going to be one of the better spectacles in college hoops history. But for various reasons I discussed on the podcast yesterday, it not be the best-played basketball game of all-time.
Fortunately, there is far more to this opening Friday of basketball. This is really the first day of the season, and this weekend is the first time we get to see one of those familiar all-day smatterings of the sport.
An aircraft carrier's awfully cool, but actual basketball? On Saturday and Sunday? The season is back, folks, and that might be the most exciting part of all. Here's an extended primer on the weekend's most interesting games:
Marist at Kentucky (7 p.m. ET, ESPN3): For all of the excitement over the return of forward Terrence Jones, Kentucky's freshmen class is the reason this team is one of the favorites to win the national title. Thing is, we haven't seen these freshmen play -- at least not in a real college basketball game. Of course, Marist isn't going to put up much of a fight; Chuck Martin's team was one of the worst in all of Division I last season. Either way, though, it will be interesting to see just how scary this Kentucky team looks. If their recent 126-40 exhibition win is any indication, it could be a long night for the Red Foxes.
Rhode Island at George Mason (7:30 p.m. ET): Former Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt makes his debut at George Mason Friday night. In many ways, Hewitt's Mason move is his opportunity to prove some of the critics of his coaching at Georgia Tech -- those who say he was merely a good recruiter who couldn't often piece together actual basketball teams -- wrong. The team he inherited in 2011-12 is solid, but it lost major pieces (Cam Long graduated, Luke Hancock transferred) from last year's successful run. Hewitt's ability to get big contributions out previous role players will define his first season in the Colonial.
Belmont at Duke (9 p.m. ET, ESPNU): This is arguably the best non-Carrier game of the weekend. Duke is Duke. Cameron Indoor is Cameron Indoor. Coach K is Coach K; he's just three wins shy of breaking his mentor Bob Knight's all-time college basketball wins record, a feat he could very well accomplish in his next three games. But Belmont is far from a guarantee. On the contrary, the Bruins were 30-4 and a major tournament sleeper last season, but a tough No. 4 vs. No. 13 matchup with Wisconsin derailed those hopes. But Belmont returns almost everyone of note from 2011-12 -- they're probably the best mid-major team in the country -- and whatever advantages Duke may have on their home floor could be negated by the Bruins' experience and cohesion. We don't know if this young Duke team has those qualities yet, or if sheer talent will be enough to carry them through. But we get to find out on The U tonight. Don't miss this one.
BYU at Utah State (9 p.m. ET, ESPN3): Speaking of games you shouldn't miss, huh? Here's another must-see, and there are a handful of reasons why: Both teams are consistent winners, both teams are retooling after particularly successful 2011-12 seasons, both teams are well-coached and play smart, sharp, uptempo basketball. Those are all good reasons to tune in. But they may fall short of the two main reasons, which are:
1. This rivalry. Utah State fans do not like BYU, and yes, that is a massive understatement.
2. The atmosphere. Utah State superfan "Wild" Bill Sproat leads one of the rowdiest and most distracting student sections in the country. If he performs "I'm a little teapot" again -- just Google it -- your time will have been well spent. Trust me.
Oregon at Vanderbilt (10 p.m. ET, ESPN3): Neither coach particularly wanted to open the season with this matchup, as our own Andy Katz blogged Wednesday. But Oregon coach Dana Altman was desperate after learning Auburn had cancelled a proposed season-opener, and Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, a friend of Altman's stepped up and took the game. It's not the most opportune time for Vandy to be playing sneaky-good, well-coached Pac-12 sleepers; starting forward Festus Ezeli will be injured for another six weeks, and until his return the Commodores may be content to tread water. A loss tonight would not be the start anyone in Nashville is looking for.
Lehigh at Iowa State (2 ET, ESPN3): As we saw Wednesday night -- just before an athletic and talented St. John's team pulled a win together in the final minutes -- Lehigh, led by third-year star guard C.J. McCollum, can really play. This is a challenge for Iowa State. But much of what makes this game a challenge for the Cyclones will come from within: Is Fred Hoiberg's transfer-heavy lineup, featuring former Minnesota flameout Royce White and former Michigan State cast-off Chris Allen, mature and focused and ready to go? Are the issues that cost those players their original roles with their original teams officially behind them? Can a team with this many transfers be even greater than the sum of its talented parts? The road to answers in Ames begins Saturday.
Butler at Evansville (3 p.m. ET): Last year, when Butler went to Evansville and promptly lost to the Purple Aces, it was fashionable to declare the Bulldogs' season over. It's important to remember, not only for Butler but for just about every team on this docket, that this is only the first game of the season. In Butler's case, it's another chance to see Brad Stevens' handful of new players, as well as check in on how Andrew Smith and Khyle Marshall are adjusting to new featured roles.
Presbyterian at Duke (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU): This is likely to be an easy Duke win, but it has meaning: If Duke beats Belmont Friday night, this could be the game Coach K ties Knight for 902 career wins. If Duke doesn't beat Belmont, well, it will have to wait a game or two to finish up all this record business. It's a little anticlimactic, actually: We know he's going to get this victory eventually. It's not if, but when.
Northern Iowa at Old Dominion (7 p.m. ET): Never let it be said that Northern Iowa is afraid to play anyone anywhere. The Panthers open with one of the more brutal mid-major schedules of any team that doesn't have to play crazy guarantee games to keep the basketballs inflated: UNI begins Saturday night at ODU, where senior guard Kent Bazemore is looking to continue his program's recent emergence onto the national scene. Then, after that east coast trip, Northern Iowa travels all the way across the country to Moraga, Calif., where they will play Randy Bennett's experienced batch of St. Mary's sharpshooters. Just a brutal way to open your season. Fun, travel-filled, eye-opening -- and totally brutal.
Cleveland State at Vanderbilt (2 p.m. ET, ESPNU): If there's one mid-major team whose fans are most vocal on Twitter, it may just be Cleveland State. They swear -- swear! -- that the Vikings have been overlooked this preseason. The reasons are understandable, they say; 2011 star guard Norris Cole is in the NBA, and CSU didn't make the tournament with him, so why would people think it could do so without him? But the Vikings do have some serious talent: Everybody but Cole is back, and coach Gary Waters has added a batch of talented players to the rotation this offseason. Vanderbilt, playing without Ezeli, gets two nice tests to open the season this weekend.
North Carolina at UNC Asheville (4 p.m. ET, ESPNU): You might be curious: Why would North Carolina go to UNC Asheville to play an early-season nonconference game? In most cases, your incredulity would be warranted. In this instance, it's a gesture of good faith: Asheville is opening a brand new basketball arena on Sunday afternoon, and Williams and the Tar Heels decided to help their satellite campus christen the new digs by dropping on the first weekend of the season. UNC may want to be careful, though: Any Carrier-lag or hangover, and they could find themselves in a battle with a scrappy Asheville squad. No good deed goes unpunished?
Lamar at Louisville (4 ET, ESPN3): Pat Knight is like his father Bob in at least one way: He's a thoroughly enjoyable character. Unfortunately, the younger Knight didn't display the kind of program-building prowess that for decades made his father the king of Indiana basketball. Then again, it's a bit harder to build a program at Texas Tech. It's not exactly "Hoosiers" in Lubbock, you know? Either way, Knight's post-Tech career with Lamar begins Sunday night at Louisville, where the Cardinals are gearing up for what Rick Pitino hopes can be his most successful season since 2009.
Southern at Texas A&M (4 p.m. ET): Texas A&M cruised past Liberty in their debut Wednesday night, and that should be the expectation when Southern comes to town Sunday, too. But the underlying concern here is for new coach Billy Kennedy's health. Kennedy was recently diagnosed with Parkinson's, and he is yet to make his return to the team after leaving to begin treatment earlier this month. Could he come back Sunday?
Chattanooga at Indiana (5 p.m. ET): Indiana fans are as excited for this season as any in recent memory; the addition of top forward recruit Cody Zeller to a slowly improving lineup bodes well for the Hoosiers' chances of avoiding the Big Ten cellar -- and competing for at least some form of tournament presence -- in 2011-12. But Indiana should be careful here: Chattanooga is one of the SoCon's best squads this season, and they could spring an upset on Indiana before you can say "cream and crimson."
Rider at Pittsburgh (6 p.m. ET, ESPN3): There are questions about Pittsburgh this season, questions that may either take a month or two, or no time at all, to answer. Can the Panthers rebound as well without senior forward Gary McGhee? Can point guard Travon Woodall capably handle his larger and more important role? We'll get a glimpse at some of these answers Sunday night, as Rider should at the very least provide a frisky early test for Jamie Dixon's team.
Florida Atlantic at Washington (8 p.m. ET): Are the nation's scribes just a little too low on Washington? It's starting to feel that way. The Huskies received minimal top 25 love this season, and they do have big holes to fill: Isaiah Thomas and Matthew Bryan-Amaning were this team's two most important players, and both are gone. But Lorenzo Romar does have a bunch of talent in Seattle, namely Terrence Ross and star freshman Tony Wroten, Jr., who may eclipse most, if not all, of the other star freshmen guards with his ability to smoothly score and distribute in Romar's fast-break game.
George Washington at Cal (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU): There are high hopes for Cal this season; many believe they're the rightful Pac-12 favorite. If so, they'll have to get nice contributions from Minnesota transfer Justin Cobbs, who has played well during exhibitions and could be a nice complement to experienced guards Allen Crabbe, Jorge Gutierrez and Harper Kamp.