Unlike most years when college basketball begins with a trickle of mediocre games leading into the 24-hour marathon, this season's opening weekend actually has some intrigue and panache.
Traditional powers UConn and Michigan State meet on a U.S. air base in Germany. Three other top games will be staged on current or former Naval ships. And defending national champion Kentucky will debut its newcomers and begin its title defense in a marquee clash with improving Maryland.
Here's a closer look at the top games from college basketball's opening weekend and what storylines to watch:
1. Will Kentucky's new batch of highly touted freshmen pass their first test?
Any notion that Kentucky's season-opening matchup with Maryland (Friday, 8:30 p.m. EST) will merely be the appetizer for Tuesday night's main course against Duke ended Wednesday when Dez Wells became eligible for the Terps. Now Maryland is Top 25 good thanks to steady point guard Pe'Shon Howard, promising sophomores Wells and Nick Faust at wing and potential NBA draft pick Alex Len in the paint. The key for Kentucky may be how effective big men Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley Stein are defensively. If they can intimidate the Maryland guards from going to the rim and turn the Terps into a perimeter shooting team, that will be to their advantage against an opponent that lost its only two consistent shooters from last year.
2. Will an ocean breeze and Syracuse's zone derail San Diego State?
Of the three games on current or former Naval ships this weekend, the matchup between Syracuse and San Diego State on the USS Midway (Sunday, 4 p.m. EST) promises to be the most entertaining. The Orange are counting on talented but unproven new stars like C.J. Fair and Michael Carter-Williams to help them reload after losing Dion Waiters and Fab Melo to the NBA and Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph to graduation. Meanwhile, the Aztecs return standout wings Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley and bolster their frontcourt with some talented newcomers. What may decide this game is how well San Diego State shoots from the perimeter in the outdoors. Normally the Aztecs have the perimeter firepower to deal with Syracuse's vaunted two-three zone, but an ocean breeze may play in the Orange's favor.
Kenny Boynton (US Presswire)3. Who wins the matchup between Doug McDermott and Tony Mitchell?
One is college basketball's leading returning scorer and a popular national player of the year candidate. The other is one of the best defenders and rebounders in the sport and a potential lottery pick in next year's NBA Draft. Creighton's Doug McDermott and North Texas' Tony Mitchell meet Friday at 8 p.m. EST in Omaha in an under-the-radar matchup that should be one of the most intriguing of opening weekend. Creighton returns four starters and a handful of key reserves from a team that won the Valley tournament and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament last season. North Texas has Mitchell, promising sophomore point guard Chris Jones and high-scoring perimeter shooter Jordan Williams, more than enough talent to win the Sun Belt and pull some surprises too.
4. Will Florida's lack of backcourt depth sink the Gators against Georgetown?
Guard depth will be a big issue for the Gators when they face Georgetown in Jacksonville on Friday at 9 p.m. EST. Florida officials announced Thursday that starting point guard Scottie Wilbekin will not play against the Hoyas due to what is being described as a "coach's decision." Worse yet, junior wing Casey Prather is also will likely miss the opener after reportedly suffering a concussion. The result is the Gators will probably have to start senior Kenny Boynton at point guard, not a good development considering he has never played the position before. Florida will still have an advantage in the paint with hulking big man Patric Young, sweet-shooting Erik Murphy and versatile Will Yeguete, but the absence of Wilbekin and Prather will certainly aid a Georgetown team that must replace its three leading scorers from last season.
5. Does Lehigh's C.J. McCollum have another upset in him?
The last time the nation saw McCollum, the high-scoring combo guard was leading Lehigh past Duke in the NCAA tournament last March. Now that McCollum has returned to school for his senior year to improve his draft stock and fulfill a promise to his parents to earn his diploma, he'll try to spark a similar upset against Baylor (Friday, 5 p.m. EST). McCollum is leaner and stronger this season and he has the core of last year's Lehigh team back to help him, but Baylor may be a tougher opponent for the Mountain Hawks than Duke was last March. The Bears boast one of the nation's top point guards in Pierre Jackson, an elite shooter in Brady Heslip and an abundance of size and athleticism in the frontcourt.
6. Will undermanned UConn rise to the challenge against Michigan State?
Since UConn is ineligible for the postseason, lost Jim Calhoun to retirement and lacks its usual size, depth or talent in the frontcourt, preseason expectations for the Huskies are unusually low. As a result, the season-opening matchup with Michigan State in Germany offers UConn its first chance to prove it will be better than people think. Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne will have a huge advantage in the frontcourt over the Huskies, so the key will be for UConn's guards to help make up for that. Junior Shabazz Napier, sophomore Ryan Boatright and freshman Omar Calhoun form a potent backcourt trio capable of keeping the Huskies in the game against the deeper, stronger Spartans.
Also worth keeping an eye on:
• Marquette vs. No. 4 Ohio State (Friday, 7 p.m. EST) — Marquette lost Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder. Ohio State lost Jared Sullinger and Williams Buford. Both will reload rather rebuild, but the Buckeyes appear to have a bit more proven talent.
• Indiana State at No. 13 UCLA (Friday, 11 p.m. EST) — UCLA opens newly renovated Pauley Pavilion and offers a first glimpse at one of the nation's most intriguing but unpredictable teams. The Bruins lost their season opener last year to LMU.
• Virginia at George Mason (Friday, 7 p.m. EST) — Virginia's challenging opening day assignment became a little easier this week when George Mason suspended top big man Erik Copes and guard Vaughn Gray for the first three games of the season.
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• Bucknell at Purdue (Friday, 7 p.m. EST) — Lehigh isn't the only Patriot League team capable of an upset Friday. Bucknell will have the most accomplished big man on the floor, senior Mike Muscala, when it travels to rebuilding Purdue.
• Manhattan at No. 2 Louisville (Sunday, 4 p.m. EST) — In a game that pits Rick Pitino against former assistant coach Steve Masiello, MAAC favorite Manhattan visits Big East favorite Louisville.
• Marshall at Villanova (Sunday, 1 p.m. EST) — This is a dangerous opener for a Villanova team lacking its usual talent but still hoping to bounce back from last year's disappointing season. Marshall has talented guard Deandre Kane and a strong frontcourt.
• Montana at Colorado State (Friday, 9 p.m. EST) — Big Sky favorite Montana's upset chances diminished as a result of Will Cherry's broken foot, but the Grizzlies still pose a threat to a Rams team expecting to return to the NCAA tournament this season.
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