College basketball weekend starts early

Shortly after his hiring last spring, new Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard inquired about the Pirates’ 2010-11 schedule. He was told his team would open the season against No. 22 Temple. On the road.

Kevin Willard's Seton Hall tenure gets off to a tough start against Temple.
(Bill Kostroun / AP)

So much for easing into things.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Willard said at Big East Media Day last month. “I’m excited about playing Temple. I just wish it wasn’t so early.”

College basketball fans certainly aren’t complaining.

Although a handful of games have already been played, Friday marks the beginning of the 2010-11 season for hundreds of schools across the country. Of the 134 games involving Division I teams, the matchup with the most intrigue is the one between the Pirates and Owls.

A victory over a ranked opponent would do wonders for Seton Hall as it attempts to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006. The Pirates were on the bubble last year after winning 19 regular-season games.

Temple, meanwhile, needs to gear up for a season that includes non-conference games against Duke, Georgetown, Maryland and Cal. Of those opponents, only the top-ranked Blue Devils will be better than Seton Hall offensively.

The bottom line: If you watch one game Friday, Seton Hall-Temple is your best bet.

That’s not to say there aren’t other interesting story lines. Here’s a list of players, coaches, teams – and even a few inanimate objects – that need to come through in their 2010-11 debut.

Potential upset victims – I’m looking right at you, Bob Huggins. And you, too, John Thompson III. Despite losing some of their key pieces, West Virginia and No. 20 Georgetown each enter the season high on confidence. The expectations could quickly change, though, with a loss on opening night. Don’t think it can’t happen. The Hoyas, who no longer have the services of center Greg Monroe, must go on the road to face an Old Dominion squad that reached the second round of last season’s NCAA tournament. West Virginia plays host to defending Summit League champion Oakland and standout forward Keith Benson. Can the Mountaineers win without Devin Ebanks and Da’Sean Butler? We’ll see.

Bramlage Coliseum – Kansas State enjoys one of the top homecourt advantages in the country when its arena is full and rockin’. The problem is that that isn’t always the case. Sure, Wildcats’ fans show up in droves when their team plays host to Kansas or Texas. But what about when it takes on Iowa State or Nebraska? Or, in Friday’s case, James Madison? As good as Kansas State is, the Wildcats will be even better if their fans exhibit more consistency.

Herb Pope – The game against Temple can’t come fast enough for Pope, the Seton Hall forward who averaged a double-double last year with 11.5 points and 10.7 rebounds, which led the Big East. Pope was hospitalized when he collapsed after a workout last summer, and his basketball future was up in the air. But after a long recovery, Pope is back to 100 percent and ready to lead the Pirates to the tournament. A strong performance – and a victory – against the Owls would help.

Josh Harrelson and Elijah Johnson – Harrelson, a backup forward at Kentucky, and Johnson, Kansas’ reserve guard, should both see a decent amount of minutes if a pair of star recruits aren’t deemed eligible at each school. Kentucky seems committed to using a small, four-guard lineup until 6-foot-11 freshman Enes Kanter is cleared by the NCAA. Still, there will be times when the Wildcats need a bigger, more physical player down low to box out and rebound. Harrelson would fit that bill. Don’t be surprised if he plays 12-15 minutes against East Tennessee State. The same thing goes for Johnson at Kansas, where the Jayhawks are awaiting word on the status of freshman point guard Josh Selby. Even though Johnson is more of a combo guard, his minutes will increase until Selby is cleared. Kansas plays host to Longwood on Friday.

Josh Pastner has to sort out a talented backcourt at Memphis.
(Nelson Chenault / US Presswire)

Memphis’ backcourt – Tigers coach Josh Pastner has a problem. He’s got so many talented players on the perimeter that he may not be able to find enough minutes for all of them. Point guard Joe Jackson and shooting guard Will Barton – both freshmen – are expected to start against Centenary on Friday, and veteran Wesley Witherspoon returns at small forward. But New Orleans transfer Charles Carmouche has been impressive during offseason workouts and Drew Barham lit it up during the Tigers’ foreign exhibition tour in August. Mix in touted freshman Jelan Kendrick, and Memphis boasts one of the deepest backcourts in America.

Justin Knox – The decision of Travis and David Wear to leave North Carolina and transfer to UCLA over the summer left a huge hole in the Tar Heels’ frontcourt. With Deon Thompson graduating and Ed Davis leaving early for the NBA, North Carolina was left with only John Henson and Tyler Zeller down low. Luckily Roy Williams stumbled upon Knox, an Alabama transfer who will be eligible immediately because he received his degree over the summer. Knox isn’t as skilled as Henson or Zeller, but he’s a chiseled, aggressive player who should average 15-18 minutes per game off the bench. Knox admitted he has a few butterflies about playing for the tradition-rich Tar Heels. Hopefully they’ll be gone after his debut against Lipscomb.

Fred Hoiberg – The first-year Iowa State coach – and former Cyclones star – didn’t inherit the best of situations in Ames, where only three scholarship players return from a team that finished 15-17. Though he’s never been a college head coach or even an assistant, Iowa State fans feel “The Mayor” is the perfect man for the job. Iowa State will no doubt struggle this season, but it’d be nice to see Hoiberg get off to a winning start against Northern Arizona.

Fabulous freshmen – This year’s class is the strongest college basketball has seen since 2007, which featured Derrick Rose, Michael Beasley, O.J. Mayo, Kevin Love and others. Of all the players making their collegiate debut, none will be as scrutinized as North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes, who last month became the first freshman in history to be named first-team preseason All-American. Other projected first-round NBA draft picks playing their first college game include Baylor’s Perry Jones, Memphis’ Will Barton, Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, Kentucky’s Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones and North Carolina State’s C.J. Leslie. Looking for a sleeper? Try Alabama’s Trevor Releford, who averaged 19.5 points in a pair of exhibition victories.

Maurice Creek and Matt Roth – Creek was leading Indiana in scoring as a freshman before suffering a season-ending knee injury in the 12th game of the year. Roth, one of the team’s top 3-point shooters, missed all but two games with a broken foot. Indiana has a shot at the postseason – albeit the NIT – if both players bounce back strong beginning with a contest against Florida Gulf Coast.

Billy Donovan – Even if Enes Kanter is deemed eligible at Kentucky, there are those who believe that Donovan’s Florida Gators should be the favorite to win the ultra-stacked SEC East. Florida returns all five starters in Kenny Boynton, Erving Walker, Chandler Parsons, Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin. And the Gators added an excellent piece to their frontcourt in 6-9, 225-pound freshman Patric Young. Beginning with the opener against North Carolina-Wilmington, Florida should look much more poised and crisp than most teams early in the season.

A.J. Walton and Stargell Love – Once LaceDarius Dunn returns from suspension Baylor will have one of the most talented lineups in the country – except for one position: Point guard. The loss of Tweety Carter has put a tremendous amount of pressure on sophomore Walton and his freshman backup, Love. Baylor needs both players to take care of the ball, especially considering the Bears’ shooting guards and small forwards are mediocre-at-best ballhandlers. Strong performances from Walton and Love will be even more vital until Dunn returns. He’s not expected to be in the lineup against Grambling State.

Coaches on the hot seat – Losing to a patsy in the season-opener would be a miserable way to begin the 2010-11 campaign for coaches such as Sidney Lowe (North Carolina State), Pat Knight (Texas Tech), Doc Sadler (Nebraska) and Ed DeChellis (Penn State). All of them, though, should be safe Friday.

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Nov 10, 2010