NCAA Basketball Recap: Nov. 16

I hope you’ve been enjoying the start of the college basketball season. Thank you for coming here to read about it.

Scoreboard surprises

Here are four scores from the opening weekend:
Western Illinois 69, Wisconsin 67
Radford 82, Georgetown 80 (2 OT)
Alabama State 85, Virginia Tech 82
Monmouth 84, UCLA 81 (OT)

Those are four impressive road upsets by—in order from coolest to blandest mascot—the Leathernecks, Hightoppers, Hornets, and Hawks. Only Wisconsin (at No. 17) was ranked, but Georgetown and UCLA are expected to be Tournament teams. Monmouth is a MAAC school in New Jersey, so I’ve seen them in person a few times the past two seasons. I like their 5’8” point guard, Justin Robinson, and they added the awesomely-named Oklahoma transfer Je’lon Hornbeak this year, but I didn’t expect a win over a UCLA squad that returned several key players from last year’s Sweet 16 run. Alabama State hadn’t defeated a power conference team since 2001. Radford pulled off their shocker with a buzzer-beating three.

Here are four other scores we saw:
Butler 144, The Citadel 71
Kansas 109, Northern Colorado 72
Duke 113, Bryant 75
UNC 168, Fairfield 102

I made that last one up (it was 92-65), but those are some high-scoring games. Butler’s 144 points were the most by a Division I team against another D1 team since 1997. This is simple but powerful math: The Citadel could have scored another 71 points and still would have lost. Anyway, don’t let the early season games make you think the rule changes—or anything else—have caused a huge and sustainable scoring increase. Let’s wait until at least February to try and draw any real conclusions.

Halfway around world, half a game

It was nowhere near a travesty that Gonzaga and Pittsburgh could not finish their game in Okinawa, Japan. It would have been really bad if someone got seriously hurt, so calling the game at halftime was the right decision. In fact, it probably should have been called sooner, and probably would have if it hadn’t been such a special event. ESPN’s “Armed Forces Classic” is a commendable salute to the military, one of many we see in sports in general and from ESPN in particular. But after a few failed attempts at playing the game outdoors on naval ships, the sport did away with games on boats.

Gonzaga-Pitt took place indoors, at a Marine Corps Base field house with a legitimate court that was assembled for the occasion. The game tipped close to 10 a.m. Saturday morning in Okinawa, but even then it was 79 degrees with 89 percent humidity. Perhaps, like me, you’ve played in adult league games in very hot gyms without air conditioning and not worried about falling on your face. The difference is fans—the human ones. Military personnel packed the field house—that was a big reason for having the game there in the first place—and there was just way too much moisture in the air on the court. The event had good intentions, but those in charge have to put more thought into the execution.

By the way, Pitt led No. 9 Gonzaga by two at half, and when Pitt coach Jamie Dixon took the mic at halftime, I was hoping he’d pull a Michael Scott (11:30 mark of the video): “Well, let’s just say whoever was ahead won…It was us, really? I didn’t know.” In reality, the game will not count and won’t be made up.

The Texas-Washington game in China, played in a fancy arena, had no hiccups, except Shaka Smart’s Texas debut was spoiled by the Huskies. My friend Bill Walton called the game for ESPN, which almost wasn’t fair from an entertainment standpoint. His infatuation with the country and the game’s sponsor was amusing considering certain facts and my understanding, through Wikipedia, that the Alibaba Group is actually a pretty uninteresting company.

My Final Four

Every year, I share my “preseason” Final Four predictions with my older brother, Brian, and friend Lee. We did this on a podcast last season and may do so again this year. Preseason gets quotes because we usually wait until mid-November to see the top freshmen in action before picking the same damn teams we always do. This year, I’ll get my picks out a little earlier than normal and, in turn, find out if my fellow prognosticators actually read my blog. Here is my Final Four:

Wichita State, Gonzaga, UNC, Kansas

Would you believe the teams are listed in my order of confidence? Well, they are. Tomorrow night’s always-exciting Champions Classic doubleheader in Chicago (the culmination of ESPN’s 24 hours of hoops) in which No. 2 Kentucky plays No. 5 Duke and No. 4 Kansas plays No. 15 Michigan State could change my mind, but I’m not buying the Blue Devils or Wildcats as Final Four teams this year. Same with other highly-ranked teams like Maryland or Virginia. So I’m going with the best backcourt in the country (Wichita), the best frontcourt (Gonzaga), and two super-talented teams with great coaches hungry to return to the Final Four after longer-than-expected droughts. Also, relative to their preseason rankings, I am high on Michigan, West Virginia, San Diego State, and Valpo, to name four teams off the top of my college hoops-loving head.

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