***** – quit your job and divorce your wife if that’s what it takes to watch this game live
**** – best watched live, but if you must, tivo and watch it tonight as soon as you get home
*** – set your tivo but make sure you watch it later
** – set your tivo but we’ll forgive you if it stays in the queue until 2013
* – don’t waste bandwidth (yours or the tivo’s) of any kind on this game
Brian Otskey is an RTC contributor.
After 216 excruciating days, our long off-season national nightmare is over. College basketball is back! The 2010-11 season opens tonight with four opening round games in the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer. Here’s your schedule/bracket, and here are the two games tonight that you should be tracking. All times eastern.
Rhode Island @ #5 Pittsburgh – 7 pm on ESPNU (***)
Game one features a Pittsburgh team picked to win the Big East against a solid Rhode Island team selected fifth in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll behind the “big four” of Temple, Xavier, Richmond and Dayton. For Pitt, years of preseason optimism have almost always ended in disappointment relative to expectations. There should be no doubt that Jamie Dixon has built a top program there but they have yet to make the leap and get to the Final Four. Many are saying this could finally be the year. The Panthers return four starters from last year’s team that caught everybody by surprise and taught us all never to doubt him again. They are led by junior point guard Ashton Gibbs, the scoring leader last year at 15.7 PPG. Gibbs is an outstanding three-point shooter, connecting at a 40.4% clip from downtown for his collegiate career. Versatile Brad Wanamaker (12.3 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 4.7 APG), Gilbert Brown and Gary McGhee should also start for Pitt. With Nasir Robinson out due to injury, Dixon may turn to redshirt freshman Talib Zanna who started and played 22 minutes in an exhibition win over Indiana (PA) on Thursday night. For Rhode Island, Jim Baron’s team is coming off a successful 26-win year that ended with a loss to North Carolina in the NIT semifinals. Gone is leading scorer Keith Cothran as well as Lamonte Ulmer, but Delroy James returns for his senior campaign in Kingston. The 6’8 James saw his production drop towards the end of the regular season but broke out in the NIT against Nevada, scoring 34 points on 10-19 shooting, including 5-7 from deep. James can stretch the defense and that could cause some problems for Pitt in this game tonight. He scored 23 points against Temple and 22 at Dayton last year, teams that play a similar style to Dixon’s Panthers. Rhody will also miss 7’0 senior Will Martell (injury) in this game, presenting some depth issues for Baron. Pitt should be ready for this game as it’s certainly no cupcake while Rhode Island hopes to make a huge statement on the first night of the season. Rhody’s main problem may well be defense as the Rams were ranked #110 in defensive efficiency last year per Ken Pomeroy. A realistic expectation would be to play relatively close and show the rest of the A-10 that there may be another team to reckon with this season. That will be hard to do in the raucous Petersen Events Center.
UC Irvine @ #13 Illinois – 8 pm on ESPN3.com (**)
Bruce Weber’s Illinois team enters the season with their highest expectations since a trip to the 2005 championship game. The Fighting Illini return essentially everyone of significance from last year’s 21-win team. Of the players who averaged at least 10 minutes per game, only Dominique Keller and Jeff Jordan are not returning. Illinois has four seniors playing key roles this year, all of them determined to end their collegiate careers on a high note: Demetri McCamey(15.1 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 7.1 APG) is a rock at the point, leading the nation in assist rate last year; Mike Davis (10.7 PPG, 9.2 RPG) and Mike Tisdale (11.9 PPG, 6.0 RPG) anchor the frontcourt with Bill Cole serving as a glue guy inside off the bench. Freshman swing Jereme Richmond and returnee D.J. Richardson (10.5 PPG, 39% 3FG) are expected to complete the starting lineup. Illinois’ starting five is imposing and can go head to head with any team in the Big Ten and likely the nation. Weber has pretty good depth with Cole, Tyler Griffey, Brandon Paul and two good freshmen coming off the bench. Illinois’ freshman class of Richmond, Crandall Head (brother of Luther) and Meyers Leonard was rated #11 by Scout.com. This class, along with another year of experience for the returning players, should push the Illini from the NIT to well into the NCAA Tournament this year. Illinois struggled offensively at times last year but the firepower returning and coming in should allow them open it up more. With a dynamic play-making guard in McCamey, Illinois is poised for a big year and could contend with Michigan State and Ohio State at the top of the conference. UC Irvine went just 12-18 against D1 opponents last season. Led by junior forward and preseason first team all-Big West player Eric Wise (16.3 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 3.0 APG), the Anteaters have been tabbed sixth in the conference media preseason poll. Darren Moore can really stroke it from three point range (39.4%) but first year coach Russell Turner doesn’t have much else to work with. Michael Hunter and Zack Atkinson are gone so players like Patrick Rembert and Pavol Losonsky must improve for UC Irvine to move up in the Big West standings. UCI was not good defensively last year, giving up almost 70 points per game, and didn’t fare much better on the other side of the ball. While the game probably won’t be close, one thing fans should look for is how often Illinois gets to the free throw line. Last year the Illini ranked #337 out of 347 D1 teams in percentage of points from the line (16.3%). For a team that shot over 70% from the line last year, that’s an awfully low percentage. It could indicate a slow pace of play and/or a lack of aggressiveness which could hold them back somewhat this year outside of the Big Ten. Playing at home in the season opener, the deep and talented Illini should pick apart the Anteaters and win this game by a comfortable margin.