Early Season College Basketball Schedule Highlights

The run of November marquee college basketball games begins on Friday with a tripleheader, including two games on military bases, with one of them over in Germany. For college basketball fans, it’s a time to start sizing up who can play, who can’t and who’s got the potential to grow into a March Madness force five months from now. For the average sports fan it can be tough to keep up with everything, as college football & NFL action tends to draw more attention. If you’re in that group of fans, but still want to key in some basics, here are the notable games coming up on the college basketball schedule between now and Thanksgiving week…

UConn-Michigan State (5:30, ESPN)
Maryland-Kentucky (8:30, ESPN)
Florida-Georgetown (9, NBC Sports Network)

The UConn-Michigan State game will be at Ramstein Air Force base in Germany, while Florida-Georgetown will be on a naval ship just off of the coast of Jacksonville here in the United State. And Kentucky-Maryland will be at the new Barclays Center in New York, as they bring some college hoops to the folks hit by Hurricane Sandy.

It’s a new era for UConn, as they move on without legendary head coach Jim Calhoun. Michigan State is expected, as usual, to be a Top 20 team. What’s unusual is that media experts love the Big Ten this year and Sparty ranks behind Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan in the early polls. We know Keith Appling can play at the point guard spot. We need to see how Tom Izzo will fill in the blanks around him.

Speaking of filling in the blanks no one does it better than John Calipari at Kentucky, and because he does it so well, no one has to do it more frequently, as his players put in their year or two and go to the NBA. He’s got another complete rebuilding job on his hands this year, as does Maryland. Mark Turgeon finished his first year with the Terps last year and has replenished the talent base. His predecessor, Gary Williams, was a terrific coach, but had lost some recruiting battles. Turgeon will bring his team up to New York for a game that will have a lot of good young talent.

Georgetown is another rebuilding program, while Florida is a veteran team that should be sharp right out of the gate. While it goes without saying that we shouldn’t be reading too many long-term conclusions—if any—from these games—if we wanted to, we might insist that Florida play well quickly, since it’s harder to see where the growth and upside would be down the line.

Syracuse-San Diego State (4, Fox Sports Net)—
Jim Boeheim needs a new point guard and a new center to complement good wing players in Brandon Triche and C.J. Fair. But this game won’t be easy—if anything, the Aztecs look better, at least right now. San Diego State has almost everyone back from what was a surprisingly good team a year ago, headlined by Mountain West Player of the Year Jamaal Franklin. Steve Fischer’s program is ranked #20 to start the year and this game will be a good way to keep themselves on the national radar.

Michigan State-Kansas (7 PM ET, ESPN)
Duke-Kentucky (9:30 PM ET, ESPN)

We get another look Michigan State and Kentucky, and I’m very interested to see how Duke handles the point guard situation. As I mentioned in our brief rundown of the Top 16 teams nationally, I think this position on this team is the most important factor among the national elite—it’s the swing vote, if you will. The reason is that Duke has all the other component parts necessary for big year—ACC title, #1 NCAA seed, etc. But without a point guard, those other parts won’t mesh. I want to see what Coach K’s plans are in the early going.

Wisconsin-Florida (7 PM ET, ESPN2)—
Bo Ryan had some modest re-tooling to do when practice began. When guard Josh Gasser blew out his knee it turned into a full-scale renovation. Wisconsin still has a good three-point shooter in Ben Brust, a young developing center in Jared Berggren and a decent, albeit inconsistent small forward in Ryan Evans. But without Gasser no one can run the offense and Ryan will have to hope freshman grow up quickly. The head coach has a great track record of getting things to mesh when you don’t see how it can be done. As a Badger fan living but an hour’s drive from the Kohl Center that’s what I’m hoping for again. But I couldn’t sit here today and tell you how.

N.C. State-Penn State (5 PM ET, ESPN)—
This is a first-round game of a three-day tournament in Puerto Rico. Penn State’s Tim Frazier is one of the best players in the country—indeed, ESPN’s Jay Bilas called him “criminally underrated” and TheSportsNotebook chose him as national Player of the Year last season (you like how I put myself right next to Bilas in listing our opinions? Nothing like trying to elevate my stature). N.C. State is a very underrated team, even ranked #6. They’re the one team  I don’t have any questions about. Except one—I want to see them handle high expectations the way their ACC brethren in Durham and Chapel Hill always have to. It starts by taking care of business at a winnable tournament in Puerto Rico.

Notre Dame-St. Joseph’s (7 PM ET, Tru TV
)—Two Jesuit schools with great potential tip it off. St. Joe’s was an extremely young team that came on at the end of last season and nearly snuck off with an NCAA Tournament berth before coming up a little short. The Hawks have a great frontcourt, led by Carl Jones and C.J. Aiken, and Langston Galloway gives them excellent balance in the backcourt. This team’s only problem last year was closing games, something experience will take care of. I’m very high on St. Joe’s, and Notre Dame will be a solid test. The Irish also have all the pieces necessary to contend in the Big East, and I’m frankly mystified why they aren’t ranked higher.

Following ND-St. Joe’s, you can also catch BYU-Florida State (9:30 PM ET) on Tru TV, two programs consistently in contention. And late-night is North Carolina-Long Beach State (11 PM ET, ESPNU). Before you laugh, remember that LBSU gave Carolina a spirited game in Chapel Hill a year ago and was one of the best programs at the midmajor level. They’ve got a lot of rebuilding to do, but so does North Carolina. This game will give us an early indicator on where each is at in the process.

The college basketball prep period has begun, as teams have between now and the end of the year to get themselves situated for conference play. These games are a nice little introductory course, as we learn about the landscape.