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Saddle Up: College basketball is back

11/9/2012

Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It is one of many several blog features you can look forward to on a regular basis now that COLLEGE BASKETBALL IS OFFICIALLY BACK THAT'S RIGHT SON WHAT!! Ahem.

When college basketball goes away, it goes all at once, and it always hurts.

For example: I can barely look at this photo, taken just before I left the Superdome at 4 a.m. in April, because I immediately feel the strange mix of anxiety and deflation that comes from realizing -- after the quotes have been collected and the legacies sealed, and all that's left is an empty gym wallowing in confetti -- that the games are gone. The college basketball season is a balloon, or the final 35 seconds of "A Day In The Life." It builds slowly and steadily. Then, just as it reaches its apex, it pops. That silent absence never feels good.

This will always be the case, I suspect. But it certainly didn't help that the sport has never given its fans a true opening day to rally around, a date to put on the calendar, something to assuage long summer days spent reading about NCAA bylaws and conference realignment and the passing whims of 16-year-old future stars. Instead, we got a slow trickle -- a few guarantee games, staggered early-season tournaments, a rivalry game here or there. Let's be honest: It was weak.

Fortunately, "was" is now the operative word.

When college basketball arrives Friday, it will arrive all at once. In 24 hours, we go from zero games to 162. And not only do we get basketball, we get spectacle: Two aircraft carrier games (and one more, the postponed Syracuse-San Diego State, on Sunday), plus a game at an Air Force base in Germany and one at the brand new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. I don't have to convince anyone to tune in to basketball's newly minted version of opening day. It's all too self-evident.

Here, in our first Saddle Up of the season (woo!), is a preview. It's good to be back.

No. 14 Michigan State vs. Connecticut, 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: You never know quite what you’re going to get in the first game of the season, even if you’re playing in your home gym. When you travel across the country to play North Carolina -- and inadvertantly pioneer the aircraft carrier game trend in the first place -- you may just find yourself making your debut in an absolutely stunning setting, in the presence of the President of the United States, atop, let’s not forget, a moisture-licked hardwood surface to boot.

That’s what the Spartans got in their first game of the 2011-12 season. This year, they’ve outdone themselves, spearheading and scheduling a game at Ramstein Air Base in Kaiserslautern, Germany -- the first Division I basketball game ever held in Europe. We can fairly assume the setting will be special. The competition is another matter. Connecticut is making its debut without legendary head coach Jim Calhoun, with a team that can’t qualify for the NCAA tournament this season (thanks to Academic Progress Rate penalties levied by the NCAA), and one that struggled for much of 2011–12 even when it had two eventual first-round NBA draft picks.

Michigan State, with its talented incoming freshmen (Gary Harris) and score of tough returning veterans (guard Keith Appling chief among them) should notch a win at Ramstein Friday. But throw in the extended travel (MSU will return in four days to play Kansas in Atlanta, ouch) and the unique demands of entertaining troops for days before, you know, playing a basketball game at an air force base in Germany -- well, you just never know.

No. 4 Ohio State vs. Marquette, 7 p.m. ET, NBC Sports: Michigan State has a very real chance to win the Big Ten title this season (they were my pick in our ESPN.com preseason predictions), but to do so, they won’t just have to topple the consensus national title favorite in Indiana. They’ll also have to get past a very good Ohio State team.

The Buckeyes are a title challenger not only because junior small forward Deshaun Thomas is one of the best scorers in the country, or because departed forward Jared Sullinger was such a devastating interior threat. The Buckeyes are consistently good because they back that talent with really good defense. (They’re aggressive without fouling, which is no easy feat.) Aaron Craft, the nation’s best perimeter defender, is the chief cause of this. On Friday, we get to see where the rest of the team stands. Is center Amir Williams ready to take over? Are Lenzelle Smith and Sam Thompson and Shannon Scott good enough pieces to put around Thomas and Craft and win a national title? We’ll get some idea aboard an aircraft carrier in Charleston, S.C.

Oh, and don’t sleep on Marquette, either. Buzz Williams will have them into a Top 25 team by the end of the year. Just you watch.

Maryland vs. No. 3 Kentucky, 8:30 pm. ET, ESPN: Remember Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Marquis Teague, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller, the architects of last season’s remarkable national title team? Forget all about them. As has become the norm at Kentucky, John Calipari has a whole new crop of talent, including potential No. 1 overall draft pick Nerlens Noel, top freshman recruits Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin, former NC State transfer point guard Ryan Harrow, sharpshooting big man (and 2011–12 seventh man) Kyle Wiltjer and forward Willie Cauley-Stein.

Yes, the Cats are super talented. Shocker, I know. They are also -- much more so than last year, and more so than usual under Calipari, which is saying something -- incredibly young. They haven’t had time to jell together; they won’t be the same team tonight as in March, that’s for sure. That’s also good news for Maryland, which got hyper-athletic Xavier transfer Dez Wells eligible just this week, a huge boost to a young but promising team highlighted by sophomore guard Nick Faust, center Alex Len and freshman forward Shaquille Cleare. Early as it is, this is actually a huge opportunity for Maryland, a chance to knock off a team that is very likely to compete for a No. 1 overall seed by season’s end. (Hey, it’s never too early to start thinking about your RPI.)

Oh, and you should probably be aware of this: Maryland is going to wear awesome jerseys for this game.

No. 10 Florida vs. Georgetown, 9 p.m. ET, NBC Sports: Florida guard Kenny Boynton has had an up-and-down career. When he arrived in Gainesville, Billy Donovan’s team was still recovering after a few down seasons, and through his first two seasons, Boynton was essentially an unrestrained, inefficient chucker. Then, last season, those copious long-range attempts stopped looking so inadvisable, for good reason: They started going in. Boynton shot 270 3s last season and made 40.6 percent of them; with backcourt mates Bradley Beal and Erving Walker both gone, he could very well eclipse the 300-attempt mark this season. Whether he maintains that efficiency -- and if forward Patric Young can finally command the low-post touches he probably deserves -- may well be the keys to the Gators’ season.

Finally, in case you forgot about him last season, Georgetown forward Otto Porter was one of the breakout freshmen of 2011-12, as versatile and multidimensional a small forward as we’ve seen show up at the college hoops in years. This season, with a bit more polish -- and plenty more touches, now that team leaders Hollis Thompson, Henry Sims and Jason Clark are gone -- Porter could contend for Big East POY honors.

No. 9 Syracuse vs. No. 20 San Diego State, (postponed until Sunday): Thanks to rain in San Diego -- apparently this “rain in San Diego” is not inherently oxymoronic -- this game was postponed until Sunday. It’s also the best matchup of this first weekend. So we’ll hold off and give it the full preview treatment closer to tipoff.

Elsewhere: There are a ton of games in Division I hoops Friday -- it is a national sport, after all -- so I’ll just give you a couple to track.

The first: Lehigh at No. 19 Baylor. The Mountain Hawks, as you might recall, upset Duke in the NCAA tournament, thanks in large part to preseason All-American C.J. McCollum, who could have made himself plenty of money had he left for the NBA this offseason. Baylor’s veteran backcourt is paired this season with two top prospects, one of whom, Isaiah Austin, is a 7-footer with legitimate guard skills.

The other game: North Texas at No. 16 Creighton. Tony Mitchell leads the Mean Green; Doug McDermott, the best returning offensive player in the country, is looking to guide his team to an MVC title and much deeper NCAA tournament run this time around.