- Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff Writer
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Finally, college basketball is here. The 2012-13 season kicked off Friday with some great finishes, high drama and even a pair of cancellations. More on those later.
Here’s a snapshot of the action from Friday night:
Connecticut 66, No. 14 Michigan State 62: The pageantry surrounding college basketball’s opening-day matchup in Europe elevated the first high-profile game of the 2012-13 season. MSU and UConn played at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, home to more than 17,000 servicemen. A year after kicking off the season by playing basketball on a ship, college basketball’s creative minds raised the bar by sending a pair of perennial powerhouse programs overseas. (You know we’re about five years away from a “Let’s play on the moon” conversation.)
The Spartans and Huskies entered this game under different circumstances. Michigan State lost former All-American Draymond Green but regrouped with a talented recruiting class and returning standouts such as Keith Appling and Derrick Nix. Connecticut was banned from postseason play due to subpar Academic Progress Rate scores during the offseason. Then, Jim Calhoun retired and left the program to Kevin Ollie, who has essentially been given seven months to prove that he’s worthy of a long-term contract. They can’t compete for the national title, so what’s their motivation?
And yet, the Huskies played like a determined squad and the Spartans looked flat, going 13-for-33 from the field in the first half. They committed eight turnovers. The Huskies exploited the opening and took a 34-18 lead with 7:46 remaining in the first half after making 11 of their first 12 shots. Michigan State chipped at the deficit and eventually took a lead in the closing minutes.
But the Spartans couldn’t overcome their 15 turnovers or the production of Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier (14-for-28 and 38 points combined). That backcourt duo will challenge any defense. It’s not doomsday for the Spartans, who lost their first two matchups in 2011-12 but finished the year with 29 wins. They clearly need more time to develop chemistry. The game means much more for UConn. The Huskies competed like a team that’s still focused, despite its situation. Ollie’s “10 toes in” philosophy worked Friday. The Huskies came to play in Germany.
No. 3 Kentucky 72, Maryland 69: Earlier this week, former Xavier standout Dez Wells was cleared to play after the NCAA reversed its decision on his initial eligibility. Wells was expelled from Xavier following sexual assault allegations and transferred to Maryland. He lost his first waiver request but won an appeal. That decision enhanced the buzz leading up to Maryland’s matchup against the defending national champions at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Here’s the thing. Wildcats coach John Calipari has found success year-after-after with the same formula. He convinces multiple high-level prospects to compete together. They play good defense and score at will. That’s why he’s achieved so much during his time at Kentucky. The group he’s assembled for 2012-13 is very similar to past teams he’s assembled at Kentucky. They’re young but dangerous and deep. Former walk-on Jarrod Polson scored 10 points and came up with a crucial steal and big free throws down the stretch. The Wildcats seem to have it all. Again.
With Nerlens Noel’s shot-blocking (three swats), Kyle Wiltjer’s 3-pointers and Archie Goodwin’s penetration (16 points), the Wildcats amassed a 53-38 lead midway through the second half (Maryland started the game 2-for-11). Game. Set. Match. Nope.
Maryland bounced back with a 15-0 run that suggested it’s not going to be a pushover in the ACC. Alex Len looked like a lottery pick (23 points, 12 rebounds). Wells (2-for-12), however, struggled. But the Terrapins were tougher than Kentucky (23-12 edge in offensive rebounds). And there multiple moments when the Wildcats looked like a young, inexperienced team. But they were mature enough to hold on for the win. Kentucky led 70-69 with 7.7 seconds to play before Polson hit two free throws. Maryland’s Pe’Shon Howard missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer. Nice game. Jay-Z should be proud.
Here’s what we learned: Len and Wiltjer are stars. Their respective teams will count on their continued production all year. And if they produce at a level comparable to their efforts on Friday, then both programs will thrive. Len takes a lot of pressure off his teammates with his effectiveness inside. Wiltjer is 6-foot-10 with range (4-for-6 from 3-point-line line). How do you guard that?
The aircraft-carrier cancellations: Games on boats make a lot of sense. Until they don’t. This year’s Carrier Classic between Ohio State and Marquette seemed like a great idea. Michigan State and North Carolina started the 2011-12 season on a ship. Why not do it again? And why stop at one ship? The Marquette-Ohio State matchup on the USS Yorktown in Charleston, S.C., was one of a handful of scheduled games on watercrafts.
But a condensation problem turned the court into an ice rink. The chaotic scene played out on NBC Sports Network as players, coaches and servicemen used towels to dry the floor. But they couldn’t stop the moisture from resurfacing. Citing the potential safety risk, game officials ultimately canceled the game. It will not be rescheduled.
It was an important matchup for both squads. There are major questions for each team. Marquette lost so much talent from last season and earlier this week, Todd Mayo was deemed academically ineligible. Ohio State was set to compete for the first time with a new nucleus sans Jared Sullinger and William Buford. But now they’ll both wait to play their first games of the year on Sunday, when Marquette plays Colgate and Ohio State faces Albany.
And that was just the first game of the night that was canceled due to condensation. Georgetown’s matchup against No. 10 Florida was called after halftime (the Gators led 27-23) because game officials had similar issues with a slippery floor aboard the USS Bataan in Jacksonville, Fla.
We might have just witnessed the end of the game-on-a-ship era. So if you like outdoor basketball, make sure to savor Syracuse-San Diego State on Sunday.
A few more observations from games that actually did happen on Friday ...
During No. 19 Baylor’s 99-77 victory over Lehigh in Waco, Texas, Bears freshman Isaiah Austin, a 7-1 center, scored 22 points in 17 minutes before he was sidelined with an ankle injury. He was 2-for-4 from beyond the arc, too. After the game, coach Scott Drew said the injury wasn’t as severe as it initially appeared. That’s great news for a Baylor team that looked like a legitimate threat to Kansas in the Big 12. Cory Jefferson had 26 points and 13 boards. Pierre Jackson had 12 assists. Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum tried to keep the Mountain Hawks alive with 36 points, but Baylor was too much. The Bears are legit.
Last season, No. 25 Florida State beat South Alabama by 41 points. On Friday, the Seminoles lost by five, 76-71, in the biggest upset of the night. The Noles, last season’s ACC tournament champions, lost multiple starters from its 2011-12 team. Yes, they’ll need time to come together with so many new faces joining the program. But a home loss to a Sun Belt squad in the season opener? Wow. FSU committed 17 turnovers (the Jaguars had 19). All-ACC guard Michael Snaer struggled in a 2-for-11 effort. South Alabama’s Antoine Allen scored 21 off the bench. This weekend’s practice should be fun for Florida State.
South Dakota State’s Nate Wolters scored 30 points, but they weren’t enough to hold off Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The Jackrabbits led 29-16 with 4:14 to go in the first half. They controlled the game. But a late 11-0 run helped the Crimson Tide regain their footing by halftime. Bama slowly found its confidence and momentum late in the second half, when Trevor Lacey nailed a 3-pointer at the buzzer to seal the come-from-behind victory. Good effort from SDSU. And a nice comeback for Alabama.
Sean Woods won his first game for Morehead State in a 77-74 victory over NEC favorite LIU-Brooklyn at the Barclays Center. Woods took the new gig after leading Mississippi Valley State to the NCAA tournament last season. Senior forward Milton Chavis scored 24 points in the win. Nice start for Woods’ program.
Other results of note: Nice start for Doug McDermott and Creighton as the All-American contributed 21 points and 11 rebounds in a duel with fellow NBA prospect Tony Mitchell of North Texas. The Bluejays won by 20. ... Huge for George Mason to not only get Virginia to come to Fairfax, but also for the Patriots to pull off the 63-59 victory over a program they'd never beaten before. ... Two other CAA rivals weren't as fortunate: Old Dominion was surprised at home by Holy Cross and league favorite Drexel fell in overtime at Kent State. ... Everyone remember Lehigh beating Duke last season, but few remember that the Mountain Hawks didn't even win the Patriot League regular-season title. Bucknell did. And the Bison opened the new season with a 70-65 win at Purdue. That's going to be quite a conference race in the Patriot.