3 takeaways from the opening weekend of college basketball

Brian Spurlock/Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Note: This is an excerpt from Seth Davis' “Hoop Thoughts” column. Click here to read more.

After months of speculating, prognosticating and procrastinating, we finally had some actual college basketball games to watch last weekend. While the players played and the fans soaked it in, your resident Hoop Thinker hunkered down and got to work. That is, if you can call watching games and writing about them “work.”

Anywho, I have various ways of watching games during the season, including access to a website where I can download videos onto my computer. I scanned a few dozen games this weekend, but for the purposes of this exercise I homed in on 11 of them and assessed the nitty-gritty. Here is what I came up with.

No. 11 Indiana 103, No. 3 Kansas 99 (OT)

What an amazing way to start the season. Two class programs who haven't played each other in more than 20 years, engaged in a taut, up-tempo, bucket-palooza that wasn't decided until the final minute of overtime. That the game was being played in Honolulu in honor of Pearl Harbor for Veterans Day made it all the more special. The Jayhawks had the word “Honor” on the backs of their jerseys; the Hoosiers had “Courage.” It was a lovely touch.

The game was so good, in fact, that I will overlook the 63 fouls that were called between the two teams. Sixty-three! Let's hope that is not an indication of the season ahead. Kansas did a slightly better job cashing in—particularly senior point guard Frank Mason, who was 13 for 15 from the stripe en route to a game-high 30 points—but KU could not overcome poor three-point shooting (7 for 23) or losing the boards by 11.

If you tuned in to see a time-capsule performance from KU freshman Josh Jackson, you were probably disappointed. The 6' 8″ forward was limited to 27 minutes because of foul trouble. He seemed out of rhythm all night, which, combined with poor shot selection, led him to shoot just 3 for 11 from the floor. Still, he hung in there, playing solid D and converting an important put-back dunk with 34.8 seconds remaining in overtime to cut Indiana's lead to two. It's only a matter of time before Jackson goes off, but the game underscored why he benefits from playing for an elite program like Kansas. Jackson will have every opportunity to play a leading role, but the team is not totally dependent on him to win.

As it turns out, Indiana has some pretty good freshmen, too—most notably 6' 4″ guard Curtis Jones, who scored seven of the team's final nine points to seal the win. Another IU frosh, 6' 10″ forward De'Ron Davis, also added a key bucket in OT. But for me, the major revelation for Indiana was the play of 6' 4″ junior guard James Blackmon Jr. This was his first regular season game after missing the final 21 games last season because of an ACL injury. All he did on this stage against this opponent was turn in the best performance of his career, a dazzling 26-point effort (4 for 8 from three) to go along with six rebounds and two assists. Obviously Blackmon isn't going to keep that up, but if Friday night is any indication of the type of season he's going to have, then the Hoosiers will be very much in the mix for another Big Ten title.

When the game ended, ESPN's Dan Shulman made the comment that it was a shame either team had to lose. I get his point, but I don't quite agree. The great thing about college basketball is that this game was a showcase, not an eliminator. Both of these teams have deficiencies to work on, but they also came away confident that will be on a short list of teams that can reasonably set their mindset as Final Four or Bust. Thanks for the show, guys.

No. 10 Arizona 65, No. 12 Michigan State 63

Talk about a wild game. The Spartans sprinted out to a 17–2 lead in the first six minutes, only to cough it up just as quickly and fall behind over the next nine minutes. You obviously have to give the Wildcats a ton of credit for hanging in there and eventually winning the game, but they had a lot of help from the Spartans' woeful offense. Michigan State ended up with 18 turnovers (to Arizona's 14), but some of those should have counted double.

Both of these teams have been decimated by injuries, and Arizona is facing the ongoing question of when (or whether) sophomore guard Allonzo Trier will be able to play. Michigan State, meanwhile, lost its two biggest players during the preseason in 6' 9″ seniors Gavin Schilling (knee) and Ben Carter (knee). This creates rebounding and defensive challenges, but it also stagnates the offense because the Spartans have a hard time throwing it to the post. Tom Izzo has said he hopes Schilling will return sometime during Big Ten play, but Carter is on a longer timetable.

Fortunately, Michigan State has a truly sublime talent in freshman forward Miles Bridges, who showed off his acumen and versatility while putting up 21 points, seven rebounds and two assists. (Alas, his shooting touch failed him, draining just one of his six three-point attempts.) I worry about Michigan State relying too much on Bridges moving forward. Arizona, meanwhile, has terrific freshmen as well. Kobi Simmons, a 6' 5″ guard, scored a team-high 18 points off the bench, and 7-foot Finnish native Lauri Markkanen showed off an array of offensive skills, scoring 13 points, including 2 for 3 shooting from three-point range. Normally, you'd wonder if a college basketball team can function with two seven footers in the lineup (Dusan Ristic is the other), but Markkanen's perimeter skills open up the space nicely. He didn't get quite the hype as some other freshmen, but Sean Miller has been praising him for weeks, and I can see why.

The second half was tons of fun. I'm sure Izzo was royally pissed at the way his guys allowed Arizona's Kadeem Allen to dribble the entire length of the floor unmolested and sink the game-winning bucket, but that's to be expected when you are a young team playing the first game of the season. This is going to be an unconventional Michigan State team—Arizona outscored the Spartans 20 to 5 from the free throw line—but there are some nice pieces here. Arizona has nice pieces, too, but what the Wildcats really demonstrated was a mental toughness that belies their youth. That is a terrific sign for them moving forward.

Wagner 67, No. 18 UConn 58

This was not a matter of the favored team blowing a lead. The Seahawks led this one wire to wire. UConn closed to within one with six minutes to play but couldn't close the deal, even though Wagner lost its leading scorer to a leg injury with 11 minutes to play. The result was the first season opening loss at Gampel Pavilion since the place opened in 1990.

To be sure, Wagner is a good, veteran team that should contend for a Northeast Conference title, but for UConn, this game was ugly on both ends of the floor. The Huskies had absolutely no energy on defense. Wagner repeatedly kept getting open looks, which led to the constant pictures of Kevin Ollie with his trademark look of incredulity on the bench. Senior center Amida Brimah might be a good rim protector, but he has never shaken his maddening tendency to have potential rebounds knocked out of his hands. That's a big reason why UConn got out-rebounded by four. (Brimah also still has no offensive game. He had four points and did not attempt a free throw.) One thing we know is this team is not good enough to depend on talent. These Huskies need a lot more junkyard dog if they are going to defend effectively.

After the game, Ollie said the two toughest players were freshmen Alterique Gilbert and Christian Vital. That is another troubling sign. UConn's upperclassmen were awful, particularly the starting backcourt of Rodney Purvis and Jalen Adams. They combined to shoot 6 for 22 from the floor. That ain't gonna get Capone.

I'll be honest—I am particularly concerned about Adams. He was pretty well regarded as a high school recruit, but during his freshman season he was unable to take over as a fulltime point guard. With Sterling Gibbs gone, Adams is being pressed into that role, and though one game is not nearly enough of a sample to judge, the signs Friday night were not encouraging. His shot selection was poor, and though he only had one turnover (to five assists), he was unable to provide a spark when the offense truly needed one. Don't be surprised if Gilbert overtakes him on the depth chart at some point.

The most encouraging sign for UConn was the play of 6' 8″ sophomore forward Terry Larrier, who finished with 19 points (3 for 7 three-point shooting) and seven rebounds. Larrier, who transferred from VCU, looks like a potential future pro. He displayed a tendency to rush his shot, although that could be a case of opening-night nerves. If he settles in and gains confidence, then UConn could have the kind of player who can carry a team far. But right now he is not that guy, and these Huskies have a long way to go.

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