NCAA Basketball: What to watch for during college hoops’ opening weekend

Mar 26, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; McDonalds All American guard Markelle Fultz (20) poses for photos on portrait day at the Marriott Hotel. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

What should we watch for during the first weekend of the NCAA basketball season?

We made it. After six long off-season months, college basketball has finally returned. We will put the preseason rankings, preseason All-Conference honors and predictions in the rearview mirror.

Now it’s time for teams to duke it out on the court and show who is truly the best in their respective conferences and the best in the nation.

While the first weekend of college hoops isn’t necessarily filled with must-watch games, the sport has a plethora of storylines that we all have to look out for. What freshman are making their debuts? What are the best games of the weekend? What question marks need to be answered in order for certain teams to succeed?

Of course, we’ll leave Duke and Kentucky out of the picture for now. We know the Blue Devils will be without two five-star freshman this weekend and must play two-games-in-two-days, but there is no doubt that Coach K’s squad will beat Marist and Grand Canyon handily.

It will be interesting to see how Kentucky’s freshman gell together, but Tuesday night’s Champions Classic will give us more of an indication than two games this weekend against Stephen F. Austin (no more Thomas Walkup) and Canisius.

So with that in mind, here are the top five things to watch out for on the opening weekend of college basketball. Buckle up, as this is the start of what is expected to be a fun 2017-18 campaign.

Feb 27, 2016; Stanford, CA, USA; UCLA Bruins head coach Steve Alford (C) huddles with his team during a stoppage in play against the Stanford Cardinal in the first half at Maples Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

5. How will UCLA use Lonzo Ball?

With head coach Steve Alford on the hot seat, UCLA is one of the most compelling teams to watch in 2016-17.

The Bruins have two major question marks that will emerge over the course of the season: How do they use five-star freshman Lonzo Ball, and will they buckle up and improve on the defensive end of the floor?

While UCLA’s long term success will revolve around whether or not they can protect the rim and defend pick-and-roll situations, Ball’s first two games against Pacific and Cal State Northridge will be a telltale sign as to how the Bruins will deploy him this year.

Is Alford going to push his son, Bryce, off the ball in favor of Ball? Is Bryce going to be more comfortable in that role? If things don’t work well right away, will Alford immediately go back to Bryce at the point guard position and push Ball to the two?

Ball is an elite passer with vision that is second to none. He makes plays in transition, can knock down shots from deep and is superb in pick-and-roll situations. He can play the two position with another point guard next to him, but he operates best as a true lead guard.

I would be shocked if Alford does anything but hand the reigns of the team to Ball. But that’s why the games are played. That’s why we watch. Because of the unexpected.

Alford gave up his one-year extension this off-season because of the unhappiness of the fan base. If the head coach wants to get on Bruin Nation’s good side starting in 2016-17, he must do what’s right and let one of the best freshman in the country run the show.

Mar 17, 2016; Providence, RI, USA; Wichita State Shockers forward Markis McDuffie (32) and forward Rashard Kelly (0) and guard Ron Baker (31) and center Rauno Nurger (20) and guard Conner Frankamp (33) huddle during the first half of a first round game against the Arizona Wildcats in the 2016 NCAA Tournament at Dunkin Donuts Center. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

4. Wichita State begins a new era

Over the last four years, with Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet at the helm, Wichita State has molded into one of the best (if not the best) mid-major team in the country.

A new era in Wichita is officially set to begin this weekend though.

The Shockers will still likely make the NCAA Tournament and remain the best team in the Missouri Valley Conference. However, they now have to rely on Gregg Marshall’s coaching expertise and a potential breakout season from Markis McDuffie.

Marshall’s squad opens the season on Friday night against South Carolina State, but the true indication of how good the Shockers will be in 2016-17 will come on Sunday night.

WSU hosts Long Beach State and their utterly dangerous backcourt combo of Justin Bibbins and Evan Payne. The Shockers cannot take this game lightly as the 49ers have tested themselves plenty over the years. They aren’t afraid of any elite teams, as they faced BYU, Seton Hall, Virginia, Oklahoma State (twice), San Diego State, UCLA, Oregon, Arizona and Duke all during last year’s non-conference slate.

The Shockers are deep and still possess capable players beyond McDuffie. But this is an early measuring stick to see if the Shockers will hold onto the MVC crown without Baker and VanVleet.

Oct 26, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; North Carolina State Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried speaks to the media during ACC Operation Basketball at The Ritz-Carlton. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

3. Markelle Fultz, Dennis Smith Jr. debut

There are two freshman point guards that will be must see television every time they step on the basketball court: Washington’s Markelle Fultz and North Carolina State’s Dennis Smith Jr.

Fultz is a dynamic scorer who glides with the basketball in his hands and makes plays in transition. He is an unselfish youngster with excellent vision and playmaking skills. Most importantly, the five-star prospect has a terrific basketball IQ, as he knows when to attack the hoop, settle for a three or make the proper pass to an open teammate.

Fultz’s knack for scoring the basketball is impressive, as he can put the ball in the hoop from all three levels.

Washington doesn’t get tested this weekend (they face a Yale team that is without Makai Mason), but it’s the nation’s first opportunity to be introduced to the potential number one pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.

While Smith isn’t the scorer that Fultz is, he very well could be the most explosive and athletically gifted player in the entire country. The Wolfpack’s point guard may be coming off a torn ACL, but he looked like himself during the Adidas Nations event this summer, during practice this off-season and in NC State’s two exhibition games.

His ability in transition and in pick-and-roll situations will make the Wolfpack awfully tough to stop, especially when Omer Yurtseven comes back following his nine-game suspension. 

North Carolina State opens the season against Georgia Southern on Friday and St. Francis College on Sunday, so they should be 2-0 by the end of the weekend.

Feb 13, 2016; Reno, NV, USA; Nevada Wolf Pack forward Cameron Oliver (0) forward Kaileb Rodriguez (5) forward Elijah Foster (12) guard D.J. Fenner (15) and guard Tyron Criswell (2) celebrate their win over the Fresno State Bulldogs at Lawlor Events Center. Mandatory Credit: Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports. Nevada won 77-72 in overtime.

2. Nevada at Saint Mary’s

I know mid-major programs (other than VCU, Gonzaga and Wichita State) don’t always draw the attention of a national audience, but this late night Friday showdown is one of the top battles of the weekend.

Nevada, who could finish second in the Mountain West standings, is on an upward trend as a program in Eric Musselman’s second year. The Wolf Pack return only two of their top five scorers, but potential 2017 NBA Draft selection Cameron Oliver is back. Oliver averaged 13.4 points and 9.1 rebounds per game last season and has truly molded into one of the more underrated players in the nation.

Musselman’s squad also returns Lindsey Drew and D.J. Fenner, while adding Missouri State transfer Marcus Marshall, Brown transfer Leland King, and Southern Illinois transfer Jordan Caroline. Also, watch out for three-star freshman guard Devearl Ramsey.

Nevada clearly has the bodies to match-up against Saint Mary’s, but the Gaels are no slouch either.

Randy Bennett’s squad is ranked 17th in the country, as they return all five starters from a team that won 29 games last season. The Gaels will have the most efficient offense in the WCC, relying on Emmett Naar and Joe Rahon, and should reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013.

These are two programs that are being overlooked on the national scale. But this is going to be an outstanding game that will certainly matter when March rolls around.

Oct 13, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; Michigan State Spartans head coach Tom Izzo speaks with the media during Big Ten media day at the Marriott Washington Wardman Park. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

1. Armed Forces Classic

The two top games of the weekend come from Hawaii and the Armed Forces Classic. The outstanding doubleheader will feature Michigan State versus Arizona in the first game and Kansas taking on Indiana in the second game.

The Spartans and Wildcats will both come into their match-up with depleted rosters. Michigan State will be without UNLV transfer Ben Carter and senior Gavin Schilling, while Arizona won’t have Allonzo Trier in their lineup and have already lost Ray Smith for the season.

It will be a battle between Sean Miller and Tom Izzo, but it will also be our first chance to see Miles Bridges in a big game scenario, as well as Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons for the Wildcats.

In the second game of the night, five-star freshman Josh Jackson and Indiana wing OG Anunoby will go head-to-head. Jackson is one of the more competitive players in the nation, while Anunoby locked down sharp shooter Jamal Murray in the second round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament.

Devonte’ Graham will also look to play defensive stopper, as he will likely guard Indiana’s top scorer James Blackmon Jr. Blackmon is coming off a torn ACL, so this will be his first game action since last year’s non-conference portion of the schedule.

This doubleheader obviously doesn’t even compare to the Champions Classic on Tuesday night. But this is our first dose of excellent high major college hoops.

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