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College basketball opening-day slate: what to watch

AP Photo/Orlin Wagner

College basketball is finally here. After an offseason that featured its usual fun of transfer epidemic talk, pay-for-play debates, odd Nigel Hayes backlash, recruiting oases being built in odd places, and whatever else that doesn’t actually involve young kids trotting about the hardwood for our entertainment, we have finally reached the point of the year when we get to consume actual college basketball.

That’s the good news. That bad? Oh, who am I kidding? There is no bad. Not until March… when all the casual fans crawl out of the dark recesses of social media to tell the sport how it needs to be fixed. Until then, for actual fans of the sport, it is all sunshine, rainbows, and posters of Christina Ricci on their bedroom walls.

With Friday offering the opening slate, starting at noon Eastern (the long anticipated Milligan at Middle Tennessee event), there will be games being played from lunch until your eyes begin to draw weary late after the final flicker of your candle dims your room to complete darkness.

Enough with burying the lede here, though. Let’s take a gander at some of the things we should keep an eye out for on Friday.

There’s a program called Xavier University of Louisiana

Starting off on a light note when going through the schedule for Friday, you will notice a lot of teams playing some of your favorite teams are not exactly notable. Hell, a lot of them aren’t even Division I schools.

As is the primary custom for many a college basketball program in the country, some teams will open up against cupcakes.

Not all of them are going to be the blue-bloods of the college basketball world, either. It is Jackson State who is playing something called Xavier University of Louisiana — a game scheduled to, presumably, provide the Tigers an easy win to start the season.

In rapid-fire fashion, here are some the universities which will be a part of the season’s first day of games.

  • Lesley University: School motto- Perissem Ni Perstitissem.
  • Muskingum: Nicknamed The Fighting Muskies because what’s a Musky?
  • Centenary: Enrollment of 2,694!
  • Crown College: An absurdly hard place to get into, with an acceptance rate of 28.4%.
  • Hood College: Liberal Arts school with a mascot named Blaze. Your tasteless jokes please be refrained.
  • Molloy: I am actually a big fan of the crest.
  • Thomas (GA): Not to be confused with your boss Thomas.
  • St. Thomas (TX): Not to be confused with the non-ordained Thomas.
  • IU-Kokomo: Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I wanna take you to – Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty mama – Key Largo Montego, baby why don’t we go – Ooh I wanna take you down to Kokomo…
  • John Jay College of Criminal Justice: I poop you not. This school is playing a basketball game against LIU Brooklyn.
  • Sarah Lawrence: Named after Jennifer Lawrence, but very poorly?
  • Milwaukee School of Engineering: Of course.

There are more colleges like that. A lot more, actually. They are all real. But you get the point and I’m tired of making iffy jokes — though, it is worth noting, I wanted to do them all (there are roughly 20 more like that).

Indiana Hoosiers vs. Kansas Jayhawks

Tom Crean, Dwight Schrute, or Tom Arnold? (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire)

Tom Crean, Dwight Schrute, or Tom Arnold? (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire)

There are far more games of ho-hum nature than consequence. Thanks to this outing, however, we have our first earnest big-time game of the season.

Each team is ranked in the top 10, expected to make a deep run in March, and — even better — should play a relatively fun style of basketball this season.

Bill Self has his usual group of exciting newcomers mixed with cagey veterans. Tom Crean still looks like Tom Arnold and the guy from The Office. Honestly, this is a win-win for everyone.

Multiple NBA-level players will be featured in this game, a slew of potential All-Each’s-own-conference-team members, and no Perry Ellis — which will come to the shock and awe of many college basketball fans who were under the assumption Ellis had a never-ending flow of eligibility.

Please Watch Jaron Blossomgame

The Clemson Tigers probably won’t be very good at basketball this season. That’s the bad. There is some gnarly good, though: The team features one of the best players in the country, Jaron Blossomgame.

Since most of the sport’s fans must carefully choose which games to consume as the season progresses — a person’s time is of great importance — this might be the only time of the season in which you have the chance (or want to have the chance) to consume Blossomgame in all his wonder.

Recently, I scribbled words on how the talented forward is a dark horse NPOY type of player. A 44 percent shooter beyond the arc last season who is as athletic as they come, Blossomgame can get buckets in bunches, and in a variety of ways.

Whatever success the Tigers have this season will likely emerge because he carried them on his back. If, magically, Clemson ends up being even only competent, he’s a player you will hear more and more about as the season progresses.

Also, if for no other reason, he’s actually just really entertaining to watch play basketball. Think Cat Barber, but a forward, and a bit more efficient and dynamic… OK. So, uh, maybe don’t think Cat Barber.

Chattanooga has the potential to upset Tennessee

To be clear about this, Chattanooga enters the season with rather lofty expectations. Many a college basketball expert expects them to make the NCAA Tournament and considers the Mocs one of the best mid-major teams in the country. In that respect, this wouldn’t be as huge an upset as it would appear to be on the surface.

Still, it remains forever fun to see name-brand programs falter to ones which are less nationally beloved. Not that I would ever advocate to be anti-Vols or anything, but getting a taste of March on day one of this new season would be tremendous.

The Mocs will return, and play regularly, six seniors from a team that won 29 games last season and went to the NCAA Tournament.

Our own Nathan Giese did a wonderful interview-feature with Mocs head coach Matt McCall back in October. For more specific context, it is a must-read before Friday’s game.

The Jamie Dixon era starts at TCU

When I talked to new TCU Horned Frogs coach Jamie Dixon a month back, he stated that this is his team, with his players, and he expects to win right now.

That’s all fine and dandy. It’s also a good look inside the man who now appears fully refreshed as a person and coach after returning to the program he played for.

However, that’s all offseason optimism. Many other people are expecting TCU to still be a bottom-feeder in the Big 12 this season.

Luckily for the Horned Frogs, they open up against St. Thomas (hey, our ordained friends!), and should have no issue wiping the floor with them.

That’s not the reason to pay attention to this game. With a mix of remnants from the previous coach’s tenure, coupled with an early (and surprisingly) good incoming freshman class (hello, Jaylen Fisher), it will be interesting to see what style of play Dixon implements this early in the season.

For the TCU faithful, it can end up being very telling as to how Dixon plans to win “right now” with a roster that doesn’t yet appear ready to be competitive near the top of the Big 12.

Gonzaga’s Early Transitional Period

The Bulldogs are ranked and still expected to be good this season. In fact, many will argue that this is the most complete Gonzaga team Mark Few has had since turning this mid-major darling into a nationally relevant program.

Putting that debate to the wayside, there should be some early bumps in the road for the Bulldogs. GU loses three hugely important pieces from last season, guys who provided insane amounts of production, and we’re all assuming some of the returning veterans and newcomers will easily step in to fill that void.

Gonzaga opens on Friday against the Utah Valley Wolverines. The Bulldogs should have no issue handling a team that only won 12 games last season, but keep an eye on Few’s rotations and what players are trying to play what roles, simply to see what sort of Zags you might follow this season.

They might become must-watch basketball this season.

America, say hi to Malik Pope. Malik Pope, (please) say hi to America.

I am going to make this one short since we’ve already gone relatively long elsewhere. Also, I wrote about his game (and his potential) at length back in June.

A former four-star recruit and a top-55 player coming out of high school, Pope has been a good yet mostly unspectacular performer through two seasons.

It is somewhat unfortunate, because many were hoping/expecting/projecting the 6-foot-10 forward to be another member of the wave of basketball unicorns introducing themselves to the sport.

From watching his games again during this offseason, I have yet to give up on his abilities and potential to become a wonderful player.

His numbers don’t fully indicate what type of talent he actually is, but Pope’s ability to be a matchup nightmare for opposing teams (he can play the three through the five) is something so fun to envision — he would be an athletic near-seven-footer with the ability to get to the rim and hit a jumper.

San Diego State opens up against San Diego. The singular game is unlikely to show what Pope will or won’t be all season, but here’s hoping he shows more flashes — if not fully refined — of becoming college basketball’s version of the NBA’s new trend of large players who can literally do everything.

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