One of the most consistent complaints about college basketball over the years has been that the sport doesn’t do enough to celebrate its opening night. Most seasons have kicked off with a thud thanks to a Friday night assignment in the middle of football season that has been chock full of games sparking little to no national intrigue.
Thankfully, the times have changed.
Tuesday night brought with it arguably the most loaded opening slate in college basketball history, one headlined by the Champions Classic doubleheader in Indianapolis.
Let’s run through the major takeaways from the first night of the 2018-19 college hoops season.
Kansas lives up to the hype
Kansas has one of the stranger makeups of any preseason No. 1 team in recent memory. Yes, the Jayhawks are loaded with talent and experience, but we’ve hardly seen any of that talent or experience compete in a Jayhawk uniform. In fact, the only two returning starters from Bill Self’s 2018 Final Four squad are a center best known for his late-game free-throw struggles (Udoka Azubuike) and a guard everyone thought Self had run out of the program after last season (Lagerald Vick).
With understandable questions swirling about how well Self’s talented but unfamiliar roster would gel in live competition against the preseason favorites out of the Big 10, Kansas quieted its few offseason doubters.
The Jayhawks got 20 points, 14 rebounds and six assists from preseason All-American Dedric Lawson, who was seeing his first action since transferring from Memphis after the 2016-17 season. Five-star freshman guard Quentin Grimes chipped in 21 points of his own, and Azubuike added 17 on 7-of-10 shooting from the field.
The most obvious difference in the play of this Kansas team and the way the Jayhawks have looked the past couple of years is that this KU squad is going to get to placing an emphasis on post production. Self has let his guards captain the ship in recent years because he hasn’t really had any other choice. Azubuike was the only legitimate post threat on last season’s team, and the team the year before was even more thin in the front court. With Azubuike back and the Lawsons in the fold, expect this KU squad to play more like the ones we had been accustomed to seeing under Self.
That doesn’t mean the backcourt isn’t going to be a strength for this team. It’s not hard to make the case that Grimes was Kansas’ best player on Tuesday, and though he was a bit out of control at times, fellow freshman guard Devon Dotson also showed why he earned a starting spot.
Dotson finished with 16 points on 6-of-13 shooting, but he did have four turnovers to just three assists. VIck went just 1-for-7 from the floor and scored only two points, but if the freshmen are going to be this ahead of the curve, the senior can remain the streaky presence that Jayhawk fans grown to know and tolerate.
Michigan State is going to be just fine
Despite trailing by a comfortable margin for most of the night, Michigan State did what the best Tom Izzo teams do and still managed to make things interesting. The Spartans roared back in the game’s final minutes, eventually cutting what had been a 15-point Kansas lead just three with 35 seconds to go. Time ultimately ran out on Sparty, but it’s still easy to see why MSU is the preseason pick to reign supreme in the Big 10.
Perhaps most encouraging for Izzo is that his team was able to remain competitive despite an off night from its two presumed standout players. Cassius Winston and Nick Ward combined to score 24 points on just 5-of-18 shooting from the field. Each player also finished with five turnovers, tied for the most of any player in the game.
Senior Kenny Goins — who has never averaged more than 3.4 ppg in a season — picked up the slack by putting up 17 points and 11 rebounds. Junior Josh Langford his 4 of his 6 three-point attempts, and led Michigan State with 18 points. Both of those stat lines are significant developments for an MSU team that is going to need multiple “role players” to take massive steps forward if the Spartans are going to have hope of making a run to the Final Four.
North Carolina gets revenge
Despite a few anxious moments in the second half, No. 8 North Carolina ultimately pulled out a 78-67 road victory over Wofford. The win was sweet revenge for a Tar Heels squad that was stunned on its home floor last December by the Terriers.
UNC made sure history didn’t repeat itself on Tuesday by limiting preseason Mid-Major All-American Fletcher Magee to just 7-of-23 shooting from the field, including 3-of-16 from beyond the arc. Magee scored 27 points in the upset of the Tar Heels last season.
While North Carolina fans are excited about Roy Williams’ freshman class, it was the veteran trio of Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson and Garrison Brooks who led the way in the season-opener. Paced by Maye’s 24 points, the trio combined to produce 61 of UNC’s 78 points. Freshman Nassir Little came off the bench to chip in seven points on 3-of-5 shooting.
Syracuse rolls, but Jim Boeheim isn’t pleased
No. 16 Syracuse had no problem with Eastern Washington, smashing the visiting Eagles by a final score of 66-34. The Orange held their guests to just 10 points in the first half, but that effort wasn’t nearly good enough to satisfy head coach Jim Boeheim.
Boeheim half: “This is worse offense than we played last year. We can’t make shots, we’re not getting good movement, we’re not rebounding. At all. I don’t even think our defense is that good. It’s just that they’re missing shots because they flew 3,000 miles. Awful offense tho.”
— Matt Park (@MattPark1) November 7, 2018
The offense picked up a bit after the break, with Syracuse scoring 38 points, 10 more than their first half total. The 34 points they held Eastern Washington to were the fewest for a ‘Cuse opponent since 2013.
New Freshman Scoring Record at Providence
Outside of Providence, there hasn’t been a whole lot of buzz surrounding Friar freshman AJ Reeves. That changed Tuesday night, when the 6’4 guard out of Roxbury, Mass. set a new PC freshman scoring record by dropping 29 points in just 30 minutes. Reeves was 10-of-13 from the floor and drilled seven three-pointers.
Providence opened the season with a 77-67 win over visiting Siena.
The best moment of night one happened in Austin, where Texas guard Andrew Jones returned to the court nearly 10 months to the day he was diagnosed with leukemia. Jones was the Longhorns’ second-leading scorer (13.5 ppg) last season when he was forced to leave the team, but it feels safe to say that none of the points he’s scored in his college career meant more than the one he netted on Tuesday.
Texas took care of Eastern Illinois, 71-59, but that storyline was secondary.