The 2017-18 college basketball season officially got underway on Friday. Time for preseason narratives to play out, go wild with overreactions and … well, a lot of guys didn’t play.
Over the last six weeks, the biggest story in college basketball has been the federal investigation into corruption and bribery in the sport. Despite games getting underway, Friday was no different — and it wasn’t just because of the scandal.
We already knew Auburn’s Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy and Louisville’s Brian Bowen wouldn’t be playing. Oklahoma State and USC added to the list, with the Cowboys holding out star senior Jeffrey Carroll and the Trojans withholding De’Anthony Melton. Bowen is the outlier, but the other four players have no timetable for a return and it’s essentially a game-by-game, wait-and-see situation. Is there a chance they return next week? Is there a chance they miss the entire season? The answer to both could be yes. No one really knows.
The scandal-plagued programs weren’t the only ones missing players on Friday.
Arizona announced Friday afternoon that assistant coach Mark Phelps and senior forward Keanu Pinder were suspended for the Wildcats’ game against Northern Arizona. Phelps will also miss Sunday’s game against UMBC. Kansas freshman Billy Preston sat out on Friday after missing class and curfew. Alabama freshman Collin Sexton was suspended for Friday’s game, and the Crimson Tide were also missing three other key players due to injury. Texas A&M was without starting point guard J.J. Caldwell and lottery pick Robert Williams against West Virginia, which will miss Esa Ahmad for the first semester. Kezie Okpala, a top-50 incoming recruit, is out indefinitely due to academics. BYU guard Nick Emery withdrew from school and will miss the entire year. Houston star guard Rob Gray was suspended for Friday’s game. Clemson forward David Skara was suspended nine games. Arizona State suspended Romello White due to a team rules violation, and Kimani Lawrence suffered an ankle injury on Thursday. Oh, and UCLA was also missing three freshmen — including LiAngelo Ball — for its game in China against Georgia Tech, which is withholding Josh Okogie and Tadric Jackson for improper benefits.
And perhaps the most noteworthy potential absence to keep an eye on? Missouri freshman Michael Porter Jr., one of the early candidates for the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. He played just two minutes against Iowa State due to a hip injury, with Cuonzo Martin telling ESPN’s Myron Medcalf it was a “precaution” to hold him out.
Missouri needs Porter to return soon — and with all the other stars missing in action, so does college basketball.
The big boys looked good (even if Kentucky took awhile to get there)
Friday wasn’t the night if you were looking for big-time upsets. Each of the Top 10 teams in the preseason AP poll won by double figures, with six of them winning by at least 25 points.
Duke rolled over Elon, led by Marvin Bagley, whom we’ll get to more in a minute. The best sign for the Blue Devils? Trevon Duval had eight assists and zero turnovers. Michigan State had five guys in double figures — including Player of the Year favorite Miles Bridges with 20 and 10 — against North Florida, while Allonzo Trier’s 32 points led Arizona against Northern Arizona. Kansas beat Tennessee State by 36 and Wichita State took down UMKC by 52. Landry Shamet scoring 17 points after missing most of the offseason with an injury was key for the Shockers.
Kentucky started awfully slow against Utah Valley, and was down by 9 at halftime before scoring 48 points in the second half en route to a 73-63 win. That shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, as John Calipari spoke all preseason about how this team was a work-in-progress, especially defensively. The Wildcats will have to be much better against Kansas on Tuesday — but two things to note: Kentucky played a lot of zone on Friday and with its length, that could be an option for Calipari moving forward; also, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander played 36 minutes and seems to have beaten out five-star recruit Quade Green for the point guard job.
Welcome to college basketball
The top of the incoming freshman class is elite, and Friday did nothing to disprove that notion.
Duke’s Bagley went for 25 points and 10 rebounds in his debut, setting a Duke record for points by a freshman in the season opener. It was also the most points by a No. 1 overall recruit in his first career game, according to ESPN Stats and Info.
Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton had 20 points and 10 rebounds to start his career, throwing in two blocks on the defensive end, while Texas center Mohamed Bamba finished with 15 points, eight rebounds and four blocks.
Throw in a healthy Porter, and that’s going to be a terrific four-way battle all season.
The sleeper for NBA scouts is Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson, and he went for 13 points, 13 rebounds, three assists and four blocks on Friday — despite making just two shots from the field.
Texas A&M makes statement against West Virginia
The marquee game on Friday, and the lone game between Top 25 teams, was West Virginia’s battle against Texas A&M in China. After West Virginia opened up a 13-point first-half lead, it was all Texas A&M, as the Aggies ended up cruising to an 88-65 win.
Remember, Texas A&M’s likely starting point guard, J.J. Caldwell, is suspended for five games, and projected lottery pick Robert Williams is out for three games. No one would have been surprised if the Aggies were run ragged by Press Virginia. But T.J. Starks and Duane Wilson filled in admirably at the point guard spot, while veterans Tyler Davis, Admon Gilder and D.J. Hogg led the way.
But the performance was concerning for West Virginia. The Mountaineers simply couldn’t score once A&M figured out how to beat their pressure. It’s not the first time West Virginia has had that problem, as the Mountaineers have consistently been at their best when dominating the offensive glass or creating offense with their press. But Davis helped limit West Virginia to just 12 second-chance points, and the Mountaineers had only 17 points off turnovers. Outside of a West Virginia flurry at the start of both halves, A&M had success beating the press. Esa Ahmad is out the entire first semester, and the Mountaineers will have to find the half-court scorers to step up in his place. Fortunately, they have several games to figure it out, as they don’t play Virginia until Dec. 5.