The defending champion Kentucky Wildcats begin their pursuit of another national title on Friday night against the Maryland Terrapins. With a roster full of fresh faces, head coach John Calipari must once again get all his talented recruits on the same page.
Kentucky, which opens at No. 3, lost six key contributors from last season's squad to the NBA, including top overall pick Anthony Davis and second pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, illustrating exactly how dominant the Wildcats roster was during their run to the championship.
Expectations aren't as high for Maryland. The Terrapins went just 6-10 in ACC play last season and still have some work to do before they are contenders. Freshmen Shaquille Cleare and Jake Layman should at least accelerate the process.
College basketball is back. Let's take a look at all the vital information for Friday night's game followed by a preview and prediction for the marquee matchup.
Which team will start the season with a win?
Where: Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
When: Friday, Nov. 9 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Watch: ESPN and ESPN3.com
Listen: WKHG 104.9 FM (Kentucky) or WMAL 1090 AM (Maryland)
Betting Line: TBA
Key Injuries (via USA Today)
Kentucky: No injuries listed
Maryland: No injuries listed
Both teams are expected to enter the season at full strength.
What's At Stake?
Since college basketball usually takes a back seat to the NFL and college football for the first couple months of its season, the importance of the early games is understated. They are crucial for building chemistry for teams like Kentucky, with a host of new players.
Not only do the Wildcats have a handful of freshmen looking to make an immediate impact like their predecessors did, but also a bunch of promising sophomores hoping to show off their skills. All of them will fight for playing time starting on Friday night.
For Maryland, beating Kentucky right out of the gate would provide a major boost of confidence. The Terrapins are a young team too, so the progress they make early will give them a much better chance to remain competitive once ACC play gets underway.
What They're Saying
Tim Sullivan of the Courier-Journal likes Kentucky's chances again this season because of the operation put in place by Calipari, which worked to perfection last season:
Think of Big Blue as an assembly line operating at peak efficiency and Calipari as the Henry Ford of hoops, “looking for a lot of men who have an infinite capacity to not know what can’t be done.” Each of the machines Calipari constructs consists of different parts, but the quality control is consistent and the product seldom disappoints.
Don Markus of the Baltimore Sun hasn't been impressed with what he's seen from the Terrapins and has altered his once-promising outlook for the regular-season opener:
I thought the Terps might have a chance next Friday night against defending national champion Kentucky at the Barclays Center, given that the Wildcats have a younger and newer cast than Maryland. Based on what I’ve seen on the all-access show John Calipari's team is doing on ESPN, and what I witnessed at Comcast Center, I don’t think that anymore.
Kentucky Player to Watch: Nerlens Noel
Noel is going to spend the entire season being compared to Davis, who started his NBA career impressively before getting sidelined due to injury. Like last year's Player of the Year, Noel is a terrific defender with some work to do on offense.
The most important thing for him is not getting caught up in the constant hype. It's something Davis did extremely well. If he's as good as advertised—and the exhibition games suggest he will be—the attention he receives will be unlike anything he's dealt with before.
He must remain grounded and let his performance on the court do the talking. In order for the Wildcats to make another memorable run, they need Noel to dominate in the paint. Once he gets settled in, expect him to do exactly that.
Maryland Player to Watch: James Padgett
One of just two seniors on the Maryland roster, Padgett not only has to show improvement as a player, but as a leader too. The Terrapins have upside, but they need somebody to step up to show the way, and he's the most likely candidate.
The forward, who will be returning home to play in Brooklyn for the opener, averaged nine points and six rebounds in 24 minutes last season. He should be in line to play a much larger role this season, meaning those numbers should see a boost.
It's going to take some time before fans can get a read on what to expect from the Terrapins because there are so many moving pieces, but Padgett's play will be one of the leading indicators. He'll get a good first test, that's for sure.
Will the Wildcats repeat?
Key Matchup: John Calipari vs. Mark Turgeon
Both Calipari and Turgeon have young rosters. It will show in the early going as they each look to find the right formula for success, which will undoubtedly take some time and lead to some ugly play for the first month or so.
What fans will find out on Friday night is which team has a better starting point. Not only in terms of talent, which is in Kentucky's favor, but in being prepared to play after only some exhibition games and practice under their belts.
Calipari has received a lot of heat for his one-and-done approach. But he finally proved last season that it works when the right players are brought in. Now it's time to find out what he can do for an encore with a new group of rising stars.
Kentucky 78, Maryland 61