College Basketball 2011-12: Previewing the Best Games of Opening Night

Matt PowersCorrespondent IINovember 9, 2011

College Basketball 2011-12: Previewing the Best Games of Opening Night

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    Every year, the college basketball season starts on the first Monday of November with a handful of teams playing in an early season tournament, and those teams play again on Thursday. For the rest of the nation, the season begins on the Friday that week when almost every school plays their opener.

    Usually, they play cupcake games to get an easy confidence-building victory, but there are always some exceptions. This year not only has a couple of exceptions, but also features a matchup of two of the nation's top programs over the last decade.

Loyola Marymount at UCLA

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    While UCLA is a Top 25 team, Loyola Marymount is one of the best teams in the West Coast Conference this season. Each team is led by a star and has tournament hopes for this new season.

    Loyola Marymount is led by fomer Oregon transfer Drew Viney. The senior missed five games last year, but when he was healthy enough to play he averaged 17.2 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.

    The 6'8" big man can score either inside or out, as shown by his 38 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Ashley Hamilton, a 6'7" forward, who missed seven games last year, returns after averaging 9.1 points and 5.7 rebounds per game.

    The backcourt is led by sophomore point guard Anthony Ireland, who fell into the starting role last year and performed well under those circumstances. Ireland averaged 10.6 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game and hit 35 percent of three-point attempts.

    Edgar Garibay, Godwin Okonji, and Ayodeji Egbeyemi are returning role players with the ability to step up this year.

    UCLA will rely on the strength of their frontcourt, led by power forward Reeves Nelson. Nelson, one of the premier players in the PAC-12, averaged 13.9 points and 9.1 rebounds per game a year ago. Sophomore center Josh Smith averaged 10.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game last year, but if he can gain more stamina those numbers could go way up.

    The other key returning player is Lazeric Jones, a junior college transfer who averaged 9.1 points and 3.6 assists in his Division I debut while battling a wrist injury.

    If newcomers David and Travis Wear, North Carolina transfers, freshman Norman Powell, and junior college transfer wing De'End Parker emerge, the Bruins could challenge for a PAC-12 title.

    Jerime Anderson's status is up in the air after an arrest, but he won't play here due to a suspesion.

    The Nelson-Viney matchup should be entertaining to watch, and Smith is always fun to watch because not many 300-pounders have that kind of agility. Loyola Marymount could pull the upset here if UCLA's backcourt struggles.

Oregon at Vanderbilt

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    This is an intriguing matchup featuring one of the best teams in the nation and a talent young team with a bunch of new pieces that must figure out the right combination. No matter what happens in this game, both teams will be sending out some very deep rosters.

    Oregon returns only a few players who made a big impact last year. One is E.J. Singler who averaged 11.7 points and 5.6 rebounds per game last year. Shooting guard Garrett Sim, who averaged 8.2 points per game last year, may start as well, but could be sent to the bench in favor or five-star recruit Jabari Brown, an elite talent.

    At point guard, Oregon features Johnathan Loyd, a 5'8 sophomore who averaged 4.7 points and 2.3 assists per game, but that's until Minnesota transfer Devoe Joseph is eligible in December. Forward Olu Ashaolu, a transfer from Louisiana Tech who averaged 13.2 points and 9.4 rebounds per game in the WAC a year ago.

    Junior college All-American Carlos Emory and Wake Forest transfer Tony Woods will compete for the other big man spot along with returnees Jeremy Jacob, who averaged 6.2 points and 3.5 rebounds per game, and Tyrone Nared, who averaged 5.1 points and 3.9 rebounds per game.

    Vanderbilt will be without star center Festus Ezeli due to a suspension, but they are still loaded. Shooting guard John Jenkins returns after scoring 19.3 points per game last year, while small forward Jeffrey Taylor averaged 14.7 points and 5.5 rebounds per game.

    Point guard Brad Tinsley averaged 10.6 points, 3.7 points and an SEC-leading 4.6 assists per game last year. The other starting big man, Lance Goulbourne, returns after averaging 6.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game last year. He will likely be pared with Steve Tchiengang in this game.

    Tchiengang averaged 4.8 points and 3.9 rebounds per game last year. The Commodores can expect more from last year's top recruit, Rod Odom, who averaged only 3.9 points and 2.6 rebounds per game a year ago. 

    Four-star guard recruits Kedren Johnson and Dai-Jon Parker along with 6'11 redshirt freshman Josh Henderson make up the newcomers.

    While both of these teams have a boat load of talent, it's clear that Vanderbilt is head and shoulders above the rebuilding Oregon program. It's not likely that Oregon can pull off an upset, but they have enough talented players that they could keep it interesting for a while.

BYU at Utah State

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    Two of the better mid-major programs in the last couple years matchup in the opener. BYU will be playing their first game in the post-Jimmer Fredette Era, while Utah State has the potential to be a tournament team.

    BYU needs to replace All-American point guard Jimmer Fredette, but after getting Brandon Davies back from an honor code violation the Cougars do have some star power back.

    Big man Noah Hartsock, who averaged 8.6 points, 5.9 rebounds per game and nearly two blocks per game, and wing man Charles Abouo, who averaged 7.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game, are each role players who will be asked to take the next step in their game this season.

    If big man Chris Collinsworth is close to full strength after micro-fracture surgery, the Cougars could have a very dangerous front court. The point guard will be UCLA transfer Matt Carlino, although he will not be eligible until December. Also, watch out for freshman Damarcus Harrison, a freshman who impressed during the summer.

    Utah State returns potentially the best player in the WAC, senior point guard Brockeith Pane. Pane averaged 11.8 points, 3.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game a year ago, and could easily expand on those numbers this season. Big man Brady Jardine is also back after averaging 7.5 points and 7.0 rebounds per game a year ago for the Aggies.

    The Aggies have a new group of talent featuring some talented junior college transfers. Shooting guard Antonio Bumpus was a 3rd team All-American in junior college. Kylsean Reed also has potential.

    These two mid-major programs could potentially make a run to the tournament if things work out and players step up. But this game could be a little sloppy as each team has to figure things out first. Davies and Pane give this game some star power to make it even more interesting.

Michigan State vs. North Carolina

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    Two of the top programs in the last decade matchup in their season opener at a neutral site in San Diego, as Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans face off against Roy Williams's North Carolina Tar Heels. The Tar Heels are the top team in the country in the preseason poll, while the Spartans are in rebuilding mode this year.

    The Tar Heels frontcourt is the best in the nation with Harrison Barnes. Tyler Zeller and John Henson are both likely NBA lottery picks and James McAdoo is among the top 10 freshmen in the country.

    Point guard Kendall Marshall is one of the nation's best pass-first point guards and the shooting guard combination of PJ Hairston and Reggie Bullock can score with ease. The Heels have talent everywhere and depth, so it's always fun to watch them.

    After averaging 12.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game last year, power forward Draymond Green is ready to step into the national spotlight as the star of the Spartans. Point guard Keith Appling is set to emerge as a quality starter after an up and down freshman season.

    Valparaiso transfer Brandon Wood is a lock to start at shooting guard after averaging 16.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.6 steals per game in the Horizon League last year. Five-star small forward Branden Dawson is an elite recruit ready to potentially start immediately.

    While North Carolina has a real talent and experience advantage, these are each among the best coached teams in the nation. The Spartans have enough talent to keep this one close and potentially pull off an upset.