November madness: Wrapping up a wild opening night in college basketball

Jason Szenes

College basketball has been long overdue for a true opening night. It got one on Friday, and it was glorious.

For years, college basketball fanatics have begged for a true opening night to adequately showcase a sport that generally doesn't get a great deal of attention until after the Super Bowl.

Friday night, those pleas were both answered and justified.

The first night of the 2012-13 college basketball season contained all the elements that attract fans to the sport: high-profile showdowns, big-time upsets, buzzer-beaters, on the court drama and off the court drama.

If you missed any of the action, it's cool, we've got you covered. If you caught all the action and just want to relieve it, we've got you too. But not as much as the first guy. He needs us more.

Most Impressive Team Of Opening Night: CONNECTICUT

You'll have to forgive the thinking world for predicting that this was going to be a down year for Connecticut. The Huskies - picked to finish ninth in the Big East by the league's coaches - are ineligible for postseason play because of low APR scores, and as a result lost the bulk of their scoring and rebounding from last season to either transfer or the NBA. Oh, and the man who essentially took the program from nothing and turned it into a three-time national champion decided to call it a career less than two months before the start of the season.

So naturally, UConn made the trip to Germany and promptly knocked off No. 14 Michigan State in the first showcase game of the 2012-13 season.

More impressive than the win over a Spartan team that's going to get much better (they always do), was the manner in which Connecticut accomplished the feat. In their debut under interim head coach Kevin Ollie, the Huskies played with more fire during the game's opening five minutes than they did over the entirety of the five month long 2011-12 season. It was about as dramatic a climate shift from one year to the next as I've ever seen.

A year ago, Jim Calhoun's defending national champions were in a perpetual of 9 a.m. Monday morning state. Alex Oriakhi complained about playing time on Twitter, Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond seemed only excited about being one day closer to the NBA Draft, and Shabazz Napier was essentially told "shut up" by his teammates every time he tried to step up as a leader. The big talent, little heart team's season ended predictably: with the Huskies already thinking about playing Kentucky while they were being into the ground by Iowa State in their first NCAA Tournament game.

The attitude shift from that group to this one was impossible to miss on Friday. Players sprinted over to help fallen teammates off the ground, the bench was on its feet for every made basket and there were actual smiles, more than once even.

The man at the center of it all was Ollie, who proved his value in multiple ways during his coaching debut.

It's one thing to inspire your players to give maximum effort, but it's another to go head-to-head with one of the top coaching minds in the game. That was the situation Ollie found himself in when Tom Izzo called timeout with his team in possession of the ball and down by a basket with 55 seconds to play. It was the moment you expected the vet to out-duel the newbie, and the team with nothing to play for to fold. Instead, Connecticut never rattled and the Spartans ended the game without scoring another point.

After the game, Ollie's players huddled behind their head coach as he spoke with ESPN's Andy Katz, ready to explode at the slightest word or phrase that would make an outburst borderline appropriate. It happened seconds later when Ollie remarked that it was going to be a good plane ride home. The Huskies responded with cheers and screams that, after 19 months, just couldn't be held in any longer.

Best Game Of Opening Night: NO. 3 KENTUCKY 72, MARYLAND 69

This wasn't supposed to be the most competitive game of opening night, and for the first 25 minutes or so, the two participants played their parts accordingly. Maryland then flipped the script out of nowhere and roared back from a 13-point halftime deficit to take a 59-57 lead with eight minutes remaining. They did so the way they weren't supposed to, dominating the vaunted Wildcat frontcourt to the tune of a 54-38 rebounding advantage.

Naturally, Kentucky - the team once again headlined by a top-rated John Calipari recruiting class- responded the way it wasn't supposed to, with the heroics of a former walk-on. Point guard Jarrod Polson spent 22 minutes on the court replacing the largely ineffective (and reportedly sick) Ryan Harrow, and scored six of his 10 points in the game's final five minutes. Those six points included a key steal and lay-up to put the Cat up by four, and a pair of enormous free-throws with 7.7 seconds left.

Though Polson's story is captivating, it can't completely overshadow the fact that Kentucky has more issues than the No. 3 team in the country probably should.

For starters, Calipari doesn't have an NBA point guard running his offense for what feels like the first time in three decades. Harrow may have been under the weather all week, but if he was healthy enough to play, he should have been far more effective than he was. Second, former No. 1 recruit Nerlens Noel was absolutely dominated by Maryland big man Alex Len, who may have made himself a decent amount of money Friday night. Expectations for Noel and fellow frosh Alex Poythress to be Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist right out of the gate were unrealistic, but the 2012-13 frontcourt duo appear to be frighteningly behind where the eventual top two draft picks were at this time 12 months ago.

The Wildcats can get much better, and they're going to get much better. It just seems like the ceiling might be a level or two lower than it's been for the past three seasons.

Biggest Storyline Of Opening Night: CARRIER CATASTROPHE

You like that? I wanted to have this crazy graphic that would pop up right after you read that, but then the brass got all mad and was like, "just write words." It was this whole thing.

Before last season, I wrote that the Carrier Classic was going to be a disaster. Predicting that a basketball game being played on the deck of an aircraft carrier wasn't going to go well seemed like a pretty safe play. Instead, the game went off without a hitch and produced some of the most memorable images of the 2011-12 season. I got really drunk, cried and started arguments with strangers just so I could refuse to back down from my established stance.

The success of the game eventually spawned multiple imitators, which resulted in the calamity that was Friday night.

The first crack in the "playing games outside is a flawless idea" foundation actually came earlier this week, when it was announced that the "Battle of Midway" between Syracuse and San Diego State was being moved from Friday to Sunday because of weather concerns. That game is still scheduled to take place.

That still left a pair of carrier games slated for Friday, the first of which was the second installment on the Carrier Classic, this year featuring Ohio State and Marquette. After more than an hour delay, the game was cancelled due to excess condensation on the court. Things were even more frustrating down in Jacksonville, where Florida and Georgetown were able to play the first half of the Navy-Marine Corps Classic before the game was called because of the same issue. The game will officially go down as a "no-contest" in the record books, which means it won't count for or against either team's win/loss total, and none of the stats will be kept.

Earlier in the night, Michigan State and Connecticut played a fantastic game in front of a tremendous crowd inside an Air Base hangar in Germany. These things can be done, they just need to be done in some sort of controlled environment. I get that the photo ops are better outside, but think about the crazy amount of money that was wasted tonight. Seriously, those tickets were like 1,000 bucks a pop. While you're thinking about stuff, go ahead and think about the people who bought those tickets, too. Think about it all.

Biggest Upset Of Opening Night: SOUTH ALABAMA 76, NO. 25 FLORIDA STATE 71

During the offseason, FSU guard Michael Snaer said this after competing at the LeBron James Skills Academy:

"I'm the best guard in the country, the best 2-guard in the country, in my opinion. Any guy would say that of course. But, like I said, you ask any of the guys that were down there in that drill with me and who laced up and went against me -- I can give you references if you want -- but they'll tell you, 'Yeah, I couldn't guard him and nobody down there could.' "

In the first game of his senior season, Snaer backed up his talk by going 2-for-11 from the field and 0-for-6 from three as his nationally ranked Seminoles lost to a team picked to finish second in the East Division of the Sun Belt Conference.

Best Buzzer-Beater Of Opening Night: ALABAMA'S TREVOR LACEY BEATS SOUTH DAKOTA STATE


It wasn't up for the award since it wasn't technically a buzzer-beater (although there appeared to be like 0.2 seconds left when Lacey's shot went through the net, too), but Troy's Emile Jones' game-winner against Mississippi State also warrants some attention.


Opening Night Most Valuable Player: C.J. McCollum

I'm giving the honor to McCollum even though his team lost to Baylor by 22 points because the Mountain Hawks were playing without fellow starters B.J. Bailey and Gabe Knutson, and never really had a chance. McCollum did all he could, scoring 36 points and snagging eight rebounds. The preseason All-American is still my pick to lead the nation in scoring this season.

All-Opening Night Team

James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina - Lived up to all the "breakout player" hype by scoring 26 points and grabbing 14 boards in Carolina's romp over Gardner-Webb.

Jeff Withey, Kansas - The senior center dominated the paint, scoring 17 points, bringing down 12 rebounds and blocking five shots as the Jayhawks beat up on Southeast Missouri State.

Alex Len, Maryland - It was said earlier, but the young man may have made himself some serious cash by getting the better of Nerlens Noel to the tune of 23 points and 12 rebounds.

Dwight Powell, Stanford - Hit 9-of-14 shots and scored 27 points as the trendy sleeper pick in the Pac-12 beat San Francisco, 74-62.

Shabazz Napier, Connecticut - Played like the leader his team needs him to be, scoring a game-high 25 points and not turning the ball over once.

Best Photo Of Opening Night:

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That's former Kentucky walk-on Jarrod Polson's parents watching their son steal the show at the end of UK's win over Maryland. The picture was taken by Polson's sister, who then tweeted it at her brother after the game.

Number Of The Night: 117

That's the number Xavier dropped on (how Dickinson are they?) Fairleigh Dickinson Friday night. Expectations are as low for the Musketeers as they've been in quite a while, but scoring 117 on anybody is a pretty solid indication that things may not be quite as bad as they had appeared.

Opening Night Odds And Ends:

--Despite playing without suspended standouts Vaughn Gray and Erik Copes, George Mason defeated Virginia for the first time in the history of the program with a 63-59 triumph on Friday. Byron Allen's desperation three-pointer in the final minute proved to be the game-winner for the Patriots. Tony Benett needs to find a point guard.

--Mike Rice and Rutgers suffered a thoroughly embarrassing 56-52 home loss to Saint Peter's, which won just five games last season. Perhaps most troubling of all for the Scarlet Knights (outside of starting their season with a loss to a team called the Peacocks) was the comment made by Kansas State transfer Wally Judge following the game.

"We have to find a leader," Judge said. "Somebody has to take ownership for the lack of effort, for the lack of discipline."

You generally don't hear that type of talk this early in a season.

--If we were giving out an award for worst game of the night, it probably would have gone to Texas' hideous 55-53 win over Fresno State. To be fair, both teams were missing key players. None more important than Longhorn guard Myck Kabongo, who is still awaiting word on his eligibility from the NCAA.

--Baylor freshman Isaiah Austin looked remarkably polished in his college debut, hitting 10-of-12 shots and scoring 22 points in just 17 minutes before leaving the game with an ankle sprain. He'll likely miss the Bears' game against Jackson State on Sunday.

--South Dakota State star Nate Wolters put on his first show of the season with a 30-point performance against Alabama. His thunder was eventually stolen by Trevor Lacey's game-winner at the buzzer.

--It was an impressive debut for new Morehead State head coach Sean Woods, as the Eagles notched a big 77-74 win over defending Northeast Conference champ LIU Brooklyn. Senior forward Milton Chavis scored 24 points in the win.

--Doug McDermott's Player of the Year campaign got off to a fast start, as the preseason All-American scored 21 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in No. 14 Creighton's 71-51 win over North Texas. Fellow All-American Tony Mitchell dropped 18 for the losers.

--Former St. John's standout Nurideen Lindsey scored 26 points in his debut for Rider. The Broncs destroyed Robert Morris, 79-54.

--It's been a rough year for the CAA, which lost multiple programs (most notably VCU) to other leagues during the latest helping of conference realignment madness. It didn't get any better on Friday when preseason favorite Drexel was surprisingly upended by Kent State, 66-62 in overtime.

--The overtime news was lest stellar for fellow MAC power Toledo, which needed an extra five minutes to lose to Coastal Carolina, 74-70. Some people had been hyping the Zips up as a potential at-large team this season. As of this second, their resume is not looking at-large worthy to me.

--While any talk of the Patriot League generally centers around C.J. McCollum these days, it's actually Bucknell and their own star, Mike Muscala, who are picked to win the conference. They gave an early indication of why by stunning Purdue 70-65.

--And finally, UCLA wrapped up the day's festivities by playing their first game inside the new Pauley Pavilion. Nearly overshadowing the event, however, was the news from a few hours earlier that prized freshman Shabazz Muhammad had been ruled ineligible (for the time being) by the NCAA. The Bruins overcame a slow start to roll over Indiana State, 86-59.

We should do this every year.

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