College basketball is finally back folks! Starting on November 10, fans will begin the glorious countdown to March Madness and inevitably the Final Four. However, before we can even contemplate filling out our eventual busted brackets, we must first observe the current state and development of all of the notable and underrated programs to see how they develop from a competitive standpoint. While it’s no surprise that the likes of Duke, Michigan State, and Arizona are considered the best programs in the country, there will be numerous opportunities for programs such as Wichita State (ranked 7th) and Saint Mary’s (ranked 20th) to possibly supersede the powerhouse programs of college basketball.
Texas A&M Aggies (25) vs. West Virginia Mountaineers (11)
Our first ranked vs. ranked contest of the season has an up and coming SEC program in the Aggies squaring off with the highly respected and defensively disciplined Mountaineers. Boasting an impressive frontcourt this year with the likes of Robert Williams (suspended first two games for violating school policies), Tyler Davis (averaged 14.1 points and seven rebounds per game last season), and Tony Trocha-Morelos (averaged one block per game last season), the Aggies have the versatile talent to be highly competitive this year. Unlike the Aggies, the Mountaineers do not possess a true center on their roster and will be reliant on senior guard Jevon Carter to lead the program defensively (2.5 steals per game last year) and offensively (13.5 PPG last season). While it’s hard to pick against a Mountaineers full-court press tactic that has proven its success over the years, the size and experience of the Aggies top players should be enough for this exciting program to pull off the upset.
Final Score: Aggies 78 Mountaineers 73 Spread: West Virginia -6.5
Northern Iowa Panthers vs. North Carolina Tar Heels (9)
Just glancing at the names of these two programs would be enough for most pundits to immediately crown the Tar Heels the victors in this matchup. Not so fast. With senior guard Joel Berry II breaking his hand in the offseason (14.7 PPG last season), Roy Williams will have to most likely rely on two underclassman guards in Seventh Woods (only played 7.7 minutes per game last season) and Jalek Felton (true freshman) to lead his team to a hard-fought victory. While the Panthers have a couple of interesting upperclassman guards in Hunter Rhodes and Wyatt Lohaus, neither of them are proficient offensively and will have to be particularly tenacious defensively (64.4 points allowed last season, 26th in the country) to pull off the massive upset. Even with Berry sidelined, the Tar Heels are much more talented and well-coached, which gives them the clear edge in this affair.
Final Score: Panthers 63 Tar Heels 80 Spread: North Carolina -17.0
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets vs. UCLA Bruins (21)
Considering the severe NCAA violations that the Yellow Jackets are currently dealing with, a win against a ranked Bruins team would be a tremendous morale boost for this program. However, with senior guard Tadric Jackson (12.1 PPG last season) and sophomore more guard Josh Okogie (16.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG last season) being suspended indefinitely due to receiving improper benefits, the Yellow Jackets lose two of their best and most reliable scorers. Yet, the Yellow Jackets are not the only program that is dealing with issues when it comes player controversies. After three UCLA players were caught shoplifting in China, one of whom was LiAngelo Ball, the Bruins are in a less than ideal situation as they attempt to regroup and compete. It will be an emotional affair for both programs, but I see UCLA pulling out a close one overseas.
Final Score: Yellow Jackets 68 Bruins 71 Spread: UCLA -7.5
Memphis Tigers vs. Alabama Crimson Tide
A Memphis team that was impressively sound at passing the ball last season will bring back junior guard Jeremiah Martin (10.3 PPG and 4.4 APG last season) while adding sizeable freshman guard David Nickelberry to the mix. With freshman Collin Sexton(9 PPG, 3.8 RPG) being suspended one game due to an FBI probe and talented sophomore guard Braxton Key out at least a month due to knee surgery, the Crimson Tide will need to senior guard Riley Norris (12.0 PPG, 5.7 RPG last season) last season to step up in a big way for them to secure an opening day victory. With the Crimson Tide’s two best players out of this matchup, I see the Tigers youth prevailing in this contest.
Final Score: Tigers 79 Crimson Tide 70 Spread: Alabama -6.5
Pittsburgh Panthers vs. Navy Midshipmen
With the Panthers returning guard Malik Ellison (7.4 PPG last season) and super senior guard Monty Boykins (10.7 PPG during the junior season), Pittsburgh will rely on their two veterans while seeing what they have in their seven incoming freshmen. Navy, on the other hand, has a much stronger veteran presence with senior forward Tom Lacey (7.6 PPG, 7.7 RPG last season) and senior guard (12.2 PPG, 1.2 SPG last season) anchoring what should be a defensively potent Midshipmen program. Considering the depth and ability of Navy, they have the clear advantage in this contest while the Panthers will be determined to prove that they can compete with their young corps.
Final Score: Panthers 69 Midshipmen 79 Spread: Navy -3.0
Yale Bulldogs vs. Creighton Blue Jays
Aside from Harvard, the Yale Bulldogs have been one of the more impressive Ivy league programs in college basketball and will look to continue to be efficient offensively as they return junior guard Alex Copeland (12.9 PPG, 48.4 FG% last season) and senior guard Makai Mason (16 PPG last season) who is a fearless albeit streaky shooter. Not to be outdone, the Blue Jays are also bringing back a couple of offensively potent guards in senior Khyri Thomas (12.3 PPG, 50.5 FG% last season) and sophomore Damien Jefferson (5.3 PPG, 43.8 FG% last season). While I expect Jefferson to get immense minutes increase this season, the relentless scoring attack of the Bulldogs will prevail in this initial contest.
Final Score: Bulldogs 84 Bluejays 77 Spread: Creighton -8.5
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (14) vs. DePaul Blue Demons
Obviously, the chances of the Blue Demons pulling off the upset here is next to impossible. Still, if fans have learned anything from watching college basketball it’s that anything can happen. With the Blue Demons bringing back their impressive two-way player in Tre’Darius McCallum (9.7 PPG, 1.5 SPG last season) along with high volume shooter Eli Cain (averaged 13.3 shot attempts and 15.6 PPG last season), DePaul has a nice blend of offense and defense on their team. However, the Fighting Irish have a dynamic athlete of their own in senior guard Matt Farrell (14.1 PPG, 1.4 SPG last season) along with a double-double machine in senior forward Bonzie Colson (17.8 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 1.4 BPG last season). While the Blue Demons have some potent shooters in their program, the superior defensive and outside shooting abilities of the Fighting Irish will ultimately overwhelm this scrappy DePaul program in the end.
Final Score: Fighting Irish 90 Blue Demons 72 Spread: Notre Dame -9.0
Monmouth Hawks vs. Seton Hall Pirates (23)
After being snubbed from the NCAA Tournament last season, the Hawks will look to dispatch a ranked Seton Hall program to prove their success last year was not a fluke. The defensive capabilities of junior guard Nick Rutherford (1.3 SPG last season) combined with the prolific shooting abilities of junior guard Micah Seaborn (13.2 PPG last season) should allow the Hawks to compete for another tournament bid this season. With that being said, the Pirates will not be sympathetic to the Hawks cause as senior guard Khadeen Carrington (17.1 PPG, 1.2 SPG last season) and streaky shooter Desi Rodriguez (15.7 PPG last season) will give Monmouth everything they can handle. Although the Hawks underrated defense could keep this game close initially, the Pirates plethora of high-volume shooters should win this contest in the end.
Final Score: Hawks 68 Pirates 77 Spread: Seton Hall -16.5
Navy Midshipmen vs. Miami Hurricanes (13)
While the aforementioned Midshipmen are gritty on the defensive end, attempting to hold a highly-talented Hurricanes program in check is a tall order, to say the least. Senior guard Ja’Quan Newton is an accurate mid-range shooter (13.5 PPG, 45.2 FG% last season) while sophomore Dewan Huell should have a bigger role as both a consistent rebounder (3.1 RPG last season) and as a close-range scorer (5.8 PPG last season). While the Midshipmen have the talent and endurance to bother the Hurricanes somewhat, Miami is the better-coached team and has much more depth on their roster.
Final Score: Midshipmen 73 Hurricanes 84 Spread: N/Princeton
Tigers vs. Butler Bulldogs
Amongst all of the great defensive programs in college basketball last season, the Princeton Tigers were one of the best teams that no one was talking about (61.4 PA last season, ninth in the country). With junior guard Devin Cannady (13.4 PPG, 1.1 SPG last season) and sharpshooter Myles Stephens (12.5 PPG, 51.2 FG%), the Tigers have a nice blend of defense and offense within their program. In order for the Butler Bulldogs to penetrate the disciplined defense of the Tigers, they will need senior forward Tyler Wideman (7.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG last season) and senior forward Kelan Martin (16 PPG, 5.8 RPG last season) to lead what is a very young Butler squad on both defense and offense. While the Tigers should be potent defensively, their lack of a precise shooter and tenacious rebounder will prevent them from winning this contest.
Final Score: Tigers 70 Bulldogs 75 Spread: Butler -9.5