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Friday, November 13, 2009
What to watch for during this weekend's action


A few teams have gotten a head start on the action, but for most of the country, this weekend marks the official beginning of the new season. The slate of games doesn't move the meter much, but there is significance with a number of tipoffs this weekend.

Friday

Morehead State at Kentucky (ESPNU, 6:30 ET): UK won't have star freshman John Wall (serving the second of his two-game NCAA suspension) during the debut of of the John Calipari era in Lexington. But the rest of the Wildcats' heralded freshmen class will be on display, including DeMarcus Cousins, Daniel Orton, Darnell Dodson, Eric Bledsoe and Jon Hood. Perhaps more important for Kentucky will be whether potential SEC Player of the Year Patrick Patterson can prove himself to be a leader of this crew. Expect the atmosphere to be rocking from the opening tip.

Wright State at Washington: Coaches in the Horizon League expect Wright State to challenge Butler for the league title. The Raiders have experienced guards in Vaughn Duggins and Todd Brown to mess with Washington's backcourt, which includes heralded newcomer Abdul Gaddy, Isaiah Thomas and Venoy Overton. With Jon Brockman gone, how well Quincy Pondexter rebounds in this first game could determine not just this outcome but the Huskies' season going forward.

Rider at Mississippi State: Renardo Sidney won't play since he hasn't been cleared to compete for Mississippi State. But that shouldn't slow down the best shot-blocker in the country, Jarvis Varnado. How well the Bulldogs contain Rider's Ryan Thompson, perhaps the best player in the MAAC, could determine this outcome. And while the Bulldogs' frontcourt gets a lot of play, this is a huge test for guards Dee Bost, Barry Stewart and Ravern Johnson.

Harvard at Holy Cross: The Crusaders have their best team in years under new coach Sean Kearney. Harvard has one of the more underrated guards in Jeremy Lin. This is a game the Crusaders should win but one that Harvard could make quite interesting. If the Crimson hope to do something in the Ivy this season, a win in Worcester would be a telling sign.

Drexel at Saint Joseph's: Former Saint Joseph's guard Bruiser Flint, now the head coach at Drexel, agreed to be the first opponent at the Hawks' new digs at Hagan Arena. This is a long time coming for one of the more storied programs on the East Coast. Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli has worked tirelessly under what would be deemed squatter-like conditions in the higher-major Division I college basketball world.

Bradley at BYU: This is the first game in the new Missouri Valley/Mountain West Conference challenge to get the two conferences some early-season buzz as well as help out in scheduling. But the most significant aspect of this game is that BYU coach Dave Rose will be on the sidelines. Rose got a second shot at life when his rare form of a pancreatic tumor was surgically removed and he received a clear cancer scan in September. Everyone should celebrate Rose standing along the sideline at the Marriott Center. His presence and the Cougars' core returning talent make BYU the MWC favorite again.

Northern Illinois at Northwestern: The Wildcats open the season after the disappointing news that senior forward Kevin Coble is out for possibly a month with a sprained left foot. Northwestern still has the talent to survive this hit in many of its early-season games. This is one they can't afford to lose.

Saturday

Davidson at Butler: This is a return of a BracketBusters game for the Wildcats, who are playing their first game without Stephen Curry in four seasons. It's a new era for coach Bob McKillop but one that should still see Davidson among the elite teams in the Southern Conference, even if the Wildcats aren't picked to win it in the preseason. Butler, meanwhile, starts the season as a top-10 team. Winning home games like this will be expected of the Bulldogs from this point forward.

Creighton at Dayton: This is a classic case of a game that could get lost in the shuffle over a packed weekend, but it might be one of the more significant games for each team this season. Creighton fancies itself as a Missouri Valley Conference title contender, along with Northern Iowa. Dayton is the clear favorite of the Atlantic 10 and should be a Top 25 team throughout the season. If Creighton were to win a road game like this, it would have shelf life throughout the season. Conversely, if the Flyers are who they are projected to be, then they need to win a game like this at home for credibility and their season-long power-rating standing.

Sunday

Oregon State at Texas Tech: The Beavers conclude a round-robin exempted event against the Red Raiders. A year ago, Oregon State lost games early in the season because it didn't know how to win. The Beavers figured it out once they got into the Pac-10 and won seven games (up from zero the season before). Texas Tech is picked to finish in the bottom four in the Big 12. If the Beavers are an NCAA tournament team, they should win games like this.

• Three Big 12 coaches made their way to the Bristol car wash at ESPN earlier this week and shared some interesting tidbits on their teams.

Missouri's Mike Anderson said sophomore forward Laurence Bowers has been a highlight. He's rebounded well and will likely be the guy who replaces DeMarre Carroll inside. Don't dismiss Keith Ramsey from contributing quite a bit inside, either. The Tigers lost their "junkyard dog" in Carroll but return the backcourt's "heart and soul" in J.T. Tiller. Tiller returns as part of a loaded and frenetic backcourt, along with Zaire Taylor, Kim English and freshman Michael Dixon. They will be hard to contain in the Big 12.

"They are underrated," Anderson said of his backcourt. "It's a helluva backcourt that led the nation in assists [138 for Tiller and 128 for Taylor] and was second in steals [123]. We're going to beat some people."

• Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford had high praise for Kentucky transfer Matt Pilgrim, who was jettisoned from the Wildcats but was granted immediate eligibility without having to sit out a year. Pilgrim scored 18 points and 12 rebounds in an exhibition game earlier in the week. "He's the most athletic and quickest player I've ever coached," Ford said of the forward. "Pro scouts come to watch James [Anderson] and say, 'Wow, this kid is unbelievably raw offensively but has extremely high energy.'"

The big question for the Cowboys will be if Ford can find a point guard to replace Byron Eaton to help feed players like Pilgrim and take a bit of pressure off All-Big 12 wing Anderson. Ford said he'll play Keiton Page at the point but anticipates freshman Ray Penn will gravitate to major minutes. "He's a helluva talent and he'll be one of the best in the Big 12 in two years." Ford said of his team, "We've got a chance. I'll put our first group against anyone."

• Baylor coach Scott Drew isn't packing in on this season, not with the return of guards LaceDarius Dunn and Tweety Carter. Drew is one of the most optimistic coaches and only he could spin the Bears' Top 25 ranking at the start of last season and its NIT final appearance after a disastrous 5-11 Big 12 season. Still, the reason for his giddiness on Wednesday was the signing of ESPNU No. 3 player Perry Jones out of Duncanville High (Texas). The 6-11 center could be a one-and-done and will make Baylor a stopping point for NBA scouts next season.

"When you bring in a person like that, it opens doors," Drew said. "He's going to be a great player. We've recruited top-20 classes but haven't been able to sign that consensus top-five pick in the country. Most NBA drafts have him as a lottery pick. We'll be viewed in a whole new light because kids will say, 'I want to play with that guy' or, 'He went there so I can play there.'" Drew has gone after high-profile talents with NBA potential like C.J. Miles (who opted for the NBA draft out of high school after turning down Texas), Darrell Arthur (who chose Kansas over Baylor and LSU) and most recently John Wall (who chose Kentucky even after Drew hired Dwon Clifton, a coach with ties to Wall, as a summer-league coach).

"We go after the best and we feel like if we get them on campus, and they see the academics and they see the facilities, we've got a chance," Drew said.

Drew said that with the return of Dunn, Nolan Dennis (who will be a sophomore) and Michigan transfer Ekpe Udoh, the Bears will have the right pieces around Jones in 2010-11 to make a significant run.

"We'll have have talent around him and it will be great to have somebody that, night in and night out, everyone out there knows who that guy is," Drew said.