One of the most consistent complaints about college basketball over the years has been that the sport doesn’t do enough to celebrate its opening night. Most seasons have kicked off with a thud thanks to a Friday night assignment in the middle of football season that has been chock full of games sparking little to no national intrigue.
Thankfully, the times are changing.
The powers that be in the sport have made the no-brainer decision to move the Champions Classic — which has served as the season’s unofficial starting point for years — to opening night, and to move opening night from Friday to Tuesday. Making sure that said Tuesday doesn’t coincide with the most-discussed midterm elections in the history of our country would have been a nice follow-up move, but hey, we’re still making strides here.
This new opening night isn’t just about the Champions Classic. The college hoops gods have blessed us with a loaded debut slate that should leave us with plenty to discuss throughout the evening and into Wednesday morning.
Here’s a look at the 10 best games of day one of the 2018-19 season, with a prediction for each.
1) No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 4 Duke (9:30 p.m./ESPN)
The showcase game of the Champions Classic might not feature the No. 1 team in college basketball, but it does feature the two names most synonymous with the sport at the present moment.
In an odd reversal of roles from three or four years ago, Duke is loaded with exciting but inexperienced talent destined to be lottery picks in a few months, while Kentucky appears to have a more well-rounded squad with some solid freshmen but also a handful of proven veterans sprinkled in.
All eyes will be on Zion Williamson and potential No. 1 pick R.J. Barrett, but as a team, Duke has struggled defensively at times in both its summer trip to the Bahamas and its preseason exhibitions. That’s an issue that has doomed past teams with similar makeups in this event.
Kentucky has depth and talent at every position on the court, and for the first time in a couple of years, some quality experience at multiple spots. The question in this early season showdown for the Wildcats will be whether they can get enough outside shooting, and whether John Calipari can find the right combination of pieces to outduel Mike Krzyzewski.
The Champions Classic has always featured four teams that you know are going to be right in the thick of things come March. Still, the quality of play this early in a year is always going to be hit or miss. Sometimes, the games make you feel like you’re watching a Final Four classic, other times you’re very aware that you’re watching two teams in the budding stage of their seasons.
Expect this game to be more of the former scenario.
Prediction: Kentucky 87, Duke 84
2) No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 10 Michigan State (7 p.m./ESPN)
Kansas is one of the stranger preseason No. 1 teams in recent memory. Yes, the Jayhawks are loaded with talent and experience, but we’ve hardly seen any of that talent or experience compete in a Jayhawk uniform. In fact, the only two returning starters from Bill Self’s 2018 Final Four squad are a center best known for his late-game free-throw struggles (Udoka Azubuike) and a guard everyone thought Self had run out of the program after last season (Lagerald Vick).
What KU does have is a trio of high-profile transfers in Dedric and K.J. Lawson from Memphis and Charlie Moore from Cal. All three put up impressive numbers (especially preseason First Team All-American Dedric Lawson), but all three did so for bad teams that were mostly out of the national spotlight.
With the backcourt of Malik Newman and Devonte’ Graham gone, Self will rely heavily on the five-star freshman duo of Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson to mature rapidly. That process will begin Tuesday night against a program that has made a habit of feasting on inexperience over the years.
Michigan State enters 2018-19 with significantly less hype than they’ve had in two of the last three seasons, and maybe that’s a good thing. There are no surefire lottery picks on this roster, nor are there any likely one-and-done candidates. Tom Izzo will make due with the lethal inside-outside combination of Nick Ward and Cassius Winston. Winston was one of the most underrated point guards in the country last season, averaging 12.6 points and 6.9 assists on 51 percent shooting. If the game is tight in the final minutes, his presence could make all the difference in the world for Sparty.
Prediction: Kansas 77, Michigan State 70
3) Florida at No. 17 Florida State (9 p.m./ESPN2)
For at least the second year in a row, the product from the Florida-Florida State basketball rivalry game figures to be of higher quality than its football counterpart.
The Seminoles enter the 2018 version of the Sunshine Showdown having won four straight over their arch-rivals for the first time in the history of the series. If they extend that run to five, they’ll have to do without the services of Phil Cofer. The senior standout will miss Tuesday’s game because of an ankle injury.
Florida returns the experienced and talented duo of Jalen Hudson and KeVaughn Allen, but must replace graduated point guard Chris Chiozza, the school’s all-time leader in assists (571). If five-star freshman Andrew Nembhard is up to the task, the Gators should once again be safely into the field of 68 come March.
The process of getting there starts with an upset inside the Tucker Center on Tuesday.
Prediction: Florida 77, Florida State 73
4) No. 8 North Carolina at Wofford (7 p.m./ESPN2)
One of the biggest upsets of last season came on Dec. 20, when Wofford waltzed into the Dean Dome and stunned No. 5 North Carolina, 79-75. The shocker snapped UNC’s 23-game home winning streak, and also marked the first time in program history that the Terriers had defeated a top 25 opponent.
To Roy Williams’ credit, he’ll now take another North Carolina team ranked in the top 10 on the road to face Wofford on night one of the 2018-19 season. Fletcher Magee, who scored 27 points in last year’s win, is a preseason First Team Mid-Major All-American, and might just be the best pure shooter in all of college basketball.
North Carolina will counter with three returning starters, including First Team preseason All-American Luke Maye, as well as a highly-touted freshmen class headlined by point guard Coby White and potential top five NBA Draft pick Nassir Little. The question for UNC will once again be its play in the frontcourt, where someone from the group of Brandon Huffman, Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley will need to step up significantly. Against an undersized Wofford squad, however, that should be less of a concern. Expect the Tar Heels to open the season by exacting a measure of revenge.
Prediction: North Carolina 82, Wofford 73
5) Western Kentucky at No. 25 Washington (10:30 p.m./ESPNU)
Mike Hopkins nearly led Washington to a surprise NCAA tournament appearance in his first season on the job. Now he’s starting year two with a Husky team that owns a preseason top 25 ranking for the first time since 2010, and is expected by many to compete for a Pac-12 championship.
Western Kentucky might wind up being an at-large quality team by the end of the season, but they aren’t one now. Auburn grad transfer Desean Murray, a projected starter, has been suspended for the season-opener. Lamonte Bearden (11.8 ppg), the team’s starting point guard last season, will reportedly miss the first month of the season because of an academic issue. Two other projected starters — Josh Anderson and Taveion Hollingsworth — are expected to be available Tuesday night after being suspended for exhibition games.
Despite all this, the Hilltoppers will have the most highly-touted NBA prospect on the court in five-star freshman big man Charles Bassey. Unless Bassey is the second coming of Anthony Davis, WKU probably doesn’t have the horses necessary to beat a top 25 team on the road. Three months from now they might.
Prediction: Washington 75, Western Kentucky 67
6) BYU at No. 7 Nevada (11 p.m./CBS Sports Network)
Unless there are some overachievers in the Mountain West this season, it’s very possible that opening night could wind up presenting Nevada with the toughest home challenge it’ll face all year.
BYU hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2015, but there’s good reason to believe that streak of futility will end in a few months. Double-figure scorers Yoeli Childs (17.8 ppg) and TJ Haws (11.7 ppg) are both back, and after missing all of last season, junior guard Nick Emery (13.1 ppg in 2016-17) will be eligible to play beginning on Dec. 5. That’s good news for the long-term, but on night one, the Cougars appear outmatched on paper.
The most hyped Nevada team in the history of the program will begin the season ranked No. 7 in the AP poll, and has a legitimate shot to become the first West Coast (or at least West Coast-ish) program to capture a national championship since 1997. The team is loaded with a handful of familiar faces who were instrumental in last season’s Sweet 16 run, a few talented transfers, and a five-star freshman in power forward Jordan Brown.
Caleb Martin, Jordan Caroline and company will try and kick the journey off with a resounding message.
Prediction: Nevada 83, BYU 72
7) UMBC at Marquette (9 p.m./FS1)
Marquette has a ton of offensive firepower and figures to be one of the most entertaining teams in the country throughout this season. UMBC is picked to finish third in the America East, and to my knowledge, there’s nothing in the program’s recent past that would indicate they’re capable of pulling off some sort of stunning upset that would capture the nation’s attention.
Was this all just an excuse to post the banner GIF? I mean … yeah.
If you have a problem with that, this is going to be a long season for both of us.
Prediction: Marquette 88, UMBC 68 (yes, the final margin is 100% intentional, Virginia fans)
8) Fort Wayne at No. 21 UCLA (9 p.m./Pac-12 Network)
There’s some pretty significantly dubious opening night recent history for both of these programs.
For UCLA, you had the stunning loss to Monmouth three years ago and then the off-the-court disaster in China a year ago. For Fort Wayne — noteworthy for beating Indiana in two of the last three seasons — you have three consecutive opening night losses, all by nine points or more. Still, the Mastodons are walking into Pauley Pavilion confident thanks to their recent success against another one of college basketball’s legendary programs.
“This is one of the best times to sneak up and get a team like that,” Fort Wayne junior Matt Holba said. “The general public doesn’t think we’ll come in there and beat them, but did they think we’d come in and beat IU, once? No. Did they think we were going to do it twice? Definitely no.”
This is a make or break season for Steve Alford in Westwood, and he can’t afford to kick it off with an awkward step.
Prediction: UCLA 82, Fort Wayne 70
9) Grand Canyon at South Dakota State (8 p.m. ESPN3)
It would be ideal if this game were being played in front of the Havocs at GCU, but this is still an interesting mid-major matchup nonetheless. Grand Canyon is picked to finish second in the WAC, while South Dakota State is looking to maintain its Summit League dominance and make it back to the NCAA tournament for a fourth straight year.
The big draw here, of course, is Mike Daum. The preseason All-American will begin his senior season with 2,32 career points, and kick off his march to 3,000 on Tuesday night.
Prediction: South Dakota State 81, Grand Canyon 68
10) Wisconsin Lutheran at Green Bay (12:30 p.m./ESPN+)
The first official Division-I score of the 2018-19 season will go final at some time around 2:30 this afternoon. Kudos to Linc Darner and company for making a play on at that easy free publicity.
The Phoenix are picked to finish fifth in the Horizon League. Wisconsin Lutheran played Marquette to within three points back in 2010, so … maybe they can keep this close? I’m not going to pretend to have any idea.
Prediction: Green Bay some amount of points more than Wisconsin Lutheran