There were nearly 500 Division I men’s games during the opening week of the college basketball season.
Not a single one pitted preseason Top 25 opponents against each other.
The leadership void at the top of the sport and coaches’ fears of challenging their teams too early resulted in another college basketball season starting with a whimper rather than a roar. There would have been no buzz at all, were it not for Emoni Bates shooting his way back to prominence and Gonzaga and Michigan State battling to the buzzer on a boat.
Duke obliterated Jacksonville and South Carolina-Upstate. North Carolina survived UNC Wilmington and College of Charleston. Kentucky pounded Howard and Duquesne. Kansas, UCLA and Indiana outclassed similarly overmatched opponents. Those aren’t games meant to draw eyeballs or headlines. They’re dress rehearsals for Tuesday’s Champions Classic doubleheader and for other bigger games ahead.
College football might be able to get away with a yawn-inducing Week 0. College basketball cannot. This is a sport that struggles to capture the nation’s attention until March. It needs to open with the Champions Classic or Feast Week or some other splashy event to break through the clutter.
While college basketball’s opening week failed to grab the attention of a mainstream audience, there were a few notable outcomes and performances. Here’s a look at the winners and losers from the opening week of the 2022-23 season:
Winner: Emoni Bates
For one night, Emoni Bates reminded us why he was once a ballyhooed high school prospect. The Eastern Michigan sophomore displayed the confidence, enthusiasm and shot making that were his trademarks on the AAU circuit but were missing during a joyless freshman season at Memphis. Bates erupted for 30 points on 12-for-19 shooting against Michigan and narrowly missed leading his team to a seismic upset.
While Bates’ array of step-back threes and contested jumpers were impressive against a Top 25-caliber opponent, he will never live up to the unfair expectations that were thrust upon him early in his high school career. He’s far from the next Kevin Durant. He lacks the physical tools to become anything close to that. But could Bates reestablish himself as a potential first-round NBA draft pick if he can score efficiently while also proving that he can withstand the physicality of college basketball? That, after Friday night, suddenly seems more realistic.
Loser: Kenny Payne
Chris Mack left the once-proud Louisville basketball program in shambles when he was fired midway through a 19-loss season. Then Kenny Payne was unable to restock the roster with transfers or late signees after he was hired last spring. The byproduct is a Louisville team that might be historically bad. The Cardinals dropped an exhibition game by 10 points to Division II Lenoir-Rhyne. They then proved that result was no fluke by starting the regular season with narrow home losses to Bellarmine and Wright State.
Expect Payne to start winning recruiting battles and replenishing the roster before long, but that won’t help this season’s team. The Cardinals better find a way to beat Appalachian State on Tuesday because it will be another month before they’re favored to win another game.
Winner: Saint Mary’s
If there’s a team whose opening-week achievements went under the radar, it’s probably Saint Mary’s. The Gaels dismantled a trio of fellow mid-majors with NCAA tournament aspirations. It started with a victory over Summit League favorite Oral Roberts. Then came a 26-point throttling of America East favorite Vermont. And finally the Gaels held flu-stricken C-USA contender North Texas to 12 first-half points en route to a 63-33 rout.
Granted, all three of those wins came at home in Moraga, but those were still eye-opening results. They suggest that Saint Mary’s is on its way to a 20-win season for the 15th time in 16 seasons and that the Gaels could make their ninth NCAA tournament appearance under Randy Bennett.
Loser: Florida State
Florida State’s bid to bounce back from last year’s rare down season is off to a disastrous start. The injury-plagued Seminoles suffered a home loss to Stetson and 14-point road loss at UCF to fall to 0-2 for the first time in Leonard Hamilton’s two decades as head coach.
Florida State was missing a handful of players in both games and lost starting center Naheem McLeod to an Achilles injury midway through the UCF loss. Without him, the Seminoles surrendered 24 offensive rebounds, leading to 22 second-chance points. That’s a glaring red flag for a program whose ascent to the upper tier of the ACC has been fueled by overwhelming opponents with size, depth and all-out effort.
Winner: The SWAC
A cash-poor conference that has annually been among the worst in college basketball produced a few stunning opening-week results. It started with Arkansas-Pine Bluff coming within a single point of toppling 14th-ranked TCU on opening night. Then Alcorn State won at Wichita State, Texas Southern upset Arizona State and Grambling waylaid a Colorado team that would go on to beat Tennessee a few nights later.
Those results suggest this might be a strong year for the SWAC, but they also highlight the importance that money plays in shaping the college basketball hierarchy. The wins by Grambling and Texas Southern both came at home as part of a scheduling series between the Pac-12 and the SWAC. Typically, SWAC teams could never persuade a power-conference program to visit one of their gyms, nor can they afford to play more than a couple home non-conference games a year. Basketball programs in the SWAC annually play road-heavy, non-league schedules and then use the guarantee money from those games to help prop up the rest of the athletic department.
Loser: The Pac-12
The Pac-12 had a noble purpose last year for forging a first-of-its-kind scheduling agreement with the SWAC. The idea, according to Pac-12 Deputy Commissioner Jamie Zaninovich, was to “educate and raise awareness for social justice and anti-racism initiatives, and motivate the current and next generation of community leaders to affect positive change.”
And yet while those are worthwhile goals, the series with the SWAC has the potential to hurt the Pac-12 each year in terms of NCAA bids. Sending three teams a year to play true road games at SWAC gyms is all risk, zero reward. There’s a reason power-conference teams don’t schedule those types of road games against lower-tier foes. Now Arizona State and Colorado have to overcome probable Quadrant 4 losses on their resumes.
Winner: Returning big men
The opening week of the season only solidified that this is the year of the big man in college basketball. The type of traditional big men who the NBA has soured on demonstrated their worth at the college level.
The headliner was Drew Timme, whose 22 points and 13 rebounds helped rescue cold-shooting Gonzaga from a double-digit, second-half deficit against Michigan State on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln on Friday. In less high-profile games, Florida’s Colin Castleton erupted for 33 points against Kennesaw on Friday and North Carolina’s Armando Bacot tallied all but one of his 28 points after halftime in a come-from-behind win against College of Charleston. Purdue’s Zach Edey, Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson and Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis are also off to strong starts.
Loser: The Pac-12 Network
Kansas State fans who managed to find the Pac-12 Network on their TVs on Friday night surely got a chuckle over the channel’s attempts to identify the Wildcats’ first-year head coach.
1. His name is Jerome Tang, not Jerome Yang.
2. The man pictured above is actually Kansas State director of basketball strategies Kevin Sutton.