College Hoops Monday Preview: Opening Night!

November 8th, 2010
The college basketball season is finally underway with regional action in the 2K Sports Classic Benefitting Coaches vs. Cancer taking place at four sites. Illinois, Maryland, Pittsburgh and Texas will play a pair of games at home (Monday and Wednesday) before taking the show to Madison Square Garden for the semifinals and final next week, but of the games on tap Monday the preseason Final Four contender may have the stiffest challenge. Jamie Dixon's Panthers are the clear choice to win the Big East and a serious threat to get all the way to Houston despite the fact that their overall age and talent could make them a safer bet for the 2012 Final Four. The three-headed attack in the backcourt (Ashton Gibbs, Bran Wanamaker and Travon Woodall) may be one of the more versatile in America given the fact that all three can make plays for themselves as well as others.

Gibbs, Pitt's leading returning scorer (15.7 ppg), also led the Big East in free throw percentage last season and is the best shooter of the three. Wanamaker, who can also knock down the perimeter shot, is a player in a similar mold to former Villanova guard/forward Reggie Redding. If the ball's in this senior's hands in late-game situations the Panthers will be in very good shape. And in Woodall Pitt has a third ball handler who does a good job of initiating the offense and making plays. There may not be a ball-dominant floor general in the mold of a Brandin Knight, Carl Krauser or Levance Fields but Coach Dixon's team is in a good position. Wing Gilbert Brown and center Gary McGhee provide solid leadership with Brown also being one of the Big East's best finishers above the rim. The two newcomers to keep an eye on: redshirt freshman forward Talib Zanna (who will likely be in the starting lineup due to the injury suffered by Nasir Robinson) and true freshman J.J. Moore. Both have had good preseasons and will play a role in the Pitt rotation this season.

But the team visiting the Petersen Events Center has the experience and talent needed to give the Panthers all they want and then some Monday night. Jim Baron's Rhode Island Rams were a Postseason NIT semifinalist last season, winning 26 games and nine in the underrated Atlantic 10. Two of URI's leading scorers, Lamonte Ulmer and Keith Cothran, are gone but four of the top six return led by senior Delroy James (13.2 ppg) and sophomore Akeem Richmond. Rhode Island has no problem playing an uptempo game and with bigs such as Will Martell, Orion Outerbridge and Ben Eaves they have the size and experience needed to match up with Pitt. Rhody's issue: defense. Opponents shot 46.4% from the field in 2009-10, and this shortcoming was likely the primary reason why the Rams were on the outside looking in come Selection Sunday.

With good looks likely being tough to come by against a Pitt defense that statistically tends to be one of the tougher in the Big East, URI must show marked improvement on the defensive end of the floor if they're to entertain serious thoughts of an upset. Of the other three games on the schedule Maryland and Texas will both begin the mission of incorporating a host of newcomers, with Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson suiting up for Rick Barnes while Pe'Shon Howard, Ashton Pankey and more look to help the Terps deal with heavy losses in both production and experience (Greivis Vasquez, Eric Hayes and Landon Milbourne). Illinois on the other hand adds newcomers such as Jereme Richmond and Meyers Leonard (can't forget Crandall Head either), but with Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale back along with other contributors from last season Bruce Weber's got a team that has enough talent and experience to be a factor in the Big Ten race. Expect rust from all eight teams playing (UC Irvine fell to Concordia in their exhibition on Friday night) but it's something we'll all happily deal with. College basketball is back.

7 PM Rhode Island at #4 Pittsburgh (ESPNU)
8 PM Seattle at Maryland (Comcast Sports Net)
UC Irvine at #16 Illinois (ESPN3)
9 PM Navy at #25 Texas (ESPNU)