Weekend preview: Oregon, Belmont, Michigan St. primed to pull upsets

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UPSET SPECIAL: Fri. 10:00 pm: Oregon @ No. 7 Vanderbilt

This sounds silly, right? I mean, Oregon is a team that is only a year removed from a mass exodus from the program stemming from the firing of Ernie Kent and the subsequent, embarrassing 37 day coaching search. But that search was more-than-successful, as Oregon stole Dana Altman away from Creighton. Altman led a team expected of next-to-nothing to seven league wins and the CBI title. And while Oregon lost three of their top four scorers from last season, this year’s team will be better.

Why?

Because Dana Altman cleaned up on the recruiting trail. Not only did he land talented front court transfers in Olu Ashaolu, who averaged 14.2 ppg and 9.4 rpg from Louisiana Tech last season, but he also brought in the troubled big-man Tony Woods, who sat out last season after leaving Wake Forest. Throw in returners EJ Singler (the second leading scorer on the Ducks last season), Jeremy Jacobs and Tyrone Nared, and the Ducks have a really talented front line. Why is this significant? Because Vanderbilt will be without their star center Festus Ezeli, who was suspended for the first six games before spraining knee ligaments, which will keep him out until December.

Oregon is more than just a big front line, however. Jonathon Loyd was a dynamic playmaker in the limited minutes he saw at the point last season. Garrett Sim will once again start in the back court as well, but the x-factor will end up being freshman Jabari Brown. He comes in with quite a bit of hype, but hype doesn’t always yield immediate results. Will he be the kind of big-time scoring threat in his first game that most expect him to be before his career is over in Eugene?

The Ducks are a major sleeper in the Pac-12, but there is legitimate reason for Vanderbilt being in the top ten. Even without Ezeli, this is a group with quite a bit of experience, some capable-to-good big men and a veteran perimeter attack that includes future first round picks John Jenkins and Jeff Taylor. But the Commodores better come out ready to play.

UPSET ALERT:

Fri. 7:00 pm: No. 1 North Carolina vs. Michigan State: We all know about how talented North Carolina is. You don’t need me to tell you that in this space. But for the first time in recent memory, Michigan State heads into the season with almost no expectations. But I like this Spartan team. They have the makeup of the perennially over-achieving teams that Tom Izzo is known so well for. I’m expecting a big year out of Keith Appling, Izzo has had success with modified point guards (see Drew Neitzel), but I also think that Brandon Wood and Branden Dawson are the perfect, tough-minded kind of perimeter players that thrive under Izzo. Draymond Green is going to have to have a big game, and big men Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne are going to need to play up to their potential and not down to their history, but given the unusual conditions of this game, don’t be surprised if a scrappy Michigan State team pulls off the shocker.

Fri. 9:00 pm: Belmont @ No. 6 Duke: Belmont is a very good basketball team. They won 30 games last year and return nine of the 11 players from that team’s rotation. They have a couple of quality back court pieces, headlined by junior Ian Clark, and have two quality big men in Mick Hedgepeth and Scott Saunders. In fact, I don’t think its crazy to say that Belmont’s posts are better than the three Plumlees. The Bruins run a pressing system that forces turnovers, and with Duke having two combo-guards in their back court — neither Seth Curry nor Austin Rivers is a true point guard — I can see Belmont giving Duke some issues defensively. Most importantly, the Bruins won’t be scared. This is the same program that lost to Duke by one in the first round of the 2008 NCAA Tournament.

Fri. 10:30 pm: Loyola Marymount @ No. 20 UCLA: Last year was a bit of a disaster for LMU as they finished 2-12 in the WCC, but that record doesn’t reflect the amount of talent that is in this program. The Lions struggled keeping their players healthy last season and couldn’t win a close game, going 2-7 in games that were decided by one possession or went to overtime. Even with star Drew Viney out following foot surgery, the Lions have enough size on their front line to matchup with a UCLA team that is headlined by a potentially-injured Reeves Nelson and an overweight Josh Smith. Point guard Anthony Ireland, who really came on strong late in his freshman season, may be the best point guard on the floor on Friday as well. If Nelson doesn’t play, or plays at less than 100%, and Edgar Garibay and Godwin Okojoni can hold their own against the Bruin front line, the Lions, who are a sleeper in a very good WCC, should give the Bruins all they can handle.

Sun. 9:30 pm: George Washington @ No. 24 Cal: Let me say this before I go any further — I am high on Cal. There is a reason that I picked them to finish second in the Pac-12 this season. That said, I’m also a big fan of George Washington. I know they have undergone a coaching change and I know that their 10-6 record and fourth place finish in the A-10 last season was partially the result of an easy league schedule, but this is still a team that returns their entire roster — including all-conference point guard Tony Taylor — and finally gets a healthy Lasan Kromah back.

BEST MATCHUPS:

Fri. 8:00 pm: Bucknell @ Minnesota: This should be one of the better matchups between a high-major and a low-major program this weekend. Bucknell is the consensus favorite to win the Patriot League after returning the majority of their roster from last season. Minnesota has some talent and will definitely have a major athleticism advantage over the Bison, but the Gophers don’t have a true point guard on their roster; freshman Andre Hollins will be sliding over and playing the point this season. If anything, this game will be worth the watch if, for nothing else, to see Mike Muscala, the reigning Patriot League Player of the Year, go up against Trevor Mbakwe and Ralph Sampson.

Fri. 9:00 pm: Oral Roberts @ West Virginia: This will be a big game for Oral Roberts. The Golden Eagles bring back essentially their entire roster, headlined by star forward Dominique Morrison, and have a team that is good enough that they can feasibly make a push for an at-large bid if they make enough statements during a tough non-conference schedule. West Virginia is a potential tournament team, but they may be a long way from reaching that potential. Their roster is basically made up of Truck Bryant, Kevin Jones, Deniz Kilicli and a bunch of freshmen. The Mountaineers are coming off of a loss in an exhibition and reportedly got worked by Xavier in a closed-door scrimmage.

Fri. 9:05 pm: BYU @ Utah State: The rivalries between the Division I programs in Utah is intense, and this game is no different. Utah State fans have been camping out for days to get tickets to the game. Both programs appear to be down this season, but its worth noting that both Dave Rose and Stew Morrill are terrific at developing talent. While, on paper, it appears as if both schools lose a tremendous amount of talent from last season, I feel confident saying that the drop-off both teams experience won’t be as dramatic as most expect. When it comes to rivalry games, record don’t matter. This game is no different.

BEST STORYLINES:

Friday:

7:00 pm: Marist @ No. 2 Kentucky: This will be the first time we get to see Kentucky’s talented freshmen — and a new-and-improved Terrence Jones in a real game, although it won’t necessarily come against “real” competition.

9:00 pm: Wright State @ No. 3 Ohio State: Just how good is the slimmed-down Jared Sullinger going to be? Tonight is our first glimpse.

7:00 pm: Columbia @ No. 4 UConn: With the amount of athleticism on the UConn roster, I feel confident saying that there are going to be some impressive highlights coming out of this game. Also, Andre Drummond anyone?

7:00 pm: Tennessee-Martin @ No. 8 Louisville: Just how good Louisville will end up being this season will likely be a direct result of two things: a) how healthy they are and b) just how good Peyton Siva ends up being.

7:00 pm: Jackson State @ No. 10 Florida: I can’t be the only one curious as to how Billy Donovan is going to split minutes — and shots — between the four talented back court players he has on his roster.

7:00 pm: Albany @ No. 11 Pitt: Any time Ashton Gibbs is playing, I’m watching. Basketball purists should agree.

10:00 pm: Texas Southern @ No. 12 Baylor: Baylor’s first game without Perry Jones and our first glimpse at who will operate the point guard spot for the Bears.

8:00 pm: Towson @ No. 13 Kansas: Towson may lose by fifty, and while most will be focused on just how good Thomas Robinson is, I’m more concerned with a first look at a team that claims Tyshawn Taylor as its leader.

7:00 pm: Morgan State @ No. 15 Xavier: Xavier will be playing this game without Tu Holloway. Could that mean the Musketeers are primed for an upset?

8:00 pm: North Florida @ No. 17 Alabama: The Crimson Tide heads into this season with quite a bit of hype. Will it be justified?

9:00 pm: Mt. St. Mary’s @ No. 21 Marquette: The x-factor for Marquette this season may end up being Davante Gardner. Is the big fella in shape?

11:05 pm: Eastern Washington @ No. 23 Gonzaga: Which Elias Harris shows up this season? The potential lottery pick or the banged-up, out-of-shape player from last season.

10:30 pm: UC Irvine @ No. 24 Cal: Are the Bears really a team that can compete for the Pac-12 title? Or Mike Wilder’s hair?

8:00 pm: SE Missouri State @ No. 25 Missouri: The biggest question in the Big 12: how good will Missouri be without Laurence Bowers?

7:00 pm: Jacksonville @ Florida State: We all know that Florida State is going to be a stalwart defensive team once again this season, but the question is, without Ian Miller, how is this team going to create points?

7:00 pm: Tennessee Tech @ Miami FL: The Hurricanes are playing very shorthanded thanks to injuries and suspensions. Tennessee Tech is good team, led by star Kevin Murphy and the most clutch player in college hoops in Zac Swansey.

7:30 pm: Rhode Island @ George Mason: If only this game could have been played in January, when Billy Baron and Andre Malone are eligible for URI and Andre Cornelius is back from his suspension for GMU.

8:00 pm: Texas A&M-CC @ Oklahoma State: LeBryan Nash. That is all.

9:00 pm: Loyola (IL) @ Illinois: I’m not necessarily in the minority when I say I think that Illinois could be better this year without the headaches that came along with Jereme Richmond and Demetri McCamey.

10:00 pm: Missouri State @ Nevada: A terrific mid-major matchup. Kyle Weems tries to lead a MSU team back to an MVC title with a new roster and coaching staff, while Nevada looks to live up to the talent on their roster.

Saturday:

4:00 pm: Fordham @ No. 5 Syracuse: This should be a blowout, but it will be interesting to see Fordham star Chris Gaston go up against the huge front line of Syracuse. Also: Fab Melo? You showin’ up this year, bro?

4:30 pm: Presbyterian @ No. 6 Duke: Will Presbyterian have a shot with Duke playing two games in two d … yeah, no.

1:00 pm: Kennesaw State @ No. 14 Wisconsin: Kennesaw State knocked off Georgia Tech last year. Can they pull off another upset?

3:00 pm: Butler @ Evansville: Evansville knocked off Butler in Hinkle last year. Can a new-look Butler team return the favor this year? Also: just how good are Butler’s youngsters?

7:00 pm: Northern Iowa @ Old Dominion: Two very good mid-major programs square off in a battle of rebuilding years.

Sunday:

1:00 pm: No. 1 North Carolina @ UNC-Asheville: JP Primm and Matt Dickey gives Asheville a solid starting backcourt.

2:00 pm: Cleveland State @ No. 7 Vanderbilt: No more Norris Cole for Cleveland State.

4:00 pm: Lamar @ No. 8 Louisville: The Pat Knight era at Lamar gets their first true test.

6:00 pm: Rider @ No. 11 Pitt: Remember what I said about Ashton Gibbs?

7:00 pm: Jackson State @ No. 12 Baylor: Quincy Miller enters the collegiate ranks with quite a bit of hype, but he’s also coming off of a torn ACL. Will he be healthy?

6:00 pm: Ball State @ No. 16 Arizona: This will be the third time we get to see Arizona play. They have yet to answer the question marks about the youth in their back court.

4:00 pm: Southern @ No. 19 Texas A&M: Will Billy Kennedy be on the bench?

7:00 pm: Alabama State @ No. 22 Cincinnati: Is Yancy Gates actually in shape? Will Sean Kilpatrick be a star? If both answers are year, the Bearcats have a shot at being very, very good.

7:00 pm: Boston U. @ Texas: Texas kicks off the Myck Kabongo era. Can this freshman point guard carry the Longhorn team?

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.