After sending an average of eight teams to the NCAA Tournament in years 2016-2019, the ACC was on track to land just four teams in the 2020 field, according to CBS Sports Bracketology expert Jerry Palm’s final projection of the 68-team field. The COVID-19 pandemic ultimately led to the tournament’s cancellation and saved the league some Selection Sunday embarrassment.
But the ACC’s depth issues were clear, and they showed up again on Wednesday during the opening day of the 2020-21 season. Pittsburgh lost to St. Francis (Pa.) of the Northeast Conference for the first time in 30 meetings between the programs, while Georgia Tech lost to Georgia State 123-120 in quadruple overtime. Boston College could have made up for some of that embarrassment by pulling off an upset of No. 3 Villanova, but the Eagles’ valiant effort fell short as the Wildcats escaped with a 76-67 win over BC.
The losses by Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh could be dismissed as potentially inconsequential aberrations at the onset of a long season. But in a late-starting campaign likely to be filled with virus-related disruptions, teams with NCAA Tournament aspirations like the Yellow Jackets can ill-afford such bad losses.
Neither can leagues looking to boost their national profiles such as the ACC. Though Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh both stumbled, one team from the ACC avoided disaster. Trailing 43-42 at one point in the second half against Charleston, No. 16 North Carolina bounced back for a 79-60 win. The ACC may not return to its 2016-19 form this season. But if the Tar Heels can stick in the top-25 after last year’s 14-19 disaster, the league should be able to muster more than four NCAA Tournament teams.
The night ended with San Diego State defeating No. 22 UCLA 73-58, but the opening day of the 2020 season had it all — A mask-wearing McNeese State hooper. A Memphis player trying — and bless his heart, failing in spectacular fashion — to start the season with his jersey on backwards. A scheduled game being called off just hours before tipoff because of positive COVID-19 tests.
The 2020-21 college basketball season got underway Wednesday, but much like the rest of the bumpy year that is 2020, it was anything but an ordinary opening day.
Here are the highs, lows and highlights from the opening-day action as the season gets off to its start.
Aztecs ruin Bruins’ opener
Maybe San Diego State should be ranked after all. The Aztecs lost three starters, including leading scorer Malachi Flynn, from last year’s 30-2 team that finished No. 6 nationally. But Brian Dutcher’s unranked squad looked like it could be a force again during a 73-58 win over No. 22 UCLA. The Bruins are returning nearly all of their key players from a team that won seven of its last eight games last season. But UCLA had its depth tested Wednesday with starting big man Jalen Hill and Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang both out. San Diego State’s bench outscored UCLA’s bench 21-6, which accounted for the difference in the final score.
Cade Cunningham leads OSU to close win
It wasn’t pretty, at least not for Oklahoma State, but Cade Cunningham’s Cowboys got it done on the road Wednesday with a 75-68 win over UT Arlington to open their season. Cunningham, the No. 1 overall national recruit in last year’s recruiting cycle and the favorite to go No. 1 overall in the 2021 NBA Draft, scored 21 points and added 10 rebounds and three assists in the effort. He was one of three Pokes who reached double figures in scoring, along with Keylan Boone (10) and Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe (11).
Coming off a monster junior season in which he finished second in National Player of the Year voting and earned consensus All-American honors, Iowa big man Luka Garza picked up right where he left off. The 6-foot-11 Garza paced Iowa in its 97-67 win over North Carolina Central with 26 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks … in only 24 minutes of action in a game that was well in hand.
A couple of dramatic finishes
Opening day brought a few dramatic finishes, including a buzzer-beater from Loyola Marymount’s Justin Anderson. The true freshman playing in his first college game hit a fallaway jumper from the baseline at the final horn to lift the Lions to an 85-83 win over Southern Utah.
A game-winner by South Alabama’s Michael Flowers was not technically a buzzer-beater. But the senior transfer from Western Michigan lifted the Jaguars to a 68-66 win over Florida Atlantic with his contested step-back 3-pointer that hit nothing but net with one second left. The moment was especially significant for Flowers because it came the day after his father’s death, according to South Alabama coach Richie Riley.
“He missed about a week to go be there for his dad,” Riley said. “I remember telling him that he has to put on a show for his dad. I know his dad was smiling down and he was proud of him tonight. It shows what type of person he is for him to be able to play how he did tonight.”
Four freshman start for Kentucky in easy win
It turns out the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class featured some pretty good players. Or at least it sure seemed that way as No. 10 Kentucky cruised to an 81-45 win over Morehead State. The Wildcats started four freshmen, and they combined for 46 points. Brandon Boston Jr. led the way with 15 points. Devin Askew and Terrence Clarke each contributed 12 points, while Isaiah Jackson contributed nine points and two blocks.
A dominant win was expected considering that Morehead State opened the season ranked No. 320 at KenPom. But it was an encouraging sign nonetheless for a Kentucky team that did not use a single player who played significant minutes for the program last season.
St. Francis (Pa.) shocks Pittsburgh
St. Francis (Pa.) came within a game of winning the Northeast Conference Tournament in Pittsburgh last season before the Red Flash’s best campaign since 1991 ended with a loss to Robert Morris.
The program began the new season back in the Steel City on Wednesday and picked up a win that may have been even more historic than the one it missed out in the Northeast Conference championship game back in March. The Red Flash knocked off Pittsburgh 80-70 in the season-opener for both teams. St. Francis forced Pittsburgh into 23 turnovers and held the Panthers to just 6-of-24 shooting from 3-point range. The Red Flash is now 1-29 all-time against Pittsburgh.
Illinois shows off its depth, star power
If you took heed to my preseason advice — and why wouldn’t you have?! — then you may have gotten in on Illinois before it’s too late with 15-1 national title odds. Wednesday was about as good as it could’ve been for the Illini. Returning star Ayo Dosunmu scored a career-high 28 points and made a career-high five 3-pointers, but perhaps more impressively, freshman Adam Miller added 28 points of his own and knocked down six of his eight 3-point attempts.
We already knew based off last season and the returning players this season that Dosunmu and big man Kofi Cockburn — who had 18 points and 10 boards — would be a force. But Miller’s scoring ability is a game-changing talent that can elevate this Illini team from very good to potentially great. We don’t need to crown this team yet, of course — North Carolina A&T came in at No. 338 on Matt Norlander’s preseason rankings of every team in the sport — but circle this game. It might be a sign of bigger things to come in Champaign.
DJ Jeffries with the Doug Gottlieb out of the gate
Can you think of any single picture that better sums up 2020? Bueller? Bueller? That’s right. You can’t.
Eerily reminiscent to Doug Gottlieb’s infamous backwards-shorts outing against Kansas. And it was a foreshadowing of how the game would go for Jeffries, unfortunately, as he finished 2-of-10 shooting for 4 points. Memphis got the 73-56 win over Saint Mary’s, though, and Jeffries managed to add a team-high nine boards.
Shouts to this mask-wearing McNeese State hooper
McNeese State guard Ra’Shawn Langston wore a mask while balling the heck out in the Cowboys’ opener, leading the team in assists (3) and finishing second in scoring (10) in an impressive off the bench showing.
He was the only player on the floor to wear a mask, but you know somewhere Dr. Anthony Fauci is smiling with pride. Sign of the times.
Virginia star transfer addition shines in debut
Marquette star-turned Virginia star Sam Hauser scored 19 points on 7-of-9 shooting on Wednesday in his debut with the fourth-ranked Cavaliers, including a perfect 3-for-3 mark from the 3-point line. His 19 points were just shy of a team-high 21 from Trey Murphy III, and his eight rebounds was tops on the team as UVA opened its season with a blistering 89-54 beatdown of Towson. Towson missed nearly twice as many shots as it made in the game (18-of-49).