The 2021-22 college basketball season commenced Tuesday, ending seven-plus months of competitive inactivity with nearly 200 games involving Division I teams on the men’s side. A total of 22 teams in the AP Top 25 were in action on Tuesday, with several close calls and one huge upset among the results. Top-ranked Gonzaga and No. 2 UCLA rolled as expected, fellow 2021 Final Four participant Houston got a major scare from Hofstra, and the Hubert Davis and Chris Beard eras began with wins at North Carolina and Texas, respectively.
On a banner night for the sport that was highlighted by Duke vs. Kentucky and Kansas vs. Michigan State in the Champions Classic, ESPN’s team of college basketball experts Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi weighed in on everything they saw from Madison Square Garden and throughout the country as the sport took its first tentative step toward crowning a national champion in New Orleans on April 4:
Duke won the game 79-71, but did you learn more about the ninth-ranked Blue Devils or 10th-ranked Kentucky on Tuesday night?
Medcalf: Duke. That was a dominant effort for the Blue Devils. The way they fought through adversity was probably the most significant development. In different stretches, Wendell Moore Jr., Trevor Keels and Paolo Banchero were all sidelined with what appeared to be cramping issues. That’s when Duke showcased a depth that helped the team maintain its momentum with some of its top players on the bench.
But when Banchero is on the floor, Duke just looks the part of a team that can win the national title and run through any team in the country. A 6-foot-10 athlete and projected No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA draft should not be able to handle the ball or move the way he does. It just adds a dynamic that makes Duke a unique challenge. And Keels didn’t look like a freshman. His strength was a major factor in the game. We knew what Duke was on paper. We understood the amount of talent the Blue Devils had signed. To see it all work together on Tuesday night was impressive. Duke might not be the team to beat in college basketball. But the Blue Devils are certainly one of them.
Borzello: I thought Kentucky would be a bit of a work in progress due to health and role allocation questions, and that seemed to be the case — but I learned a lot about Duke’s players not named Paolo Banchero. Banchero is a fantastic player, of course, and there’s a reason he was considered the most college-ready prospect in the high school class of 2021. Kentucky simply had no answers for him. He’s going to push for the Wooden Award. But the way Duke stepped up when Banchero went to the locker room in the second half was eye-opening.
Keels was one of the best scorers in the 2021 class, but it was unclear if he would be relied upon to that extent right away. Well, he was, and he answered the bell. His size, shooting, vision and defensive ability are highly, highly impressive. Moore has taken the next step; he’s much more fluid offensively this season. Theo John adds some physicality and toughness the Blue Devils lacked last season. The bench isn’t loaded, but there’s enough depth. I picked Duke to go to the Final Four earlier this week, and Tuesday night didn’t change my mind — but it did make me more optimistic.
Gasaway: I learned that an older Kentucky team than we’re used to seeing might need about as much time to jell as many of the younger teams did. Take nothing away from Duke. Banchero was every bit as good as advertised, and Keels is already a grown man as a freshman. It’s just that there were times early in the game when it looked like we would be showering this praise first and foremost on Oscar Tshiebwe. He absolutely dominated the offensive glass for as long as he was in the game, and he will doubtless continue to do so going forward. The questions will be how many minutes he plays and what his teammates bring to the table. John Calipari’s top non-Tshiebwe performer was probably Georgia transfer Sahvir Wheeler. If UK gets the expected contributions from TyTy Washington and a healthy number of 3s from guys like Kellan Grady, Davion Mintz and CJ Fredrick, this can still be a group that lives up to its billing as the SEC favorites.
Lunardi: I continue to lean more into Duke as a legitimate national championship contender. This season was already going to be all about Coach K’s farewell. If the Blue Devils are truly good enough to reach the Final Four and beyond, it would be almost Wooden-esque.
Madison Square Garden goes wild over Christian Braun’s alley-oop lob to Ochai Agbaji for the thunderous slam.
Did you come away more impressed with Kansas or concerned about Michigan State in KU’s 87-74 win?
Medcalf: I was more impressed by a Kansas team that separated from Michigan State in the second half, even though it didn’t have Jalen Wilson (suspension). Ochai Agbaji will be an All-American if his 29-point effort (3-for-6 from the 3-point line) is a sign of what’s ahead. David McCormack struggled on offense but made some key defensive plays. Remy Martin is still trying to find the right rhythm with his new team (see: three turnovers), but 15 points (5-for-9), six rebounds and two assists isn’t a bad start for the Arizona State transfer. The Jayhawks also got 21 points from their bench. It was easy to see that Kansas has the players to win the Big 12 and make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
Borzello: Kansas entered Tuesday night as a legitimate national championship contender and did nothing to temper those expectations — and the Jayhawks did it without Wilson. I came away highly impressed by them as a team. Agbaji has clearly taken the next step in his offensive development, showing more confidence going off the dribble and attacking the rim, while also being aggressive in passing lanes, finishing in transition and making shots from the perimeter. If he’s that guy consistently, Kansas found its go-to guy.
The other impressive thing for me was the play of Martin. Going from a high-octane system in which he had the ball in his hands most possessions to a more balanced operation, there were going to be growing pains. But Martin — after not taking a shot in the first half — finished with 15 points on nine shots and generally played within himself and within the Kansas offense.
Gasaway: Impressed by a KU team that played without Wilson but gave the impression that this game was put away for much of the second half even if the score remained relatively close. Agbaji had an outstanding night, of course, and as a team the Jayhawks gave the ball away just nine times in a fast (77-possession) contest. That will win you some games. The combination of Agbaji and Martin is going to pose a serious challenge to the defenses of the Big 12. If there’s a silver lining for the Spartans it’s that sophomore A.J. Hoggard looked excellent in leading MSU with 17 points in just 26 minutes.
Lunardi: As the guy in the room who picked Kansas to win it all, I think you can probably guess my answer. The Jayhawks did nothing to dispel the notion that they belong on the short list of national championship contenders. And they are only going to get better when all the pieces are in place.
John Carter Jr. knocks down the late triple to finish off Navy’s upset against Virginia.
What was your biggest surprise of opening night?
Lunardi: Definitely the ACC dropping “buy” games to Navy (at Virginia), The Citadel (at Pitt) and Miami (Ohio) (at Georgia Tech). That’s three ugly losses in the opening hours of the season. By comparison, the American (8-0), Big East (8-0), Big 12 (7-0), Atlantic 10 (13-1) and SEC (10-1) didn’t have three losses combined.
Gasaway: I was frankly shocked that Nebraska lost 75-74 at home to Western Illinois. I climbed out on a limb all by myself when I picked Alonzo Verge Jr. as my Big Ten newcomer of the year, and — well, he did pretty well. Verge rang up 26 points, but his teammates were just 14-of-39 from the field against an opponent coming off a 5-9 season in the Summit League. This is Year 3 in Lincoln for Fred Hoiberg, who showed beyond doubt that he can get results during his tenure at Iowa State. But the Cornhuskers are just 14-46 under the head coach, and losing to the Leathernecks suggests this team might have an even tougher time than expected in a deep Big Ten this season.
Akron takes the lead with seconds remaining on a triple plus a foul, then Ohio State responds with Zed Key’s winning shot.
Medcalf: I’ll go with Ali Ali and Akron nearly pulling off the upset at No. 17 Ohio State in Columbus. Akron, a mid-major that lost its star, Loren Cristian Jackson (22.3 PPG), was picked to finish fifth in the MAC in the preseason poll. But the Zips had a one-point lead over an Ohio State team that’s expected to be a factor in the Big Ten race before Zed Key hit the game winner in the final second for the Buckeyes. Still, John Groce put his team on the map with that performance. Just hours into the 2021-2022 season, Akron nearly pulled off a major upset.
Borzello: There were a bunch of upsets that surprised me — UC San Diego over Cal, The Citadel over Pitt, Miami (Ohio) over Georgia Tech, Western Illinois over Nebraska, etc. — but I’m going to show some love to Ohio, which beat Belmont by 12 in the first game of the post-Jason Preston era.
Belmont was expected to be one of the best mid-major teams in the country, garnering some votes in the preseason top 25. Ohio made 16 3-pointers and scored 92 points. Mark Sears, who started just five games last season, stepped into Preston’s shoes and was terrific, finishing with 27 points and four assists. Jason Carter, who spent two seasons at Ohio before transferring to Xavier for two seasons and is now back at Ohio, picked up where he left off back in 2019, going for 20 points and 10 boards. Throw in continued stellar play from Ben Vander Plas, and the Bobcats might be a factor again come March.
What opening-night event elicited the biggest national overreaction, in your opinion?
Borzello: Virginia losing to Navy. Look, it’s a horrible loss, and Virginia was the only top-25 team to lose to an unranked team on opening night. But I saw a lot of people writing off the Cavaliers based on the loss, and I think that’s going to look like an overreaction. Virginia was one of the biggest mystery teams entering the season, with two key players from last season returning, two key transfers entering the fold … and not much else. The Cavaliers weren’t going to suddenly be an ACC title threat one game into the season. It’s going to take some time. Remember, Virginia lost to San Francisco and needed overtime to beat Kent State last season before going on to win the ACC.
And Navy isn’t bad! The Midshipmen went 12-1 and won the Patriot League regular-season title in 2020-21. The offense remains a concern for Tony Bennett, and they will beat very few teams when Armaan Franklin and Kihei Clark combine to shoot 3-for-14 from 3. But I still have faith in Virginia being a factor in the ACC this season.
Gasaway: The ACC’s really bad night. Virginia lost to Navy, Pitt lost to The Citadel and Georgia Tech lost to Miami (Ohio) — all at home. Those aren’t exemplary results to be sure, but we should be wary of explaining college basketball results by reference to conference memberships. One school of thought heading into the evening held that Duke, Florida State and North Carolina might form a big three of sorts at the top of the ACC, and that the Cavaliers were perhaps being ranked No. 25 in the preseason AP poll because of their coach rather than because of what these players have done. Nothing we saw on college basketball’s opening night fundamentally changes that preexisting view of the ACC.
Medcalf: Probably the criticism of TyTy Washington. The Kentucky guard struggled in his first game. He was 3-for-14 and was forcing everything. Folks were calling for John Calipari to bench him rather than allow the young player to work through his challenges. But I thought it was the right call for his confidence to let him try to figure it out for a stretch.
Duke was better than Kentucky on Tuesday night, however, with Paolo Banchero on the bench. It wasn’t just Washington’s effort. Right now, the Blue Devils seem to be the superior team. I think Washington just had a bad night on a big stage against a team that could win it all. More than anything, he just couldn’t find a rhythm and looked more like a freshman playing his first collegiate game rather than a projected first-round pick in next summer’s NBA draft. Rough night. But that’s all it was.
Lunardi: Michigan being ranked ahead of Michigan State in the weekly College Football Playoff update, despite just losing to the Spartans. When I’m king of the world, the CFP will not be allowed to interrupt the opening night of a sport that actually knows how to crown a champion.
Villanova’s Justin Moore stays hot beyond the arc to drain his sixth 3-pointer of the night.
Give us one thing you’re looking forward to during the rest of opening week in college basketball.
Gasaway: No. 4 Villanova at No. 2 UCLA, Friday night. The Wildcats and the Bruins are everyone’s choices to win the Big East and Pac-12, respectively, and this will be our first true look at two teams that could reach the Final Four. Are they worthy of the lofty rankings? Jay Wright’s team was uncharacteristically normal in terms of shooting accuracy during Big East play last season. As for Mick Cronin’s men, they famously came within an overtime period against Michigan State of ending 2020-21 with five straight losses. Then again, all of the above could be ancient history according to both pollsters and laptops. I can’t wait to stay up late for this one.
Medcalf: I can’t wait to see No. 5 Texas at No. 1 Gonzaga in Spokane, Washington, on Saturday. That might be a Final Four preview. This also starts a wild run for Gonzaga that will include matchups against Texas, UCLA and Duke in a two-week stretch. Chris Beard’s depth is his top asset. If Marcus Carr and Co. can go on the road and beat Gonzaga, the Longhorns will make a strong statement about where they stand in the Big 12 and the national landscape. It’s also a test for a Gonzaga team that will have to defend against multiple guards. Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren will be tested on defense. But the duo could also overwhelm the Longhorns with their size. Really looking forward to this one. It’s an important game for both teams.
Lunardi: The first NCAA title game I remember watching was UCLA-Villanova in 1971. We followed all the Philadelphia Big 5 teams in our house growing up, and the Wildcats had just obliterated undefeated Penn in the East Regional finals. So seeing the Bruins and Wildcats collide 50 years later, in Pauley Pavilion no less, is as good as it gets for me. The only thing better would be an in-person matchup at the Palestra.
Borzello: Texas at Gonzaga on Saturday. There are so many intriguing storylines for both teams entering the season, and so many questions for which we’ll start getting answers this weekend. On Texas’ side, how all the talented transfers mesh and buy into their roles is going to be fascinating. There are only so many minutes to go around — and in a big road game against the No. 1 team in the country, adversity is likely going to hit at some point. How will the Longhorns react as a unit? For Gonzaga, what will the Drew Timme-Chet Holmgren duo look like against a team with legitimate size and skill in the frontcourt? Does the perimeter group flow as smoothly as it did last season? Are the Zags’ freshmen ready? I can’t wait.