MBB: 5 games I’m looking forward to on opening night

Ed: note: In games featuring “power conference” teams, I’ve approached the matchup from the perspective of the underdog.

  1. William & Mary at North Carolina State, 8 p.m. ET: Despite the loss of Marcus Thornton, the program’s all-time scoring leader, William & Mary enters 2015–16 full of expectations. The Tribe returns four starters, all upperclassmen. This core group has helped amass back-to-back 20-win seasons, and last season, they claimed the first regular season conference title in school history. Headlined by Terry Tarpey, a 6–5 wrecking ball of a forward, of whom Tribe coach Tony Shaver put perfectly, “We work really hard to recruit versatility, but Terry’s in a class of his own.” Put him atop the Tribe’s 1–2–2 pressure defense, and passing outlets are immediately stifled. On offense, he’s a stat-sheet filler extraordinaire with a jumper that keeps on improving. “We have talent and experience,” Tarpey said over the summer, noting that the latter quality in particular pays dividends when it comes to mastering W & M’s offense. The new season begins with a tricky game at NC State, which had an average home attendance of 15,000+ last season. The PNC Arena will be rocking, and it will kick off another grueling non-conference schedule for the Tribe.
    What to watch for:
    Now a junior, Daniel Dixon will be called upon to step up in the Tribe backcourt. The 6–6 guard is an elite shooter (he hit 73 threes at a 45% clip last season), and he’s also a very good defender. Another to watch is 6–1 Tribe soph guard David Cohn. Cohn transferred from Colorado State and sat out last season, but he played key minutes for the Rams in ‘13–14, and is known for the pace at which he plays.
  2. Lehigh at Syracuse, 7 p.m. ET: Lehigh coach Brett Reed will call upon one of the nation’s most dynamic 1–2 punches, sophomore point guard Kahron Ross and junior post Tim Kempton, on a trip up to ‘Cuse. This is a season of high expectations for the Mountain Hawks, who in Ross and Kempton have last season’s Patriot League Freshman and Player of the Year, respectively. Lehigh certainly won’t be fazed by the Carrier Dome. Last season, they picked up wins on the road at DePaul and Arizona State (a triple-OT thriller). Their opening-night game was at Villanova, and they pushed the Wildcats, who finished the regular season as a top-5 team. Syracuse has been picked ninth in the ‘15–16 preseason ACC poll, but they have a backcourt headlined by Trevor Cooney and a frontcourt with Michael Gbinijle, who was sensational, in an all-around manner, through the Orange’s two exhibition contests.
    What to watch for: Lehigh junior guard Austin Price. An excellent shooter, Price spent the offseason implementing new elements into his offensive arsenal. His development is one of the reasons expectations are very high. As Reed put it in the preseason, “We have a great nucleus with strong experience. We anticipate a strong season, and we want to compete for championships at our level.”
  3. Boise State at Montana, 9 p.m. ET: It’s the return of the Drmic Clinic, which is reason enough to celebrate. Anthony Drmic, Boise State’s video-game-loving, can’t-stop-scoring guard (he’s the Mountain West Conference’s active leader in that department), missed the final 27 games of last season after suffering an ankle injury. He is back for a Broncos team that bid adieu to sensational senior guard Derrick Marks, but returns a formidable core. They’ll take on a Montana team that was thisclose to cracking the NCAA tournament last season. Motivation abounds after that loss to Eastern Washington in the Big Sky tournament championship game, on UM’s home court. Added to the Grizzlies’ fold, which includes all-conference returners Martin Breunig and Mario Dunn, is junior college transfer Walter Wright, a turbo-charged guard who enjoyed a sensational debut in UM’s exhibition win last week. Wright finished with 31 points, seven assists, and four rebounds.
    What to watch for: In seniors Drmic and Mikey Thompson, Boise State’s backcourt is laden with experience. In freshman Paris Austin, a top-100 recruit out, there is an injection of talent. Austin had 18 points in last week’s exhibition win, and deputized admirably in the place of Thompson, who missed the game with an injury. (Thompson should be back for the UM game.) In addition to the guards, forwards James Webb III, Chandler Hutchison, and Zach Haney will bolster the frontcourt.
  4. American at Rhode Island, 8 p.m. ET: American’s Jesse Reed has been one of the most consistent performers on the Eastern Seaboard throughout his collegiate career, and he will be the headliner for an Eagles team that was picked fifth in what promises to be one of the best editions of the Patriot League Conference in recent memory. Pee-Wee Gardner and Jon Schoof have graduated, which means that American will be young. That highlights the importance of Reed this season. They’ll take on a Rhody team that was picked to finish second in the Atlantic-10, and boasts two of the top individual talents in the country, in E.C. Matthews and Hassan Martin. Both are primed for the start of the season, after chipping in 17 points apiece—Matthews also had eight boards and three steals; Martin six boards and five blocks—in the Rams’ exhibition win last week.
    What to watch for: This will be a very different American team from recent seasons, and it welcomes two potential impact transfers in Paris Maragkos (George Washington) and Leon Tolksdorf (UConn). Charlie Jones (a 6–4 junior) and Marko Vasic (a 6–5 senior) are the top returning scorer behind Reed. Both have shown an ability to chip in rebounds and assists at healthy rates, too.
  5. Pepperdine at Fresno State, 10 p.m. ET: Pepperdine traveled well last season, most notably when they gave Iowa, an eventual NCAA tournament team, a real scare on the Hawkeyes’ home court. This is a much shorter trip for the Waves, who are a dark horse contender in the West Coast Conference, and in Stacy Davis, have one of the best forwards in the country. “Best” is a theme of this game, as Fresno State puts forth senior guard Marvelle Harris, who was picked as the Mountain West Conference preseason Player of the Year. Harris is part of a dynamic Bulldogs guard corps, which also includes juniors Paul Watson and Julien Lewis. Watson was the 2013–14 MW Freshman of the Year, and Lewis was very good in his first season for Fresno State after transferring from Texas. Pepperdine beat Fresno State 89–74, when the two teams met last season in Malibu.
    What to watch for: Pepperdine returns 97% of its scoring from ‘14–15, which was the best Waves team this decade, with 18 wins and an appearance in the WCC tournament semifinals. A key returnee is junior guard Amadi Udenyi, who missed the final seven games of ‘14–15 after rupturing an achilles tendon. Udenyi is part of a Pepperdine core that has played together for the past two seasons, and he is an adept distributor (team-leading 4.4 assists) and capable shooter, who provides hard-nosed individual defense. If Pepperdine is to reach its potential this season, Udenyi will play a key role.

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops

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