The defending national champion UConn Huskies dominated the 2023 NCAA Tournament with six double-digit wins in six games by an average margin of 20 points. But if their season-opener on Monday is any indication of things to come, this season’s Huskies team, dare I say, may be even more unstoppable.
OK, so not every game it plays this season will be against literal Lumberjacks, but No. 6 UConn nonetheless made quick and easy work of visiting Northern Arizona, dominating the Lumberjacks 95-52 in one of the most lopsided showings of the day. The spread was between 25.5 points in favor of UConn, so winning is no surprise, but winning by 43 and outscoring them by 26 in the closing 20 minutes — even more than the spread for the game — is demolition reminiscent of the UConn team that routinely demoralized opponents en route to the title last season.
That’s enough to get you the top line in our opening day winners and losers recap of the day that was in college basketball. A tip of the cap, Huskies. We see ya.
Here are more winners and losers from the first day of the 2023-24 college basketball season.
Loser: Michigan State can’t hit from deep in loss to JMU
JMU is projected to win the Sun Belt. They’re a good basketball team. Nonetheless, that shouldn’t matter when you’re a Final Four contender and a top-five team like Michigan State is. On a night that featured multiple Power Six teams on the ropes against inferior opponents, No. 4 Michigan State was the only ranked team to go down, falling in overtime 79-76 to the Dukes. Tyson Walker is one of the best scorers in the country. He needs help and there will be nights (like vs. JMU) where others have to step up to carry the load. MSU shot 1 of 20 from distance. That’s just not going to cut it against any decent team. The Spartans play No. 2 Duke in exactly eight days and if they don’t clean up their mess fast, it could get ugly against the Blue Devils.
Winner: USC looks like Top 25 team in win over Kansas State
Welcome to college basketball, Isaiah Collier. USC’s superstar freshman arrived to the scene in a big way by scoring 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting and dished out six assists in the No. 21 Trojans’ 82-69 win over the Wildcats. Collier had six turnovers and fouled out with 4:49 left, but his shot selection was impressive for a player seeing his first college action. Collier appears to be the perfect backcourt mate to score-first guard Boogie Ellis, who finished with game-high 24 points.
The good news for USC is they could be getting Bronny James back in the fold just in time for conference play. The son of LeBron James is expected to have a check up at the end of the month and if it goes well, he will return to practice with the intention of getting back on the court shortly after. The Trojans will have to clean up on the amount of turnovers, but a win over a team that’s fresh off an Elite Eight appearance is something to build on.
Loser: Oklahoma State goes down
Michigan State wasn’t the only power conference school to lose a stunner at home. Oklahoma State fell 64-59 to Abilene Christian, despite entering as a 10.5 point favorite against its WAC foe. The Cowboys made just 5 of 23 attempts from 3-point range (21.7%) in a discouraging opener for a team that ranked 333rd in 3-point shooting last season at 31%. Outside shooting woes were a primary reason why Oklahoma State finished on the wrong side of the 2023 NCAA Tournament bubble, and they’re clearly still a problem. Freshman Connor Dow hit 3 of 7 attempts from beyond the arc for the Cowboys, but the rest of the team combined to go 2 of 16.
Winner: Kentucky‘s freshmen produce
Of the eight players who received rotational minutes during No. 16 Kentucky’s 86-46 win over New Mexico State, five were freshmen. By game’s end four of them had reached double figures as the baby-faced Wildcats enjoyed a solid debut from their youngsters. Rob Dillingham led the way with 17 points off the bench while D.J. Wagner contributed 13. Reed Sheppard and Justin Edwards contributed 12 apiece. A fifth freshman, Jordan Burks, added 7 points. The five combined to shoot 24 of 44 (54.5%) from the floor, and all five hit at least one 3-pointer. You think the Wildcats are young now? They will get even younger if/when freshman bigs Aaron Bradshaw and Zvonimir Ivisic are cleared to play.
Loser: Louisville narrowly avoids disaster
It turns out Louisville’s 71-68 exhibition loss against Division II Kentucky Wesleyan may not have been a fluke. The Cardinals nearly lost to another team it should have handled easily before escaping with a 94-93 win over UMBC. The visiting Retrievers shot 50.7% from the floor and led by as much as 13 late in the first half before falling just short of a memorable upset in the final seconds. On the heels of a historically awful 4-28 season, Year 2 of Kenny Payne’s coaching tenure in the ‘Ville is not off to an encouraging start.
Winner: Fairleigh Dickinson keeps chugging
Fairleigh Dickinson picked up where it left off last season by playing at breakneck pace and winning when it wasn’t favored. The Knights slayed Buffalo on the road 92-86 behind 24 points from Jo’el Emanuel, who is one of several key players back from last year’s squad, which became the second No. 16 seed to ever beat a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament after upsetting Purdue last season. FDU outscored the Bulls 18-3 in points off turnovers while earning Jack Castleberry his first head coaching victory after he was promoted upon Tobin Anderson’s departure for Iona.
Winner: Belmont‘s Malik Dia makes dunk of the day
Belmont forward Malik Dia put two Georgia State defenders on a poster with a ferocious dunk in the first half of the Bruins’ 89-87 win over the visiting Panthers. At 6-9 and 240 pounds, Dia is essentially Belmont’s center. Yet, he defended the passing lane like a guard to create a steal, which led to a transition opportunity. From there, he elevated like a small forward before using his strength to hammer it home on the unsuspecting defenders. A Vanderbilt transfer, Dia scored a career-high 24 points and made the go-ahead free throws with six seconds left in one of opening night’s most thrilling games.
Winner: Princeton builds off magical NCAA Tournament run
Remember the Princeton Tigers: the team that knocked off Arizona in the 2023 NCAA Tournament and then beat Missouri to advance to the Sweet 16? Yeah, that team. They’re back for more. The Tigers aren’t even the favorite to win the Ivy League (that belongs to Yale), but they delivered one of the more impressive wins on opening night by knocking off Rutgers 68-61.
“We’ve got class tomorrow,” Princeton coach Mitch Henderson said. “I’m thankful for the 15-minute ride (home).”
Loser: Opening day has few compelling matchups
Twenty-one of the 25 teams ranked in the AP Top 25 preseason poll were in action on Monday, and yet there was not a single ranked vs. ranked matchup on the slate to open the 2023-24 season. (Spalding and IUPUI opened the season officially on Monday afternoon for crying out loud!) Now, to be fair: the opening slate on the whole did not disappoint, and there were plenty of standout performances and entertaining bouts, especially for sickos who love the sport like you and I. But to say the day opened with a thud would be putting it kindly. We love ourselves some college hoops and will watch just about anything on the TV, but some marquee matchups — heck, just one! — would be a nice way to kick the season off in style. Alas.
Winner: Syracuse wins back an old fan
The Adrian Autry era officially began for Syracuse basketball. The Orange’s 83-72 victory vs. New Hampshire marked the first time the team has played a game not coached by Jim Boeheim in more than four decades. That pleased at least one fan in attendance, who proudly let it be known that as a 1975 alum, he was watching the Orange for the first time since his time in school. (Boeheim, of course, took over as head coach in 1976.)
We’re not sure if he missed the Boeheim era in protest of zone defense or just didn’t prioritize watching basketball for four-plus decades, but we’re impressed all the same.
Loser: VCU loses buy game to McNeese State
It’s one thing to lose a “buy” game. That, to be clear, is bad. But it happens occasionally in college basketball. It’s another thing entirely to lose a “buy” game to a team who is coached by your former coach – but said coach is not even there because he is serving a suspension.
That’s what happened Monday as McNeese State was on the road to take on VCU and came away with a 76-65 win despite being a double-digit underdog. With Will Wade, former VCU coach and current McNeese coach, serving a 10-game suspension due to NCAA recruiting violations that occurred while he was coach at LSU, the Cowboys stunned the Rams and handed their new coach a hilarious and surprising welcoming gift to open the 2023-24 season.
Winner: Samford guard dazzles in opening tip
OK, so I’ll admit, I’m using the word “dazzle” loosely here. And by loosely I really mean: incorrectly. But Samford guard Dallas Graziani stole the show – even if for reasons that aren’t particularly flattering – in the team’s opening tip vs. No. 3 Purdue on Monday. The 5-foot-8 guard lined up across from 7-4 center Zach Edey in a truly incredible moment that went instantly viral, and it was as spectacular as you might imagine:
Even more spectacular, though, is the context behind this moment. Samford (obviously) knew the opening tip would be against Edey, the towering big man who won national player of the year last season, so they leaned into it on social media in a series in which they prepped Graziani – hilariously overmatched – for the big moment.
Edey and Purdue indeed came up big as he finished the night with his 40th career double-double, scoring a game-high 16 points with 11 rebounds in just 20 minutes of action as the Boilermakers rolled over the Bulldogs 98-45.