Trietley: College basketball season quickly approaching

By Greg Trietley

Stay calm, disillusioned Pitt fans. Basketball season is near.

The NCAA allows formal practices… Stay calm, disillusioned Pitt fans. Basketball season is near.

The NCAA allows formal practices on the men’s side to start this Friday. Pitt’s Blue-Gold Scrimmage is next Saturday. The Panthers will host La Roche in an exhibition game on Oct. 29, and the regular season tips off Nov. 11 against Albany.

Who’s ready? If you read up on one conference per day, you will know everything from America East to the Western Athletic Conference just in time for ESPN’s 24-hour basketball marathon on Nov. 15.

For most of the 345 Division I basketball teams, this year will be business as usual: lose a couple seniors, gain a few recruits. You know the drill. A select few programs have some wild circumstances to deal with.

North Carolina and Michigan State, for instance, have a month to prepare for their big showdown — on an aircraft carrier. The USS Carl Vinson’s flight deck will host the two teams on Nov. 11. Is a warship considered a neutral site?

There are no public tickets on sale for the game, which will take place in San Diego Bay. Selected military personnel will comprise about 4,000 of the 7,000 or so fans that will attend the event. Should it rain — a phrase you don’t often hear when talking about college basketball — the game will be moved to the hangar deck, according to the Associated Press.

And strange game locations aren’t the only curiosity that schools will deal with this season. Odd start times are another.

Drexel will play at Rider on Tuesday, Nov. 15 at 6 a.m. as part of ESPN’s fourth-annual basketball marathon. Someone has to play in the undesirable pre-dawn time slot, and these two small schools will receive national exposure (to a few early risers) by doing so, even with the unique challenge only a 3 a.m. alarm can offer.

“Challenging” and “easy” out-of-conference schedules always start a discussion, and Pitt usually falls into the latter category. The Long Beach State 49ers, though, unmistakably meet the criteria for the former.

The 49ers will play at Pitt, San Diego State, Louisville, Kansas and North Carolina, and they will also face Xavier in the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu, Hawaii. They do receive a break when they host Brigham Young University-Hawaii on Dec. 2, though.

Back across the nation in the Big East, St. John’s finds itself in just as tough a position.

Every team sees players graduate or transfer at the end of the year. Such is life in college basketball. The Red Storm, though, have one scholarship player returning from last year’s team: Malik Stith, who averaged 3.3 points per game off the bench.

Head coach Steve Lavin landed nine lauded freshmen recruits — one of the top classes in the country — but the NCAA ruled three of them ineligible for the fall semester.

Still, St. John’s did add biblical power with forward God’s Gift Achiuwa, who averaged 22.3 points and 13.1 rebounds in junior college last year before transferring to the Red Storm.

The Pitt women’s team can sympathize with St. John’s, as the Panthers do not have a junior or senior on the roster this year.

On both the women’s and men’s sides, Pitt and Syracuse will face some extra hostility when they hit the road in conference play. Opposing fans see both schools as villains for fleeing the Big East and relocating to the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said in a USA Today article that Pitt and Syracuse were “abandoning” the conference without notice, blasting both schools over the move. Guess where Pitt men’s basketball will open its Big East schedule? At the Fighting Irish on Dec. 27.

The Panthers travel to football schools West Virginia on Jan. 30, South Florida on Feb. 2, Louisville on Feb. 26 and Connecticut, to conclude conference play, on March 3.

Pitt also plays at DePaul on Jan. 5. The Blue Demons are 2-52 in the conference over the past three years, but things are looking up under head coach Oliver Purnell, who took Old Dominion, Dayton and Clemson to the NCAA Tournament in past coaching stints.

DePaul returns eight players, including Big East Rookie of the Year Cleveland Melvin. With St. John’s returning only Stith and Providence (4-14 in the Big East last season) losing league-leading scorer Marshon Brooks, the Blue Demons have an excellent shot at staying out of the basement for the first time since 2008.