The holiday season is still a few weeks away, but do not tell that to the Arizona Wildcats and their fans. Today is a celebration in the city of Tucson, the beginning of a college basketball season filled with hopes and dreams of another deep NCAA Tournament run.
There are more questions than answers at this point with the 2011 Wildcats. How does the team replace Derrick Williams? Who emerges as the starting point guard? Does the incoming freshmen class, which ranks among the all-time best in UA history, live up to the hype? These questions and more will be answered in the next five months.
The Valparaiso Crusaders, who are led by first year head coach Bryce Drew, will be the first test for Arizona. If that name sounds familiar, you may remember this classic March Madness game from a couple years ago. It's the same guy.
The Crusaders have been led by the Drew family for nearly three decades. Homer Drew turned the program into a yearly contender and then handed the reins over to his son, Scott, in 2002. Scott Drew is now the head coach at Baylor and has his team primed for a deep tournament run. After his departure, Homer took over the program once again before permanently stepping aside in May. Now, it is Bryce Drew at the helm.
Valpo went 23-12 last season with a 12-6 record in the Horizon Conference. They return just two starters from a team that excited in the first round of the College Invitational Tournament. Three of their top four scorers are gone, including the unexpected transfer of Brandon Wood, a first-team All-Horizon guard who averaged 16.7 ppg in 2010-2011.
This is not to say the team is without talent. Drew has the program heading in the right direction and will rely heavily on sharp-shooter Ryan Broekhoff to carry the team. Point guard Erik Buggs is the other returning starter, and while he is not much of a threat to score the ball, he does a solid job running the offense and pushing the tempo.
Other than these two players, there is a lot of unknown on the Valparaiso roster. There are many newcomers to the team and it will be interesting to see if Drew has any kind of rotation planned or if he will make personnel adjustments as the game progresses.
Key Matchup: Solomon Hill vs. Ryan Broekhoff
TV Coverage: ESPNU will air the game live at 7 p.m.
Final Prediction: Arizona 73 - Valpariso 62
Arizona struggled at times in their two exhibition games and it will take time for the team to gel on both ends of the court. Valparaiso is well coached and features a deep roster, but in the end, the Wildcats' athleticism and talent wins out.