NCAA Basketball tips off tonight around the world. No. 9 Gonzaga is a 4-point favorite over Pittsburgh on the NCAA basketball odds board for this Armed Forces Classic game in Okinawa, Japan.
This is the fourth season of the opening Armed Forces Classic, with the previous ones featuring UConn vs. Michigan State at Ramstein Air Base in Germany in 2012; Georgetown vs. Oregon at Camp Humphreys in Korea in 2013; and Louisville vs. Minnesota at CGAS Borinquen in Puerto Rico last year. The Panthers and Zags, who are meeting for the first time ever, are playing at Foster Fieldhouse on Camp Smedley D. Butler Marine Corps Base. The game is played at 9 a.m. local time overseas so it can be televised at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Panthers Haven't Lost Opener Since ...
Pittsburgh, coached by Jamie Dixon, finished 19-15 overall last season and 8-10 in the ACC. The Panthers missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time 2012. They were in decent shape for a spot before losing their final four games of the season, including the ACC Tournament opener to NC State. The Panthers then lost to George Washington 60-54 in the first round of the NIT.
The Panthers return four starters from that team but were picked only 10th in the preseason ACC poll. Pitt's two stars are junior forwards Jamel Artis and Michael Young. Artis (13.6 ppg.) and Young (13.4 ppg.) form the top returning scoring tandem in the ACC. The duo combined to reach double figures in scoring 50 times in 2014-15. Artis has scored in double figures in an ACC-best 18 straight contests. He is the top returning scorer in conference play (with Florida State’s Xavier Rathan-Mayes) after averaging 16.1 points per game in ACC play as a sophomore.
Pitt also has a very good point guard in senior James Robinson, who has started 102 of 103 career games. He averaged 8.9 points, 5.1 assists and 3.1 rebounds last year. Robinson owns a career 3.29:1 assist-to-turnover ratio, the best in ACC history (minimum two years and 300 assists). Dixon also has added three graduate transfers in Rafael Maia (Brown), Alonzo Nelson-Ododa (Richmond) and Sterling Smith (Coppin State). The Panthers also add guard Cameron Johnson after he redshirted last year. He was expected to be a key player a year ago before being sidelined with a shoulder injury.
Pitt puts an 18-game winning streak in season openers on the line dating to 1996-97. But the school is opening away from home for the first time since 2006-07. Pittsburgh is opening against a ranked team for the first time since 1994-95. The Panthers are 0-4 in season openers against teams ranked in the AP Poll. Pitt is +2000 on NCAA basketball odds to be the ACC regular-season champion and +25000 to win the national title.
Zags' Frontcourt Should Dominate
Gonzaga opens at No. 9 in the preseason AP poll, the second-highest preseason ranking in school history (No. 8 in 2005-06). And it's for good reason. The Bulldogs won a school-record 35 games last year, including a school-best 22-game winning streak during the season. They also won the West Coast Conference regular season and tournament titles again. The Zags were a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament's South Region. They beat North Dakota State, Iowa and UCLA all by double digits before falling to eventual national champion Duke 66-52 in the Elite Eight. It was Gonzaga's 17th straight Big Dance appearance, the fourth-longest active streak in the nation.
While Coach Mark Few's squad lost four-year starting guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., it brings back perhaps the nation's top frontcourt. The star is senior forward Kyle Wiltjer, the former Kentucky transfer. He opted not to declare for the draft. Wiltjer averaged 16.8 points and 6.2 rebounds last season, including a 45-point game against Pacific. He was a second-team All-American and is a preseason All-American this year and a potential National Player of the Year. Also back is senior center Przemek Karnowski, who averaged 10.9 points and 5.8 rebounds, and sophomore forward Domantas Sabonis, who averaged 9.7 points and a team-leading 7.1 rebounds. Sabonis did take a nasty fall during an exhibition game but did travel with the team. It's not clear if he will play.
Josh Perkins and Eric McClellan will be the team's new starting guards. Perkins played in five games last year as a freshman before fracturing his jaw against Georgia in the NIT Season Tip Off Classic. He was redshirted. McClellan is a redshirt senior transfer from Vanderbilt. He played in 18 games last year for Gonzaga in very limited minutes.
Gonzaga is +2500 on NCAA basketball picks to win the national title.
NCAAB Free Picks: Pittsburgh Panthers +4 (-115) at The Greek
Hard to trust those Gonzaga ball-handlers yet -- plus the Sabonis factor -- so take the points. The Zags have covered only one of their past six vs. the ACC.