Dissecting the Premier November TournamentsPosted by zhayes9 on October 28th, 2010
Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.
With college basketball approaching in a matter of days, fans across the nation can look forward to one of the major draws of the sport: pre-conference tournaments. Aside from catering to hungry fans that want to see highly ranked teams do battle even in the earliest stages of the season, these tournaments are golden opportunities for coaches to judge and evaluate where their teams stands against elite competition. It presents our first chance to surmise that, say, Kentucky’s fabulous freshmen may not quite stack up to last year’s history-making class, that Duke may miss Brian Zoubek and Jon Scheyer more than originally expected or that Jacob Pullen can adequately handle point guard duties for Kansas State. The teams we label in early November as the prime contenders to cut down the nets five months later in Houston are revealed for the first time in tournament settings that allow programs to build early season momentum, confidence and quality wins that stand out come Selection Sunday. No other sport provides such drama in tournament settings at such an early point in the season.
As usual, a handful of headlining programs have elected to participate in these tournaments. Duke will encounter their first true tests in the CBE Classic, Pitt eyes a difficult field in the 2K Sports Classic and North Carolina heads out to Puerto Rico in a wide open field. All of these fields could provide intense drama and classic clashes normally reserved for the first days of spring. Here’s a preview of the best tournaments college basketball has to offer in pre-conference play and the main storylines heading into each event. Mark your calendars now.
2K Sports Classic (Opening Rounds: November 8-10, Semifinals: November 19, Finals: November 20)
The Field: Ever since the Gardner-Webb shocker upended plans for Kentucky and their rabid fans to travel to Madison Square Garden, this has been an event where the four regional hosts automatically advance to NYC. This year’s participants are Pittsburgh, Illinois, Texas and Maryland. The prohibitive favorite has to be preseason Big East topper Pittsburgh and their four starters returning from an overachieving squad that garnered a #3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Ashton Gibbs is a game-changing scoring guard and the athletic Gilbert Brown is an x-factor on the wing for Jamie Dixon. Illinois has expectations of reaching the second weekend in March for the first time since the national championship defeat in 2005, while Texas hopes that addition by subtraction helps avenge last season’s collapse from #1 team in the nation to first round victim. Maryland will likely still be figuring out a rotation at this stage after their three leading scorers were all lost to graduation. One player that may vault into stardom is Terps big man Jordan Williams, who nearly averaged a double-double as a freshman in the ACC.
The Sleeper: It’s difficult to fathom that losing Damion James and Dexter Pittman can possibly make a team better, but one has to prescribe to the notion that more defined roles and a clear-cut rotation should translate into improved chemistry for Texas following last season’s bitter disappointment. Rick Barnes still has tremendous talent up and down his roster including the infusion of two McDonalds All-American recruits in point guard Cory Joseph and power forward Tristan Thompson. If he utilizes more discretion on when to pull the trigger, it wouldn’t shock us if Jordan Hamilton had a breakout campaign. This also provides an early chance for Florida transfer Jai Lucas to shine on a big stage. Remember, Lucas is just two seasons removed from averaging 8.5 PPG and shooting 44% from deep as a freshman.
The Pick: While Texas has a strong chance of advancing, we’re even more bullish on Illinois in the preseason. Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale bring height and scoring inside, Demetri McCamey is an assist machine at the point and freshman Jereme Richmond is the perfect answer on the wing for Bruce Weber. If they were to face Pitt in the final, McCamey out-muscles Ashton Gibbs on the perimeter, Richmond’s length contains Gilbert Brown on the wing and Tisdale’s versatility pushes Pitt big man Gary McGhee from his comfort zone in the paint. With the victory, the buzz around Illinois’ chances in the ultra-competitive Big Ten will only escalate.
CBE Classic (Opening Rounds: November 12-18, Semifinals: November 22, Finals: November 23)
The Field: While Duke, Marquette, Kansas State and Gonzaga will play two warm-up games on their home floor, all four advance to Kansas City for a star-studded doubleheader (controversy could certainly unfold should San Diego State, the preseason MWC favorite and a top-25 caliber squad in some experts’ minds, upset Gonzaga and still be forced to play in Oxford, Ohio rather than KC). As the near-consensus #1 team heading into the season’s tip-off, Duke is the favorite and receives the easier semifinal matchup in Marquette. The Golden Eagles enter the season as a likely second tier Big East team along with West Virginia, Seton Hall, Notre Dame and possibly Connecticut or Louisville. Look for the Kansas State-Gonzaga matchup to be one of the best games of the entire month. The Wildcats boast one of the best players in the nation in Jacob Pullen and a bruising, deep frontline, while Mark Few has the Zags loaded with talent, notably German import Elias Harris and sharpshooting swingman Steven Gray.
The Sleeper: Gonzaga has a golden opportunity in this tournament to do some major damage, boost their portfolio with two quality wins and become the storyline of the month of November. Defeating two top-five teams is a daunting task, but all Gonzaga has to do is escape Kansas State and at least remain competitive with Duke to make a positive impression nationally. Last year, it would have been the hard-nosed Matt Bouldin to contain Pullen around the perimeter. With Few’s ability to match his frontcourt to at least a draw with the Kansas State paint patrollers, how defensive-minded junior guard Demetri Goodson handles the challenging assignment of slowing down Pullen could ultimately determine Gonzaga’s success in KC.
The Pick: We’ve seen the role of contrarian playing by some prognosticators pegging Michigan State at #1 rather than Duke, but I’ll abstain. Duke will win this tournament, although Frank Martin’s bunch should be an awfully difficult draw in the final with their physicality and the scoring prowess of Pullen. The Blue Devils’ remarkable perimeter depth has the tools to wear down either opponent. Expect both Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins to drain some key treys that help keep the Blue Devils atop the rankings.
NIT Season Tip-Off (Opening Rounds: November 15-17, Semfinals: November 24, Finals: November 26)
The Field: First of all, we must commend the NIT Season Tip-Off for being the lone tournament to stick to the idea of a true tournament where the hosts don’t automatically advance to the semifinal rounds. The only true threats to those hosts — Villanova, UCLA, Wake Forest and Tennessee — are VCU knocking off the Demon Deacons and Missouri State upsetting the Volunteers. Villanova has to be the favorite heading into this tournament with numerous key pieces returning from last year’s Big East title contender. Corey Fisher appears primed to take over a larger scoring load while Maalik Wayns and Mouphtaou Yarou have the talent to improve substantially with more minutes during their sophomore campaigns. This will also be a good early test for UCLA and their supposed quickened tempo. Can Malcolm Lee, Tyler Honeycutt, Reeves Nelson and other returnees punch their NCAA Tournament ticket and start the process of returning the Bruins program to glory? Upheaval also struck Winston-Salem this summer with the shocking news of Dino Gaudio’s firing, the early draft entry of Al-Farouq Aminu and graduation of playmaking senior Ish Smith. New Wake Forest head coach Jeff Bzdelik needs his young backcourt — sophomores Ari Stewart and C.J. Harris, along with freshmen Travis McKie and J.T. Terrell — to play like seniors right away. With Bruce Pearl’s job status up in the air, things aren’t exactly calm in Tennessee, either.
The Sleeper: If you’re looking for an upset pick in one of these pods, why not VCU downing an inexperienced Wake Forest squad? The Rams boast an enviable backcourt, one flush with major conference talent. Joey Rodriguez (12.9 PPG, 5.8 APG) and Bradford Burgess (10.4 PPG, 48% FG) are all-CAA caliber performers, while Ed Nixon and Brandon Rozell give Shaka Smart plenty of depth and options on the perimeter to match Wake’s young firepower. VCU has an opportunity to return to a familiar place — the national spotlight — if they emerge victorious on Wake’s home floor.
The Pick: Villanova is the pick here. While we certainly have prevailing doubts about this team, notably if Fisher can replicate Reynolds’ late game heroics and if the Wildcats improve dramatically on defense, there isn’t an enormous threat in this field. Unless Scotty Hopson explodes or UCLA comes together much quicker than anticipated, the Wildcats should roll. They’re talented, deep, superbly coached and have plenty of options on the scoring front.
Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Opening Round: November 18, Semifinals: November 19, Finals: November 21)
The Field: Possibly the most wide open of any pre-conference tournament is in Puerto Rico where the favorites include North Carolina, West Virginia, Minnesota and Vanderbilt. All four teams are enigmas heading into 2010-11, loaded with intrigue and plenty of question marks surrounding their rosters. The Tar Heels used their recruiting muscle to lure Harrison Barnes to Chapel Hill, the unquestioned top player in the 2010 class and such an enormous talent he’s being compared to Tracy McGrady and even Kobe Bryant. Barnes is a versatile scoring weapon that immediately becomes Roy Williams’ best player at North Carolina. The expected development of John Henson, Tyler Zeller and Larry Drew have those that flock the Dean Dome hopeful last year’s NIT berth was a fluke rather than a disturbing trend. It will take time for West Virginia to develop an identity after losing senior leader DaSean Butler and the talented Devin Ebanks, but inside/outside threat Kevin Jones and the two-headed point guard monster of Joe Mazzulla and Darryl Bryant is a nice start. With Al Nolen back from academic suspension and tremendous frontcourt depth, Tubby Smith hopes to have a more consistent campaign than last year’s tumultuous roller coaster ride in Minnesota. Vanderbilt appears to have enough firepower to garner another NCAA Tournament berth behind sharpshooting John Jenkins and defensive whiz Jeffery Taylor. This field also gives fans a chance to watch two under the radar stars — Hofstra’s Charles Jenkins and Western Kentucky’s Steffphon Pettigrew. Nebraska and Davidson round out the eight participants.
The Sleeper: We’re buying Minnesota’s stock this preseason. If not for the absolutely loaded Big Ten, we’d be even more optimistic about their chances to be a top-25 mainstay all year long. There wasn’t much doubt that Tubby Smith would be able to assemble talent when the Gophers tabbed him as their next head coach. With Nolen back in the fold, the Gophers add a tenacious on-ball defender and top-notch distributor who really improved his outside jumper last season before the suspension. The frontcourt is packed with height and skill as Trevor Mbakwe is expected to make an immediate contribution plus the improvement of Ralph Sampson, III. Blake Hoffarber’s otherworldly three-point efficiency also clears the paint for the bigs to operate effectively. Don’t overlook junior guard Devoe Joseph forming quite the 1-2 perimeter punch with Nolen, either. There’s no daunting team in this field and I fully expect the Gophers to forge a successful run.
The Pick: How can we possibly go against the Gophers now? With Vanderbilt integrating a new full-time point guard, West Virginia expected to take a step back, Nebraska miles from contention and North Carolina still a bit green at this stage in the season, this is Minnesota’s tournament to make a national imprint and pick up a handful of quality resume-building wins. If the Gophers end up sticking around all season as a legitimate contender, add them to the grouping of Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin and Illinois at the top of a formidable Big Ten.
Paradise Jam (November 19-22)
The Field: Despite the presence of major conference teams Alabama, Seton Hall, Clemson and Iowa, one could make an argument the two favorites in this field are non-BCS schools Old Dominion and Xavier. After all, the Monarchs return four starters from a team that knocked off Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament and ranked tenth in the nation in defensive efficiency. Xavier was dealt a blow when sharpshooting guard Brad Redford tore his ACL in practice, but Mark Lyons, Tu Holloway and Dante Jackson form a solid perimeter. Folks are undervaluing Seton Hall in the preseason. They return four starters from a team that went 9-9 in the Big East. JaMychal Green leads a talented Alabama team looking to make a mark in the wide open SEC West while Clemson returns most of last year’s complementary pieces around Trevor Booker. Completing the field are two sneaky mid-majors in Long Beach State behind star guard Casper Ware and a St. Peter’s team that may contend in the MAAC alongside Fairfield and Siena. Also participating in the Jam is Iowa under new coach Fran McCaffery, a program amidst a lengthy rebuilding process that won’t make it out of the Big Ten basement.
The Sleeper: We feel it was borderline criminal that Seton Hall was ranked 11th in the preseason Big East poll. The Pirates sensibly replaced loose cannon Bobby Gonzalez with Iona headman Kevin Willard, a coach that brought the Gaels out of the depths of Division I in short time and should stress defensive intensity with more frequency than his predecessor. All signs point to double-double threat Herb Pope being cleared to play this season, a game-changing paint presence and possibly the best rebounder in the conference. Jeremy Hazell takes his share of head-scratching shots, but his shooting prowess can single-handedly win the Hall some games. Jordan Theodore takes over at the point following a quietly solid sophomore season and Willard received good news when Ole Miss transfer Eniel Polynice was granted immediate eligibility. Seton Hall isn’t particularly deep, but Willard enters an enviable situation with considerable returning talent in the starting five. Shake off some Gonzalez-infused bad habits and the Pirates could do some damage that would make P.J. Carlesimo proud.
The Pick: We don’t think we’re being unreasonable when we suggest Old Dominion is a fringe top-25 contender this season. Losing senior leading scorer Gerald Lee stings, but head coach Blaine Taylor has his other starters back in Norfolk for a team looking for back-to-back CAA titles. Kent Bazemore is an ace defender on the perimeter, ranking in the nation’s top-20 in steal percentage. Frank Hassell is a formidable rebounder and Ben Finney and Darius James complete a dependable backcourt duo. There’s versatility, length and athleticism across the board. If the Monarchs can find a way to score enough points, we expect them to reign supreme in this tournament.
Maui Invitational (November 22-24)
The Field: The Maui Invitational annually produces the most intriguing tournament and this year is no exception. Big name programs — Connecticut, Washington, Kentucky and Michigan State -- are among the participants. The Missouri Valley preseason favorite Wichita State is also included along with host Chaminade and rebuilding squads Oklahoma and Virginia. As if you needed more reason to tune in, recruiting events over the summer added even more spice to Maui. Prized five-star recruit Terrence Jones announced to the masses he was attending Washington before calling John Calipari, reneging on his commitment and joining Kentucky. This is the second time similar events have transpired, first with Turkish center Enes Kanter changing his mind and going to Kentucky after pledging to Lorenzo Romar and Washington. Huskies guard Isaiah Thomas then added fuel to the fire with a few controversial tweets and the Maui organizers obliged to match these two schools up for a semifinal headliner should both advance in their first round contest. The favorite in the field, though, is Michigan State behind Kalin Lucas, Draymond Green and Durrell Summers. The best player may be UConn’s lightning quick guard Kemba Walker.
The Sleeper: Not only will Wichita State give Connecticut a fight to the finish in the Maui opener, but the Shockers should expect to win the game. Just as he built Winthrop into a perennial NCAA Tournament presence, Gregg Marshall has Wichita on the right track and tabbed as the preseason favorite in arguably the best mid-major conference in the land. Losing leading scorer Clevin Hannah hurts (he was indispensable running the point at times and that position has yet to be established for this season) but he did only average 12 PPG. The Shockers were extremely balanced on the scoring front a season ago and junior guard Toure’ Murray and senior forward J.T. Turley are the class of that pack. With uncertainty surrounding Walker on the UConn roster, overlooking the Shockers chances to at least advance to the second round and face the Spartans is a mistake.
The Pick: Depending on the eligibility of Kanter, Kentucky may have the most talent of any team in this field, but listening to John Calipari talk about his freshman-laden squad has us convinced it’ll be February and March when the Wildcats are at their most dangerous, not November. Despite the fact we fully expect Brandon Knight to explode onto the national scene with a huge tournament performance, picking against Michigan State is difficult, even with Kalin Lucas not yet at 100%. This is clearly the second best team in the nation after Duke and we fully expect them to prove it with a Maui championship.
76 Classic (Opening Round: November 25, Semifinals: November 26, Finals: November 28)
The Field: The 76 Classic field has been a lot more interesting in past seasons, but there’s still reason to tune in. Virginia Tech is the favorite, a team looking to finish second in the ACC and avoid sweating out Selection Sunday behind a fearsome trio of POY candidate Malcolm Delaney, forward Jeff Allen and guard Dorenzo Hudson. Another team expected to contend is UNLV in the Mountain West now that it appears leading scorer Tre’Von Willis will be in the fold after a brief suspension, but Murray State is the dangerous squad here with double-figure scorers B.J. Jenkins, Isaiah Canaan and Ivan Aska all back and prepped for another Cinderella tournament push. It’s a stretch to presume any one of Oklahoma State, DePaul or Stanford will be joining Murray State in the Dance. The Cowboys must retool after losing James Anderson, DePaul is in a 3-4 year reclamation project under Oliver Purnell, and while Johnny Dawkins did lure Dwight Powell and Anthony Brown to Palo Alto, the Cardinal won’t be contending yet. Tulsa had their chance last year with Jerome Jordan and Ben Uzoh, while Cal State Northridge is expected to be a Big West cellar dweller.
The Sleeper: Murray State won’t completely fly under the radar after they pulled off one of the first round’s true shockers in beating #4 seed Vanderbilt on Danero Thomas’ game-winning jumper, but what some folks don’t realize is that Billy Kennedy has his team primed to make sure 2010 wasn’t a flash in the pan. Three of the Racers’ five double-digit scorers last season are back, including sophomore Isaiah Canaan and his remarkable 48% three-point accuracy. B.J. Jenkins is an outstanding backcourt mate for Canaan and Ivan Aska is a major conference talent playing in the OVC. Most of all, this field is wide open for them to make a run, similar to Portland’s dash in the 76 Classic one year ago. It’ll be a fierce backcourt duel in a potential semifinal with UNLV.
The Pick: That Rebels outstanding backcourt is the main reason we expect UNLV to sneak by Murray State and ultimately down Virginia Tech in a competitive final. The perimeter is extremely talented, a unit led by MWC POY contender Tre’Von Willis, assist machine Oscar Bellfield and Kentucky transfer Derrick Jasper. Even UCLA transplant Chace Stanback has the versatility to operate outside. Sticking with the transfer theme, head coach Lon Kruger also hopes former Kansas Jayhawk Quintrell Thomas can shore up a questionable frontcourt. The Rebels are a true challenger to BYU and San Diego State in the Mountain West and we expect them to show their firepower in Anaheim.
Old Spice Classic (Opening Round: November 25, Semifinals: November 26, Finals: November 28)
The Field: Much like the 76 Classic, the Old Spice doesn’t have a loaded grouping like in past seasons. There’s not a consensus top-25 team in the field and only Temple and Wisconsin are receiving any serious consideration. To make matters worse, California and Texas A&M both lost their three most important players and senior leaders. Still, there are storylines to follow here and teams worth keeping an eye on as sleeper candidates. Notre Dame is one of them, a squad that returns Tim Abromaitis, Ben Hansbrough, Carleton Scott and gets Purdue transfer Scott Martin eligible. Georgia is another — one could argue they have two of the best players in the entire SEC in Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie. Lavoy Allen returning to Philly immediately vaulted Temple to preseason favorite status in the Atlantic 10, while Wisconsin has enough of a track record where contention is expected. The jury’s out on whether returnees Joe Trapani, Corey Raji and Reggie Jackson can mesh right away under Steve Donahue’s new system at Boston College. Manhattan is expected to be a middling MAAC team this season.
The Sleeper: Georgia is a major sleeper on a national level, so why not for the Old Spice Classic? The Bulldogs picked up quality wins over Illinois, Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt, Tennessee and nearly knocked off Kentucky in Rupp Arena last season. Now they just need to put it together for a full campaign. Trey Thompkins is one of the two or three best players in the SEC, a true inside/outside scoring threat that’s also a rebounding and shot-blocking presence. Travis Leslie is an uber-athletic specimen with potential through the roof that has really improved his offensive skill level. Tennessee State transfer Gerald Robinson and Georgia Mr. Basketball Marcus Thornton are also expected to make an immediate impact. From a talent perspective, Georgia has the most firepower of any team in this tournament. Here’s a chance to prove it.
The Pick: Have people forgotten how good Temple was last season? We believe there’s shouldn’t be a debate: Fran Dunphy’s team needs be ranked in the top 25 with Lavoy Allen and Juan Fernandez both back. Don’t forget the Owls had the #8 RPI in the nation, were woefully under-seeded as a #5, and then drew the equally under-seeded and incredibly dangerous Cornell Big Red in the first round. Look for Temple to down California, Georgia and Wisconsin in succession.