Part I contains games #20 – #11. Check back later today for the top 10 non-conference games featuring Pac-12 teams.
Last season, according to Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, UCLA had the toughest non-conference strength of schedule among Pac-12 teams, good for 91st in the nation. Beyond the Bruins, only Stanford (136th), Utah (155th) and Arizona (180th) finished among the top 200. As a conference, those are obscene numbers. We talked a lot last year about the state of the game and watchability and the like, and yet, when a major conference like the Pac-12 can’t be bothered to play halfway decent opponents in their elective games, that is a sure sign that something is wrong in the game. This year, things should be somewhat better but it is still a mixed bag. Big ups to teams like Utah, UCLA and Arizona State for scheduling well outside of league play, but several other teams still missed the mark. Arizona, for instance, a program never known for ducking quality competition, has a decent-ish schedule, but one that is missing its typical oomph. Oregon State, a team seemingly on the rise with good returning talent coupled with a big recruiting class, has a schedule where, arguably, a home game against Valparaiso is the second-toughest game on the slate. You’ve got to do better, Beavs.
Larry Krystkowiak and Utah, In Particular, Have Done An Excellent Job Scheduling
With all this in mind, we’re going to check in on the 20 best games we’ll see before the conference slate kicks in around the turn of the calendar year. A couple caveats: First, we’re doing this using MLB All-Star game rules, so every team gets an appearance here; and second, games that are the first game in a multi-game tournament get bonus points. Without further ado, let’s count one man’s picks for the Pac-12 non-conference games to watch.
20. 11/26 USC vs Wichita State in Orlando, FL (Advocare Invitational) – In the Thanksgiving weekend tournament formerly known as the Old Spice Classic (among other things), the Trojans get to swing for the fences against the Shockers. While it would indeed be a shock if Andy Enfield’s bunch advances to the semifinals, this game will serve as a great barometer for USC’s improvement. Read the rest of this entry »
Throughout the season, the Other 26 microsite will run down our weekly superlatives, including team, player, coach and whatever else strikes our fancy in that week’s edition.
O26 Team of the Week
George Washington. While many folks were drinking eggnog and caroling and having holiday fun, George Washington was in Hawaii stringing together three impressive, defensive-minded victories in a row to win the Diamond Head Classic. In doing so, not only did the Colonials establish themselves as the Atlantic 10’s second-best unit, they also picked up a resume-defining non-conference victory that should work wonders come Selection Sunday.
George Washington beat Wichita State and won the Diamond Head Classic. (Eugene Tanner / Associated Press)
Mike Lonergan’s club entered last Monday with essentially zero quality wins of note, having dropped all three opportunities against KenPom top-100 units – including a 13-point handling at Penn State the previous week – and running out of chances. Luckily, the trip to Hawaii offered a few finals shots before A-10 play, and the effects from that contest in Happy Valley (especially defensively) were apparently left on the mainland: GW opened the tournament by holding Ohio to 15 points in the second half and steamrolling the Bobcats, 77-49. Big man Kevin Larsen finished with 19 points and 15 rebounds and the Colonials allowed their MAC opponent a mere 0.77 points per possession – a dominant defensive effort that continued into their next two games. Against Colorado the next night, Lonergan’s group limited the Buffaloes to just 50 points on 36.5 percent shooting, their second-worst offensive output of the season. Then, on Christmas night, GW notched its biggest win (and probably the A-10’s biggest win) of the young season by storming back from eight down against Wichita State, grabbing the lead with under five minutes to play and holding off the Shockers for a 60-54 triumph. Lonergan’s decision to switch to a 1-3-1 zone in the second half enabled GW to limit Wichita State to its fewest points per possession since February 2, 2013, and helped spark the game-clinching, 20-6 run late in the contest. In fact, over the course of three games, the Colonials allowed just four (total!) double-figure scorers and never surrendered more than 0.90 points per trip – a stretch of defensive excellence that puts them firmly in the NCAA Tournament at-large discussion, likely from now until March.
Honorable Mentions: Loyola-Chicago (2-0: N-Texas Tech, N-Boise State); Stony Brook (2-0: vs. American, at Washington); UNLV (2-0: vs. Arizona, vs. Southern Utah); Iona (2-0: vs. Florida Gulf Coast, at Drexel)
Aside from some Diamond Head Classic fun and a solid slate on Saturday, the past week in college basketball was probably the lightest we will see all season, thank goodness — there were two entire days (before and after Christmas Day) that featured zero games. Luckily, the sheer quantity of contests will pick up dramatically as conference play starts up across the country this week. Despite the lack of hoops action, though, there were still several impressive performances and exciting finishes that caught our attention during the holiday week, so let’s ring in the New Year by passing out a few awards to some worthy O26 recipients.
Hawaii had a fine week at the Diamond Head Classic. (AP Photo/Eugene Tanner)
O26 Team of the Week
Hawaii. Maybe because it’s the only thing on at that time, but the Diamond Head Classic has become something of a beloved Christmastime tradition for college basketball fans in recent years. Last season’s tournament featured an awesome, tournament-winning blocked-shot by Arizona, and the two years prior included top-15 upsets against unranked opponents. It’s a fun event. This year, the Classic’s host — a Hawaii team already outperforming expectations in non-conference play — made the most of its home-court advantage, nearly beating eventual runner-up Boise State and then winning back-to-back hard-fought games over quality opponents.
Last Sunday, the Warriors were a Garrett Nevels three-pointer away from knocking off the Broncos, ultimately falling 62-61 to a team that will likely compete for a spot in the NCAA Tournament come March. It was a close-but-no-cigar kind of defeat. So how did Hawaii respond to the disappointment? By coming out the next night and winning an equally close game against Saint Mary’s, another squad with legitimate postseason potential. In a back-and-forth contest throughout, senior forward Christian Standhardinger was the eventual hero, answering a game-tying basket by the Gaels’ Beau Levesque with a baseline jumper of his own to give the Warriors a thrilling 76-74 victory. Then, on Christmas Day, Gib Arnold’s team did what it does best on the defensive end, forcing 17 turnovers and beating Oregon State in decisive fashion — the six-point margin does not indicate how much better Hawaii was — to win the consolation title. The victory was the Warriors’ first over a Pac-12 opponent in seven years and moved their record to 9-3. After handling Norfolk State on Monday night, Hawaii reached double-figure wins before January for the first time since 2001-02… the last season it reached the NCAA Tournament. A program appears on the rise in Honolulu.
One Pac-12 early-season tournament remains, and we break down the road ahead this Christmas for Oregon State.
What They’ve Done So Far: If you could use one word to describe the start to Oregon State‘s season, strange would fit the bill. The Beavers opened with a loss to now 4-5 Coppin State, but they were without starting forward Devon Collier, who is averaging 21.3 PPG and 9.6 RPG, who served a one game suspension because of a failed drug test administered during the summer. They have since won six of their last seven, two of which coming against possible NCAA Tournament teams in Maryland and Towson.
Combo Forward Devon Collier Has Been A Force Down Low For The Beavers So Far This Season (credit: Andy Wooldridge)
First Round Preview: The Beavers kickoff play in Honolulu on Sunday afternoon against Akron. Everything goes through senior forward Demetrius Treadwell for the Zips, who averages 14.6 PPG. But while Treadwell dominates the post, there are plenty of other targets that the soft Beaver defense will have to keep an eye on. Sophomore small forward Reggie McAdams has good range and has knocked down 12 of 25 three-point attempts for a 48% clip. Another senior big, Quincy Diggs is a top ten player in the MAC and can play any position except center. Diggs is the team’s second leading scorer, but his defense his key. When playing man, expect head coach Keith Dambrot to put him on the Beavers’ senior Roberto Nelson, who leads the team with 22.1 PPG. If the Zips have any shot of an at-large bid come March, they will need a win here, so I expect them to come out firing on all cylinders. This one should come down to a battle between Collier and Treadwell in the paint. The winner of that battle advances into the winner’s bracket. Definitely a game to watch late Sunday as you enter your Christmas vacation.
Potential Later Round Matchup: Considering the Beavers tend to play up to their competition, and that they will have a decided home court advantage with at least 300 Oregon State fans making the trip with the football team playing in the Hawaii Bowl two days later, I’m going to project a tight win and send them into a semifinal matchup, most likely against #17 Iowa State, who faces 5-4 George Mason in its opener. I don’t see the Beavs springing a Top 20 upset, however, and if the bracket holds to form, they would face Boise State in the third place game (less than 24 hours after the Beavers and Broncos meet on the gridiron across the way at Aloha Stadium). Another possible choice in that third game is Saint Mary’s, who comes to the Islands boasting a 9-0 record.
Outlook: For the Beavers to have any decent chance at the NCAA Tournament, they need two wins in Honolulu. And with teams like Southern Illinois Edwardsville and Arkansas-Pine Bluff dragging down Oregon State’s RPI, a trip to the winner’s bracket is also a must. A loss to Akron would mean George Mason on day two and most likely Hawaii in the final game, much less appealing games. You can catch Oregon State’s opener at 4:45 PM Pacific on Sunday on ESPNU.
The Week’s Lede. Wrapping Up Holiday Week.When college basketball thins out over the Christmas Holiday, so too does the ATB. This version will cover an entire week of games, meager and diffuse though they were. If you took a break from the sport this week, there’s not a whole lot you missed out on, outside a few appealing contests towards the end of the week, and a sneaky good tournament in Hawaii which featured one of the best game-saving plays all season and which, in essence, amounted to a total scheduling coup. (note to Feast Week event organizers: push your tournaments into December, if only to make this dry lull a little more palatable). That doesn’t sum up everything that went down. Just last night, we saw an undefeated top 10 team lose in its own building, and there’s plenty on tap for the weekend ahead. Consider this a refresher to prep you for the last weekend of significant non-conference action. Which reminds me: conference play is finally upon us! That means really, really good things. Now, let’s have our look back at this here week of Holiday Hoops.
Your Watercooler Moment. Diamond Head Classic Produces A Gem Of Non-Conference Action.
When 2012-13 is all said and done, the Diamond Head Classic will be mostly remembered for one thing: Arizona guard Nick Johnson’s acrobatic swat to deny San Diego State’s Chase Tapley in the final seconds and clinch the championship trophy. It was arguably the best individual defensive play we’ve seen all season, and if it wasn’t the best, then certainly the most important. In beating San Diego State, Arizona not only solidified its status as the best team on the West Coast, but it beat a deep, athletic, well-coached, disciplined SDSU team on a neutral floor, which is a notable feat on its own, but even more impressive when you stack it on top of the 19-point bludgeoning the Wildcats put on Miami in the semifinals. That was a humbling blow for the Hurricanes, a team that many were touting as the second best in the ACC after that nice 22-point road win at UCF. Worse was the two-point loss to Indiana State that followed; not to take anything away from Jake Odum and the Sycamores, but if you’re the second best team in the ACC, you don’t lose that game. And it should be noted: ISU had a very nice time out on the islands. Scraping out overtime wins against Ole Miss and Miami is the type of thing that spawns serious reevaluation of an already top-heavy MVC. All in all, the field didn’t disappoint, churned out a few surprising results and staged maybe the most thrilling, high-stakes, down-to-the-wire fixture of the season outside of Butler-Indiana and UCLA-Missouri.
Also Worth Chatting About. Lobos Bounce Back.
New Mexico’s Win at Cincy, Led by Alex Kirk, Was an Important One
Beyond the outward toughness and hard-nosed defense and equalized intensity across its roster, it was hard to draw too much from New Mexico’s early-season track record. Home wins over Dayton, USC and Valparaiso; neutral court wins over George Mason and UConn; the timeless strain of a road trip to rival New Mexico State – that is a nice selection of good but not great teams. It is not the work of a top-10-caliber club. The Lobos traveled to No. 8 Cincinnati Thursday night with perception-altering intentions on their minds. And boy, did they alter some perceptions. New Mexico took the physical brand of basketball Cincinnati hangs its hat on and threw it right back at Mick Cronin’s team. Kendall Williams and Tony Snell went right at Jaquon Parker, Cashmere Wright and Sean Kilpatrick in the backcourt (while providing stingy defense for much of the night), and Lobos seven-footer Alex Kirk played his best game of the season, to the extreme chagrin of Cincinnati’s undercooked frontcourt. In the end, this game – like so many others – came down to shot-making: The Bearcats converted just 31.3 percent from the field, and didn’t really make up for it at the free throw line (3-of-4). It was a wakeup call for the Bearcats in that their patented formula – crash the glass, grind opponents with physical defense and an intimidating backcourt – is not totally unassailable. In fact, no game plan functions quite right when you shoot as poorly as Cincinnati did Thursday night.
Your Quick Hits…
UCLA Comes Together. In the preseason when UCLA was being thrown around as a legitimate national championship contender, beating Missouri would not have seemed nearly as important as it does now. But because the Bruins have had so much trouble living up to those massive expectations, and because Ben Howland’s No. 1 recruiting class is still sorting things out on both ends of the floor, and because this team has overcome the lowest of lows — losing to Cal Poly, along with the departures of two players — there is no understating what a win like this can do for UCLA’s on and off-court chemistry and confidence as it turns to the Pac-12 portion of its schedule. Depending on your source, the Bruins were a 3.5-point favorite against Missouri. That is not an accurate snapshot of the overall perceptions of these teams. UCLA had taken its lumps in every non-conference game of note, weathered internal and external obstacles (fan apathy, for one), embarrassed itself against San Diego State at a John Wooden-themed event in Anaheim in a putative battle for the state of California, all the while shoving off rumors of Ben Howland’s endangered job status. Missouri, meanwhile, has looked like the best team in the SEC. Don’t let Vegas fool you; this was an upset — an important one. Read the rest of this entry »
Saint Nick came through in a big way on Christmas night for Arizona, as sophomore guard Nick Johnson swatted away a potentially game-winning layup attempt by San Diego State’s Chase Tapley to preserve the Wildcats’ perfect season and earn the Diamond Head Classic title. While the first half was stodgy and slow, the two teams lived up to expectations in the second half and delivered a terrific performance. Once again, it was seniors who led UA, this time Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom doing the job as Mark Lyons never really got into a groove, hampered by foul trouble, turnovers and erratic shooting. And then there was, of course, Johnson, who struggled shooting the ball but was terrific defensively, and helped out initiating the offense and made the athletic play in the waning moments to seal the game.
Former Arizona star Miles Simon, who won the Most Outstanding Player in the Wildcats\’ 1997 run to Lute Olson’s sole NCAA Championship, worked the Diamond Head Classic as the color man for ESPN. And, despite the fact that UA’s backcourt may not match up with the traditional ideal of true point and scoring off-guard, Simon is impressed with the duo of Lyons and Johnson. He sees the duo as complementary parts with Johnson capable of helping Lyons out with some areas (initiating offense and getting other players involved) that he is weaker in. I would add that their ability to have Hill also share some of the ball-handling load means that, even without the proverbial “traditional” point, Arizona’s guard play is not a significant concern.
UCLA’s Tony Parker has been a little-used piece for Ben Howland, averaging under nine minutes a game despite his team’s lack of depth along the frontcourt. Following another eight-minute appearance against Fresno State, he tweeted out “A lot of told me this wasn’t for me I wish I would’ve listened.\” Given Howland’s recent issues with players transferring out of his program, this tweet and other recent tweets from Parker referencing homesickness indicate that he may not be long for the Bruin program as well. And, of course, Bruins Nation took this as a chance to rip Howland again. The other side of the coin is that Parker missed time early due to injury and has been inconsistent in the minutes he has received, playing ineffectively on the boards, fouling at far too high of a rate and getting lost defensively, and this type of complaining public message probably does nothing to help him earn more playing time. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, as Howland likely should have found some more minutes against UCLA’s weaker competition, but the fact of the matter is, Parker hasn’t done a whole lot to earn those minutes yet.
Tying up one loose end, Oregon State’s Eric Morelandearned the official Pac-12 Player of the Week honor for his pair of double-doubles and 17-point and 11.5-rebound average last week. We opted for Jordan Adams as our pick (and oddly enough, neither Adams nor any other Bruin was even nominated by the school for the award), but Moreland was certainly a worthy recipient as well. Always known for his defensive ability, Moreland has shown a significantly improved offensive game this season. Where last year he was little more than a garbage man on offense, he’s added the ability to beat his man off the bounce, his jumper is significantly improved and he’s converting shots around the lane at a high rate, all while continuing to defend and rebound like a madman.
And lastly, back to UCLA. As some Bruin fans continue to root for Ben Howland’s ouster as head coach, Bruins Nation put together a post with some of the great moments in his time in Westwood. Worth a look for hoops fans, but sure makes you remember just how good UCLA was going just a few years back. Could you have imagined after Howland’s third straight trip to the Final Four that he would be on the chopping block inside of five years, minus any type of serious NCAA investigation into improprieties in his program? Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Ever since the Pac-12 announced that it was moving its conference tournament from the regularly church-quiet Staples Center in Los Angeles to Las Vegas beginning this season, fans from around the conference have been marking their calendars. But the fact that the host venue — the MGM Grand Hotel — had never before hosted a basketball event, was somewhat concerning. However, never let it be said that Larry Scott and company do things without putting in the proper diligence. This weekend the MGM Grand held the first dry run for a basketball game, as Oregon State and San Diego broke the seal on that place. And it was a real dry run, in part because the final announced attendance for the game was a whopping 840 people in a building with a capacity of 16,800. Even after seeing a boatload of empty seats at the Staples Center in recent years, I would bet the farm on the fact that there will be significantly more people in the venue when the conference tourney rolls around (although such a bet is probably less impressive when you consider that I don’t own a farm). But, there weren’t many complaints about the arena, which is good considering there were only 840 people there to possibly complain. Oh, and OSU won but they looked terrible.
Speaking of terrible, USC fell at Georgia on Saturday, slipping back to 4-8 on the year and any “yeah, buts” about their tough schedule need to get put on the back burner until the Trojans beat somebody of importance. Evan Barnes of Rant Sports is more or less on the same page as me. Both of us, apparently, have just been waiting for this talented bunch to turn the corner and play up to their ability, but we’ve both sort of given up on that. And, we’ve both come to the conclusion that Kevin O’Neillbears the full brunt of the blame. At some point, as rosters get completely remade and the team continues to run much of the same stuff to largely the same effect, you’ve got to come to the conclusion that this issue isn’t entirely with the players on the court but may partially be tied back to the guy in the lead chair on the sideline. I’m a fan of O’Neill’s blunt, honest-to-a-fault style off the court, but I no longer have any faith in his ability to get his team, no matter who is out there, to run anything approaching a good offense. While Trojan athletic director Pat Haden has kicked the task of replacing head football coach Lane Kiffin down the line a year, odds are very good that, barring a drastic turnaround, there will be another coaching search in South L.A. this spring.
Meanwhile, up the road a stretch, there may be another, slightly more attractive job opening in Los Angeles come spring. Last week Tracy Pierson of Bruin Report Online referenced anonymous sources who claimed that UCLA head coach Ben Howland’s job may be in jeopardy prior to the end of the season. Howland shrugged off such claims, noting “I can’t help you with substantiating anything that’s written on the boards.” Given that Howland’s got his team starting to click, at least on one end of the floor, and the fact that finding a prime replacement while the season is still in full swing, would be next to impossible, I’m in the camp that thinks it would be safe to just ignore this report. Sure, if UCLA’s season ends at any point prior to Atlanta on the weekend of April 6, you can start tracking the movements of your friendly neighborhood hatchet man, but there’s not a chance this side of Phil Jackson that Howland’s UCLA career ends at any point prior to the end of the season.
Last week, just before we all headed off to wrap up our Christmas shopping, a couple of my colleagues pointed to Utah as the conference’s biggest pleasant surprise. Well, sorry Connor and Adam, but I’ll be passing along your information to Larry Krystkowiak and he’ll be getting in touch with you to personally thank you both for jinxing his team. Because Friday night, after playing a sparklingly good first half, the Utes were outscored by 26 points in laying an egg in the second half, losing to Cal State Northridge and seemingly going out of their way to make sure that they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Still, you gotta remind yourself that this is a Utah team that has already won more games this season than they did all of last year and is still getting used to the idea of actually winning games. But man, that had to put a serious hurting on the beginning of a holiday break. One other note tangentially related to the Pac-12: One of the chief architects in putting that hurting into the Utah basketball program was CSUN freshman point guard Landon Drew, who had a career-high 19 points, including 14 in the second. Landon’s brother is Larry Drew II, the UCLA senior point guard.
As a fan and follower of both the Pac-12 and Mountain West, I’ve had Decembr 25 circled on my calendar for months, not for silly things like Santa Claus and eggnog and jingle bells, but for the possibility of an Arizona vs. San Diego State match-up in the finals of the Diamond Head Classic. And, after both teams have more or less cruised through the opening rounds of that tournament, that game is finally set in stone. While teams like Gonzaga, UNLV and New Mexico will have something to say about it, this may be a match-up to determine the best team west of the Rockies. Merry Christmas, hoops fans.
Last week we took a look at the early season exempt events that the Oregon and Washington schools would be participating in this season. Today we’ll take a look at the Arizona schools and, for lack of a better term, the Rockies’ schools, breaking down where they’re going, who they’ll potentially be facing and what impact their successes or failures in those tournaments can have on the rest of their season.
Colorado – Charleston Classic, November 15-18, TD Arena, Charleston, SC
The fifth annual Charleston Classic is not exactly brimming over with great teams, but Colorado lucked out in the draw with an opening round matchup with one of the better teams in the tourney – Dayton – followed by possible matchups with a pair of other teams – Baylor and Murray State – who could be nice scalps for the Buffs, if they’re able to earn them. Of course, the downside of all that is that CU is a team that features six freshmen alongside a pair of sophomore guards, so if the young squad isn’t ready to go from the time the season tips off, they could dig themselves an early hole. To begin with, they absolutely need to take care of business against a promising and experienced Flyers team in the opener. And that starts with game-planning to slow the Dayton’s excellent senior point guard, Kevin Dillard. Last year Tad Boyle’s club did a solid job of limiting dribble penetration from opposing guards, and they’ll need to do the same in this match-up. If they can take care of that battle, expect Andre Roberson, Josh Scott and Xavier Johnson to out-athlete UD up front on the way to the winner’s bracket. Next up could be a rematch with Baylor, the team that ended the Buffs’ season last year, and another challenge for the CU guards, this time in the form of senior point guard Pierre Jackson. And there are decent odds that if somehow the Buffs get on through that challenge, they’ll have another highly regarded point man to face in the finals, in the form of Isaiah Canaan of Murray State. Of those three potential opponents for the Buffs, Baylor will do the most to challenge them along the front line, but by the time Thanksgiving weekend has come and gone, we should have a pretty good idea what that CU backcourt is made up of.
Askia Booker and Backcourt-Mate Spencer Dinwiddie Could Be Seriously Challenged By Elite Point Guards At The Charleston Classic (Cliff Grassmick, Colorado Daily)
Utah – Utah Thanksgiving Tournament, November 21-24, Huntsman Center, Salt Lake City, UT
In lieu of any of the more traditional exempt events, the Utes will be hosting their own tournament in a round robin format with Central Michigan, Idaho State and Wright State the other participants. To be honest, this is not an appealing event in the slightest. Central Michigan is coming off an 11-21 season that led to a coaching change and three transfers. Idaho State was even worse, finishing last year 9-21 but matching the Chippewas’ coaching change and transfers step for step. Wright State had its worst season in a decade in Billy Donlon’s second year, losing 11 of their last 15 on the way to a 13-19 disappointment. Better yet, the Raiders saw four transfers bail on the program, with a fifth opting for early graduation. So, to put it mildly, Utah is not expecting to be embarrassed in front of its home crowd on this holiday weekend. While it may not make for a ton of compelling basketball, it may be just what a Ute team that is bouncing back from its own nightmare season needs. The home folks can get a chance to get real familiar with all the new faces on their roster over the span of a few days, and better yet, they should get a chance to see those new guys have some success and leave the court smiling.
For the first time this offseason, thanks to new NCAA legislation allowing coaches to work with their teams over the summer, coaches began official practice with a good grip on what to expect from their teams this season. This is a generally positive development. It helps eliminate some of the rust players typically carry into fall workouts, allows coaches to begin formulating and implementing tactical tweaks earlier than usual, and gives incoming freshmen a chance to leave a positive first impression while benefiting from a longer and more relaxed transition into their college careers. Sadly, this takes some of the luster off Midnight Madness, which is traditionally viewed with excitement and anticipation as the official start of hoops practice and the symbolic commencement of another season-long slate of hardwood drama. But from a coaches perspective, getting an early look at your team before the usual date would seem like a positive change of pace, if nothing else.
All the Hoosiers need to do is sneak by Georgia to do battle with a promising UCLA squad in the Legends Classic final (Photo credit: Sandra Dukes/US Presswire)
With teams starting preseason preparations early this year, some of the usual sloppiness of non-conference play should be replaced by a more crisp and disciplined brand of basketball. This hypothesis may or may not bear fruit, but whatever the effect of the rule – whether it better conditions teams for promising starts, or eliminates the intensity of fall preseason workouts – the value of an extended offseason program will be put to the test in rather abrupt fashion with the annual slate of non-conference tournaments. These little events spring up stateside just as much as they do in island states and commonwealths, from Las Vegas to Brooklyn, Hawaii to Puerto Rico, and pretty much anywhere with a basketball court, hotels and some bleachers. It’s awful hard to keep track of them all, so I’ve chosen five events to narrow your focus. Each fixture is intriguing in its own way, and a variety of factors went into constructing the list. Exciting games between top teams carried the most weight.
On a side note: I decided to exclude mega-events such as the ACC/Big Ten and SEC/Big East Challenges, as well as the Preseason NIT. Those are great events, no doubt, but they’re great events each and every year. Plus, they don’t fit the categorical purpose of this exercise, so listing them here is unnecessary. I also excluded mini-events such as the Gotham Classic, Jimmy V Classic, Champions Classic and Wooden Classic in favor of actual tournament-style events.
Before we get to breaking down the matchups, the venue – the state of the art Barclays Center, which offers a cutting-edge food-ordering app, free wi-fi and the very real possibility you might spot hip-hop mogul Jay-Z, 2013 Super Bowl halftime diva Beyonce, or both – is a spectacle on its own, an urban hoops palace taking a lead role in modernizing the sports viewing experience with unprecedented technological amenities. Watching basketball played on that court is exciting no matter what teams inhabit it. Then you take a shiny new stadium and put two Top 25 squads on the floor, both of whom will still be figuring out their lineups and rounding into form, and it’s hard to envision anyone being disappointed by the end product. If Indiana can get by Georgia in one semifinal and UCLA takes care of business against Georgetown in the other (which, admittedly, is far from a guarantee), the championship game could make for one of the upcoming college hoops calendar’s best non-conference games altogether, let alone the bracketed tournament variety. Indiana will get its first real test of the season, while UCLA may still be feeling things out with an expected freshman-heavy lineup. If I had my druthers, I’d rather see this game played later on in the schedule, mostly because of the very real possibility that No. 1 recruit Shabazz Muhammad won’t be available due to an ongoing NCAA review of possible violations committed during his recruitment. With Muhammad, the potential Indiana-UCLA Final is a Final Four-worthy bout. Without him, it’s exciting but incomplete, insofar as it won’t accurately gauge the Bruins at full strength against another legitimate national title contender.
Sidney’s opponent in this particular scrap was junior forward Elgin Bailey. Earlier in the day, Sidney had scored 19 points and pulled six rebounds in just 20 minutes of action in the Bulldogs’ 69-52 win over San Diego, playing in just his second game for MSU. Bailey had two points and eight boards in 21 minutes of play.
Susan Shan, a sportswriter covering the tournament and proprietor of SusanShan.com, posted an eyewitness account from a person associated with the team who saw the buildup to the fight as well as the aftermath. In the account she received from this witness, while the reasons for the squabble were rather trifling, Bailey appears to be more in the wrong, and may have even tried to attack an officer.
Sidney was suspended by head coach Rick Stansbury for Mississippi State’s game against Washington State on Wednesday because of an “outburst” of Sidney’s during the team’s practice on Tuesday. While there have been no official details emerge as to the reason for the fight in the stands on Thursday — we admit, no matter why it started, we can’t think of many things that would justify a brawl in the stands with a teammate — it doesn’t really matter who’s found to be at fault in the end. It cannot be ignored that, since joining the squad, Sidney now has as many behavioral gaffes as games under his belt. Sidney is bound to again face punishment from Stansbury, if not an outright removal from the team. Forget why the fight happened — the point is that it happened at all, and that Sidney, just off a disciplinary action, is seen throwing punches in the stands at a person — a teammate who is on the ground, mind you — in full view of spectators and TV cameras.
This thing brings to mind those awful images from the infamous Pacers-Pistons atrocity exhibition (the Malice in the Palace) from 2004, one of the lowest moments in American professional sports. True, the court/crowd barrier was never broken in this case — or was it? Whether they’re on the playing surface or sitting in the stands, athletes are representatives their schools, and we wonder how many invites to the Diamond Head Classic that Mississippi State will be receiving in the upcoming years.
Obviously we should all reserve final judgment until the full details are known, or at least until Stansbury comments on this issue. We’ll update the story as details emerge.