Early-Season Matchups Provide Insight

Lost among BCS arguments, the AFC's domination, and the beginning of the NBA season, college basketball opens its season quietly in November. The tournaments to begin November give an interesting insight in the teams and players to watch for in 2005-06. Eight tournaments tip off the season.

The Coaches vs. Cancer Classic was the first tournament grab national attention. Syracuse thrilled the crowd with a dominating 81-46 victory over Texas Tech in the first semi. The Orange settled for second after a 75-70 loss to Florida in the championship game. Jim Boeheim's task early in the season will be to find his team's identity with Hakim Warrick. The offense will likely go through senior point guard Gerry McNamara. In the victory over Tech, the Orange placed four players in double figures. The other player to watch for Syracuse will be freshman Eric Devendorf. So far, Syracuse has had excellent balance with four players in double figures in both games in New York.

Texas Tech will look to recapture last season's magical run to the Sweet 16. Wings Martin Zeno and Jarrius Jackson will assume Ronald Ross' role as the team leader and go to players. If they struggle, so could the Raiders. In the loss against the 'Cuse, Zeno and Jackson combined to hit only 7-of-28 from the floor. In a 78-73 overtime loss to Wake Forest for third place, Jackson and Zeno combined for 50.

Without Chris Paul, Taron Downey, and Jamaal Levy, Skip Prosser is looking for some of his role players to step up. Justin Gray and Kyle Visser came up big in New York. Gray scored 37, grabbed 8 rebounds, and had 9 assists in the two games at the World's most famous arena. Gray will have to take better care of the ball for Wake to be among the ACC's elite teams this season. He committed 17 turnovers in two games. Visser had 16 points, 16 rebounds, and 5 blocks in the victory over Tech. Trent Strickland and Eric Williams with Visser gives Prosser an excellent front line. How the guards develop around Gray could determine Wake's future.

Florida pulled off consecutive upsets over ranked teams to emerge with the gold trophy from New York. Taurean Green was the player of the game consecutive nights with 23 points in each game. Corey Brewer and Al Horford will also be keys for whatever success the Gators have this season. Florida should be more balanced this season without David Lee, Matt Walsh, and Anthony Roberson looking for their own shots.

The 2005 Maui invitational might be the most competitive field that they have ever had. Michigan State opened the tournament with an 89-67 victory over Chaminade. Paul Davis should have a breakout year breakout year inside with Maurice Ager and Shannon Brown complementing him on the wings. Gonzaga defeated Maryland 88-76 in the other afternoon game in the openers.

Adam Morrison showed he is ready for an All-American season with 25 points and 9 rebounds in the victory over the Terrapins. J.P. Batista gives the Bulldogs a potent inside threat and Derek Raivio is one of the best shooting point guards in the country. Freshman Jeremy Pargo also impressed.

Maryland looks to return to the NCAA tournament after missing it for the first time in 12 years in 2005. Nik Caner-Medley, Travis Garrison, and Chris McCray should pace the Maryland attack.

Arizona and Kansas have had some epic meetings in the past. Their first-round game is a testament to how strong this year's field is. Arizona reloads this year behind Hassan Adams. Adams is a solid all-around player that provides a few highlight reel dunks per game. To bring the 'Cats back to last year's level, he will have to assume the role of leader and the man the Arizona goes to. Pay attention to freshman Marcus Williams on the wing. Inside, Arizona will look to Isaiah Fox and Ivan Radinovic.

Kansas is extremely young and Bill Self is going to have to rely heavily on his freshman. Julian Wright is an extremely talented, versatile player with outstanding court vision. USC transfer Rodrick Stewart will be looked upon for leadership and scoring.

Connecticut is the highest ranked team entered at Maui. Jim Calhoun will learn a lot about his team early without point guards Marcus Williams and A.J. price. Sophomore forward Rudy Gay (6-9) is the projected number one pick in the 2006 NBA Draft. Josh Boone is one of the best interior players in the country. Rashad Anderson and Denham Brown are also returning double-figure scorers.

Arkansas should have its best team in at least five years. Wing Ronnie brewer is one of the favorites to capture SEC Player of the Year. Jonathon Modica is a dangerous shooter and Darian Townes is a load at power forward. The Hogs have the size to match UConn in what should provide an NCAA like atmosphere and level of play.

The Preseason NIT usually competes with Maui for national attention. This year's field is not as competitive as Maui or past NITs. The NIT has already has a major upset and a game matching top 20 teams. Sam Houston State shocked Missouri in Columbia, 80-77. They then fell 72-61 at Drexel in the quarterfinals. The Dragons will meet Duke in the first semifinal. The other will pit Memphis and UCLA. The Tigers earned an important road victory at Alabama in their quarter to reach NY.

Madison Square Garden always provides an electric atmosphere and the talent will bear watching. Duke's Shelden Williams and J.J. Reddick give Duke the best inside-outside tandem in the nation. Current freshmen Josh McRoberts and Greg Paulus will look to take that mantle from Reddick and Williams next season.

Drexel benefited from Sam Houston State's upset and are picked in the middle of the pack in the Colonial Conference. Shooting guard Dominick Mejia has excellent range and will hope to get hot to keep Drexel in the game.

Memphis and UCLA are both young and talented. Darius Washington is one of the most talented point guards in college basketball. Rodney Carney compliments Washington by giving the Tigers an inside presence.

Ben Howland has UCLA poised to return to the nation's elite with the sophomore trio Aaron Afflalo, Jordan Farmar, and Josh Shipp, and Cedric Bozeman returns after missing last season with an injury to give the Bruins veteran leadership.

The Guardians Classic is only a few years old, but is starting to earn its place among the elite early season tournaments. West Virginia and Texas played in the first semifinal, followed by Iowa and Kentucky.

Texas comes in with their highest ranking ever and might be better than the 2003 team that reached the Final Four. Daniel Gibson is dangerous at point guard either scoring or running Rick Barnes' offense. LaMarcus Aldridge, P.J. Tucker, and Brad Buckman gives Barnes a formidable frontline.

West Virginia will try to build on improbable runs to the Big East tournament championship game and the Elite Eight. The star of those runs, Kevin Pittsnoggle, returns. Tough-minded guard Mike Gansey gives the Mountaineers a pair of gunners who can consistently hit the three.

Kentucky will try to build on last year's run to the Elite Eight to get to its first Final Four since 1998. The return of Patrick Sparks and Rajon Rondo in the backcourt gives Tubby Smith a good place to start. How well the frontline develops will go along way towards determining the 'Cats' success in '06.

Playing Iowa will be an excellent measuring stick early in the season. Steve Alford will have excellent balance and is finally going to be able to put the Pierre Pierce saga behind himself and his team. Erek Hansen, Mike Henderson, and Greg Brunner give Alford and excellent frontline and Jeff Horner and Adam Haluska have excellent range.

The Great Alaska Shootout caps off Thanksgiving weekend. The Artic hasn't produced the fields it used to, but still gives teams an early season indication of where they stand against other good teams. USC, Marquette, South Carolina, and Southern Illinois should cruise in their openers. Tim Floyd hopes to turn around the USC program behind sophomore star Gabe Pruitt. Entering the Big East, Marquette hopes to get some confidence early in the season. The other semifinal should feature the Gamecocks and Salukis. SIU would like to show that they are still one of the best mid-majors and South Carolina has five players averaging in double figures led by senior wing Tarence Kinsey.

When the tournaments are over and students return to campus after Thanksgiving, the Big 10/ACC Challenge will be ready to take center stage. Duke at Indiana, Wisconsin at Wake Forest, and the rematch of last year's NCAA Championship Game, Illinois at North Carolina should provide more insight into what is coming later in the year. The ACC has dominated the Challenge every year. If the Big 10 is truly going to reclaim its place as one of the top three or four conferences, its will need a strong showing.

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