Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Early Tourneys: Kick Starters
It's been fairly quiet on the college basketball front this summer. Save for the possible scandal at North Carolina and Jim Calhoun's retirement, there hasn't been a whole lot of news to gossip about. But, during that time, college football unveiled its plan to usher in a four-team championship playoff in a couple of years.
That got me thinking about brackets again. The joy of a tournament atmosphere. Teams playing for a trophy and bragging rights in a one-and-out scenario. Man, March is too far off. Then, the light bulb flickers on. We don't have to wait six more months for tournament action.
In less than one-third of the time, we'll have the opportunity to fill our heads with contests between some of the nation's best teams and some of the most storied programs. And just in time to fill our bellies, too.
When it comes to holiday basketball tournaments, the focus used to be on three places: Hawaii (Maui Invitational), Anchorage (Great Alaska Shootout), and New York (Preseason NIT). It was an extraordinary honor if you were selected into the field of these events. Today, a win-loss circumstance has presented itself as more tourneys and up and running. The loss ... it's rendered these three stalwarts less meaningful (and almost non-existent in Alaska). The win ... it allows more eyeballs to see intriguing matchups and potential sleepers come spring.
I couldn't possibly go through the details of every school-sponsored event. Then there are the tourneys that have the majority of play at school sites, with a four-team showcase at the end. I won't bother with those, either (even if some of the quartets will provide some great eye candy). I'm sticking to the stops that (mainly) cater to neutral sites and field brackets of eight teams or more. Over the next few weeks, I'll look into these 10 tournaments to see what headlines will take shape. Let's start down south.
This field could be the most underrated one of the whole tournament season. The home school, College of Charleston, will have its own issues now that Doug Wojcik has stepped in for the retired Bobby Cremins as head coach. But if you're looking for teams with question marks heading into the season, this might be your ticket.
Team With the Most to Gain: Murray State
Last year's darlings gave Marquette a tough fight before falling to the Golden Eagles in the second round of the tournament. But the scoring stud is back. With Isaiah Canaan leading the way, MSU could be looking for a bigger spotlight. Possible games with St. John's and Baylor/Colorado might help make an early-season statement.
Team With the Most to Lose: St. John's
The squad with the highest upside appears to be the favorite in this set of teams. That talented group of freshman (including Phil Greene and Sir'Dominic Pointer) now has a year of seasoning under their belts. Plus, they get their coach back. Steve Lavin is set to return to the bench after almost a year off to recover from prostate cancer. This group of high-flying athletes (and even more out of this world names) should contend for the Big East title. However, they may have to survive a shootout (Murray State) and a bruising (Baylor/Colorado) to win this trophy.
Unknown Factor: Boston College
The Eagles are heading in a new direction under second-year coach Steve Donahue. The roster has one grad student (Andrew Van Nest), one junior (Danny Rubin), two freshmen, and a boatload of sophomores looking to improve on their 9-22 showing from last season.
The former Cornell coach might be a year away from having his team ready to challenge in the ACC, but this tournament could be a good jumping point. As Baylor and Colorado reload from their NCAA campaigns, this might be a good time for BC to swipe an unexpected win and gain some greatly needed confidence.
In the End ... St. John's Beats Colorado
I like the athletes of the Red Storm to provide a big enough advantage to win this event, anyway. Add in a guy who I believe is one of the most underrated coaches of this generation, and you have a mix that just may be too much for the rest of the field.
Puerto Rico Tip-Off
The other tournament to start on November 15th has a similar look to Charleston. N.C. State has the makings of a dark horse Final Four team, especially after their Sweet 16 run in March's NCAAs. The returning core of C.J. Leslie, Richard Howell, Scott Wood, and Lorenzo Brown will make Mark Gottfried's squad tough to beat.
The difference with the Wolfpack's draw is that the top half includes a couple of teams that might not be in as much of a rebuilding mode as Baylor and Colorado are.
Team With the Most to Gain: Oklahoma State
The Cowboys have a potent one-two punch in returning guard Markel Brown and guard/forward Le'Bryan Nash. This team also contains a lot of sophomores looking to get this program back to the postseason after a year off. If coach Travis Ford gets any production out of his duo of senior centers (Mason Cox and Philip Jurick), OSU should be a player in the top half of the Big XII.
Team With the Most to Lose: Akron
I could have easily selected one of the big boys here, but how much fun would that be? With regards to the MAC, everyone appears to be giving love to the Bobcats of Ohio, despite breaking in a new head coach. The Zips might not be the favorites to win the conference, but they're not far off. And after finishing last season with the league's best record, there may not be a better way for Keith Dambrot's experience-laden team to start the campaign by knocking off a couple of teams with known names on their chests.
While there's no shame in taking a couple knocks, this could be the fuel they need to propel themselves towards an NCAA bid.
Unknown Factor: UMass
The Minutemen were in the thick of the Atlantic-10 chase until a February swoon put them in a "win the conference tournament" mode. They didn't and, thus, landed in the NIT. No matter. Derek Kellogg's squad made the most of their second stanza, getting all the way to Madison Square Garden. Now, they want to improve their prospects.
In a year where Xavier needs to restock, Temple must rebuild, and Rick Majerus won't be on the sidelines in Saint Louis, the A-10 title might be ready to return to Springfield. A possible scare of N.C. State might turn some heads in their direction.
In the End ... N.C. State Over Akron
There's usually one tournament each year where a Mid-Major strides through and creates a buzz. I think Akron has the chance to do it this year. The MAC may be returning to the form that swooped up at-large bids once upon a time ... or that saw a team reach the Sweet 16 just last season.
However, the Zips are quite up to the level of the Wolfpack ... yet.