Sunday, October 7, 2012

Early Tourneys: The Underappreciated

By Jonathan Lowe

There are several tournaments going on during the holiday season. With showcase games all over the country, some can get lost in the shuffle. But no matter which early season title shows up in the champion's trophy case, it holds relevance to that team. The confidence that comes with winning an event involving unfamiliar foes can carry throughout the entire season.

Now, not everyone agrees with me when it comes to how much importance these tournaments hold. However, even if you don't get to the Final Four in April, it appears that most early tourney winners give themselves the chance to make an NCAA run by reaching the big tournament. Keep that in mind when taking in these next two fields.

Paradise Jam

The island of St. Thomas is a beautiful location (from what I've heard), especially as winter seeps in across the U.S. But as the Jam goes into its 12th annual tournament, the field isn't as "marquee" as it has been in the last few years. The two big names on the bracket are Connecticut and Wake Forest. New Mexico and George Mason offer some mid-major clout. Another quality program in the field is Iona, starting out on the bottom of the bracket. The tourney is rounded out by Mercer, Quinnipiac, and Illinois-Chicago.

Three Reasons Why We Should Watch

Path Back to Glory Days

It was less than two years ago that UConn was on top of college basketball. Jim Calhoun led his less experienced squad of underclassmen and junior star Kemba Walker through an up and down season. While a bit lackluster in the regular season, they brought it in tournament play. A loaded Maui Invitational field, the daunting Big East tournament, and the NCAAs provided the template for 14 of their 32 wins in the 2010-2011 season.

Then, the NCAA stepped in and hung a cloud of despair over the program. The drawn-out process concerning the ban from the 2013 postseason tourney due to a substandard APR score seemed to weigh on the Huskies last season. And while Walker's promotion to the pros took a leader off the team, the talent left behind should have more than made up for the loss. Now Calhoun has retired, sophomore stud Jeremy Lamb bolted to the NBA, and senior center Alex Oriakhi has transferred. With no Big Dance to fight for, it'll be interesting to see how first-year coach Kevin Ollie will react to a "lame duck" season.

For Wake Forest, it's more simplistic. They're trying to get back to the days where Tim Duncan and Chris Paul (over two separate careers) had the Demon Deacons annually fighting for ACC titles and receiving top seeds in the NCAAs. Wake made the tourney in 2009 and 2010, but those seasons seem to be overshadowed by what could have been. That's especially true in 2009, when a squad led by Jeff Teague and Al-Farouq Aminu lost in their opening NCAA game to Cleveland State.

Fast forward to today, and third-year coach Jeff Bzdelik is turning the roster over. A very large freshman class will have to be relied on at some point this year as the program looks to return to those consistent glory days.

How Will the Mid-Majors Fare?

It's been a couple of years since George Mason made the NCAAs, and they didn't take part in any postseason tournament in March. However, the Patriots have the vast majority of their team back from a squad that went 24-9 in 2011-2012. The three seniors they lose did contribute, but GMU should have plenty of players ready to step up and contend in the competitive Colonial conference.

Under the leadership of coach Steve Alford, New Mexico has returned to the big tournament two out of the last three seasons, including in 2012. But two of the big reasons why the Lobos ran through the Mountain West tournament are gone. Without Drew Gordon and A.J. Hardeman, Alford will have to rely on an experienced backcourt to return for more March glory.

Could This Lead to a Cinderella?

When it comes to this event, the entry list hasn't exactly been top notch. In past years, there have been a couple of bigger names connected with the event. This time, however, there seems to be more of a balance with the "one-bid" conference programs. That may not be a bad thing.

Last November, Marquette, Virginia, and Drexel headlined the tournament going in. The story, though, came from the team that finished runner-up ... Norfolk State? You might remember the Spartans more for their upset of Missouri back in March. Well, if we had paid attention to the MEAC tournament champ, this wouldn't have been as big of a shock.

So could any of the four "smaller" schools pull off the same feat? Could be worth a look.

Great Alaska Shootout

As I stated in the first segment of this series, there used to be three locations you would look to for a tournament final in November. For 34 years, an unlikely northern city has been one of them. Just like Maui's Chaminade, the University of Alaska-Anchorage has had the privilege of hosting some of the most historically potent programs in the country. Schools such as Kansas, Arizona, and Purdue have been multiple participants in the past. But it's a new day in the world of these events.

The influx of new tourneys in destination locations (including Orlando, Anaheim, and Cancun) has thinned the pool of teams willing to head to the Far North to play in a four-day showcase. A couple of "Big Six" conference teams have trickled in to play. However, for the third time in the last five years, that isn't the case. None of this year's participants are affiliated with a major conference. So, besides the beautiful scenery of that area of the world, what is there to take in?

Three Reasons Why We Should Watch

Busting Moves

On the surface, this tournament has been set up as an early-style Bracket Busters. Representatives from several of the country's "one-bid' leagues, this could be an advantageous opportunity to gain some well-earned wins over some quality opponents.

An Intriguing Matchup

Looking at the first-round games in these tournaments, there's a game that intrigues me in this particular setting. Oral Roberts, who was a perennial favorite in the Summit League will take on Loyola Marymount, who look to return to contending status in the WCC. Both teams will experience some turnover. And the Golden Eagles will be gearing up for their first year in the Southland Conference. But I'd like to find out if either team can get a foothold that could launch them into their respective conference seasons.

The Chance of Some Magic

Over the last three years, college basketball had a few stories emerge out of the field in Anchorage. In 2009, it was the rise of Klay Thompson as a major scoring threat for Washington State. The year 2010 saw the return of St. John's with then-new head coach Steve Lavin. Last year, Murray State basically started the run to the NCAAs by beating Southern Miss, who ended up with their own redemption story in coach Larry Eustachy.

Who might grab a headline or two in 2012? It might be Belmont, who will start its first season in the Ohio Valley Conference after a long run of success in the Atlantic Sun. Could be Charlotte, who want to improve their outlook during their final season in the Atlantic-10. Or maybe Northeastern, trying to get back into the race in the CAA, could make an early statement. Whichever team gets out of Alaska with a tourney win, let's keep an eye on them through the season.

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