Thursday, October 18, 2012

Early Tourneys: The Dark Horses

By Jonathan Lowe

It has been five years since Anaheim had its chance to host a holiday tournament. While the state of Hawaii has been a college basketball destination for nearly 30 years, the city of Honolulu has only held their own event for four. However young these tournaments are, though, they aren't waiting in line to fill their fields. Both of them involve a nice mix of big-name programs and hopeful upstarts.

DirecTV Classic (literally just changed its name last week)

The names on the front of the jerseys should be well-known to most college basketball fans. Although only two schools are from Power Six conferences (Cal and Georgia Tech), most of the programs have made noise in the last decade. What headlines will pop up in the shadow of Disneyland?

Back on Track

Mike Montgomery has rejuvenated the Golden Bears' program during his four years back on the college scene. In three of those four season, Cal has reached the NCAAs (the other one ended in the NIT). Brian Gregory was brought to Atlanta to try and rebuild a Yellow Jackets program that chronically underachieved in the late Paul Hewitt-era.

The Bears lost one of their key starters from last year, but have the majority of their core back for another run at a top-three finish in the Pac-12. Tech will take a little longer to get there, with a squad mainly constructed of underclassmen looking up at the rest of the ACC. We'll find out how much progress Gregory's making in these three days.

Drought Busters

Rice is the only school in this group that hasn't seen an NCAA tournament in the last 20 years (or 40 years). However, that drought might come to an end sooner rather than later. Just like Todd Bozeman before him, Owls head coach Ben Braun is trying to shake off the firing from his former job (ironically, Cal) and make a return to the field of 68. After bottoming out with eight wins in his second year at the helm, the squad has improved each of the last two, making a postseason appearance last March (in the CIT).

Drexel was much closer to the NCAAs. After a 16-year absence, the Dragons were three points away from securing the CAA's automatic bid. Now, Bruiser Flint's team has one goal in mind: get to the Big Dance. He's got the experience to accomplish that, with four starters from that CAA Championship game returning to Philly. (Spoiler alert: Drexel is my favorite to win the Classic trophy.)

Quite the Matchup

For the Dragons to get to a title in Anaheim, they have to get through one of the best games of any first round offering during the holidays. Drexel's opponent is perennial NCAA participant Saint Mary's. The Gaels wound up in the NIT last year (along with Drexel), but they continue to make noise annually on the Pacific coast.

I'm a fan of this game for many reasons. This is a pairing of two men that can flat out coach in Flint and SMC's Randy Bennett. It's East vs. West (far, far west with all the Australian influence). It's also a battle between two of the three best Mid-Major conferences out there in the CAA and the WCC. If you've reached your fill of football on Thanksgiving day, this should provide a great alternative to staving off a tryptophan nap.

Diamond Head Classic

This is what you might term the Holiday "last call." After this specific event, teams around the country have to "sober up" from their visits to (and from) other corners of the U.S. And for the eight schools that get to entertain the last "happy hour" of 2012, here's what Diamond Head brings.

The Holly Jolly Quirk

The thing that this event does right is all in the timing. With its placement at Christmas instead of Thanksgiving, Diamond Head sets itself apart from all of the other tournaments. There are other showcase games around this time of year, but having a set of twelve games available for everyone and Santa to follow could really be a boon. That is, if more high-profile programs decide to make the trip right before conference season starts up.

Even though there teams will get time to recoup before the New Year starts, I still think it'll be interesting to follow all of the visitors (excluding the host Hawai'i) to see how they fare once their ‘second seasons' begin.

First (Round) Impressions

If the Great Alaska Shootout feels like a round of Bracket Busters, then the first four games of this tournament have the aura of day one of the NCAAs. Four teams that didn't need much introduction face off against four programs that might need more research and analysis to have a sense of where they are.

The pessimist glancing at this field of teams would point out that only one of them made the ultimate goal last year, and it wasn't Mississippi, Arizona, or Miami (that would have been San Diego State). The optimist would say that these programs could be riding momentum, with all eight squads finishing at .500 or above (the worst being 16-16 Hawaii). Can a mini-Cinderella steal the spotlight, or will one of the power names earn a victory luau?

Coaching Clinic

If the four well-known schools make it to the semifinals, it'll be fun to see what happens on the sidelines. The coaches of UA, Ole Miss, the U, and SDSU have forged their own postseason success. Steve Fisher tops them all with his National Championship while at Michigan. Jim Larranaga had his magical run to a Final Four with George Mason. Sean Miller has reached the Elite Eight twice (one at Arizona, one at Xavier). And while Andy Kennedy hasn't lifted the Rebels into the field of 68, he has led the program on two trips to Madison Square Garden (NIT semifinals). A semifinal quartet of Larranaga vs. Miller and Fisher vs. Kennedy would be quite interesting.

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