Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Early Tourneys: The Heavy Hitters

By Jonathan Lowe

The turn of the century has brought us some new showcase events that we can lean on to get through the holidays. Rivalry football games are fantastic. But, sometimes they leave a bad taste of lop-sided victories on our palettes. The excitement of the non-conference, lesser-seen opponents has waned. Enter these tournaments, with a renewed sense of those matchups we wouldn't see in the middle of a season.

The "infant" tourneys seem to be on a rotation of which one gets the studded lineup. This year, these two selections are headlining the new wave.

Old Spice Classic

The Orlando-based tournament is becoming quite the hot spot for basketball over the last few years. Maybe it's the (relatively) warm Florida sunshine. Maybe it's a chance for these college kids to relive their childhood at Disneyworld. Whatever the reason, this event has the allure to bring in both big names and top-flight sleepers. That makes for a nice mix title holders (from inaugural winner Arkansas to 2011 champ Dayton). This year's edition should be no different. However, just for decision's sake...

Which "repeat matchup" would be better?

West Virginia could be in an interesting dilemma should they reach the tournament final. On the opposite side of the bracket stands two schools that the Mountaineers will become pretty acquainted with over the season. One is Gonzaga, whom Bob Huggins' squad will play on Nov. 12th. That's less than two weeks before the Classic field convenes in Central Florida.

Then there's the case of Oklahoma. Because of recent conference realignment, the Mountaineers and Sooners are now Big 12 rivals. Even with all the warning sign, the committee that puts this event together couldn't have seen this circumstance popping up. (But they must be stoked to have a little more juice at hand.)

And the winner is ... Gonzaga. The Sooners might not be ready for the bright lights, yet. They'll still be learning the system of new coach Lon Kruger by that time. The Bulldogs should be up to their normal pre-conference status of dangerous upstart.

Which "mid-major" will make the most noise?

The logical choice for ‘team with the best chance to win' would be the Zags. Mark Few doesn't have much trouble getting his teams to perform well in November. It's getting over the hump in March that's been his bug-a-boo.

Tim Floyd continues his trek back to respectability in "league of second chances" Conference USA. His UTEP Miners will look to build the program back to a postseason stalwart after slipping back to mediocrity.

The wild card will be Marist. The Red Foxes don't look like much on paper. They took plenty of lumps last season (finishing eighth in the MAAC), but finished strong, winning seven out of their final ten. The vast majority of their team is back, losing only one senior to graduation.

However, the team I'd look out for most is Davidson. Bob McKillop is the epitome of wiley veteran coach. He rode Stephen Curry to an Elite Eight back in 2008. He returned his program to the NCAAs in 2012, getting knocked out in the first round by eventual national semifinalist Louisville. That team is back intact. All five starters return for another run at a Southern Conference title and a deeper run in the Big Dance. With Vanderbilt undergoing a massive rebuilding project, this could kick start a mini-run to a bigger run for the Wildcats.

Battle 4 Atlantis

All right. I'll admit to being a homer on this one. I remembered the tournament season was set a couple of weeks back, when I looked up the season schedules of Missouri (team I root for above all others) and Minnesota (where I live now). One common element was this site. So I wondered who else might be in the field. After looking it up, all I could say was "Daaaaannnnnngggg!"

This field is loaded with talent and experience. Each team received at least one vote in the AP Preseason poll (for what it's worth). Every squad in this field made the NCAA or NIT in March. The three from the NIT look to take that final step to the field of 68. The NCAA participants want to get back to where they were on the Ides of March ... still playing for a shot at the national title.

Which NIT finalist can make the deeper run?

Stanford and Minnesota met at Madison Square Garden for the NIT championship. The Cardinal came out on top, and both teams return quite a bit of the cores to make an even loftier run. The two teams get tough tests in their first-round matchups. The Cardinal face Mizzou, and the Gophers get Duke. While it'll be good to get these rebuilding squads early, the Blue Devils have more in the cupboard coming back than the Tigers.

If Minnesota gets by Duke, I think they have a good chance to get to the tourney finals ... but that's a bigger if than Stanford beating Missouri. So, in the spirit of answering the question, I'll pick Stanford as the one with the better chance at a deep run. That being said...

Which "disappointee" will recover better?

Dateline: Friday, March 16th, 2012. Half the field had played in their first game of the NCAAs. No big shockers really happened the day before. It appeared to stay that way through the quartet of games. But everything changed in the late part of the afternoon. By dinnertime, two-seed Missouri had fallen pray to the force known as Norfolk State. By bedtime, two-seed Duke befell the same fate, this time to mighty Lehigh. It was the first time in the current format of the tournament that multiple second seeds were gone before the round of 32.

Both programs have had to sit on that disappointment for nearly eight months. Now, they slowly start to forget on the court. Both teams are different. The Blue Devils lost lottery pick Austin Rivers in the draft, as well as oldest the of the Plumlee brothers (Miles). The Tigers were hit harder, losing five seniors to graduation (including Marcus Denmon, Ricardo Ratliff, and Kim English).

With their transfer-heavy lineup, I expect MU to make more noise later in the season. But I think Duke will stay near the top of the heap all season, including playing well in the Bahamas.

How many teams will make this experience pay off in March?

Usually, these early season tournaments will show some indications of who can make a deep run at the right time of the year. However, we can't foresee injuries, suspensions, and lack of chemistry. For me, the talent in this field sets the over/under at 5.5. Unless catastrophe strikes, Louisville, Duke, and Memphis should be locks. Missouri's a strong "should be." That leaves four teams at ‘maybe' or higher. Stanford and VCU should be in the top three of their respective conferences. And don't sleep on Minnesota's experience and UNI's strength of league. Bottom line, if six teams out of this bunch don't make the field in March, I'll be stunned.

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