Friday, October 18, 2013

Hoops Preview: Stop and Stare

By Jonathan Lowe

The second installment of the 2013-2014 college tourney preview shifts the focus out West. Last year, I fondly reminisced about a time when highly-touted programs actually wanted to head to the Alaskan frontier to play basketball with the landscape of a Winter Wonderland. Now the tournament is trying to restore the luster that made it a standout before the turn of the century.

More than 2,300 miles to the south, an established tournament looks to add its own luster by attaching itself to the greatest coach in the sport's history. The event that paid tribute to John Wooden since 1994 was mainly a one-day doubleheader. Wooden's most known program, UCLA (he started his career at Indiana State), usually participated in the event. But this year brings about a change in the Santa Ana wind.

Great Alaska Shootout (Nov. 27-30)

Obvious Team to Watch: In a field that lacks star power, Tommy Amaker stands out like a sore thumb. It's extremely rare that your tournament would tout the lone NCAA tournament participant came from the Ivy League, but that'll be the case in Anchorage. The Harvard Crimson shocked New Mexico last March, and they should be even stronger this season (with Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey returning from suspension). Basically, this is a lose-lose situation for Harvard, which, again, is a weird thing to say for an Ivy Leaguer. Win the competition. Lose anywhere in the tourney ... possibly a bad loss for the selection committee's criteria.

Under the Radar Team to Watch: Just as unlikely as an Ivy League team being the favorite in a holiday tournament, the "big dog" school isn't usually the team most under the radar. TCU will be the first school from a Big Six conference to play in Alaska in three years. The Horned Frogs comes off a campaign where they only won two Big XII games. But one of them was the stunner of the season (the 62-55 win over Kansas). Trent Johnson has another young squad set to play, so even a couple of wins under their belts could be a big boost to their confidence.

Best Early Matchup: Indiana State vs. Tulsa

Indiana State tried to make things interesting in last season's Missouri Valley race. The Sycamores pushed Creighton and Wichita State (splitting the regular season series with both) before fading down the stretch. Tulsa got an infusion of energy with first-year head coach Danny Manning. The Golden Hurricanes kept their streak of winning season alive with a fairly young crew. Both teams will be looking to make an NCAA push later in the year, and this victory might provide a big feather in their "quality" cap.

Best Potential Final: Indiana State vs. Harvard

There's not a lot to add to this matchup. On paper, these are the best teams in this field. For the Sycamores, it would be a shot for two quality wins. For the Crimson, it may be the only win they can snag.

The Wooden Legacy (Nov. 28-29, Dec. 1)

Obvious Team to Watch: This actually isn't as easy as it looks. With four NCAA teams, another that was one step away, and an NIT-quality squad are in this field. Having said that, the favorite will probably be Creighton. Arizona State's Jahii Carson might be the most talented player to step on the floor during the event. However, Blue Jays star Doug McDermott is the one who has two All-American credits and preseason Player of the Year buzz.

Under the Radar Team to Watch: It's hard to go from Elite Eight to "under the radar," but that's what happened to Marquette. While two large pieces return to the block (Davante Gardner and Chris Otule), the backcourt has to be replaced. How Buzz Williams' team starts the season will depend on the production of the guys replacing Vander Blue and Junior Cadougan (possibly Todd Mayo and Derrick Wilson). One thing the Golden Eagles don't lack is toughness. But it's experience that might provide a big roadblock.

Best Early Matchup: Creighton vs. Arizona State

No question about this one. This is one of those matchups you could easily see again in the NCAA tourney. The two best players in the tournament will be on the same floor at the same time. And while they won't guard each other, I'd be hard-pressed to say that they won't keep track of the other's play.

Best Potential Final: Creighton vs. Marquette

There are many potential matchups that would be fun to watch. How would Carson and his backcourt mates do against Angel Rodriguez (who just transferred from Kansas State to Miami). What about the Golden Eagles battling the long, athletic players that Steve Fisher recruits to San Diego State? The most appealing final appears to be the tough, grinding gameplay of Marquette going up against a potential Player of the Year.

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