College basketball fans will have plenty to be thankful for Thursday, as if guzzling down turkey and mashed potatoes all day isn’t appealing enough, this Turkey Day also marks the tip-off of several of the sport’s premier preseason tournaments. Preseason tournaments are one of the best things about college hoops. With little basketball having been played, it provides a platform for teams to showcase their game. Still being in the incipient stages of the season, the tournaments can reveal a lot as to who was overrated and who was maybe overlooked in the rankings.
The Old Spice Classic looks to do just that when it kicks off Thursday in Orlando, Florida. One chief element of the tournament is its diversity. From the powers (Gonzaga) to the unknowns (Oklahoma, West Virginia, Clemson) and even some solid mid majors (UTEP, Davidson) this tournament has a good mix of it all. So without further ado, here’s a preview.
Kevin Pangos leads Gonzaga as the tournament favorite (Photo from northpolehoops.com)
The Favorite: Gonzaga- No one else in the field can come close to matching what Gonzaga has. Their inside-outside game is what makes them the deadliest team in this bracket. They can attack you from anywhere on the court. Opposing teams have difficulty keeping up with the Bulldogs balanced attack on defense—their NCAA-leading 94.3 PPG is verification of this. Kevin Pangos will be content to hover around the three point line all game, but if you step out too far he will dish it inside to Sam Dower or Elias Harris for an easy bucket. You just can’t win guarding the Zags, even if you do manage to shut down one guy, someone else goes for 20. Their multitude of weapons is of the reasons that, through their first three games, the Bulldog’s average margin of victory is an astounding 36.7 points. Fatigue is hardly a factor. Their depth has allowed them the luxury of playing nine different players 15 or more minutes per game in the early season. If their first string is in a funk, a reliable reserve is waiting to impact the game.
Three stats on Gonzaga:
-The Bulldogs lead the NCAA in scoring with 94.3 PPG
-Gonzaga has won by a margin of 36.7 through three games
-Gonzaga ranks sixth in the nation in steals with 12.7 per game
Why they could win the tournament: Gonzaga has experience and talent, a deadly combination in the world of college basketball. On paper, nobody else seems to quite match up with them. With the perfect mix of savvy veterans and skill, the Bulldogs are the logical pick to win the tournament.
The Sleeper: Oklahoma- The past three seasons in Norman have yielded lackluster results. After making the Elite Eight in 2009, the Sooners have gone 42-52 and have missed the big dance for three straight years. Last season they brought in a known program reviver in Lon Kruger as head coach, and in just his second season things seem to be on the rise. The Sooners return all of their starters from last season, but the main reason for their optimism this season is Wyoming transfer Amath M’Baye. With the shooting touch of a guard, but the size and athleticism to play the low post, the versatile forward is expected to have an immediate impact on the Sooners success this season. Several respected sites even predicted him as a second round draft pick after this season. In addition to M’Baye three freshmen guards joined the team this season and also look to play major roles.
Three stats on Oklahoma:
-Oklahoma has 10 players averaging 15 or more minutes per game so far, a testimony to their depth.
-Oklahoma is one of the top rebounding teams in the country through two games, averaging 44 boards per outing
-Oklahoma is a much better first half team than second half team through two games, ranking 47th overall in first half points compared to 134th in the second period.
Why they could win the tournament: Experience is valued in college basketball and the Sooners have plenty of it. That experience, combined with fresh faces, could shock a few people in Florida this weekend. The only thing standing in their way: Oklahoma may have to face the Zags in round two.
The Rest: Clemson- The Tigers missed the tournament for the first time in four years last season, and on top of that, lose a couple of key players from that season. Devin Booker and Milton Jennings make a formidable frontcourt, but the backcourt is certainly lacking. Clemson will be leaning on a lot of freshmen and sophomores, and whether or not they can step up to the challenge remains the question.
Why they could win the tournament: Jennings and Booker is arguably one of the better post duos in the bracket, and if the freshmen pan out Clemson could surprise.
Davidson- The Wildcats were thrust into the spotlight after their Elite Eight run with Stephen Curry in 2008, but Davidson has been able to field some decent teams in the post-Curry years as well. De’Mon Brooks is indubitably the star of the team, averaging 20 points through three games so far. He’s got a solid team around him too. Little David(son) is not going to go down without giving Goliath a fight.
Why they could win the tournament: Of course, it’s highly unlikely, but if Brooks gets reeling and his supporting cast steps up, the Wildcats could make a run. It wouldn’t be their first.
Mercer- Through five games Mercer only averages 58.2 PPG, and on top of that, they haven’t really faced anybody of note. Their leading scorer, Travis Smith, only averages 11.2 PPG. It’s going to be a long tournament for the Bears.
Why they could win the tournament: Yeah, right.
UTEP- It’s hard to get a grasp on this UTEP team. They blew Oral Roberts, who consistently fields a solid program, at home, then turned around and got blasted on the road by Arizona. Led by two brothers, Chris and Julian Washburn, this is yet another team with a strong frontcourt, though they lack in the experience department. Of their top six scorers, four are underclassmen.
Why they could win the tournament: This UTEP team is not devoid of talent. The Washburn brothers are one of the best tandems in the tournament. The group behind them isn’t too bad either. If they play smart and together, a few upsets could go down.
Vanderbilt- Vandy had a terrific season last year, including winning the SEC championship game over eventual national champion Kentucky and then going on to the third round in the dance. This year though, they are expected to regress tremendously. They lose all five of their starters from last year’s championship team, will rest most of their hope this season on the shoulders of Kedren Johnson, the leading returner. Rod Odom is another guy who could potentially break out this year for the Commodores. In the absence of Festus Ezeli, Odom will see an increased role in the paint. Still filling the void left by the departure of all five starters is no easy task, and Vandy will have its hands full in a talented tournament pool.
Why they could win the tournament: If Johnson and Odom step up, watch out Old Spice Classic. Both of these guys were ranked in the top 100 out of high school, so they have talent. If they can harness that talent, Vandy could add another trophy to its collection.
West Virginia- The Mountaineers will rely heavily on the play of transfers this year. They will be as successful as Aaric Murray and Juwan Staten make them. Murray, who averaged 15 points and eight boards along with two blocks his final season at LaSalle, will immediately step into star status at West Virginia. Staten, after averaging 5.4 APG at Dayton, will look to run the offense in Morgantown. The supporting cast around them is solid too. Fun fact: West Virginia has already played on of the teams in this bracket this season—Gonzaga. They lost 84-50.
Why they could win the tournament: West Virginia has the pieces to win the tournament. It’s arguable that they are one of the better teams in the field. If Murray and Staten get things rolling, it could mean victories for the Mountaineers.
Keep an eye out for De’Mon Brooks, last year’s Southern Conference Player of the Year (Photo from ESPN.com)
Five Players to Watch:
Kevin Pangos Gonzaga- Leave him alone and he will light you up from deep. So far this season, Pangos is shooting 46% from deep. He’s not just a shooter though. Pangos has left his mark as both a facilitator (5 APG) and has a knack for getting into the passing lanes (2 SPG). His ability to affect the game in a variety of ways is why he is one of the players you should keep an eye on.
Elias Harris Gonzaga- Surprise! Another Bulldog cracked the list. At one time he was considered a two-year player at Gonzaga, and a top NBA prospect, but his stagnant development stifled the talk. Make no mistake though, Harris is a beast in the paint and a crashes the boards with tenacity. He currently ranks among the top 20 in the NCAA with 10.7 boards per contest. Not surprisingly, he gets a lot of second-chance buckets. He can credit a good chunk of his 13 PPG average to that.
De’Mon Brooks Davidson- Brooks can flat out light it up. Wherever he is on the court, he can find a way to score. This is part of the reason he shared the Southern COnference Player of the Year award with teammate David Cohen last season. A lot of Brooks’ damage this season has been done via the foul line, where 19 of his 60 points have come from so far. He has a knack for penetrating the lane and getting to the rim for easy buckets. He’ll even shoot it if need be. One thing is for sure—if there is a way to score, Brooks will find it.
Amath M’Baye Oklahoma- M’Baye could be the best player you’ve never heard of from this bracket. With soft shooting touch form the outside, and psychical athletic play on the low block, the versatile 6-foot-9 forward can hurt you in a variety of ways. Amath M’Baye could be a name you’re much more familiar with by tournament’s end.
Aaric Murray West Virginia- Is a glass cleaner, averaging 2 blocks per game at LaSalle. He has unique shooting range for a player his size that extends out to the three point line. If you’re not careful he can catch fire in a hurry. It will be interesting to see how he fits in at West Virginia in his inaugural season as a Mountaineer and this tournament will be a great barometer for that.
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