College Basketball: Paradise Jam Preview
Many of the preseason basketball tournaments get under way this weekend, giving teams an early opportunity to impress on a national stage against some of the best teams in the country.
One of those early-season tournaments is the Paradise Jam, which will take place this Friday through Monday in the beautiful U.S. Virgin Islands.
This year's tournament will feature opening round games between Mercer and George Mason, Illinois-Chicago and New Mexico, Wake Forest and Connecticut, and Quinnipiac and Iona.
As for watching the Paradise Jam, the opening round games between Illinois-Chicago and New Mexico and between Wake Forest and Connecticut will be aired on CBS Sports Network. In addition to those, the semifinals on Sunday and the consolation game and championship game on Monday will also be aired by CBS Sports Network.
If all those words were enough to make your head spin, take a look at the bracket and simplify things.
But enough about the logistics; let's get down to the meat of the tournament. Here's your preview of the 2012 Paradise Jam.
2011-12 Record: 27-11 (CIT Champions)
Current Record: 2-0
Key Players: Langston Hall, Travis Smith, Daniel Coursey
Overview: Although Mercer may not be the sexiest name in this year's Paradise Jam field, they are far from a pushover.
The 2012 CIT champions bring nine juniors and sophomores to the floor, giving them plenty of experience on the floor at all times. The Bears also have a nice mix of size and quickness, with Monty Brown, a 6'11" junior patrolling the middle, and Travis Smith, a senior guard, leading the scoring thus far.
Of course, those two have had to step up due to Mercer missing two of their starters and better players. They will definitely be getting Daniel Coursey, a 6'10" junior forward, back after serving a two-game suspension, and may also get back Langston Hall, last year's leading scorer, after an ankle injury from October 31st.
The biggest concern about Mercer right now is their lack of competition heading into the Virgin Islands.
Yes, the Bears are 2-0, but both wins have been at home against Division III schools, Sewanee and Oglethorpe.
Obviously Mercer is going to face a sharp increase in quality of opponent, but this is a talented, experienced team that can definitely handle the pressure and may surprise a few teams out in the Virgin Islands.
George Mason Patriots
2011-12 Record: 24-9
Current Record: 1-1
Key Players: Sherrod Wright, Bryon Allen, Erik Copes
Overview: The Patriots are another mid-major squad that may not turn heads at first glance, but can be a dangerous factor throughout the Paradise Jam.
After losing leading scorers Ryan Pearson and Mike Morrison to graduation, the Patriots have revamped their style, employing a faster paced, jump shooting based, full court running game plan.
Whereas Mercer has played a very light schedule to open the year, Mason has gone the other direction. They are considerably more battle tested heading into the Virgin Islands, beating UVA to start the year and then dropping a tough game at Bucknell only a few days ago.
Mason is also going to get a major boost in the second game of the tournament, as Vaughn Gray and Erik Copes, both of whom have been serving a three-game suspension, will be eligible to return. This will give the Patriots a lift in terms of depth as well as a major improvement in the paint and on the boards.
If Mason can get past Mercer with their shorthanded lineup, these returns mixed with their high-octane offense could make the Patriots a problem for everyone else in the tournament.
2011-12 Record: 8-22
Current Record: 1-0
Key Players: Gary Talton, Daniel Barnes, Josh Crittle
Overview: The Flames may be the low team on the totem pole in this tournament, but with four returning starters, they have experience and the potential to surprise.
Despite returning four of their five starters from 2011-12, replacing Darrin Williams has proven tough due to his steady presence in the paint.
The Flames also have a very experienced backcourt, looking to seniors Gary Talton and Daniel Barnes to lead the way.
What it will come down to for UIC, however, is finding a way to tighten up their defense. They allowed the most points per game in the Horizon League last season, at 67.8 points per game.
At the end of the day, this Illinois-Chicago team should be a lot better than last year's 8-22 version. Maybe with their experience at the guard position, they can upset some teams who aren't expecting much from the Flames.
New Mexico Lobos
2011-12 Record: 28-7 (NCAA Tournament 3rd Round)
Current Record: 1-0
Key Players: Tony Snell, Jamal Fenton, Kendall Williams
Overview: New Mexico has fast become one of the hotter programs in conference basketball, and they hope that 2012-13 will continue that trend.
The Lobos have had to adjust early on, however. Last year's leading scorer and rebounder Drew Gordon graduated, leaving New Mexico a bit smaller than they used to be.
To add to New Mexico's woes, senior Jamal Fenton was suspended for the first three games of the season for receiving impermissible benefits, so we will not see Fenton until New Mexico's last game in the Virgin Islands.
So with all of the bad news, what's the good new for the Lobos?
Well for one, junior guard Tony Snell is still on the team, and that never hurts. Snell proved in New Mexico's opening 86-81 comeback victory over Davidson that he may be an irreplaceable asset as the season progresses. Snell had 25 points, hit the game-winning three-pointer and played every minute against the Wildcats.
The Lobos may be a bit smaller this year, but they are definitely faster, using a four-guard offense at times for some explosive power, as proven by their 55-point second half against Davidson.
The players may change, the offense may change, but in the end, the results are still the same: New Mexico is really good.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons
2011-12 Record: 13-18
Current Record: 1-0
Key Players: Travis McKie, C.J. Harris, Chase Fisher
Overview: Wake Forest is the opposite of the past few teams mentioned, in that they are a major conference team that doesn't have as much experience on the floor night in and night out.
The Demon Deacons only return two starters from last year's disappointing team. Luckily for them, the starters are senior C.J. Harris and junior Travis McKie, the two leading scorers from last year's team.
The biggest thing that the Deacs lost from last season, however, was size. Last year, Wake Forest were fourth in the ACC in blocked shots, led mainly by Ty Walker and Carson Desrosiers, who graduated and transferred, respectively.
To make matters worse, Wake Forest lost 6'10" sophomore Daniel Green for the season with a torn ACL.
The good news from that game, aside from the win, obviously, was that six different players entered double figures, proving that Wake may have some depth on that bench after all.
I don't know what to expect from this team, but neither does anyone else. They could be a sloppy, inexperienced bunch who gets blown out of a gym, or they could be one of those ragtag groups that surprises everyone.
Only time will tell.
2011-12 Record: 20-14 (NCAA Tournament 2nd Round)
Current Record: 2-0
Key Players: Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright, Tyler Olander
Overview: Cue the odds-on favorites to win the 2012 Paradise Jam.
Things were looking quite bleak for the Huskies this offseason.
They lost legendary coach Jim Calhoun, were banned from postseason play due to low APR scores, lost stars Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond to the NBA, and then lost Alex Oriakhi, Roscoe Smith and Michael Bradley to transfer.
Yet despite all of that, UConn still managed to grab the most impressive win among all of the Paradise Jam teams by defeating #14 Michigan State in the Armed Forces Classic, 66-62.
The Huskies may not be the biggest team out there, but they are a fast one. Despite having no hope of an NCAA Tournament run, there is plenty of motivation to take out as many high-level teams as they can.
Connecticut has already broken into the AP Top 25, and would love to add a Paradise Jam championship as another feather in their cap in what was supposed to be a lost season.
2011-12 Record: 18-14 (CBI 1st Round)
Current Record: 1-1
Key Players: Ike Azotam, Garvey Young, Dave Johnson
Overview: Quinnipiac is another of those teams that can be a pain in their own conference, but have not yet shown whether they can hang with the big boys.
Plain and simple, the Bobcats are going to run through Ike Azotam this season.
After two games, Azotam is the Bobcats's leading scorer and rebounder. Azotam has also proven to be the X-factor for Quinnipiac, scoring 17 points in QU's win over Hartford, but only scoring six for the Bobcats in their loss to American.
Azotam's partner in crime this year will again be redshirt senior Garvey Young. While Azotam leads the Bobcats in both scoring and rebounding, Young is statistically a close second in each category.
Quinnipiac is definitely going to crash the boards on teams, picking up nine offensive boards a game and pulling down an incredible 40 rebounds in their opener against Hartford.
The game plan for the Bobcats in the Virgin Islands is going to be real simple: out-physical the teams on the glass and get Azotam and Young going.
If both men are scoring and the Bobcats are dominating the boards, they may be able to cause problems for some of the smaller teams they'll face here.
2011-12 Record: 25-8 (NCAA First Four)
Current Record: 1-0
Key Players: Lamont Jones, Sean Armand, Tre Bowman
Overview: The Gaels are a completely different team than the one that received an at-large bid out of the MAAC last year. But that doesn't mean that they won't find a way to be competitive in the Virgin Islands.
Obviously, the big loss for the Gaels over the offseason was superstar Scott Machado, though the departures of leading scorer Michael Glover and graduating senior Kyle Smyth didn't help matters either.
Luckily for Iona, they have Lamont Jones, who proved his worth in Iona's opening day victory over Denver by playing every minute of the game and dropping 20 points to complement his seven assists.
Jones will be the key for Iona this season as he looks to replace Machado, more in the efficiency department than in points. Iona was 5th in the nation last year in offensive efficiency, and if Jones can keep Iona's offense scoring effectively, then the Gaels are going to win games.
Iona also still has three-point assassin Sean Armand, who can be an absolute game changer if he can continue his blistering 46.2 percent shooting from deep last season.
The Gaels are playing this season with a heavy heart, however, thanks to the loss of incoming recruit Michael Hayes to a Chicago shooting. Iona has dedicated their 2012-13 season to Haynes, and you never know what a little extra motivation will do for a team.
All in all, Iona may be missing the key players that brought them to the dance last year, but that does not mean that they are any less talented this season. Look for the Gaels to try to make a statement in the Virgin Islands.
First and foremost: this is going to be a fun tournament to watch.
There are a lot of fast, offensively explosive teams in the field, plus the potential for some intriguing matchups.
For the opening round games, I think the closest one will be Mercer-George Mason, particularly if Langston Hall is healthy for the Bears.
And I'll go with Mason, New Mexico, Connecticut and Iona coming out of the opening rounds in the winner's bracket.
From there, it really could go anywhere.
UConn, as the only ranked team in the field, is obviously the clear favorite, but I wouldn't crown them just yet.
Looking at my four semifinal teams, I think Mason and New Mexico has potential to be a fantastic game, especially with the Patriots getting back Erik Copes and Vaughn Gray while New Mexico goes without Fenton again, .
I'm looking at UConn going to the finals on Monday night, but it really is a toss up as to who will meet them there.
I think New Mexico will give UConn a real entertaining fight, but as a Mason fan and a college basketball junkie, I would love to see a rematch of the classic 2006 East Regional Final between George Mason and Connecticut.
At the end of the day, though, we can talk and debate all we want, but really no one knows until they play the games. And that's why we love the sport.
You've heard my opinions. What are yours? Get the debate started in the comment section and let's enjoy what should be a great Paradise Jam.