The preseason tournaments always provide some early excitement and usually some indication as to the relative merits of one team or another.
Last year, the Old Spice classic probably featured the most balance of the tourneys as Michigan State, Maryland, Tennessee, Oklahoma State, Gonzaga, Georgetown, Siena and Wichita State were featured. Six of these teams went on to the NCAA tourney while one (the Hoyas) was a disappointment.
This season the 76 Classic has a similar appeal. West Virginia headlines the field along with the Butler Bulldogs. Minnesota, Texas A&M, UCLA and Clemson are there as well. Portland (who could contend in the decimated WCC) and Long Beach State complete the group.
Yes, the Duke/UConn set-up game for the NIT final looks intriguing but not much else does in there. The Spice features Xavier and Michigan. I have no problem watching Manny Harris but there has to be more than this to hold my attention. And, the 2K has some nice “semi-final” matchups in N.C / Ohio State and Syracuse / California but doesn’t really have the feel of a three-day, eight team tourney (because it isn’t?).
The Maui Invitational is also lacking a little star power this year, even though six of the teams could end up making appearances in March.
So, back to the 76 Classic. I’m really curious to see three teams in particular here. The first is West Virginia. If, and this is a nagging if, these guys - Ebanks, Butler, Mazzulla, Bryant - will play together, they will get be very good. If not, Bob Huggins will be a more frustrated man than usual.
The second team I’d like to see is Butler. When any team is ranked in the top fifteen to begin the season, the expectations are high - inside and outside of the program. The Bulldogs are no exception, despite their mid-major status (some would say the Horizon would be considered a low major). After huge losses and a second round loss in 2008, Butler responded with 26 wins with a largely freshman cast last season.
The third team I am interested in is Minnesota. I’m not sure if they are ready to compete at the top of the Big Ten but if they take a significant step forward, and they could based on their returnees, they should be fun to watch. The Gophers seem to have a bit of inside (Sampson, Iverson), a bit of outside (Westbrook, Williams) and a decent point (Nolen). Since Minnesota tangles with Butler in the first round, both will be tested early.
Semi-Finals - West Virginia vs. Clemson Butler vs. UCLA
Final - West Virginia vs. Butler
All of this is predicated on Butler actually winning their first game of course (he said, fingers crossed).