On Thursday, Friday, and Sunday from Orlando, eight teams will compete in one of the better early season tournaments college basketball has to offer this year, including four ranked teams and plenty of big name talent.
Here's a look at the teams and Thursday's opening round matchups (all first round games on ESPN2).
No. 12 Tennessee vs. Siena—12:00 PM
The Vols are off to a 3-0 start with impressive wins over in-state foes who are all picked to contend for their conference championships. Even without Chris Lofton and several other contributors from last season's SEC Championship team, Tennessee has looked good by mixing their returning experience with new blood.
The Vols are getting what they needed and then some from returning big men Tyler Smith (averaging 19 points, six rebounds, and four assists per game) and Wayne Chism (averaging nearly a double-double with 11 points and almost 10 boards per game).
The new faces have worked well at both ends of the floor in Bruce Pearl's controlled chaos system, led by juco transfer Bobby Maze at the point (nine points, seven assists per game) and freshman Scotty Hopson (11 points per game).
J.P. Prince continues to shine as the Vols' sixth man, and several other young faces have made key contributions. Sophomore center Brian Williams had 21 points and 12 rebounds against Tennessee-Martin.
Siena is best known around SEC country for dismantling a good Vanderbilt team in the opening round of last year's NCAA Tournament as a 13-seed. The Saints (as in Bernard) return all five starters from that team and are again favored to win the MAAC. They're 2-0 and receiving votes in the AP Poll after soundly beating Boise State and Cornell.
The Saints may not appear to have the size to challenge Chism and Tyler Smith, but they more than make up for it with experience and scoring: Kenny Hasbrouck, Edwin Ubiles, and Alex Franklin are scoring 49.2 points per game between them from the guard/wing positions.
Aside from the obvious experience questions in this matchup, a big question will be tempo: The Vols love to run and are built to do so, but Siena can also score in bunches that way. Teams that have tried to run with Bruce Pearl's Vols over the last three years have usually paid for it.
If Siena can disrupt the pace just enough while still finding quality scoring opportunities for themselves, the Saints can easily make it two straight over ranked SEC foes.
The tournament will be a great experience for the young Vols, but you have to hope that experience comes with some wins this weekend along the way too. A great opening round game.
No. 21 Georgetown vs. Wichita State—2:00 PM
The Hoyas lost Roy Hibbert but replaced him with 6'11" freshman Greg Monroe, who put up 20 points and eight rebounds in a big win over Drexel. Georgetown also won a closer-than-expected game against Jacksonville, 71-62.
Sophomores Chris Wright and Austin Freeman at guard also pace Georgetown's scoring, and they've been playing the same stingy defense they're known for so far this season.
Wichita State is 2-1 with wins over Florida A&M and Centenary around a three-point loss to Missouri-Kansas City. The Shockers were a sub-.500 team last year that lost a lot of close games, and the opening round date with the Hoyas will be a big test.
No. 5 Michigan State vs. Maryland—7:00 PM
They're largely untested, having faced Idaho and IUPU-Ft. Wayne, but the Spartans are the favorites in the Big Ten. This is an experienced team led by junior forward Raymar Morgan at 6'8" and the one-two punch at guard of Kalin Lucas and Chris Allen.
Maryland is 3-0 and has really drilled Bucknell, Youngstown State, and Vermont by a combined 68 points. Junior guard Greivis Vasquez paces Maryland, currently averaging 22 points and almost eight rebounds per game.
The Spartans may be the highest-ranked team in the field, but they may also face the stiffest opening test.
No. 9 Gonzaga vs. Oklahoma State—9:00 PM
The Zags are here to stay, no doubt, and you know these names: Jeremy Pargo, Steven Gray, Austin Daye, and Josh Heytvelt have led the way early for the Bulldogs in a 2-0 start. Even without a singular superstar or a true post player, this might be the best Gonzaga team we've ever seen.
The versatility of Heytvelt and Daye, combined with the overall experience and the savvy play of Pargo at the point (averaging nine assists thru two games), makes Gonzaga a Cinderella no more, but a team to be feared and respected regardless of the competition.
The competition in this case is Oklahoma State, 4-0 with wins over Texas-San Antonio, North Texas, Tulsa, and Grambling State. The Cowboys have scored 90+ in their last three games and have five players averaging double figures, with three players (James Anderson, Terrel Harris, and Byron Eaton) scoring more than 17 per game.
The opponents will get much more challenging for the Cowboys this weekend, but they've shown the horsepower to keep up on the stat sheet.
Each team is guaranteed three games in four days, playing Thursday, Friday, and Sunday. The loser's bracket games Friday and Sunday will be shown on ESPNU. The semifinals on Friday will be on ESPN, with the third place game and the championship back on ESPN2 Sunday night.
Who's gonna win? ESPN would love the chalk, I'm sure, with the big-time semifinal matchups between Tennessee/Georgetown and Michigan State/Gonzaga. Wichita State seems the most overmatched in the opening round, and Siena is clearly the most dangerous dark horse, but Oklahoma State and Maryland won't be gimmies either.
If Tennessee survives against Siena, they'll face an entirely different sort of challenge in dealing with Georgetown's pace and size with Monroe. This would be a great learning experience for the young Vols, win or lose.
Gonzaga comes to Knoxville in January, so I'd love to avoid them in Orlando this week, but even though Michigan State is ranked higher, I'm not sure you don't consider the Zags the favorites in that half of the bracket to make the finals.
For all of these teams, who operate on the outside of that super-elite group in college basketball right now (which is really North Carolina, then UConn and Louisville, then everybody else), these games will provide experience and a bump in the RPI when spring rolls around. Any of the four ranked teams, plus Siena if they get hot, is good enough to win it.
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