Puerto Rico Tip Off: Alabama Shines, Five Takeaways from Tournament

Erik Schultz@eschultz530Correspondent INovember 21, 2011

Puerto Rico Tip Off: Alabama Shines, Five Takeaways from Tournament

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    There was plenty of quality basketball teams, contributing to plenty of quality games, in this year’s Puerto Rico Tip-Off in San Juan.  A couple of games in particular carried a hint of NCAA tournament atmosphere, with evenly matched teams going into the final seconds to decide things. 

    Speaking of the NCAA tournament, you could easily argue that at least half of the teams in Puerto Rico will have their name called on Selection Sunday.

    While the field was both deep and competitive, one team played outstanding basketball in San Juan.  They not only won the tournament, but made quite a case to be considered among the nation’s elite.

Alabama: Team on a Mission

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    While the Crimson Tide football team is fighting to earn a spot in the National Championship, the basketball team stole a bit of the national spotlight on Sunday evening. 

    Alabama defeated Purdue 65-56 to win the tournament championship.  The game was very tight for nearly 30 minutes, before the Alabama defense kicked in and shut the Boilermakers down.  Purdue was held to just two field goals over an almost nine-minute stretch, as Alabama went on a 23-8 run in the latter portion of the second half to seal the game.

    For the tournament, Alabama held their three opponents—Maryland, Wichita State and Purdue—to an average of just below 53 points a game.  It’s quite an impressive feat, and don’t be surprised if Alabama doesn’t allow much more than that average over the entire season.   

    Anthony Grant has to be extremely pleased with his team’s performance in the early-season tournament.  It is a near 180 from what happened to them this time last year, in another early tournament—the Paradise Jam.  Almost one year ago to the day, Alabama completed a very disappointing three games in the Virgin Islands.  They lost all three of their games—to Seton Hall, Iowa and Saint Peter’s.   

    This year, Grant and his team appeared absolutely determined to avenge what happened last year. They knew that the three losses in the Paradise Jam were a big reason they did not receive an NCAA at-large bid.  This year, the Tide made the most of their opportunity to rack up quality non-conference wins on a neutral court. 

    From the non-stop defensive intensity throughout, until the emphatic jam by Tony Mitchell in the final seconds against Purdue, this team is playing with just enough anger to ensure there will not be a letdown anytime soon.

Lewis Jackson May Make a Purdue a Top 25 Team

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    Despite losing in the final to Alabama, it was a pretty successful trip to Puerto Rico for Purdue.  They notched a close win over a quality mid-major in Iona, followed by an impressive win over a very good Temple team.

    With standouts JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore gone, and Robbie Hummel returning to action for the first time in nearly two years, there were plenty of questions about Purdue heading into the season. 

    With his play in the tournament, Lewis Jackson has helped to alleviate at least some of those questions.  Jackson showed he can attack the basket to score and create opportunities for shooters, a bit like Moore.  He led Purdue with 26 in their win over Temple in the semifinal round, and had 17 against Iona the day before.  While he only had eight against the tight defense of Alabama, he did pull down nine rebounds, further showing his fearless mentality in going to the basket.

    Jackson does not have the same shooting ability as Moore did, but he doesn’t need to.  Guys like Ryne Smith, DJ Byrd and, of course, Robbie Hummel will knock down plenty of outside shots for this team.  If Jackson can penetrate the defense and give them some good looks, Purdue will be all the better for it.

    The performance by Jackson and his team this weekend should lead to some serious Top 25 consideration for Purdue.  They may not get in there this week, but with the senior Jackson helping to lead them, it may not be much longer.

A Healthy Michael Eric Could Take Temple Very Far

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    In a tournament with plenty of outstanding guards, dominating frontcourt players were much more at a premium. 

    Maybe that’s why Temple’s Michael Eric was able to make such key contributions in Temple’s 2-1 showing in Puerto Rico.  Eric had 12 points, 15 rebounds and three blocks in the Owls’ opening-round win over Western Michigan.  He put up a double-double against Wichita State—14 points and 12 rebounds—to help the Owls get third place in the tournament.  Despite playing just 14 minutes and fouling out against Purdue in the semifinal, Eric still had eight boards and blocked two shots.

    On a team with three excellent guards—Ramone Moore, Khalif Wyatt and Juan Fernandez—Eric’s presence down low on both ends of the court makes this team very dangerous, both in the Atlantic 10 and come tournament-time.  Now a senior, the Owls will rely heavily on Eric with former all A-10 power forward and second-round NBA draft pick Lavoy Allen now gone.

    The key will be staying healthy—Eric played in 24 games last year, but missed the final 10 for Temple, including their A-10 and NCAA Tournament games.  It’s not absurd to argue that with Eric on the floor alongside Allen, the Owls knock off San Diego State in the Round of 32 last year.

    Another trip to the Round of 32—and possibly a Sweet 16—is certainly not out of the question this year for Temple.

Iona Is No Ordinary Mid-Major

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    We’ll never know, but it is quite possible that Iona was a half-court buzzer-beater away from a shot at taking the Tip-Off title. 

    A three from mid-court by Purdue’s Kelsey Barlow at the end of the first half tied the game against Iona, a game which Purdue went on to win by one, thanks to another late three by Robbie Hummel.  As a result, Purdue went onto the semifinal round and eventually the final, before losing to Alabama. 

    Despite being pushed to the consolation bracket, Iona still made the most of things, going 2-1 on the weekend.  The Gaels bounced back nicely with wins over Western Michigan and Maryland—the latter of which was by an impressive 26 points.  For the tournament, Iona averaged 91—yes, 91—points per game. 

    Iona has a three-headed monster that very few mid-majors—not just this year, but in quite a while—can present.  The addition of Arizona transfer Lamont “MoMo” Jones provides a second elite-level scorer, along with Mike Glover.  Jones scored 17 against Purdue and 22 in the blowout over Maryland.  Speaking of Glover, he had a solid, if not headlining performance in San Juan averaging just under 15 points and nine boards a game.   

    The other piece of the aforementioned monster is probably the most valuable of the three—point guard Scott Machado.  The senior put on an absolute passing clinic in the tournament, dishing out 15 assists in the Gaels’ back-to-back wins.  Machado clearly is enjoying the fact that he now has two great scorers he can get the ball to, and not to mention he isn’t a bad scorer himself, with 15.3 points per game in the tournament. 

    During the championship telecast, ESPN’s Doug Gottlieb called him, “the best point guard in the nation right now."  That might be hard to argue after seeing his outstanding play in San Juan.

    Suppose that half-court shot Thursday doesn’t go?  You never know how the rest of that game changes, but it’s very possible that the game goes the other way, and Iona faces Temple in the semis. 

    Temple always plays solid defense, but Iona’s relentless offense may have been too much for the Owls to handle.  While Alabama’s D is playing at an extremely high level in the early season, it would have been a fun matchup to see them against the high-octane Iona offense.  Perhaps we’ll get a chance to see them meet in March.

Outside of Maui, This Tournament Will Produce the Most NCAA Tournament Teams

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    Even though the tournament had only team in the preseason rankings, the three days in Puerto Rico showed that at least two other teams are deserving of immediate consideration for the polls—Purdue and Temple.

    Beyond them, there are three, possibly four other teams who have a very good chance of challenging for an NCAA Tournament bid. 

    We’ve seen what Iona can do against some quality competition; they will expected to be the class of the MAAC this season.

    Another top mid-major team, Wichita State, also showed how competitive it can be in Puerto Rico.  The Shockers beat Colorado, hung tough with Alabama for about 30 minutes, and then took Temple to overtime in the third-place game. 

    They play great team offense, moving the ball very well with both the pass and the dribble.  At any given time, all five players on the floor are capable of both knocking down a three-pointer or getting an offensive board.  They have a great shot to win the Missouri Valley and get to the NCAAs.  With a little better shot selection and slight improvement on defense, Wichita State—last year's NIT Champion—has a shot to make a March run.

    Both Colorado and Maryland struggled at times in this tournament, each going 1-2.  However, each will improve dramatically over the course of the season.  Each team lost a huge portion of their production from last season, including early departures to the NBA.  Colorado lost NBA draft pick Alec Burks, along with Cory Higgins and their top four scorers overall from last year.  Maryland lost big man Jordan Williams, an early second-round pick, as well as three other key seniors. 

    The emergence of Carlon Brown as a go-to scorer, along with rebounding machine Andre Roberson, will help Colorado compete in the Big 12. 

    If sophomore Terrell Stoglin can score efficiently and keep the other guards involved, Maryland will be a tougher out in the ACC than expected.  New Coach Mark Turgeon will ensure the Terps improve on defense throughout the year, and if the scoring follows suit, it’s not out of the question the Terps are in the bubble picture late in the season.