Schedule of Games (all times Eastern)
Thursday, November 22nd
Game 1: South Carolina vs. Penn State, Noon (ESPN2)
Game 2: Rider vs. NC State, 2 PM (ESPN2)
Game 3: Villanova vs. Central Florida, 7 PM (ESPN2)
Game 4: Kansas State vs. George Mason, 9 PM (ESPN2)
Friday, November 23rd
Game 5: Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, 10:30 AM (ESPN2)
Game 6: Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 12:30 PM (ESPN2)
Game 7: Winner Game 3 vs. Winner Game 4, 5 PM (ESPN2)
Game 8: Loser Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4, 7:30 PM (ESPN2)
Sunday, November 25th
Game 9: Loser Game 5 vs. Loser Game 8, 11 AM (ESPNU)
Game 10: Winner Game 5 vs. Winner Game 8, 1 PM (ESPNU)
Game 11: Loser Game 6 vs. Loser Game 7, 4:30 PM (ESPN2)
Game 12: Winner Game 6 vs. Winner Game 7, 6:30 PM (ESPN2)
The Gamecocks come into this tournament with one of the better backcourts in the field. The only thing is that while both Devan Downey and Zam Frederick have Division I experience, none of it came in Columbia. Downey (16.7 ppg, 7.3 apg) returned to his home state after a year at Cincinnati in which he was one of the best freshmen in the Big East. Frederick (13.3 ppg), now a junior, played two seasons under Paul Hewitt at Georgia Tech. Now while these two are expected to lead the Gamecocks this season, players such as Dominique Archie (13.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg), Brandis Raley-Ross (12.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and Mike Holmes (9.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg) can also make some things happen. Archie, in fact, was a member of the SEC All-Freshman Team last season. Five players average at least nine points per game thus far for 2-1 South Carolina, coming off of an 85-75 loss to Southern California. Losing Tre Kelley and Brandon Wallace will be an adjustment, but Dave Odom still has some talent at his disposal.
Player to Watch: Downey. He may only stand 5-9, but he can be a blur when going full speed up and down the court.
Ed DeChellis heads into his fifth season in State College, and after a step back it’s time to see some results from the Nittany Lions. Penn State, a year after playing in the NIT, went 11-19 and finished in a tie for dead last in the Big Ten. While Geary Claxton, once again a first team All-Big Ten candidate, will be on display in Orlando, Jamelle Cornley will not because of a bone bruise in his left knee. Claxton is currently averaging 21.5 points and 10.0 rebounds per game for the Lions. Other players to keep an eye on include seniors Danny Morrissey (11.5 ppg) and Mike Walker (8.0 ppg, 2.0 apg), and freshman point guard Talor Battle (10.0 ppg, 4.5 apg). The leading rebounder, stepping in for the enigmatic Milos Bogetic who decided to transfer during the off-season, is senior Brandon Hassell (9.5 rpg). After easy wins over St. Francis (PA) and Canisius, South Carolina will be their first test of the season.
Player to Watch: Claxton. Geary can score from just about anywhere on the floor, but he needs to develop as a leader in order for the Lions to reach their full potential this season.
The Broncs arrive in Orlando with one of the more experienced teams in the field, led by senior center Jason Thompson (18.7 ppg, 12.0 rpg). Last season, Thompson was the only player in America to average twenty points and ten rebounds per game, and he’s more than capable of repeating that feat. Four starters in all return for Tommy Dempsey, which makes one of four or five teams capable of winning the MAAC this season. Solid perimeter shooting is a necessity in order to keep teams from swarming Thompson and in junior Harris Mansell (15.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg) the Broncs have one of the best in the conference. Rider’s most versatile player is sophomore Ryan Thompson (14.0 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 5.3 apg), Jason’s younger brother, a 6-5 swingman. Although ten players have played in all three games to this point in the season, only seven see more than eleven minutes per game. NC State in the opener is quite a test, but the Broncs just might be able to win that one.
Player to Watch: Jason Thompson. At 6-10 he’s got the size to change the game on both ends in the paint, but he can also run the floor and hit the mid-range jumper on occasion. He will be a tough matchup for NC State.
The Wolfpack were a trendy pick by many to make some serious noise in the ACC this year after their performance in the ACC Tournament. But after blowing a late lead at home to New Orleans, you have to wonder if the expectations were a little too much for a team that was 5-11 in conference play last season. But some capable weapons will be on display in Orlando, led by sophomore forward Brandon Costner and freshman forward J.J. Hickson. Costner (10.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg) was on fire down the stretch last season, and should only build on his performance. But the man who has stolen the show in their first two games is Hickson (26.5 ppg, 10.0 rpg), who leads the team in both scoring and rebounding. Returnees Courtney Fells and Gavin Grant also see a lot of playing time, with Grant currently averaging 12.0 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. Iowa State transfer Farnold Degand runs the show at the point for Sidney Lowe’s team. However, the Wolfpack may have the shallowest bench in the field with five players playing more than thirty minutes per game, and Ben McCauley only playing eleven. Maybe this will change as the season progresses, and they will definitely need some other options to step up before conference play.
Player to Watch: Hickson. At 6-9, 242, Hickson already has a body ready for the NBA. He’s got a wide array of offensive skills, especially for an incoming freshman, and only stands to get better as he gets more games under his belt.
Jay Wright’s Wildcats bring a lot of youth to the table, but boy are they talented. Led by sophomore guard Scottie Reynolds (14.0 ppg, 4.5 apg), Villanova possesses a number of options on the perimeter who can get the job done (freshmen Malcolm Grant, Corey Stokes and the recovering Corey Fisher). The surprise of their first two games has been junior forward Shane Clark, averaging 21.0 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. It’s been know that the 6-7 Clark is active on the glass, but the scoring thus far (25 against Stony Brook, 17 against Bucknell) has to be a pleasant surprise. Helping out Clark on the glass will be classmate Dante Cunningham (5.5 rpg) and freshman Casiem Drummond (8.5 rpg). The Wildcats are a team that can definitely do some damage come March, and this tournament could be a springboard to bigger things.
Player to Watch: Reynolds. While classified as a point guard, Reynolds can do some serious damage scoring as well. Just ask Connecticut, who he hit up for forty points last year.
Conference USA has pretty much become a league where you ask “who’s finishing second” when entering discussions. Well, last year it was Kirk Speraw’s Golden Knights, finishing 11-5 in conference play. With three starters back in Orlando, UCF has a chance to repeat that accomplishment this season. Already 2-0, including a win over Nevada in their sparkling new UCF Convocation Center, UCF has proven to be a balanced club when it comes to scoring points. Their top four scorers, led by senior guard Dave Noel (14.0 ppg, 7.5 rpg) and junior guard Jermaine Taylor (same averages as Noel, believe it or not), all average at least eleven points per game. Senior guard Chip Cartwright leads the team with 6.5 assists per game. But other than Kendrick Zondervan, no player 6-6 or taller sees more than thirteen minutes per game. There’s plenty of talent in the backcourt, but developing the men up front will be important if they want to separate themselves from the pack in CUSA. As for the opener against Villanova, it should be an intriguing matchup between the two because of the guard play.
Any discussion the Kansas State Wildcats has to begin with freshman forward Michael Beasley (30.0 ppg, 20.0 rpg), who has looked like a man among boys in his first three collegiate games. But to be fair, the opponents have to be noted: Sacramento State, Pittsburg State and Western Illinois. The Old Spice Classic will give a more accurate representation of what Beasley can do against a higher level of competition. Bill Walker is back and playing well after an ACL injury suffered last January ended his freshman year after just six games, and senior guard Blake Young has raised his scoring average almost eight points from last season (5.3 to 13.0). Senior forward David Hoskins hasn’t played yet this year due to injury, and it remains to be seen what his role will be this weekend if any. This team’s got plenty of talent; it’s just about getting them all on the same page in time for Big 12 page, where a wide open league after Kansas and Texas A&M awaits.
Player to Watch: Beasley. The man is an absolute beast. Already the first player in Big 12 history to record two 20 point/ 20 rebound games, we still haven’t seen the best out of him.
A year removed from a trip to the Final Four, Jim Larranaga’s Patriots were three minutes away from returning to the NCAA Tournament. Then Eric Maynor took over, sending Mason home for March. But the youngsters and newcomers on last year’s team who struggled mightily in January are now a year older and wiser and this team should flourish in the Colonial with seniors Folarin Campbell (12.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and Will Thomas (17.3 ppg, 14.0 rpg) back for one more run. Starting out 3-0, with wins over Vermont and Dayton, George Mason has relied on defense to get the job done, holding opponents to an average of fifty-two points per game. But those teams don’t have anyone as talented as Michael Beasley, who the Patriots get the chance to slow down on Thursday night. The Thomas/ Beasley matchup will be the one to focus on, but for Mason it’ll be more important to get something out of junior guard Dre Smith, who has struggled thus far. John Vaughan (10.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg), a year removed from an ACL tear, has played well in the first three games of the season.
Player to Watch: Thomas. Remember that he did quite a job against Connecticut’s talented frontline as a sophomore. He should have a couple of tricks under his sleeve when it comes to guarding Beasley.
How do I see this tournament playing out?
This is one of the more balanced early-season tournaments on tap this season, and the play should reflect that. Without Cornley, I still like Penn State to get past South Carolina in the opener. While their loss to New Orleans wasn’t a good one, NC State will survive Rider with Brandon Costner playing better basketball. On the other side of the bracket, the two Wildcats (Villanova and Kansas State) will move on to the semis. From there, I like Villanova to defeat NC State in the championship game.