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October 27, 2005

SCS.comHere in Kentucky, the frost settled on the grass for the first time yesterday morning. The air was cool and crisp, and the forecasted weekend temperatures are in the mid-sixties instead of the mid-nineties. Furthermore, I carved my jack-o-lantern last night. After the goopy mess of seeds and stringy fiber had been cleaned up, I had a wonderful round, orange masterpiece not entirely unlike a basketball - only with two triangle eyes and a goofy grin.

The fun of season-opening practices, Midnight Madness, and conference media days are past, and the new season hatches in a mere twelve days when Saint Francis-PA, Colgate, Bethune-Cookman, and Syracuse tip it up in the Carrier Dome on November 8. The new season brings many questions:

  • 1. Can a gutted North Carolina roster make any kind of title defense?
  • 2. Will the NCAA ever rule on the status of Randolph Morris?
  • 3. Who will come out of nowhere and shock the world this season?
  • 4. Can Dick Vitale be even louder than last season?
  • 5. And finally, is there any meaningful basketball to watch in November?

    Questions one through three are cloudy at this point, but numbers four and five can be answered with a resounding “yes.” Since most of us know that Dickie V can perforate eardrums at will, a closer look at some of this year’s early season tournaments seems to be a better use of this space. Click on the headings of each preview to view tournament brackets.

    Preseason NIT
    The granddaddy of the preseason tournaments carries plenty of weight again this season. Duke, UCLA, Alabama, and Memphis figure to be serious players from the November tip-off through March Madness. The Blue Devils have been anointed the favorite for this year’s national title by nearly every pundit on the planet. UCLA expects its best season in a long while. Alabama has a monster frontcourt, but an inexperienced backcourt, so they may need some time to settle their guard play. Memphis disappoints annually, but there is no denying their talent. It simply never seems to gel under Coach John Calipari.

    UW-Milwaukee, last year’s NCAA darling, will play Memphis in the first round and a win could set up a rematch with Alabama (last year’s first-round NCAA opponent). Miami (OH), the Crimson Tide’s first round P-NIT opponent, had a great 2004-2005 season spoiled by a 2-4 finish that kept them out of the NCAA tournament. The RedHawks lost their two top players from that squad, so it will be difficult for them to deal with Chuck Davis and company. Nevertheless, the RedHawks will be a tough out.

    The P-NIT organizers undoubtedly dream of having Duke v. Missouri and Bama/Memphis v. UCLA show up in the Big Apple for the semifinals and finals. That scenario seems unlikely. Missouri toils in perpetual disarray and Bama and Memphis both have tricky first round match-ups. The wild card in the P-NIT is the Temple Owls. Mardy Collins is one of the top guards in the country, and the Owls are returning their top five scorers from last season. They will present a serious hurdle for Jordan Farmar and UCLA. This could be the Owls’ year to reappear in the Big Dance.

    Maui Invitational
    While the Preseason NIT may have more teams and more prestige, the Maui Invitational packs the most punch among the early season tourneys. And, when I say “punch,” I am talking about a Mike Tyson uppercut circa 1987. The docket in Maui is loaded. Michigan State, UConn, Gonzaga, and Arizona are consensus Top 10 teams this preseason. Kansas and Maryland are not slouches, as they hover on the fringe of most Top 25 rankings. Mix in a hungry Arkansas team and dangerous Chaminade (the D-II host club has beaten Virginia, SMU, Louisville, and Villanova over the years), and Maui looks to be the gem of this year’s early tourneys.

    Michigan State, UConn, Gonzaga and Arizona likely will have successful seasons, but the teams that bear close watching are Maryland, Kansas, and Arkansas. Maryland, a perennial ACC contender and NCAA bulwark, found themselves left out of the Dance entirely last year. Gary Williams and the Terps have something to prove. Seniors Nik Caner-Medley and Chris McCray are seasoned seniors and Terps will have a healthy D. J. Strawberry back from an ACL injury. Kansas lost four starters in Wayne Simien, Keith Langford, Aaron Miles, and J.R. Giddens, plus solid bench players Alex Galindo and Michael Lee off last year’s team. They are going to be inexperienced, but the youngsters are talented (see preseason Big XII Freshman of the Year Julian Wright). Stan Heath needs a big season to win back the confidence of the Razorback faithful. He has an SEC Player of the Year candidate in Ronnie Brewer and enough talent to get back to the NCAA tourney this year. If the Hogs fail to make the grade this year, Heath’s seat will get a bit toasty. Maryland, Kansas, and Arkansas all have great opportunities to score valuable neutral court wins against some top teams in Maui.

    Great Alaska Shootout
    The Shootout offers a slightly different taste for the hoops connoisseur. Southern Illinois and Oral Roberts figure to be two of the better non-power conference teams in the land this year and they have a great chance to make an early season statement in Alaska. SIU has been one of the top 25 programs in America over the last few seasons and ORU was clearly the best team all season in the Mid-Con last year (make sure to check out ORU forward Caleb Green). Unfortunately for ORU, they were upset by the upstart Oakland Grizzlies in their conference tourney final. Marquette and South Carolina are the only two power conference teams in the Shootout, and those two squads do not exactly strike fear into the hearts of anyone. The GAS is wide open.

    Guardians Classic
    The Guardians Classic consists of four “pods” hosted by Kentucky, Texas, West Virginia, and Iowa. Each pod hosts four schools including the home team. Most of the traveling schools are clearly sacrificial lambs for the host school so that the big four can meet for a heavyweight showdown in Kansas City, MO, on November 21 and 22. However, West Virginia should not sleep on Fairleigh Dickinson. If the Knights get past Wofford in their first round game, they play WVU (provided the Mountaineers dispatch UL-Monroe) in the second round. FDU made the tourney last year and played Illinois tough before falling 67-55. FDU returns a good bit from last year, including leading scorer Gordon Klaiber. Most likely, the “big four” here will advance to Kansas City with Texas as the favorite to win it.

    Coaches v Cancer
    Like the Guardians Classic, the Coaches v. Cancer Classic boasts four power conference schools hosting four pods. Syracuse, Florida, Texas Tech, and Wake Forest will serve as the host schools and the winners of the four-team pods will meet in Madison Square Garden on November 17 and 18 to determine a champion. It is difficult to imagine one of the big four in this group getting tripped up at home by any of the other schools, but Wake Forest has made a habit of being ousted early from tournaments. They probably have the toughest draw with UC-Irvine (the Anteaters return eight letter winners from a 16-13 squad) and George Mason (picked to finish third in the Colonial) in their pod.

    Many fans ignore the early basketball season due to the important football that is being played. However, take this into consideration. Last year, Illinois won the Las Vegas Classic. North Carolina, after losing to Santa Clara to open the season, won the Maui Invitational. Those teams met for the national title. In 2003-2004, Georgia Tech won the Preseason NIT. UConn lost to Tech in the semis of the Preseason NIT that year. That means that three of the last four NCAA Championship game participants won an early season tournament, and all of them were participants in an early season tournament. So, fill up on pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, and stuffing, but remember to flip over to a holiday hoops tourney before the turkey coma causes you to drift into a heavy slumber. You might catch a glimpse of this year’s national champion in November.

    Links to other early season tourneys and events:

  • BCA Classic
  • BCA Invitational
  • Paradise Jam
  • Big 10 ACC Challenge
  • BCA Classic and BCA Invitational
  • NABC Classic

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