Top 10 early season tournaments
The best event: CBE Classic, featuring Duke, K-State, Gonzaga and Marquette
Madison Square Garden plays host in two of the most intriguing early events
Questions abound with UNC, and the Puerto Rico Tip-off could provide answers
There's a movement afoot -- by tourism-minded folks in Kansas City -- to brand Kansas City as the college basketball capital of America. This may be difficult to achieve, given that the city doesn't have a venue capable of hosting the Final Four. What it does have, at least this year, is the No. 1 event in SI.com's rankings of early season tournaments. So perhaps Kansas City can start with just calling itself "The College Basketball Capital of America (for two days in late November, 2010)," and go from there.
Note: All times listed in EST.
Sprint Center, Kansas City
Nov. 22: Duke vs. Marquette (7:30 p.m.), Kansas State vs. Gonzaga (9:30)
Nov. 23: Consolation/Finals (7:45 p.m./10)
Why You Should Care (other than the possibility of a No. 1 Duke-vs.-No. 3 Kansas State final): This should help answer The Gonzaga Question. No team has a bigger gap between its hype level from the punditry and its projections from the statheads*. The Zags are 12th in the preseason AP poll, our own Seth Davis has them in his Final Four, and ESPN's Len Elmore and Joe Lunardi picked them to win it all. Yet last year's Gonzaga team finished 57th in kenpom.com's efficiency rankings (with the 66th-ranked defense), and the '10-11 Zags were projected at 40th in Basketball Prospectus' preseason guide.
Everyone can agree that Gonzaga has one of the toughest nonleague schedules in the nation, facing Kansas State and either Marquette or Duke in the CBE, in addition to Illinois, Baylor, Xavier, Notre Dame, San Diego State, Washington State and Memphis -- so we'll get an early indication as to whose forecast is more accurate.
(* I put the Zags at No. 22 in my first Power Rankings, falling somewhere in the middle. I'm still not sold entirely on their D, but think breakout years from sophomores Kelly Olynyk and Manny Arop, plus the emergence of a new three-point threat in German freshman Mathis Monninghoff, should help them exceed the statistical projections).
The Pick: Duke over Kansas State. The Blue Devils' offense has been scary-efficient -- in exhibitions and a season-opening rout of Princeton -- even as freshman point guard Kyrie Irving gets acclimated to running the show at the college level. Meanwhile, the Wildcats have started awkwardly, with top big man Curtis Kelly benched for lack-of-effort issues. It's hard to imagine them knocking off No. 1 if they're still dealing with internal strife.
Lahaina Civic Center, Maui, Hawaii
Nov. 22: UConn vs. Wichita State (3 p.m.), Kentucky vs. Oklahoma (5:30), Michigan State vs. Chaminade (9:30), Washington vs. Virginia (midnight)
Nov. 23: Semifinals (7:30 p.m./9:30)
Nov. 24: Finals (10 p.m.)
Why You Should Care (other than that favorite Michigan State tends to play epics in Maui): To see if Kentucky-Washington -- an almost-assured semifinal matchup -- escalates into something more than a recruiting rivalry. Drama mounted this spring, when the Wildcats ended up with two elite prospects who had been previously committed to the Huskies, Enes Kanter and Terrence Jones. Jones' switch to Kentucky was particularly incendiary, given that it happened after he'd announced he'd be playing for Washington -- and donned a black-and-purple hat -- in a press conference seen live on the Internet.
Kanter, who was ruled ineligible by the NCAA and is appealing the decision, won't play in Maui, but Jones is expected to start for the Wildcats. Huskies star guard Isaiah Thomas told me this summer that Jones' decision was the "weirdest thing I've ever seen in recruiting" -- because Jones apparently spent the whole day before his UK signing hanging out with Huskies' players in Seattle. Shortly after that, a jilted Thomas published one of the most famous college hoops tweets of the offseason, writing, "I hope we play KENTUCKY nxt yr n the Maui classic. All I gotta say is ITS BOUT TO GO DOWN ... A BARK over a meow ne day."
The Pick: Washington over Michigan State. In each of the past two seasons, the Spartans have lost big, early games (to Maryland and UNC in '08-09, and to Florida, UNC and Texas in '09-10), then gone on to reach the Final Four. I suspect that will happen again this season, with the Huskies winning Maui, but State eventually going deeper in the NCAAs.
Madison Square Garden, New York City
Nov. 18: Pittsburgh vs. Maryland (7 p.m.), Illinois vs. Texas (9 )
Nov. 19: Consolation/title games (5 p.m./7)
Why You Should Care (other than that Pitt's Ashton Gibbs and Illinois' Demetri McCamey should wage an excellent point guard battle in the final): Maryland's Jordan Williams is blowing up -- and this is his first big stage as a star. Maryland's 6-foot-10, 260-pound forward had six double-doubles as a freshman last season, with strong offensive- and defensive-rebounding splits (12.9%/23.1%). But now that he's conditioned enough to play 30-plus minutes per game and is getting a major chunk of the Terps' offensive possessions (a team-high 23.4%), Williams' numbers have exploded. He's averaging 21.0 points and 13.7 rebounds through three games, all of which have been double-doubles. If he continues the double-double streak through New York -- against Pitt's (and Illinois' or Texas') sizable frontcourt -- he'll be an early favorite for All-ACC first-team status.
The Pick: Pitt over Illinois. Not much separates these two blue-collar squads, but the Panthers' offense has been absurd thus far, particularly guards Gibbs (offensive rating: 144.8) and Brad Wanamaker (offensive rating: 149.3). They also have experience playing in the Garden, and a likely fan support advantage in NYC.
Stan Sheriff Center, Honolulu
Dec. 22: Mississippi State vs. Washington State (3 p.m.), San Diego vs. Baylor (5), Utah vs. Butler (11)
Dec. 23: Florida State vs. Hawaii (1 a.m.), Semifinals (6:30 p.m./10)
Dec. 25: Finals (9:30 p.m.)
Why You Should Care (other than that LaceDarius Dunn will have been reinstated for a month already, and should be in prime, scoring condition): In a tournament with four legitimate All-America candidates -- Dunn, Butler's Shelvin Mack, Florida State's Chris Singleton and Washington State's Klay Thompson -- the player drawing the most media attention may be Mississippi State's Renardo Sidney, who'll be appearing in just his second college game after serving out an extensive NCAA suspension. Will the 6-10, 270-pounder, who was once regarded as the best player in the Class of 2010 and a future Lottery Pick, turn out to be a bust? Or can he re-harness his talents, overcome his alarming tendency to drift toward the perimeter, and turn into an impact player for the Bulldogs, who are a darkhorse pick to win the SEC?
The Pick: Butler over Baylor. The Bulldogs are the more experienced, tactically sound team, and their perimeter defensive trio of Mack, Ronald Nored and Shawn Vanzant won't let Dunn go off on one of his epic scoring binges.
Coliseo de Puerto Rico, San Juan
Nov. 18: West Virginia vs. Davidson (11:30 a.m.), Vanderbilt vs. Nebraska (1:30 p.m.), North Carolina vs. Hofstra (5), Minnesota vs. Western Kentucky (7:30)
Nov. 19: Semifinals (12:30 p.m./8:30)
Nov. 21: Finals (7:30 p.m.).
Why You Should Care (other than that it's a chance to see the sweet shooting form of John Jenkins): I have more questions about North Carolina than any other top 10 team, and two games against quality competition should provide answers. For one, was John Henson's 10-point, 17-rebound, seven-block stat line from the Heels' opener against Lipscomb for real? If that's what he's capable of after being moved away from the perimeter, then Carolina's defense is going to be scary. Is Harrison Barnes going to go off for 25-point-plus games and be the No. 1 option in UNC's offense, or will he share the scoring load evenly with Henson and Tyler Zeller? And will the 1-2 duo of Larry Drew and Dexter Strickland be a starting-lineup fixture all season, or will freshmen Kendall Marshall and Reggie Bullock -- who are arguably more talented players -- supplant them after a month?
The Pick: Vanderbilt over UNC. Granted, it was against Presbyterian, but junior Brad Tinsley looked quite comfortable replacing Jermaine Beal as the Commodores' new starting point guard, posting an 11-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist triple-double. If Tinsley and Jenkins can outplay Carolina's unsettled backcourt, Vandy will pull off the upset.