One of the joys of the early season for some teams is to head off to some beachside location for a few days of fun in the sun. But that’s for the fans that happen to make these trips. The teams have business to attend to. And with the number of talented teams making their way to the Puerto Rico Tip-Off with hopes of eventually dancing in March, this tournament is a good place to discover what you have in the early going. Twelve games will be played over four days, with a day off on November 17th (OK, so there’s the players’ beach time). Here’s a breakdown of the schedule:
November 15th (all times Eastern)
Game 1: Houston vs. VCU (9 AM, ESPNU)
Game 2: Marist vs. Miami (FL) (11:30 AM, ESPNU)
Game 3: Temple vs. Providence (2:30 PM, ESPNU)
Game 4: College of Charleston vs. #18 Arkansas (5 PM, ESPNU)
Game 5: 11 AM, ESPNU
Game 6: 1:30 PM, ESPNU
Game 7: 5:30 PM, ESPNU
Game 8: 8 PM, ESPNU
Game 9: 11 AM, ESPNU
Game 10: 1:30 PM, ESPNU
Game 11: 5:30 PM, ESPN2
Game 12: 8 PM, ESPN2
This tournament shapes up to be a very good one on paper, one that features some teams with thoughts of making some noise in their respective conferences as well as players who could make runs at conference honors. Splitting the bracket into two parts (morning games and afternoon games), here’s a quick breakdown of what each team will be looking to find along with a player from each team to watch.
The Cougars head into 2007-08 as one of the teams jockeying for second place in Conference USA. Tom Penders has what he believes may be his most talented Cougar team to date on campus, including guards Lanny Smith, Robert McKiver (his nickname: Fluff) and Marcus Malone. But the Coogs will also have six newcomers to work into the fold, such as Seton Hall transfer Marcus Cousin, Auburn transfer Kelvin Lewis and junior college All-American DaShaun Williams. This team will run, making for an entertaining brand of basketball. Four Houston, this tournament will be just as much about building a chemistry between the returnees and newcomers as it is winning.
Player to Watch: F Dion Dowell: scored 25 in the season-opening win over Morehead State.
Thanks to their run through the CAA and then an NCAA Tournament win over Duke, people throughout the country know about the Rams. But, repeating those feats will be tougher with the graduation of BA Walker and Jesse Pellot-Rosa. At least head coach Anthony Grant returns after that Billy Donovan scare in Gainesville for his second season. And in junior point guard Eric Maynor, he’s got one of the best in the country running the show. It was Maynor’s heroics against George Mason and Duke that led the Rams to the winner’s circle in both games. Who steps in to pick up the scoring slack with the graduation of Walker and Pellot-Rosa? Most likely senior Jamal Shuler, who’s diversified his game throughout his career. The frontcourt will be anchored by seniors Michael Anderson and Wil Fameni. Once again picked to finish near the top of the Colonial, VCU has a chance to pick up some marquee wins in Puerto Rico.
Player to Watch: G Jamal Shuler: you most likely won’t be able to take your eyes off of Maynor and rightfully so. But Shuler’s development could be more important to the Rams’ postseason hopes.
Just like VCU, Marist won their conference’s regular season title. But, Marist has to replace both guards from that team (Jared Jordan and Will Whittington), something that won’t be easy to do. An influx of fresh faces will need to produce in order for the Red Foxes to have a successful season, but there are some returnees who will have an impact as well. Forwards Ryan Stilphen, Ben Farmer and Spongy Benjamin are all back for their senior season, and Benjamin already has things rolling after putting up 21 and 17 in their opener. Guards David Devezin, Dejuan Goodwin and Jay Gavin all scored in double figures in the opener, which is a good sign for a team that could be without Syracuse transfer for the foreseeable future. Marist was picked to finish fifth in the MAAC this season, but that league is practically wide-open at the top. This weekend will help get the guards some experience against top teams, which should only help them come conference play.
Player to Watch: G Dejuan Goodwin: All the freshman did in his first action as a Red Fox was score thirteen points and win MAAC Rookie of the Week honors.
When’s the last time Miami’s basketball team became a diversion away from football? Well, after the ‘Canes football team closed the Orange Bowl in “style”, a little roundball could be just what the doctor ordered for Miami fans. Senior Jack McClinton is one of the ACC’s most prolific scorers and could even see time at the point this year. Gone are the disciplinary issues that put the Hurricanes behind the eight ball before ACC play kicked off last season, and this team should be deeper in the frontcourt as well. It all adds up to a team in search of an answer at the point (Denis Clemente transferred to Kansas State), and if they find the right answer then that could help them stand out in the middle of the ACC.
Player to Watch: G Jack McClinton: The Siena transfer led the ACC in both three-point and free throw percentages last season. Marist should be quite familiar with McClinton when they play on Thursday.
Weren’t we here just a few seasons ago with the Friars? A wealth of returning players, along with some talented (and in some cases proven) newcomers would equal a return to the NCAA Tournament? Well, Tim Welsh arrives in Puerto Rico with a team that has a chance to be his most talented during his tenure at PC. Guard Sharaud Curry will miss the tournament due to injury, but in Weyinmi Efejuku, Dwain Williams and Jeff Xavier there’s plenty of talent remaining in the backcourt. Up front, Geoff McDermott and Jonathan Kale will be rejoined by an old friend, junior Randall Hanke who sat out last season to attend to some personal issues. The Friars possess depth and the ability to play guys at a variety of positions, and while they won’t win the Big East, they have a good chance to dance come March.
Player to Watch: F Geoff McDermott: McDermott is one of the more versatile players in the nation, but you don’t hear his name thrown around a lot on the major networks. That should change this weekend.
Year one under Fran Dunphy was one of transition for the Temple program after the lengthy John Chaney era. Funny thing is, Temple’s defense was the issue last season after years of that suffocating matchup zone. At least the Owls return the top two scorers in the Atlantic 10, junior Dionte Christmas and senior Mark Tyndale. When your team averages 75 points per game and you finish the year 12-18, you can usually point to defense and rebounding as two main categories to improve. Five freshmen will look to help the Owls improve on last season’s record, and once again Temple will play a tough non-conference slate. But in the improved Atlantic 10, making a substantial move up from 11th will prove to be difficult. For the Owls, this tournament will be more about learning what they have outside of Christmas and Tyndale, and getting the youngsters ready for conference play.
Player to Watch: G Mark Tyndale: Tyndale may have been the biggest benefactor from the coaching change, as he was more willing to take shots last season.
College of Charleston
One year after beginning his reign in Charleston with a run to the Southern Conference final, Bobby Cremins will have his hands full replacing the three starters lost from that 22-11 squad. Guards Marcus Hammond and Tony White Jr. are back on campus, which is good considering the fact that the Cougars lost their three best post options and Dontaye Draper to graduation. While there are still a few roles to be determined with this team, one look at Charleston’s proud history and Cremins’ ability to recruit should mean that the Cougars will once again be in the middle of the SoCon race this year. Just like Temple and Miami, developing the youngsters will be the most important task this weekend.
Player to Watch: G Marcus Hammond: With the departure of Dontaye Draper, Hammond looks to be the one most likely to pick up the scoring slack.
John Pelphrey is the man who ends up running the Razorback program after Dana Altman changed his mind, and let it be known that Stan Heath didn’t leave an empty cupboard either. With Alabama losing Ronald Steele, Arkansas becomes the favorite alongside Mississippi State in the SEC West, and truth be told they would have been there even if Steele were healthy. Guard Patrick Beverley was SEC Newcomer of the Year last season, and should be even better this year. In total, all five starters are back for the Hogs, as well as every key contributor off the bench. Simply put, the Razorbacks may be the deepest team in the SEC behind Tennessee. And in regards to depth, they may have more than Tennessee. With the amount of experience back on campus, don’t expect Pelphrey to change too much right now. Not only should Arkansas be in the NCAA Tournament, they have the ability to go a long way.
Player to Watch: G Gary Ervin: For as talented as players such as Beverley and Sonny Weems are, how good this team can be rests on the shoulders of their senior point guard.
Unfortunately, Providence and Arkansas would have to meet in the semifinals instead of the final, but this should still be an entertaining tournament. In the top half of the bracket, I like Houston to defeat Marist. On the other side, I’ll take Arkansas over Providence in what could be one of the best games this weekend. In Sunday’s final, I like the Razorbacks’ size to win out.