November 25, 2009

76 Classic might be best of the preseason tournaments

Just a few weeks ago the Big 12 conference looked as if it might be in dire straits when it came to the NCAA tournament. Texas was fallen like a rock, Oklahoma State was playing itself out of contention, Texas A&M was an afterthought and Kansas State still had nasty losses and terrible numbers plotting its resume. At the time, it looked as if the Big 12 might be relegated to just three teams - Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri - in the field of 65.

Since then, however, Big 12 bubble teams have done what other bubble teams across the nation couldn't do - win. The Longhorns are most likely in the field with a very strong resume of quality wins despite a late season mini-slide. Oklahoma State and A&M are two of the hottest teams in the nation and have played themselves into the field. K-State, meanwhile, is still battling an awful non-conference resume but still has an outside chance to make the field with a deep Big 12 tournament run in Oklahoma City.

Should Texas, A&M and Oklahoma State win its first round matchups Wednesday in Oklahoma City, the Big 12 will be in great position to get six teams into the NCAA tournament with an outside shot for seven should K-State go on an improbable run.

Here is a look at how the Big 12 is playing out on the NCAA bubble:

Conference: Big West

Wins/Losses: Alaska-Anchorage (86-65), @Pepperdine (67-58), @Notre Dame (62-82), @Wisconsin-GB (81-69)

Top Scorer: Larry Anderson 18.8 PPG

Anderson is a 6-foot-5 sophomore wing that was the first freshman in 35 years to gain first-team All-Big West honors. He's a big time scorer and a player that attacks the rim well, and someone who could be in the NBA in the not so distant future. Around Anderson, the 49ers bring everyone back from a resurgence season last year in Long Beach. Four scorers, including Anderson, average in double figures as the 49ers can score from anywhere on the court. This might be one of the two mid-majors in the field, but the 49ers are very capable of knocking someone off they shouldn't. LBSU was picked first in the preseason poll in the Big West.

First Round vs. West Virginia 11 a.m. PT

Conference: Big East

Wins: Loyola (MD) (83-50), The Citadel (69-50)

Top Scorer: Da'Sean Butler 17.0 PPG

Sophomore forward Devin Ebanks missed West Virginia's season opener due to personal reason, but was suited up Tuesday night against The Citadel even though he didn't play. It's unknown if he'll play in Anaheim, but if he does then WVU is a completely different team. With Ebanks, who is arguably the best player in the 76 Classic should he play, West Virginia is the clear cut favorite in Anaheim. Without him WVU is still stout, especially with Da'Sean Butler who could challenge Ebanks for top player honors. Butler is a pure scorer from the wing and is a great rebounder as well. WVU is solid on both ends of the floor and with Ebanks is the odds-on favorite to win the tournament.

Next: First Round vs. Long Beach State 11 a.m. PT

Conference: ACC

Wins: Presbyterian (84-41), @Liberty (79-39), @UNC-Greensboro (89-67), Winthrop (102-66)

Top Scorer: Trever Booker 13.8 PPG

Clemson senior forward Trever Booker is a specimen in the post who can also step out and shoot and the supporting cast can flat out score. Guard David Potter has been on fire from outside this season, hitting 13-18 from beyond the 3-point arc, in averaging 12 points per game. Two others are also in double figures for the season. But Clemson is all about its press defense. The Tigers score a lot of points off their pressure, but if a team is able to navigate the pressure then Clemson gets in trouble.

Next: First Round vs. Texas A&M 1:30 p.m. PT

Conference: Big 12

Wins: Angelo State (88-69), @SMU (80-68), Samford (68-49)

Top Scorer: Donald Sloan 20.0 PPG

The Aggies have been powered by its very deep backcourt and point guard Dash Harris running the offense. Senior Donald Sloan has flourished after being moved off the ball and senior Derrick Roland has become a major threat offensively. Big men David Loubeau and Bryan Davis are hovering around 10 points a game, but opponents so far have schemed to take away the middle which has opened up the backcourt play. Harris, however, is the key with his speed, ball control and court vision in how he handles Clemson's pressure defense.

First Round vs. Clemson 1:30 p.m. PT

Conference: Big Ten

Wins: Tennessee Tech (87-50), Stephen F. Austin (82-42), Utah Valley State (76-51)

Top Scorer: Lawrence Westbrook 18.5 PPG

Head coach Tubby Smith has brought his signature hounding defense to Minnesota and with an influx of talent has resurrected the Gopher program from academic scandal in two short years. The Gophers are deep all over the court, but defense is definitely the priority. The high scores so far are probably due more to opponents and hot 3-point shooting (Minnesota is hitting 39.7-percent as a team) than anything else. Westbrook missed Minnesota's win over Utah Valley State due toa stomach virus, but sophomore Devoe Joseph stepped in to score eight points. Westbrook will be back in Anaheim.

First Round vs. Butler 5:30 p.m. PT

Conference: Horizon

Wins: Davidson (73-62), @Northwestern (67-54), @Evansville (64-60)

Top Scorer: Gordon Hayward 15.3 PPG

When most think of Butler in recent seasons they think of 3-point shooting. While Butler is still good from outside, the team is shooting 33.8-percent from the arc with top sharpshooters Shelvin Mack and Willie Veasley hitting 10-25 from outside combined this season, it's the big men that are gaining attention this year. Power forward Gordon Hayward can hit an outside jumper and is also extremely athletic in the post while center Matt Howard is a strong defender and great on the boards. Butler spreads the floor and is great off ball screens to get open looks. The defense is solid too, and vastly underrated compared to the offense.

Next: First Round vs. Minnesota 5:30 p.m. PT

Conference: PAC-10

Wins/Losses: Cal State-Fullerton (65-68 OT), Cal State-Bakersfield (75-64), Pepperdine (71-52)

Top Scorer: Drew Gordon 15.7

After a mass exodus, this isn't the same UCLA team that the nation is used to seeing as the Bruins are in rebuilding mode in Westwood. The Bruins starts two seniors, which have been roll players off the bench throughout their careers, and three sophomores. Sophomore forward Drew Gordon is a force in the paint around the rim and on the boards while Roll is a great shooter from outside, connecting on 45.5-percent of his 3-point tries so far this season. But UCLA is still trying to find its way, especially defensively which is a staple point of head coach Ben Howland.

Next: First Round vs. Portland 7:30 p.m. PT

Conference: WCC

Wins: @Eastern Washington (64-58), Seattle (98-81), Oregon (88-81)

Top Scorer: Nik Raivio 19.0 PPG

Portland is probably the biggest unknown in the tournament, and don't be surprised if they get an upset or two. The Pilots are the top threat to Gonzaga in the WCC this season and have already knocked off a PAC-10 team in Oregon. Portland lives and dies by the outside shot, and if the Pilots are on from outside they can beat anyone. The team is shooting 52.1-percent from the 3-point arc with senior guard Nik Raivio hitting 6-11 this season, senior point guard T.J. Campbell hitting 6-10 and reserve Jared Stohl hitting 8-14. Even power forward Ethan Niedermeyer has hit 4-10 from outside this year. Junior forward Luke Sikma has been the best in the paint and is coming off the bench to average 8.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and a block per game.

First Round vs. UCLA 7:30 p.m. PT

Sure to be wrong predictions:

Top Player: West Virginia SF Da'Sean Butler

All-Tournament Team: Minnesota PG Al Nolen, Texas A&M SG Donald Sloan, West Virginia SF Da'Sean Butler, West Virginia PF Devin Ebanks, UCLA F/C Drew Gordon

Dark Horse: Minnesota

Best First Round Game: Texas A&M vs. Clemson

Upset Alert: Portland over UCLA

Champion: West Virginia

Order of Finish: 1. West Virginia 2. Minnesota 3. Texas A&M 4. UCLA 5. Clemson 6. Butler 7. Long Beach State 8. Portland

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