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November 21, 2006

Tournaments bring early excitement

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The NCAA Tournament is still about four months away, but diehard college basketball fans are already printing out brackets. Tournament week has arrived.

The Maui Invitational, the NIT Tip-Off (formerly known as the preseason NIT), the Great Alaska Shootout, the South Padre Invitational, the Old Spice Classic and the College Basketball Experience Classic are all being played this week.

Some events are loaded with intriguing games; others have matchups that are less attractive.

We sort through them all and break down each of the eight teams in the Maui Invitational, which boasts the best field. We also preview the NIT Tip-Off semifinals, the Old Spice Classic and explain how the format of each tourney works.

We also take a look at the biggest matchup of the young season so far, a neutral-court showdown between No. 1 Florida and No. 12 Kansas on Saturday in Las Vegas, in this week's version of A Look Ahead:

Maui Invitational - Maui, Hawaii (Monday thru Wednesday)
Format: Everyone is guaranteed to play three games - there is winners bracket and a losers bracket. First-round winners are guaranteed no lower than fourth place and first-round losers can finish no higher than fifth.
Oklahoma (2-0)
New coach Jeff Capel has inherited a rebuilding project in the wake of Kelvin Sampson's departure to Indiana. Three of OU's top four scorers are gone from 2005-06, and the starting lineup now includes two sophomores and a freshman. The good news is that shooting guard Michael Neal, who averaged 12.4 points last season, is back after serving a two-game suspension for playing in non-sanctioned summer games. Freshman guard Tony Crocker, who combined for 33 points in his first two games versus Norfolk State and Liberty, also provides promise.
Memphis (1-0)
Nobody expects the No. 11-ranked Tigers to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament again, not after losing first-round picks Rodney Carney and Shawne Williams. However, the Tigers are still the heavy favorite to win Conference USA thanks to a roster that remains loaded with talent. Coach John Calipari has newcomers, including top-50 guards Willie Kemp and Doneal Mack. Memphis remains a balanced and deep team that likes to play up-tempo, but don't expect them to blow out quality opponents anymore.
Purdue (2-0)
The Boilermakers are definitely the sleeper. The Big Ten program should be significantly improved after posting a 9-19 record in 2005-06. Their top two players, guard David Teague and forward Carl Landry, are back after missing most of last season with injures. The duo combined to average 32.2 points two seasons ago. A lack of size remains a problem for second-year coach Matt Painter's team. Landry is the tallest starter at 6-foot-7. Keeping the rebounding battles close will be the biggest key in making a run.
No. 19 Georgia Tech (3-0)
Erase any memories you have of the Jackets team that stumbled to an 11-17 mark last season. This squad is far more talented and much more dangerous on the offensive end. Point guard Javaris Crittenton and small forward Thaddeus Young, a pair of top-10 recruits, are the main reasons why. Young (16 points per game) and Crittenton (15.7 ppg ) are the second and third-leading scorers on the team. Sophomore guard Lewis Clinch, who is averaging 16.7 points, looks poised for a breakthrough season. With three freshmen starting, there are a lot of questions about just how good the Jackets can be this season. The Maui event should go a long way in giving us some answers.
DePaul (1-2)
Coach Jerry Wainwright probably wishes he could delay this tournament for another week or two. The Blue Demons are off to a very disappointing start. Pegged as a Big East sleeper and possible NCAA Tournament team, they opened the season with a 20-point loss to Bradley and a 10-point defeat to Northwestern. Still, this young squad remains dangerous. Guard Sammy Mejia has one of the best mid-range games in college basketball. Wilson Chandler is one of the most promising big men in the Big East. That duo must deliver some big performances to spark any kind of turnaround.
Kentucky (2-0)
The Wildcats are the biggest enigma in the field. Coming off a rocky 22-13 season (by UK's lofty standards), many aren't sure what to expect from the Big Blue. Will they continue to slide? Will a similar season cost Tubby Smith his job? Will they return to SEC supremacy? Much of it depends on Ramel Bradley, who takes over the starting point guard job from first-round pick Rajon Rondo. Team chemistry seemed to be an issue last season, and Rondo received the most blame. A trio of talented freshmen are going to help, including Perry Stevenson. The lanky forward has already piled up 11 blocks.
No. 5 UCLA (1-0)
Meet the tournament favorite. The Bruins return a good blend of experience and talent from a team that reached the national title game last season. Junior Arron Afflalo is one of the nation's top shooting guards, and versatile sophomore forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is one of the nation's top young players. Junior wing Josh Shipp returns after missing most of last season with a shoulder injury. New point guard Darren Collison adds another dimension with his tremendous speed. If there is a weakness, it's a lack of depth. Some of the newcomers must step up for the Bruins to get back to the Final Four.
Chaminade (0-0)
This Division II program from Hawaii has participated in all 22 of the previous Maui Invitationals, winning four games. The Silverswords are best known for their 77-72 upset of then-No. 1 Virginia and Ralph Sampson in 1982, which is widely considered one of the biggest upsets in sports history. They are coming off a 19-9 season and return one of the best point guards in the D-II ranks, Zack Whiting. He averaged 8.1 assists per game last season.
College Basketball Experience Classic semifinal and championship rounds - Kansas City, Kan. (Monday and Tuesday)
Format: The losers play in a consolation game, followed by the winners in the title game.
Air Force (4-0)
The Falcons' didn't change their methodical style of play when former NBA coach Jeff Bzdelik took over the program last season. Playing their trademark motion offense, the Mountain West power went 24-7 and reached the NCAA Tournament. With three starters and a handful of role players back, Bzdelik will have depth on his side. He's using a 10-man rotation.
No. 8 Duke (3-0)
It's a new era for the Blue Devils as they try and learn how to play without J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams. There are heavy expectations on point guard Greg Paulus (who appears healthy after suffering a preseason foot injury) and power forward Josh McRoberts. Freshmen like guard Gerald Henderson and forward Lance Thomas, both McDonald's All-Americans, must also contribute if the Blue Devils are going to reach a 10th consecutive Sweet 16.
No. 17 Marquette (4-0)
The Golden Eagles haven't played a team from a major conference yet, so this should provide their first real test. Star Dominic James and Jerel McNeal form one of the nation's top backcourts. Marquette relies heavily on its team speed around the perimeter. Much like last season though, the Eagles still lack an interior scoring presence and are vulnerable on the glass.
Texas Tech (4-0)
The main story here is Bob Knight inching closer to the all-time record for men's Division I coaching wins. Entering the tournament, he needed three more to pass Adolph Rupp and seven more to pass Dean Smith and top the list at 880 victories. Knight's working a revamped roster thanks to the addition of five junior college transfers, but for now he can lean on star Jarrius Jackson - who averages 24 points per game.
NIT Tip-Off semifinals and final - New York City (Wednesday and Friday)
Format: The winners advance to the title game and the losers face each other in a consolation game.
Butler vs. No. 21 Tennessee:
There are plenty of storylines to follow here. Volunteers coach Bruce Pearl knows all about Butler, and vice versa. Pearl led Horizon League member Wisconsin-Milwaukee for four years before coming to Knoxville last season. The two programs also represent a heavy contrast in styles. The young Vols (4-0) play at one of the fastest paces in the nation, constantly pressing and taking quick shots. The Bulldogs (4-0) - who upset Indiana to get into the semis - stick to the halfcourt game, relying on fundamentals and patience.
No. 2 North Carolina vs. No. 23 Gonzaga:
This matchup should give us a real glimpse at just how good both these teams can be, particularly the talent-laden Tar Heels. UNC (3-0) survived a scare from Winthrop (73-66) and rolled past Sacred Heart (103-81) and Gardner-Webb (103-50). The Bulldogs (4-0) look like a legit threat after rolling to double-digit wins over Eastern Washington, Rice and Baylor. Without Adam Morrison, Gonzaga is a more balanced team. Six players are averaging at least nine points a game.
Old Spice Classic - Orlando, Fla. (Thursday, Friday and Sunday)
The Field: Arkansas, Marist, Minnesota, Montana, Southern Illinois, Virginia Tech, Western Michigan and West Virginia.
Format: Exactly like the Maui Invitational with a separate bracket set up for first-round winners and losers. Teams are guaranteed to play three games.
Featured First-Round Matchups
Arkansas (2-0) vs. Southern Illinois (2-0):
This should heat up the mid-major debate. There may not be a better team in the mid-major ranks than the Salukis, who are the favorite in the Missouri Valley Conference. The Razorbacks lost their top three scorers from an NCAA Tournament team, but remain dangerous thanks to landing a top-25 recruiting class. Freshman guard Patrick Beverly scored 29 points in his debut against Southeast Missouri State. Southern Illinois returns five starters.

West Virginia (3-0) vs. Montana (1-2):
Do John Beilein and the Mountaineers have any magic left after losing five starters? This would be the first sign. The Grizzlies, who upset No. 5 Nevada in the first round of the 2006 NCAA Tournament, are by far their most formidable opponent yet. The Mountaineers lack the savvy veterans that carried the program to back-to-back Sweet 16 trips, but they are more athletic and are still playing the 1-3-1 zone that seems to create so many problems.

Marquee Matchup
No. 1 Florida vs. No. 12 Kansas - Las Vegas (Saturday)
This is one of the most anticipated games at any stage of the season. Unfortunately, it isn't a battle of top-five programs since the Jayhawks (2-1) were upset at home by Oral Roberts last week. A 10:30 p.m. Eastern tipoff will also prevent many fans from watching. Still, it could be a preview of a Final Four matchup - or even the national championship game. This should be a classic battle of inside vs. outside. The Gators like to rely on their imposing frontcourt of forwards Corey Brewer and Al Horford and center Joakim Noah (all future first-round draft picks). The Jayhawks lean on speedy guards Russell Robinson and Mario Chalmers and athletic wing Brandon Rush. Kansas freshman power forward Darrell Arthur could be the X-factor. Arthur is averaging a team-high 20.0 points per game and he will be counted on to slow down Noah and Co. on in the paint

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