Monday November 16th, 2009

If there were any decent synonyms for madness that began with an "N," television execs might already have devised a title for college basketball's late-November bracket business. Alas, the hoop world is stuck with a few weak options: Sometimes the multitude of Classics, Invitationals and Tip-Offs are called "Preseason Tournaments," which is incorrect, since they're part of the regular season; others call them "Early-Season Tournaments," which is still boring; and the NCAA's official term form them, "Multi-Team Events," is the most boring of all.

I prefer to call this month "The Unveiling," because it isn't analogous to March: November is when teams learn about themselves, and when fans and media let the hype give way to what's happening on the floor. The next two weeks will be full of revelations, and these are 10 events most deserving of your attention:

Madison Square Garden, New York Nov. 19: Syracuse vs. Cal (7 p.m.); North Carolina vs. Ohio State (9 p.m.); Nov. 20: Finals (7 p.m.)

Why You Should Care:

This could be the unveiling of a surprise Big Ten champ. The attention thus far has been on Evan Turner's stats, and for good reason: the Buckeyes' 6-foot-7 point guard followed up a season-opening triple-double (14 points, 17 rebounds, 10 assists) against Alcorn State with a 24-17-4 line against James Madison. But should we start turning our focus to the prospect of Ohio State finishing ahead of favorites Michigan State and Purdue in the Big Ten?

Preseason rankings (including my own) didn't take into account a few key things about the Buckeyes: How good Turner would be as a full-time point; the progress of sophomore shooting guard William Buford, who now looks like a solid NBA prospect and a good No. 2 scoring option; the positive impact of the return of "glue guy" David Lighty; and how much they could improve on defense by using more man-to-man. Even though shot-blocking menace Dallas Lauderdale has yet to play any serious minutes (he's recovering from a hand injury), OSU looks scary.

Two more chances to find out who the real Wesley Johnson is: go-to guy or just a nice addition? In Syracuse's exhibition loss to Le Moyne, the Iowa State transfer -- whom Orange coaches had been hyping, hard, in the preseason -- took 39 percent of his team's shots while he was on the floor, scoring 34 points. Thirty-nine percent is Stephen Curry-level usage: He took 38.3 percent of Davidson's attempts last season.

Things changed in the 'Cuse's first two real games: Against Albany, Johnson took 22.4 percent of the Orange's shots, and against Robert Morris, he took 22.5. Those percentages would lend to the team having a more balanced offense, like last year's, when the top two shot-takers were Eric Devendorf, at 24.6 percent, and Jonny Flynn, at 23.1.

The Pick: Ohio State over Cal. In the semis, the backcourt inexperience of North Carolina and Syracuse will be their undoing; in the final, the Buckeyes will have enough size on the perimeter (in Turner, Lighty, Buford and Jon Diebler, all 6-5 or taller) to keep the Bears' guards in check.

Anaheim Convention Center, Anaheim, Calif.

Nov. 26: West Virginia vs. Long Beach State (2 p.m.); Clemson vs. Texas A&M (4:30 p.m.); Butler vs. Minnesota (8:30 p.m.); UCLA vs. Portland (10:30 p.m.); Nov. 27: Semifinals (2:30 p.m./9:30 p.m.); Nov. 29: Finals (10 p.m.)

Why You Should Care:

It's your introduction to Casey Mitchell. Who's he? Only the X-factor to the Mountaineers' Big East title run. The 6-4 juco transfer from Chipola College is replacing departed shooting guard Alex Ruoff, who was both West Virginia's long-range gunner (he attempted a team-high 236 treys) and its most efficient scorer (with an Offensive Rating of 117.4). Mitchell is off to a decent start: In the team's exhibition against Mountain State on Nov. 8, he scored 19 points, making 3 of 8 threes, and in their opener against Loyola-Maryland on Sunday, he had 13 points on two-of-seven long-range shooting. The bulk of WVU's offense is likely to be in the hands of forward duo Da'Sean Butler and Devin Evanks, but it's vital that Mitchell is a threat on the wing.

This will be an early indication if Butler deserves the hype. The Bulldogs received an unprecedented No. 11 ranking in the AP preseason poll, and in Anaheim, they could be facing three fellow NCAA tournament teams (Minnesota, UCLA and West Virginia) in a four-day span. If Butler is going to win this tournament, and advance deep in the NCAAs, at least one of its starting guards (Shelvin Mack, Willie Veasley and Shawn Vanzant) needs to develop as a real shooting threat alongside star forward Gordon Hayward. None of those guards shot higher than 32.7 percent from long range last year, and the Bulldogs ranked 117th in the country in overall three-point shooting percentage.

The Pick: West Virginia over Butler -- as long as the Ebanks saga (he was absent from the Nov. 15 win due to "personal reasons") has been resolved. In Ebanks and Butler, the Mountaineers have two wing players who can score like Hayward does, and Bob Huggins' club plays the best team defense of anyone in Anaheim. (One early-round warning: Portland could knock off UCLA on Nov. 26. The Pilots are the second-best team in the West Coast Conference, and have a shot at the NCAA tournament.)

University of the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas

Nov. 20: DePaul vs. Northern Iowa (1 p.m.); Tennessee vs. East Carolina (3:30 p.m.); Boston College vs. Saint Joseph's (6 p.m.); Purdue vs. South Dakota State (8:30 p.m.); Nov. 22: Semifinals (6 p.m./8:30 p.m.); Nov. 23: Finals (8:30 p.m.)

Why You Should Care:

Tennessee-Purdue might be the best title-game matchup of any tournament. Both teams have their entire starting lineups back, with versatile, All-America level forwards as their centerpieces in Tyler Smith (for the Vols) and Robbie Hummel (for the Boilers). Therefore they shouldn't be playing ugly games in late November. It's nice to watch Purdue get sped up to a non-Big Ten pace, which the Vols will most likely try to do; if this game at all resembles the Boilers' battle with an up-tempo Washington team in the second round of last year's NCAA tournament, it'll be must-see TV.

(The Tennessee-Northern Iowa semifinal shouldn't be bad either, as the Panthers are the class of the Missouri Valley, and have the front-line size -- especially with 7-1 center Jordan Eglseder -- to give the Vols trouble.)

There's breakout potential in the Virgin Islands. After taking an offensive backseat to Tyrese Rice for the past two seasons, Boston College junior wing Rakim Sanders will be coming off a two-game suspension to debut as a go-to guy. He's conditioned to handle it, too; in '08-09 Sanders actually took a higher percentage of shots than Rice (25.9 to 24.4), but Sanders scored less because he played fewer minutes and wasn't very effective from the free-throw line (shooting 68.4 percent to Rice's 85.6).

Be on the lookout for Tennessee's Scotty Hopson, too: After a mediocre freshman season that saw his draft stock slip from one-and-done lottery status to fringe first-rounder, there are indications that the sophomore two-guard is ready to be a legitimate scorer at the college level. He led the Vols in scoring with 20 points in each of their two exhibitions, and then had a team-high 17 points in their opener against Austin Peay.

The Pick: Tennessee. Purdue has greater Final Four potential in the long run, but speedy point guard Lewis Jackson suffered a foot/ankle injury in practice on Thursday, and early indications are that he'll miss the entire Paradise Jam. Without him the Boilers will be slightly less equipped to run, and the Vols will win a close one.

Coliseo de Puerto Rico, San Juan

Nov. 19: Dayton vs. Georgia Tech (11:30 a.m.); George Mason vs. Villanova (2 p.m.); Indiana vs. Ole Miss (5 p.m.); Boston University vs. Kansas State (7:30 p.m.); Nov. 20: Semifinals (3 p.m./8:30 p.m.); Nov. 22: Finals (8 p.m.)

Why You Should Care:

Dayton's rep will be established in San Juan. The Atlantic 10 isn't particularly strong this season, and this is the Flyers' only opportunity to face major-conference opponents prior to March Madness. In the best first-round game I've seen in any tournament, they'll start with Georgia Tech, a team that despite having more NBA talent (freshman Derrick Favors and senior Gani Lawal, at the very least), Dayton should beat.

Next could be a shot at Villanova, a top five Big East club; the Flyers earned some serious cred in November 2008 when they upset Marquette in Milwaukee, and a win over 'Nova could rocket them up to a top 15 ranking. I like this Dayton team -- it has solid leaders (Chris Wright, London Warren and Marcus Johnson) and NCAA tournament experience -- but it'll have trouble earning national respect if it flops in the tropics.

Ole Miss might have been the most overlooked team in preseason polls. The Rebels were 43rd in the AP's preseason poll, and I'm guilty of sleeping on them, too: They were in the "also considered" section of my Midnight Madness Power Rankings. Granted, they were far from a good team last season, finishing 16-15 and 97th in kenpom.com's pythagorean formula -- but a few key things need to be considered:

They played nearly the whole season without their second- and third-best players, guards Chris Warren and Eniel Polynice; their star, Terrico White, is poised to have a monster sophomore season; and sophomore forwards Murphy Holloway and DeAundre Cranston are just now ready to make an impact. Oxford, and not Starkville, may be the home of the best team in Mississippi.

The Pick: Villanova over Ole Miss. This title game could be an epic backcourt battle, between the Rebs' aforementioned trio and the Wildcats' Scottie Reynolds, Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes. Andy Kennedy's boys may need a month to get acclimated to playing together, though, while 'Nova's guards should already be in full gear.

Lahaina Civic Center, Maui

Nov. 23: Colorado vs. Gonzaga (3 p.m.); Cincinnati vs. Vanderbilt (5:30 p.m.); Maryland vs. Chaminade (9:30 p.m.); Arizona vs. Wisconsin (12 a.m.); Nov. 24: Semifinals (7 p.m./9:30 p.m.); Nov. 25: Finals (10 p.m.)

Why You Should Care:

Maui is sleeper team central (and I'm not talking about Chaminade). The Invitational doesn't have its traditional blockbuster field, and a solid-but-not-spectacular Gonzaga team is the de facto headliner. But the fivesome of Arizona, Cincinnati, Maryland, Vanderbilt and Wisconsin contains at least one surprise team for '09-10 -- I'm just not sure yet which team it is.

I'd give the best odds to Maryland, which manhandled Cal in the NCAA tournament and has some good role players around senior combo guard Greivis Vasquez (whom I called the game's"most entertaining player" last month). Vanderbilt is also promising; sophomore forward Jeffery Taylor is a favorite sleeper prospect among NBA scouts, and freshman two-guard John Jenkins is among the purest long-range shooters in the country. If they both have breakout seasons alongside veteran center A.J. Ogilvy and point guard Jermaine Beal, the Commodores will be in the upper third of the SEC.

Lance Stephenson is the country's most intriguing freshman. Intriguing because so many schools pulled out of his recruitment, treating the New York product like a potential cancer rather than an electric top-10 prospect. Now that he's on the Bearcats' roster, and cleared to play by the NCAA, everyone's wondering: Will Mick Cronin's gamble pay off or cause his team to implode? Stephenson has the most NBA-ready physique of any Class of '09 player, and operates like a possession-eating, go-to guy: In Cincinnati's first exhibition, he took 14 shots in 18 minutes (making four), and in its second, he took 13 shots in 17 minutes (making six). If Stephenson can be efficient and use his power game to get to the free-throw line, he'll be the Big East's best freshman.

The Pick: Vanderbilt over Maryland (and then Gonzaga). The 'Dores should be a bit farther along than anyone else in Maui, given that they were able to take a five-game tour of Australia in August. And whereas the Terps struggle from beyond the arc, in Beal, Jenkins and Brad Tinsley, Vandy has a backcourt that all should shoot better than 40 percent from beyond the arc.

The Next Five Best

Madison Square Garden, New York

Nov. 25 (Projected Semifinals): Duke vs. Arizona State, LSU/Western Kentucky vs. UConn (games at 7/9 p.m.); Nov. 27: Finals (5 p.m.)

Lowdown: The NIT should have a killer Duke-UConn final, but it suffers from a lack of overall depth: The other two regional hosts, Arizona State and LSU, are here a season too late, and aren't likely to make the NCAA tournament as they work through the rebuilding process. I'll bump the NIT up a spot or two if Western Kentucky, the class of the Sun Belt, makes the semifinals against UConn; that would create at least one decent game on Thanksgiving eve. The Pick: UConn.

The Milkhouse at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex, Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Nov. 26: Creighton vs. Michigan (Noon); Marquette vs. Xavier (2 p.m.); Alabama vs. Baylor (6:30 p.m.); Florida State vs. Iona (9 p.m.); Nov. 27: Semifinals (Noon/5 p.m.); Nov. 29: Finals (7:30 p.m.)

Lowdown: This field is another case of catching teams a year too late; Marquette, Xavier, Baylor and Florida State were all entertaining clubs in '08-09 but none is an NCAA tournament lock this time around. A semifinal dual between Michigan and Xavier might be the Old Spice's best game; I'd watch just to see the Manny Harris Show (he had a triple-double in the Wolverines' opener) and to get an idea of how well freshman Darius Morris can handle the point. With a decent floor general, this is a second-weekend team in the NCAA tournament. The Pick: Michigan.

Moon Palace Resort, Cancun, Mexico

Nov. 24: Florida A&M vs. Rider (11 a.m.); Oral Roberts vs. Sam Houston State (1:30 p.m.); Kentucky vs. Cleveland State (4:30 p.m.); Virginia vs. Stanford (7 p.m.); Nov. 25: Finals (Kentucky-Cleveland State winner vs. Virginia-Stanford winner, 9:30 p.m.)

Lowdown: This might as well be called the Kentucky showcase. The two other major-conference teams, Virginia and Stanford, aren't in UK's league. A John Wall-vs.-Sylven Landesberg showdown in the finals would be the only reason to watch. The Pick: Kentucky.

Orleans Arena, Las Vegas

Nov. 27: Wofford vs. Southern (Noon); Seattle vs. Presbyterian (2:30 p.m.); Oklahoma State vs. Bradley (5 p.m.); Illinois vs. Utah (7:30 p.m.); Nov. 28: Finals (Oklahoma State/Bradley winner vs. Illinois/Utah winner, 7:30 p.m.)

Lowdown: This tourney should result in a nice style-class final between Oklahoma State (a speedy, offensive-minded club) and Illinois (a grittier, defensive-minded club), both of whom should end up as 5-8 seeds in the NCAA tournament. The Illini will be playing their best basketball later in the season, though, once freshmen D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul are fully acclimated to Bruce Weber's system. The Pick: Oklahoma State.

Sullivan Arena, Anchorage, Alaska

Nov. 25: Washington State vs. Alaska-Anchorage (11:30 p.m.); Oklahoma vs. San Diego (1:45 a.m.); Nov. 26: Nicholls State vs. Alaska-Anchorage (9 p.m.); Houston vs. Oklahoma (11:30 p.m.); Nov. 27: Nicholls State vs. Washington State (9 p.m.); Houston vs. San Diego (11:30 p.m.); Nov. 28: Finals (11 p.m.)

Lowdown: We're down to slim pickings for a 10th-best tournament. The six-team Shootout gets the nod because it will showcase Oklahoma -- and potential national player of the year candidate Willie Warren -- against three decent teams in San Diego, Houston and Washington State. It barely beats out the Legends Classic, which offers one solid semifinal -- Michigan State-Florida -- but nothing else of note.

The Pick: Oklahoma.

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