This is part one of a three part preview of this week’s 76 Classic in Anaheim, California. Part one will focus on the participants, part three will focus on Minnesota’s first round game against Butler. Part two is still up in the air. If you have an idea for this part of the preview or something you would like to read, let me know in the comments or by email.
Anaheim, California, the Disneyfied suburban wasteland that is actually part of Los Angeles, at least according to the local MLB team out there, would never be on my list of travel destinations, especially over Thanksgiving. But this week at least, if I had the opportunity, I might just have to consider forgoing the green bean casserole that is the staple of every Midwestern holiday meal for what has all the makings of a basketball feast. Of all the holiday weekend tournaments this is among the best, with four of the eight team ranked in the Top 25. The Gophers have their work cut out for them, but if they can string three wins together, they will be considered one of the elite teams in the country.
The Gophers come into the tournament ranked #16 in the coaches poll. This will be their first real challenge of the season, as they have blown out all three of their out of conference opponents so far. Their off the court issues have been well documented, while their on-court success has flown under the radar a bit. Best known for Tubby Smith and his trade-mark attacking defense, three wins here will bring attention back on to the court, and will signify that they are a very dangerous team with or without any players who may or may not rejoin the team. They’ll play Butler in the opening round of the tournament in what should be a good measuring stick game for both teams.
Butler is on it’s way to being the post-aught Gonzaga. Nominally they are a mid-major playing out of the Horizon League representing a 4,000 student private liberal arts school in suburban Indianapolis. The basketball team certainly doesn’t pay attention to whatever stereotypes accompany small and academically rigorous institutions. Currently ranked #10 in the coaches poll, the Bulldogs are a popular sleeper pick for the final four. Best known for their strong defense,, and Hinkle Field House (go watch Hoosiers, now!), Butler should be the favorite to win this tournaments. We’ll have a lot more on the Bulldogs on Wednesday as part of the preview of their first round game against the Gophers. Click here for more on the Bulldogs.
For Gopher fans at least, the Portland Pilots are probably the least well known team in the 76 Classic. Often mistaken for Portland State, (the Vikings in case you were wondering) Portland the university is a member of the West Coast Conference and has been picked by at least one publication (er...blog) to finally knock Gonzaga off their conference dominating perch. They already won at Oregon, and feature three players averaging over 14 points per game. Gonzaga will be a tough team to knock off, but if their conference championship streak is going to end at 11, it will likely be because of Portland. Click here for more on the Pilots and the rest of the WCC.
It is hard to believe that one of the most storied programs in the history of college basketball not only isn’t favored to win a tournament that it is essentially hosting, it might not even be favored in its first round game against Portland. UCLA certainly isn’t what it used to be even a year ago. They already lost at home to Cal. State-Fullerton, which happens to a lot of teams in baseball, but basketball, really? In what must have been an effort to prove that their season opening loss was not a fluke, the Bruins were tied with Cal. State- Bakersfield at half time of their next game before pulling away for an 11 point win. For Gopher fans looking for a rematch of the 1997 regional final, you might have to sit through a Gopher first round loss for it to happen. They brought back only one starter this season, and he has as many legal problems as the entire Gopher roster. John Wooden can’t be happy. Click here for more on the B(ruins).
Another November, another undefeated and ranked Clemson Tiger basketball team, and another late-season collapse? Lucky for Clemson it is November, because if this tournament was in March, or even December, their mid-season swoon would be well under way. It is still early though, so watch out for the Tigers. They feature pre-season All-American (on some lists) Trevor Booker, the Tigers have played a schedule as difficult as the Gophers so far, and with similar results. Their goal this week is not just to win the tournament, but to stave off the collapse they must know is coming. Click here for more on the Tigers.
The Aggies have slipped into the shadows of the Big XII since Billy Gillespie left for bluer pastures, but they continue to have a solid basketball program. The made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament last year before getting blown out by UCONN. Donald Sloan and Derrick Roland might be one of the most underrated back courts in the country, and the Aggies should return to the Big Dance again this season. Click here for more on the Aggies.
More than a few Gopher fans were hoping that Dan Monson would face his former team when the team’s for this tournament were announced. Unfortunately, there is almost no way that could happen, as Long Beach State and Minnesota are on opposite ends of the bracket. Monson has been able to replicate some of his mid-major success that landed him a job that was too big for him to handle. The 49ers improved from a 6-25 record two years ago to 15-15 last year and have a reasonably good chance to make it to the NCAA tournament this season as the representative of Big West Conference. They’ll be battle tested and then some by the time the conference season starts, with games against West Virginia, Texas, Kentucky, and Duke. Click here for more on the 49ers.
The West Virginia Mountaineers were another trendy final four pick at the beginning of the season, but that was with Devin Ebanks. The Sophomore forward was expected to be a major contributor and possible NBA lottery pick. Instead, he hasn’t played, isn’t expected to play for the foreseeable future, and no one seems to know why. There are some suggestions that it is a serious matter that needs to be kept quiet. Others have suggested that “personal reasons,” the official reason for his absence is synonymous with “unspecified rules violations.” Even if Ebanks never surfaces from his undisclosed location, the Mountaineers should breeze through their side of the bracket. They had four players in double figures in the only game this season, and Kevin Jones, a 6’8” 250 pound forward should be a load to handle. Throw in senior Da’Sean Butler, who led the team in scoring last season, and West Virginia is deservedly a favorite to win the Big East. Click here for more on the Mountaineers.