With so many NBA-caliber players returning to school instead of turning pro, the 2011-12 college basketball season is shaping up to be one of the most exciting in years. Unfortunately, though, things may not get off to a sizzling start.
Other than the can’t-miss Maui Invitational, this season’s batch of pre-conference tournaments appears to be somewhat lackluster when it comes to intriguing matchups. While there are plenty of attention-grabbing games on the schedule before league play begins, most of them won’t occur in a tournament setting.
Here’s a synopsis of each of the top 10 non-conference tournaments. The Preseason NIT was not included because the semifinal matchups have not been determined. The Old Spice Classic is also not included. Four of the eight participants – Texas Tech, Wake Forest, Arizona State and DePaul – are arguably the worst squads in their respective leagues. And it’s not as if the other four schools (Indiana State, Minnesota, Dayton and Fairfield) are NCAA tournament locks.
[ Related: King’s mailbag: Conference craziness ]
Dates: November 21-23
Location: Lahaina Civic Center; Maui, Hawaii
Michigan vs. Memphis
Tennessee vs. Duke
UCLA vs. Chaminade
Georgetown vs. Kansas
Best first-round game: Most pundits have Memphis pegged as a top 10-15 team entering the season thanks to a backcourt that has as much depth as it does talent. And now that Will Barton, Antonio Barton, Chris Crawford and Joe Jackson are sophomores, they can add experience to their resume, too. Losing Darius Morris hurt Michigan, but the Wolverines are battle-tested, poised and well-coached.
Best potential second-round game: Kansas escaped with a 77-76 victory over UCLA in Lawrence last season thanks to a free throw with seven-tenths of a second remaining. This year’s UCLA squad should be considerably better, while the Jayhawks will be considerably worse – especially early in the season, when Bill Self will be attempting to break in some new players.
Projected final: Either UCLA or Duke will escape with the first-place trophy from what could be one of the more entertaining pre-conference tournaments in history. The Bruins should have the advantage down low with Josh Smith, Reeves Nelson and David and Travis Wear. But the backcourt matchup will heavily favor the Blue Devils.
Top NBA prospect: Kansas forward Thomas Robinson is an All-America candidate who projects as a top 10 pick in next summer’s draft. Unfortunately, he may not have much help in the paint, where the Jayhawks lost Marcus and Markieff Morris.
Top newcomer: Freshman Austin Rivers will likely be the top scorer for a Duke squad that lost guards Nolan Smith and Kyrie Irving. The son of Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers also projects as a lottery pick in the NBA draft.
Projected NCAA tournament teams: Michigan, Memphis, Duke, UCLA, Kansas
2K Sports Classic benefitting Coaches vs. Cancer
Dates: Nov. 17-18
Location: Madison Square Garden; New York
Schedule Texas A&M vs. Mississippi State
St. John’s vs. Arizona
Best first-round game: St. John’s lost virtually every key piece of a squad that earned an NCAA tournament berth in Steve Lavin’s first season, but the Red Storm welcomes one of the nation’s top recruiting classes. Derrick Williams and Lamont “Momo” Jones may be gone from Arizona, but the buzz in Tucson is growing over freshman point guard Josiah Turner.
Projected final: Mississippi State could be one of the most dangerous teams in the country if it limits its off-court problems. Arizona may not have answer for Renardo Sidney and Arnett Moultrie in the paint, and senior Dee Bost is one of the nation’s most underrated guards. The Wildcats won’t face many – if any – teams in the Pac-12 with this much talent.
Top NBA prospect: Khris Middleton’s stock dropped a bit over the summer, but the Texas A&M forward is still projected as a first-round pick in next summer’s NBA draft. The lanky junior definitely has a pro skill-set, but his inconsistency can be maddening at times.
Top newcomer: Turner, Arizona’s freshman point guard, became the most-talented player on the Wildcats’ roster the moment he set foot on campus. It will be interesting to see how quickly Turner and fellow freshman Nick Johnson, a five-star shooting guard, adapt to the college game.
Projected NCAA tournament teams: Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Arizona
O’Reily Auto Parts CBE Classic
Date: Nov. 21-22
Location: Sprint Center; Kansas City, Mo. (semifinals/finals only)
Schedule: Missouri vs. Notre Dame
Cal vs. Georgia
Best first-round game: The atmosphere in the Sprint Center should be electric when Missouri takes on Notre Dame. Tigers fans packed the same venue last season when Missouri played Georgetown. Even though the home team lost, it was a great atmosphere. Frank Haith inherited an experienced, talented squad that can’t afford to lose to a Notre Dame team that lost most of its top weapons.
Projected final: Missouri may have the slight edge on Cal when it comes to talent, but the well-coached Golden Bears will scrap and claw all night with the Tigers. Not many teams improved as much from the beginning of last to the end as Cal. It Mike Montgomery’s squad wins the CBE Classic it won’t be all that big of an upset.
Top NBA prospect: Missouri’s Laurence Bowers and Marcus Denmon will both play professionally. The question is whether it happens in the NBA or overseas. Georgia freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is projected as a first-round pick in the 2013 NBA draft.
Top newcomer: Georgia freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was the 12th-ranked player in the Class of 2011 by Rivals.com. The 6-foot-6 guard should help form a dynamic backcourt along with scrappy and underappreciated Gerald Robinson.
Projected NCAA tournament teams: Missouri, Cal, Notre Dame
Las Vegas Classic
Dates: Dec. 22-23
Location: Orleans Arena; Las Vegas
Schedule West Virginia vs. Missouri State
Baylor vs. St. Mary’s
Best first-round game: Kevin Jones and West Virginia will have their hands full against Missouri State, which went 26-9 en route to winning last season’s Missouri Valley Conference title. Jones averaged 13.1 points and 7.5 rebounds a year ago. Missouri State has a new coach (Paul Lusk) but returns its top scorer and rebounds in Kyle Weems (16 points, 6.9 rebounds as a junior in 2010-11).
Projected final: Baylor’s size and NBA talent will be too much for upset-minded Missouri State, which simply doesn’t have enough horses to contend with the likes of Perry Jones, Quincy Acy, Quincy Miller, J’mison Morgan and Anthony Jones down low.
Top NBA prospect: Perry Jones likely would’ve been a top five pick had he left school after his freshman season, but he opted to return to school to enhance his game. He could be one of two lottery picks from Baylor next summer, as freshman Quincy Miller is also projected to be a top 10 selection.
Top newcomer: Miller is the obvious choice, but just as important to Baylor’s success will be guards Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip. Jackson – last year’s national junior college player of the year – will have to adapt to the Division I level in a hurry. Heslip is a transfer from Boston College who is expected to assume an on-court leadership role.
Projected NCAA tournament teams:
Baylor, West Virginia, St. Mary’s
Las Vegas Invitational
Dates: Nov. 25-26
Location: Orleans Arena; Las Vegas
Schedule USC vs. UNLV
North Carolina vs. South Carolina
Best first-round game: USC took a major hit over the summer when guard Jio Fontan tore his ACL during an exhibition tour of Brazil. Still, even though Fontan is out for the season, Trojans coach Kevin O’Neill will find a way to adapt and be competitive against teams such as UNLV, who will be playing under a first-year head coach in Dave Rice.
Projected final: A hometown crowd should help UNLV slip by USC in the semifinals, but the Runnin’ Rebels won’t be any match for North Carolina in the championship game. The Tar Heels’ entire starting five could end up being first-round draft picks. It’ll be shocking if Roy Williams’ squad isn’t ranked No. 1 in the country at the time of this game.
Top NBA prospect: North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes may have been the top pick in last year’s draft had he chosen to leave school after his freshman season. Instead he chose to return to play with a cast that includes potential lottery picks John Henson, Tyler Zeller and James McAdoo.
Top newcomer: North Carolina’s James McAdoo is the eighth-ranked player in the Class of 2011 by Rivals.com. The MVP of last summer’s Jordan Brand Classic can score with his back to the basket, but he also has face-up skills. At North Carolina, he’ll be part of what is arguably the nation’s top frontcourt rotation.
Projected NCAA tournament teams: UNLV, North Carolina, USC
Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic
Dates: Dec 22, 23 and 25
Location: Stan Sheriff Center; Honolulu, Hawaii
Texas-El Paso vs. Clemson
Kansas State vs. Southern Illinois
Long Beach State vs. Xavier
Auburn vs. Hawaii
Best first-round game: Xavier is the class of this tournament, but it’s not as if the Musketeers have an easy path to the championship game. Long Beach State returns its top three scorers from a team that won last season’s Big West title.
Best potential second-round game: Xavier always relishes the chance to beat up on teams from BCS conferences. The Musketeers will get that chance if they face Auburn, which was one of the worst teams in the SEC last season. The Tigers, though, should be significantly better with the addition of Texas transfer Varez Ward and 6-foot-10 freshman center Willy Kouassi. Most important for Auburn is the return of Frankie Sullivan, who averaged 12.7 points in 2009-10 before missing last season with a knee injury.
Projected final: Xavier guard Tu Holloway will lead his team to a victory over Clemson in the title game. Holloway’s matchup with Tigers guard Andre Young could be a good one, but Clemson lost two of its best players in Jerai Grant and Demontez Stitt.
Top NBA prospect: Holloway thought about turning pro after last season before opting to return for another year. He’s a high-scorer who will almost definitely be drafted next summer, even if it’s in the second round.
Top newcomer: Willy Kouassi is a 6-foot-10 215-pounder who should give Auburn some immediate assistance down low. He’s the 66th-ranked player in the Class of 2011 by Rivals.com
Projected NCAA tournament teams: Clemson, Xavier
Puerto Rico Tip-Off
Dates: Nov. 17, 18 and 20
Location: Coliseo de Puerto Rico; San Juan, Puerto Rico
Temple vs. Western Michigan
Purdue vs. Iona
Maryland vs. Alabama
Colorado vs. Wichita State
Best first-round game: Purdue is scheduled to face one of the country’s better mid-major teams in Iona. Robbie Hummel returns for the Boilermakers after missing last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Purdue, though, lost its top two players in JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore, both of whom were drafted. Iona is hoping Arizona transfer Momo Jones will be granted a hardship waiver that will allow him to play this season.
Best potential second-round game: We could have a rematch of last season’s NIT championship game between Wichita State and Alabama. The Shockers defeated Alabama and took home the trophy in March. Expect another entertaining game this time around.
Projected final: Temple seems like the best bet to advance to play Alabama in the title game. The Owls will tout a pesky backcourt. But from an all-around standpoint, Alabama will be the class of this tournament.
Top NBA prospect: Hummel will attract some attention from pro scouts, although his history of health issues will certainly raise some questions. Alabama forward JaMychal Green is projected as a late first-round pick or an early second-round pick in next summer’s NBA draft.
Top newcomer: Colorado guard Carlon Brown averaged a team-high 12.6 points for Utah in 2009-10 before sitting out last season under NCAA transfer rules. He’ll need to come up big for a Buffaloes squad that lost Alec Burks, Levi Knutson and Marcus Relphorde.
Projected NCAA tournament teams: Alabama, Wichita State, Purdue, Temple
Dates: Nov. 17, 18 and 20
Location: Carolina First Arena; Charleston, South Carolina
Tulsa vs. Western Kentucky
LSU vs. Northwestern
VCU vs. Seton Hall
Georgia Tech vs. St. Joseph’s
Best first-round game: After winning just 11 games in 2010-11, LSU is expected to be much better this season thanks to the additional of standout freshman center Johnny O’Bryant. If fact, if the Tigers get by John Shurna and Northwestern, they may just win the entire tournament.
Best potential second-round game:
Georgia Tech would’ve loved to have hired Shaka Smart for its head coaching gig during the offseason. Smart, though, made it clear he was happy at Virginia Commonwealth. For now. Both teams are in rebuilding mode. Georgia Tech will spend the season adapting to new coach Brian Gregory. Smart, meanwhile, lost almost all of his key players from last season’s Final Four squad.
Projected final: Decimated as VCU’s roster may be, the Rams should still have enough juice to get by Seton Hall in the first round and Georgia Tech in the second. Their luck will run out against Northwestern, which has a legitimate shot to earn its first NCAA tournament berth in school history. Seems like we’ve been saying that for years.
Top NBA prospect: Shurna is a good enough shooter to warrant a second-round selection in next summer’s NBA draft. Seton Hall’s Herb Pope is an aggressive player who could help a franchise with his rebounding.
Top newcomer: The signing of O’Bryant could be the first step to turning around LSU’s struggling program.The 6-foot-10, 245-pounder is aggressive and physical in the paint and exhibits a soft shooting touch when he looks to score away from the basket. He earned McDonald’s All-America honors as a high school senior.
Projected NCAA tournament teams: None
Dates: Nov. 24, 25 and 27
Location: Anaheim Convention Center; Anaheim, Calif.
Boston College vs. St. Louis
Villanova vs. UC-Riverside
New Mexico vs. Santa Clara
Oklahoma vs. Washington State
Best first-round game: Drew Gordon is good enough to help New Mexico contend for the Mountain West title – especially now that BYU is gone to the West Coast Conference, where Kerry Keating’s Santa Clara squad is high on momentum after winning last season’s CollegeInsider.com postseason tournament.
Best potential second-round game: Villanova will be looking to bounce back after losing 11 of its last 16 games last season. The Wildcats, though, are in a transition year and return just two starters. Boston College coach Steve Donahue recruits heavily in California. Ryan Anderson was the state’s Mr. Basketball.
Projected final: New Mexico and Gordon will get by Villanova in an exciting championship game. Even though the Lobos will be working in guards Demetrius Walker, an Arizona State transfer, and Hugh Gordon, a freshman, Steve Alford’s squad should still have enough to get by Jay Wright’s Wildcats.
Top NBA prospect: Villanova’s Mouphtaou Yarou is a 6-foot-9, 230-pounder who is an absolute beast in the paint. Virtually every mock draft board on the internet lists Yarou as a first-round pick in next summer’s draft. Watch him play just one game and you’ll see why.
Top newcomer: Oklahoma’s Sam Grooms averaged 11 points and six assists for a Chipola (Fla.) Junior College squad that was ranked second in the country for most of the season. Grooms is ranked as the No. 3 junior college prospect in the country. He is often compared to former North Carolina standout Ty Lawson because of his speed up and down the court.
Projected NCAA tournament teams: Villanova, New Mexico
TicketCity Legends Classic
Dates: Nov. 19, 21
Location: IZOD Center; East Rutherford, N.J.
Vanderbilt vs. North Carolina State
Texas vs. Oregon State
Best first-round game: North Carolina State coach Mark Gottfried could get a rude awakening in his return to college basketball when the Wolfpack faces Vanderbilt, a team with legitimate Final Four hopes. Still, it’s not as if North Carolina State doesn’t have the talent to keep things close. It just seems unlikely this early in the season with a new coach.
Projected final: Vanderbilt vs. Texas, on paper, sounds like one of the more intriguing games of the non-conference season. The Longhorns, though, lost almost all of their key pieces. The top players are on the team are all freshmen. They may have a tough time against a seasoned team like Vanderbilt just a week or two into their college careers.
Top NBA prospect: The website draftexpress.com predicts that Texas freshman Myck Kabongo will be the sixth player selected in the NBA draft – in 2013. In the meantime, the site projects Vanderbilt’s Festus Ezeli and Jeff Taylor as first-round picks in 2012 along with North Carolina State’s C.J. Leslie.
Top newcomer: Kabongo came along at just the right time for Texas, which lost Cory Joseph to the NBA draft and Dogus Balbay to graduation. Kabongo and junior J’Covan Brown should form a solid backcourt.
Projected NCAA tournament teams: Vanderbilt, Texas