- Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff Writer
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When and where: Nov. 17-18 at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Conn.
Nov. 17: Ohio State vs. Rhode Island (5 ET, ESPN3); Seton Hall vs. Washington (7:30 ET, ESPN3)
Nov. 18: Third-place game (7 ET, ESPN3); championship game (4:30 ET, ESPN2)
Nov. 17: Norfolk State vs. Loyola, Md. (Noon ET); Albany vs. Missouri-Kansas City (2:30 ET)
Nov. 18: Third-place game (11:30 a.m. ET); championship game (2 ET)
Initial thoughts: I’m somewhat intrigued, especially with Ohio State and Washington potentially meeting in the title game. Both squads, which lost a combined three first-round picks in June’s NBA draft, reboot. I want to see what Deshaun Thomas does with his new position as the go-to guy for the Buckeyes following the departure of Jared Sullinger. Aaron Craft had offseason surgery to repair bone chips in his ankle. He’s been hampered for years by the injury. Now that he’s healthy, will his defense wreak even more havoc on the perimeter? Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten Jr. are gone, so the Huskies will turn to Abdul Gaddy and C.J. Wilcox this season. The duo is the program’s only hope to remain relevant in a top-heavy Pac-12 (see Arizona and UCLA).
The rest of the field is so-so based on talent, but it’s backed by good story lines. Seton Hall will likely take a dip after losing Jordan Theodore and Herb Pope. Rhode Island’s Dan Hurley kicks off his first season in the Atlantic 10 after leading Wagner to one of the greatest seasons in program history. But leading scorer Jamal Wilson graduated and the team’s No. 2 scorer, Billy Baron, transferred after his father and former head coach Jim Baron was fired. Look for freshman Jordan Hare, a 6-foot-10 center from Michigan, to earn big minutes in his first season.
The mid-major participants offer a few gems. Loyola (Md.) forward Erik Etherly finished with 19 points, seven rebounds and four blocks during an NCAA tournament loss to Ohio State last season. Cinderella Norfolk State is coming off its March upset of No. 2-seed Missouri. But the star of that game, Kyle O’Quinn (26 points), has graduated. Pendarvis Williams, who dropped 20 on the Tigers, is the new leader for a program that shocked the country with a win over a Tigers squad that looked like a Final Four team entering the Big Dance.
Matchup I can't wait to see: Ohio State-Rhode Island. Hurley took over Wagner a year after the program had won five games. Last season, the team earned 26 victories. That’s why he was such a coveted orchestrator in the offseason. He’s taking over a URI squad that went 7-24 and finished No. 202 in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. But he can change the Rams. I’m not picking the upset, but this could be a surprising matchup between a newly motivated Rams squad and a Buckeyes team adjusting to life without Sullinger.
Potential matchup I'd like to see: Ohio State-Washington. The two teams that could meet in the championship game of the Naismith bracket are in similar positions. New identities for both teams. Sullinger has been the heart of the Buckeyes program for the last two seasons. Now that offense will revolve around Thomas and it will be a completely different look for an OSU squad that’s relied on the nation’s top pure post presence. Last season, the Huskies won the Pac-12 regular season title with Ross and Wroten, a pair of underclassmen. They’ve lost a lot of firepower. An early upset over the Bucks, however, could set the tone for UW's season.
Five players to watch
Aaron Craft, Ohio State: He’s definitely in the “best point guard in America” conversation. This is an important event for Craft (8.8 ppg, 4.6 apg), one of the country's top defenders (2.5 spg). He’s coming off summer ankle surgery and now the floor leader must learn to operate within a Buckeyes offense that no longer features Sullinger.
Erik Etherly, Loyola: He’s the top player for a Greyhounds squad that should be the favorite to win the MAAC this season. The senior forward averaged 13.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 1.9 apg, 1.5 bpg and 1.1 spg in 2011-12.
Jordan Hare, Rhode Island: Hare maintained his commitment to the Rams after Hurley took the job. The 6-foot-10 center from Saginaw, Mich., chose Rhode Island over Michigan, Michigan State and other high-major programs. He’s a crucial building block for Rhode Island and Hurley.
Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State: If he’d avoided his 3-for-14 outing in a Final Four loss to Kansas, Thomas might have entered the NBA draft. But the versatile scorer decided to return and enjoy his BMOC status now that Sullinger is in the pros. He’s the reason the Buckeyes have cracked the top 10 in early projections for the 2012-13 season. Yet, questions remain about his ability to affect games without the ball in his hands.
C.J. Wilcox, Washington: The Huskies lost a pair of first-round draft picks in Wroten and Ross. But Wilcox is back. He averaged 16.0 ppg in last season’s NIT, an extension of a promising season that featured nine games of 19 points or more for the NBA prospect.
Naismith title-game prediction
Ohio State over Washington. Thad Matta starts a new chapter without Sullinger, but he’ll have a more versatile team as LaQuinton Ross and Lenzelle Smith, Jr., play bigger roles. The Buckeyes are clearly the best team in the field. An upset is always possible, but it’s highly unlikely if Ohio State enters the tourney at full capacity. They’ll kick off the year with a victory at Mohegan.
Who others are picking:
Eamonn Brennan: Ohio State over Washington
Andy Katz: Ohio State over Washington
Jason King: Ohio State over Washington
Dana O'Neil: Ohio State over Washington