- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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Tournament bracket for the Puerto Rico Tip-Off
When and where: Nov. 15-16, 18 at Coliseo de Puerto Rico in San Juan, Puerto Rico
Initial thoughts: NC State is hardly a lock to win this event. The Wolfpack will be getting all the preseason praise but Tennessee is a legit SEC top-three contender and will be one of the hardest teams NC State has to play if the two teams meet in the final. ... Oklahoma State will debut one of the most heralded freshmen in Marcus Smart, who was beloved by the U18 USA coaches when they won gold in Brazil last month. ... Don’t sleep on UMass. The Minutemen are a legit A-10 contender and have a quality guard in Chaz Williams, formerly of Hofstra. ... Providence coach Ed Cooley said he has the best guard in the Big East in Vincent Council. He may be right. ... Penn State will be on national display in this event for the first time with its men’s basketball team. By the time this game occurs, the football story will be nearly over for the fall and the Nittany Lions will need a new team to rally around. Pat Chambers has the personality to spark belief in his product. ... Back to NCSU. This is a critical tournament for its credibility. The Wolfpack have rightfully received preseason publicity as a potential ACC champ, but a flameout in Puerto Rico will fuel the narrative that they’re not ready for primetime. ... The field in this event may not seem filled with NCAA-bound teams, but Oklahoma State and Massachusetts have a real shot to be on the bubble in March.
Matchup I can’t wait to see: As odd as this sounds, a UMass-Providence matchup in Puerto Rico is tantalizing. If Williams and Council were to guard each other it could be the toughest test either will face during the season. PC is still holding out hope that Ricky Ledo is eligible, too. The Minutemen have a strong producer inside in Terrell Vinson. I can’t see Providence advancing past NC State. UMass would give the Pack a better game but the Minutemen will be pushed in this opener and may have a difficult time getting out of the first round.
Potential matchup I can’t wait to see: Oklahoma State-Tennessee in the semis would put quite a bit of talent on the floor. The Volunteers have Jarnell Stokes and Trae Golden to go along with Jeronne Maymon, while Oklahoma State has Smart, Le'Bryan Nash and Cezar Guerrero, who can all fill the stat sheet. But if this matchup occurs, expect the Vols to make life extremely difficult for the more finesse Cowboys.
Key players to watch
Jeremy Atkinson and Jaron Lane, UNC Asheville: The pair of rising seniors have to take significant steps forward after the Bulldogs lost their top three scorers from a team that won the Big South, earned a No. 16 seed and went toe to toe with Syracuse in the NCAA tourney. Asheville is one of the more inexperienced teams in this field and may struggle to avoid being in the 0-2 seventh-eighth-place game.
Lorenzo Brown, NC State: Brown had offseason knee surgery and his status for the Wolfpack's trip to Spain is in jeopardy. But if the Wolfpack are going to be an ACC title team, Brown must be the leader Mark Gottfried needs in key games like these in Puerto Rico. He’ll have plenty of help with the arrival of Rodney Purvis, T.J. Warren and Tyler Lewis and the return of C.J. Leslie, Richard Howell and Scott Wood. But Brown must be the team’s designated leader.
Vincent Council, Providence: Council’s numbers have continued to rise during his three seasons. He finds scoring rather easy. The departure of Gerard Coleman and the unknown status of Ricky Ledo and the injury to Kris Dunn means even more pressure will be on Council to shine early and often next season.
Tim Frazier, Penn State: The Nittany Lions tended to have at least one go-to player/headliner under Ed DeChellis. Now Chambers has one in Frazier, who shined with more opportunities and averaged 18.8 points a game. Expect him to have the ball in all critical situations for PSU. Frazier has All-Big Ten potential. This event will be a solid prep for him going into the conference.
Zeke Marshall, Akron: I remember seeing Marshall at the LeBron James camp in Akron when he was a junior in high school and wondering why this shot-blocker was going to the MAC. But Keith Dambrot stayed on him from the beginning and landed the best big man in the league. Marshall should get a chance to shine in three games in Puerto Rico and start to build a following for his senior season.
Le'Bryan Nash, Oklahoma State: Nash had his moments where he was a star and others when he was an enigma during his freshman season. He has a shot to be one of the more productive players in the Big 12. He doesn’t have all the pressure on him anymore with Smart’s arrival. This is a significant season for Nash, both in college and in shaping how the NBA views him as a possible draft pick.
Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee: Stokes started off last season season in high school, graduated early and suddenly was having a major impact scoring and on the backboard in the SEC. Now Cuonzo Martin gets Stokes for a full offseason and to tip off the year. He has a wide base and should be the most immovable post player in this event. He is on a team with experience and that trusts him to finish when he calls for the ball in the post.
Chaz Williams, UMass: Derek Kellogg’s program was struggling, rudderless at the most important position until Williams became eligible. He saved the team and the program from being mediocre and now he can elevate the Minutemen to the NCAA tournament. Williams will have the ball in his hands plenty throughout the four-day, three-game tournament.
Predicted winner: If Brown is healthy, then NC State wins this event over Tennessee. But the Vols are more than capable of taking down the Wolfpack even with a healthy Brown playing. If any other teams are in the final, then it’s a disappointing start for NCSU and UT. The pressure is on the Pack to get off to a signature start before high-profile games which follow in late November and early December. They are going to have to defend to beat Tennessee and do it with more purpose. The Vols will be ready for a physical scrum. This is the type of early-season tournament that could upset the rankings if UT wins. But I’ll stick with NC State for now as the favorite.
Who others are picking:
Eamonn Brennan: NC State over Oklahoma State
Jason King: NC State over Oklahoma State
Myron Medcalf: NC State over Tennessee
Dana O'Neil: NC State over Tennessee