When and where: Nov. 17-18, 20 at the Carolina First Arena in Charleston, S.C.
Initial thoughts: The Charleston Classic lacks star quality but has the potential to produce some intriguing storylines for a November affair. Northwestern is still on the doorstep of its first NCAA tournament berth with the core group back for a third straight attempt to finally crack through to the Dance. VCU is coming off a magical run to the Final Four. Coach Shaka Smart stayed rather than taking a major payday, but key players Joey Rodriguez, Jamie Skeen and Brandon Rozzell finished their eligibility. Georgia Tech is under a new direction with Brian Gregory and the potential for his first squad is unknown. Saint Joseph’s should finally show improvement after being mired in mediocrity since the Elite Eight run several seasons ago. LSU has had a hard time rebuilding under Trent Johnson and could desperately use something good to happen early. Seton Hall has Herb Pope back but is still stuck at the bottom of the Big East. Tulsa and Western Kentucky were supposed to be NCAA tournament teams in the last two seasons, respectively, but neither could break through.
First-round matchup I can’t wait to see: LSU versus Northwestern. The organizers ensured that the two teams with perhaps the best chance to win the tournament are playing each other in the first round. The Wildcats have the experience and should have the talent to win the game, but they won’t have an easy time taking on LSU freshman big man Johnny O’Bryant. He has the advantage inside. The winner of this game should be in position to win the tournament. It should be the most balanced and competitive first-round game.
Potential matchup that I’d like to see: VCU versus Georgia Tech. Smart could have made a play for the Georgia Tech job but decided to stay put in Richmond. Georgia Tech went after the more experienced Gregory from Dayton. I’ll be interested to see how this game turns out -- if it occurs -- as Smart could potentially prove that rebuilding the Rams is easier than taking over an ACC project like the Yellow Jackets.
Predicted final: Northwestern versus VCU. The Rams lost quite a bit off the Final Four team but there’s something special brewing with VCU. The Rams will have a hard time getting past Seton Hall, let alone a possible semifinal matchup. And I’ve already mentioned the difficulty the Wildcats may have getting out of the top part of the bracket. But a Northwestern-VCU final would carry the most cachet if both squads can make it and then use the tourney to jump-start the season.
Five players to watch
John Shurna, Northwestern: Shurna didn’t make the World University Games roster heading to China. But he’s still the Wildcats’ go-to player and best chance to lead this team toward a possible NCAA berth. He has an unorthodox shot but he’s consistently good for the most part. He needs to be special this season.
Bradford Burgess, VCU: The departure of Skeen, Rodriguez and Rozzell means Burgess will be the go-to player for Virginia Commonwealth. He proved he can be a viable scoring option for the Rams, scoring 14.4 ppg last season. Now he must show he can be the primary offensive option for the Rams.
Johnny O’Bryant, LSU: The Tigers have had plenty of marquee freshman talents come through Baton Rouge, regardless of head coach. But O’Bryant has even more pressure than his predecessors with the last two seasons being utterly forgettable. If O’Bryant can be a star, the Tigers have a chance to move up in the SEC.
Herb Pope, Seton Hall: Pope nearly died last offseason, yet returned after collapsing to be a key member of the Pirates. Pope’s return should be celebrated. He’s lucky to be on the court. If he can be a major player in a tournament like this over three days, then the Hall has a chance to be a tough out in the Big East.
Glen Rice Jr., Georgia Tech: Gregory didn’t inherit much, especially in numbers. But Rice is a scorer and he can help his new coach in his attempt to bridge the end of the Paul Hewitt era into his own. Rice should be a featured scorer from the outset and he’ll need to be for the Yellow Jackets to have a chance.
Predicted winner: Northwestern. By now we all know about the Wildcats' desperate search for their first NCAA tournament bid. For that to happen, Nothwestern desperately needs to get off to a good start. They can't expect the Big Ten games to get them in alone.
Who others are picking:
Eamonn Brennan: Northwestern
Diamond Leung: Northwestern
Dana O'Neil: Northwestern