When and where: Nov. 22-23 and Nov. 25 at HP Fieldhouse in Orlando, Fla.
Initial thoughts: I like the field. Other than Gonzaga, the bracket contains a bunch of teams with a lot of question marks -- but there’s something for everyone in this field. West Virginia enters the Big 12 without last season’s scoring leaders, Truck Bryant and Kevin Jones. But Aaric Murray and Deniz Kilicli could be beasts in the paint for the Mountaineers. Led by De'Mon Brooks, Davidson returns the core of last season’s 25-win team and the Wildcats could certainly win this tournament. Oklahoma made strides in Lon Kruger’s first season, and its key players are back. Still not sure if that means much for the Sooners in this bracket or the Big 12. We’ll find out. UTEP should also be improved with the return of nearly everyone. Vanderbilt, however, lost everyone. Top five scorers from 2011-12? Gone. Now Kevin Stallings must rely on a group of young players, such as sophomore Dai-Jon Parker, No. 33 in the 2011 ESPN100. But Gonzaga is clearly the star of the tournament. Name it and the Bulldogs have it. They lost Robert Sacre, but Elias Harris returns after toying with the idea of entering the NBA draft. Sam Dower continues to mature and could break out this year. And Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. lead one of the most complete backcourts in the country.
After toying with the idea of entering the NBA draft, Elias Harris returns for his senior season at Gonzaga.
Matchup I can't wait to see: Gonzaga-Clemson. I think the Zags possess one of the most versatile rosters in the country, but their toughness will be tested early against the Tigers. Incoming freshman Jaron Blossomgame is the type of dynamic scoring threat with the versatility and athleticism to perplex Gonzaga's deep backcourt. Milton Jennings and Devin Booker could create problems for Mark Few's interior players if they’re physical and aggressive. But Clemson was one of the worst defensive units in America last season, and the Zags owned the No. 29 rating in adjusted offensive efficiency in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. So it could be a shootout.
Potential matchup I'd like to see: Davidson-Gonzaga. I’d love to see a pair from mid-major leagues advance and compete for the title. Davidson beat Kansas in KC, so the Wildcats’ veterans wouldn't be intimidated by a Gonzaga team that should crack the Top 25 when preseason rankings are unveiled. And it’s always fun to watch Pangos simply because the “he might hit eight 3s tonight” potential starts at tipoff. This would be a great title game.
Five players to watch
Jake Cohen, Davidson: The Wildcats are sleepers in this tournament because they return the bulk of last season’s playmakers. Cohen, a 6-10 forward, is one of the anchors for a Davidson team with the potential to surprise the field. Cohen scored 24 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in a NCAA tournament loss to Louisville last season.
Milton Jennings, Clemson: He was a McDonald’s All-American in high school, but we’re still waiting for the senior to live up to that tag. This is his last chance. With Andre Young and Tanner Smith gone, there’s even more pressure on the 6-9 forward to play up to his potential. If he does, the Tigers could make a push for an NCAA tourney bid. If his struggles continue in his fourth and final season, the Tigers could fade away in the ACC.
Deniz Kilicli, West Virginia: The 6-9 forward must step up this season for a Mountaineers squad that relied on Jones last year. He averaged 10.7 ppg and 5.4 rpg for West Virginia during the 2011-12 campaign, but the senior recorded a 55 percent clip from the charity stripe. That has to change.
Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga: The 6-1 guard is one of the top young players in the country. He hit 40 percent of his 3-pointers and 85 percent of his free throws last season, while averaging 13.6 ppg. If Pangos struggles, there’s a good chance the Bulldogs will encounter problems, too. He scored a combined 17 points in Gonzaga’s last three regular-season losses.
Steven Pledger, Oklahoma: Pledger (16.2 ppg) helped Kruger get off to a respectable start (yes, .500 play is a respectable start when considering the NCAA investigation and messy finish to Jeff Capel’s tenure). Now, Pledger and other vital contributors return for a Sooners squad that could use this tourney as a catalyst for Kruger’s second season with the program.
Gonzaga over Davidson: Too many weapons for the Bulldogs. They’re tough inside. Harris is a force. And Pangos, Bell Jr. and David Stockton comprise a backcourt unit that’s just too tough for this field to harness. This could be a special Gonzaga squad.
Who others are picking:
Eamonn Brennan: Gonzaga over West Virginia
Andy Katz: Gonzaga over Davidson
Jason King: Gonzaga over West Virginia
Dana O'Neil: Gonzaga over West Virginia