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Monday, November 19, 2012
CBE Classic primer

By Jason King

What appeared to be a halfway-decent tournament a few months ago now seems rather mundane.

Saint Louis felt as though it would have one of its best seasons in years, but the mood changed when head coach Rick Majerus had to resign because of health reasons. The Billikens lost at home last week to Santa Clara. That wasn’t nearly as bad as the overtime setback Washington State suffered against Pepperdine, which couldn’t have done much for the job security of head coach Ken Bone, who entered the season on the hot seat.

Texas A&M is off to a 3-0 start under second-year coach Billy Kennedy, but the Aggies have yet to be tested. Then there’s tournament headliner Kansas. The Jayhawks, who lost to Kentucky in last season’s NCAA title game, didn’t look all that bad in falling to Michigan State 67-64 in last week’s Champions Classic. But two nights later they trailed Chattanooga by eight points at halftime and had to rally to win after the intermission. Bill Self's team might win a ninth straight Big 12 title, but it still has a long way to go to be considered an elite team.

The basics: Nov. 19-20 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City

The set matchups: Saint Louis vs. Texas A&M, 7:30 p.m. ET (ESPNU); Kansas vs. Washington State, 10 p.m. (ESPN2)

The favorite: Kansas -- Along with touting the best team in the field, the Jayhawks also enjoy an incredible home-court advantage. Kansas fans always pack the Sprint Center -- also known as Allen Fieldhouse East -- when KU plays in Kansas City. This week will be no different. Kansas has looked strong defensively in its first three games but is still trying to find chemistry and cohesion on offense.

FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH

Ben McLemore, Kansas -- The redshirt freshman averages team highs in points (16.0) and assists (3.7) and ranks second in rebounding with 7.7 boards per game. The 6-foot-5 McLemore, who is projected as a first-round pick in this summer’s NBA draft, may be the most athletic player in the CBE Classic.

Brock Motum, Washington State -- Motum, who stands 6-10, is the leading returning scorer in the Pac-12. He averaged 18 points a game as a junior and is scoring 17.7 points per contest through his first three games this year. The Australian has a high basketball IQ and is a good passer out of the post.

Jeff Withey
Kansas' Jeff Withey is on pace for another big blocking season.
Jeff Withey, Kansas -- Not many teams in the country have a defensive weapon quite like Withey, who is regarded as one of the top shot-blockers in all of college basketball. The 7-footer is averaging 4.3 swats, 12 points and 9.7 rebounds through his first three games.

Mike McCall Jr., Saint Louis -- The 6-foot point guard is the on-court catalyst for the Billikens. He’s averaging 10 points and four assists through two games and has been one of the team’s most important players the past two seasons.

Elston Turner, Texas A&M -- Turner led the team in scoring last season and ranks at the top of the chart again so far this season with a 17-point average. The 6-5 swingman, who began his career at Washington, is shooting 43 percent from 3-point range. His leadership will be important for a team that lacks experience and depth in the backcourt.

THREE BIG QUESTIONS

Can Saint Louis beat a high-level team without Kwamain Mitchell? Mitchell, a guard who averaged 12.7 points last season, underwent surgery for a fractured foot in October and has yet to take the court. He was expected to play an increased role this season -- and maybe even contend for A-10 Player of the Year honors -- for a team that lost leading scorer Brian Conklin. The Billikens aren’t nearly as dangerous without Mitchell.

What’s the top individual matchup? Kansas’ Withey and Washington State’s Motum are two of the best post players in the nation -- but for different reasons. Motum’s offensive skill set is far superior to Withey’s, but Withey is a much stronger defensive presence. The contrasting styles should make for an interesting battle. Another note: Washington State point guard Royce Woolridge began his career at Kansas.

Can anyone challenge Kansas? Washington State probably won’t provide much of a test, but don’t be surprised if Texas A&M or Saint Louis pushes the Jayhawks in Tuesday’s title game. Kansas is far from polished this early in the season -- its backcourt looks particularly shaky -- and it’s not as if Bill Self’s squad is immune to losing at the Sprint Center. Davidson upset KU there last season.

THE PICKS

Monday: Texas A&M over Saint Louis, Kansas over Washington State
Tuesday's title games: Kansas over Texas A&M