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Thursday, December 20, 2012
Tourney primer: Diamond Head Classic

By Eamonn Brennan

My favorite Diamond Head Classic of all time -- 2010 -- was a bit of a disaster. Last year's was OK: Xavier struggled in its post-brawl malaise, and Kansas State and Long Beach State emerged better for the trip. But 2010 had what might be the greatest moment in recent college hoops history: When Mississippi State's Renardo Sidney and Elgin Bailey were caught slapping each other in the stands on live TV while watching other teams play in the same tournament. It was hilarious. By the end of the 2010 title game, a not-very-good Butler team was standing with the trophy in their hands, almost like, "Um, I guess we'll take it? You guys are all insane! Can we go back to Indiana now?"

Let's break down this year's Diamond Head Classic.

The basics: Dec. 22, 23 and 25, 2012, at Stan Sheriff Center, Honolulu, ESPNU/ESPN2/ESPN3

The set matchups (all times ET): Dec. 22 -- Ole Miss vs. Indiana State, 4 p.m. ET; San Diego State vs. San Francisco, 6 p.m.; Arizona vs. East Tennessee State, 10:30 p.m.; Miami vs. Hawaii, 12:30 a.m.

(For the full bracket, click here.)

The favorite: Arizona. This is pretty obvious: The Wildcats are the No. 4-ranked team in the country, and for good reason -- on Saturday, they beat a very good Florida team at home, thanks in large part to Sean Miller's infusion of veteran savvy (Solomon Hill), freshman talent (Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley, Grant Jerrett) and great guard play (Mark Lyons, Nick Johnson). All the pieces are here.

FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH

SDSU's Jamaal Franklin
SDSU's Jamaal Franklin is averaging 18.6 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.2 blocks.
Mark Lyons, guard, Arizona: As stated just above, it is a little bit difficult to narrow Arizona down to just one player to watch -- the Wildcats have a variety of weapons at their disposal. It would be just as fitting to include Hill, the team's do-everything senior forward, or Johnson, one of the most improved and efficient shooting guards in the country this season. But Lyons is the team's point guard, leading the Wildcats in usage rate, and playing the most efficient, selfless basketball of his life to boot. (To wit: He's shooting 56.8 percent from inside the arc, 41.5 percent outside it, and 86.5 percent from the free throw line.) If Arizona has one piece more important than the rest, it's Lyons. And if he can keep up, look out.

Jamaal Franklin, forward, San Diego State: Franklin's line to date this season: 18.6 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.7 steals, 1.2 blocks. Not only is Franklin really good at a lot of things, he does a lot of things all the time: He uses fully 33.4 percent of San Diego State's offensive possessions, the third-highest mark of any player in the country. He's a beast. You probably knew that already. But there's your reminder.

Reggie Johnson, center, Miami: When you first look at Johnson's shooting numbers, you might be a little nonplussed. The big fella shoots 45.5 percent from inside the arc? Huh? Johnson's finishing may never be Jared Sullinger-esque … but oh well. What Johnson does well, he does very well: He dominates the glass on both ends of the floor, blocks 7.5 percent of opponents' shots, draws 7.2 fouls per 40 minutes and gets to the free throw line all the time. Johnson needed some time to grow into his role on the basketball floor, but now that he has, there aren't too many (any?) forwards in the country who can keep him out of the lane.

Marshall Henderson, guard, Ole Miss: The Ole Miss guard has always been talented. He hasn't always had it together. He started 30 of 31 games as a freshman at Utah and earned a reputation as both one of the Mountain West's best and most hated young players. He then transferred to Texas Tech, was arrested on a felony drug charge, had the charges dropped, then left Texas Tech for South Plains Junior College, where he went undefeated, scored 19.6 points per game, won the juco national POY award and a national title, and subsequently transferred to Ole Miss. He's off to an impact start thus far. Go figure.

Vander Joaquim, center, Hawaii: Over the summer, an NBA scout emailed me to ask what I knew about Hawaii senior Vander Joaquim. The answer was "almost nothing," but my curiosity was piqued, and after a few hours of research, I came away really impressed. The dude is a long 6-foot-10 with real ball skills and back-to-the-basket moves. But this season he's taken a downturn in almost every statistical category -- points, rebounds, blocks, efficiency, you name it -- and it will be interesting to see whether the competition of the Diamond Head can jog loose some of his junior year form.

FIVE BIG QUESTIONS

Is this Ole Miss's coming-out party? You may not realize it, but the Rebels are awfully good. They currently rank No. 21 in Ken Pomeroy's rankings, with a top-15 defense that forces turnovers, blocks shots and generally makes life miserable for opposing defenses. Problem is, the Rebels haven't beaten anyone good. Their best win is Rutgers; the rest are all total cupcakes. Facing the one good team on their nonconference schedule to date, Ole Miss fell at Middle Tennessee 65-62. There is no shame in that loss, and the Rebels appear to be legitimately good. But they'd do well to actually prove it this weekend.

Who's the best out west? It appears to be Arizona, and it doesn't look too close right now. But don't say that to a San Diego State fan. The Show is very much convinced that no one can touch their Aztecs out west, and they have a point: For all of Arizona's talent, SDSU defends just as well, if not better, than do the Wildcats, and Franklin is the best player on either team. If both win out, they'll face off in the championship game. Yes please.

Is Miami good enough to contend in the ACC? Duke is the ACC favorite, there's no doubt about that, but a confluence of factors (UNC's turnover, FSU's dropoff) have left the spots just below the Blue Devils wide open this season. Maryland may have something to say about that, but right now Miami -- with Johnson dominating the middle, Kenny Kadji spacing the floor and Shane Larkin having a quietly great season -- is looking like the second-best team in the ACC. We'll find out more this weekend.

Will anyone spring an upset? This is a good bracket. Ole Miss, San Diego State, Arizona and Miami all have a great chance of winning, and if chalk wins out Saturday we'll have two really solid semifinals to take in. I expect this to be the outcome. It's hard not to. But one-game elimination tourneys are always vulnerable to upsets, and both Indiana State and San Francisco have a chance to shock the world. East Tennessee State and Hawaii? Not seeing it. But hey, you never know.

Will any team get into a massive, embarrassing brawl in the stands in the middle of another team's game? Because that was hilarious. I just wanted to reiterate that.

THE PICKS

Opening games: Ole Miss over Indiana State; SDSU over San Francisco; Arizona over East Tennessee State; Miami over Hawaii

Semifinal games: Ole Miss over SDSU; Arizona over Miami

Championship game: Arizona over Ole Miss