Initial thoughts: I like this field. No, it doesn’t feature any powerhouse programs. Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle won’t be here. But I think this might be one of the most balanced brackets among the early tournaments. That’s why I’m intrigued.
Boise State is stacked. About 92 percent of the team’s offensive output from last season returns. The Broncos squad that reached the NCAA tournament last season only had one senior. Leon Rice’s program could be (should be) the favorite to win the Mountain West in 2013-14. And the Broncos are certainly a strong contender to win the Diamond Head Classic title. They have a clear path to the championship game. Hawaii returns two of its top three scorers from a 17-15 squad that couldn’t defend anyone last season (262nd in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom.com). Saint Mary’s enters the “Life After Matthew Dellavedova” era. Frank Martin’s 2013 recruiting class at South Carolina is a promising addition and a sign of progress, but it might take some time to fit all of the pieces together and that might not be enough to help a Gamecocks team that went 4-14 in the SEC in 2012-13. Boise State stands tall on this side of the bracket.
Iowa State, however, could be potent, too. Fred Hoiberg just signed a 1,000-year extension. So he’s going to be the coach in Ames forever. There’s stability now. And he has a true pillar in Georges Niang. The sophomore is a combo forward who will showcase his full arsenal in 2012-13. He can lead the Cyclones to their third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. A pair of ESPN top-100 recruits, Matt Thomas and Monte Morris, will be in the mix, too. And former Marshall guard DeAndre Kane (15.1 PPG and 7.0 APG 2012-13) will be eligible to compete next year after recently graduating. But Sherrod Wright and George Mason will put up a fight against the Cyclones. The Patriots, who are moving to the Atlantic 10, were second in the CAA in 3-point defense (31.6 percent allowed) last year. Iowa State led the nation in 2012-13 with 878 3-pointers. Oregon State is my sleeper pick to win the championship. Eric Moreland, the team’s top rebounder, returns along with Craig Robinson’s top three scorers from last year (Roberto Nelson, Devon Collier and Angus Brandt). The Beavers will open the tournament against an Akron team that lost shot-blocking savant Zeke Marshall and could be without suspended point guard Alex Abreu, who pled guilty to one count of felony drug trafficking last month.
But I’m intrigued by the parity and possibilities.
Matchup I can’t wait to see: Well, Isaac Fotu's afro is just one of the reasons I can’t wait to see the opening-round contest between Hawaii and Boise State. This will be one the first times Boise plays under the pressures that come with expectations. Last year, the Broncos surprised the country. Now, success is expected. The bulk of last year’s tourney squad is back. And now, the team could enter the season as top dog in the Mountain West. But squads unprepared for the spotlight have stumbled early in the past. Perhaps Hawaii will catch BSU at the right time and score a major upset in this game.
Boise State's Anthony Drmic averaged 17.7 points for the Broncos last season.
Potential matchup I can’t wait to see: Well, fast forward to Boise State versus Iowa State in the championship game. There’s a lot on the line for both teams. Boise State wants to meet the hype. Iowa State wants to prove that it can continue to build despite losing key veterans. Niang & Co. would make a huge statement with a victory over a Broncos team that might be in the Top 25 of the preseason polls. Boise State, however, would acquire the same momentum with a Diamond Head Classic title. Last season ended with a first-round exit in the NCAA tournament. It just wasn’t the team’s best night. The Broncos could erase that memory with a strong start in 2013-14. And a tournament victory here would be a great step toward achieving that.
Five players to watch:
Georges Niang, Iowa State: You might not know him yet. But you will soon. Last year, he averaged 12.1 PPG and 4.6 RPG and also made 39 percent of his 3-pointers. And Hoiberg is convinced he’s capable of more in 2013-14. He won’t have a choice. The Cyclones lost four of their top six scorers from last season. Niang has to deliver.
Roberto Nelson, Oregon State: His achievements were buried last year due to his team’s struggles. Although Oregon State lost 14 Pac-12 games, Nelson averaged 17.8 PPG. The 6-3 guard also made 40 percent of his 3-pointers. Can’t get too excited about a squad that struggled the way that Oregon State did a year ago. But Nelson is a star.
Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks, Boise State: Both Drmic (17.7 PPG) and Marks (16.3 PPG) cracked the Mountain West’s all-conference second team last year as sophomores. The two guards fueled a Boise State attack that was No. 33 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings. The explosive duo could carry Boise State to another NCAA tournament appearance.
Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina: Frank Martin promised two things when he accepted the South Carolina job last year: more love for Pitbull and an upgraded recruiting pool. Thornwell -- ranked 41st among ESPN’s top-100 recruits in the 2013 class -- represents change at South Carolina. He anchors an incoming crew that’s ranked 23rd nationally by ESPN.com. The 6-5 guard could be the young stud that Martin needs to truly build the South Carolina program.
Title game prediction: All signs point to Boise State and Iowa State meeting in the championship. They’re clearly the most talented teams in the field. But the Cyclones might need some time to build chemistry, especially with Kane possibly seizing the starting point guard role. Boise State has the benefit of continuity. And the Broncos’ offensive attack is deep and versatile. I expect to see a close game because Iowa State is legit. But I think Boise State will win the title.
Who others are picking:
Eamonn Brennan: Iowa State over Saint Mary's
Jeff Goodman: Boise State over Oregon State
Andy Katz: Boise State over Iowa State
Jason King: Iowa State over Boise State
Dana O'Neil: Iowa State over Saint Mary's