When and where: Nov. 21-22 and 24, Charleston, S.C.
Initial thoughts: New Mexico is clearly the favorite. No tournament title is a given, but the Lobos really have no excuse if they don't win this event. Every other team, save UMass, is rebuilding in some form. The Minutemen have a legitimate chance to pull off a title, but it still would be deemed a surprise.
Craig Neal's Lobos are the clear-cut favorite to win the Charleston Classic.
The Lobos have a new coach, but not an unfamiliar face. Craig Neal was as much of a fixture around the program as Alford the past six years. Neal deserves a lot of the credit that has been heaped on Alford for their success in the Mountain West. The Lobos lost Tony Snell, but the core of the squad returns, led by Kendall Williams and Hugh Greenwood on the wings and Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow inside.
This is an important year for the Minutemen under Derek Kellogg. Massachusetts no longer has to deal with Xavier, Butler or Temple in the A-10 (although the Owls are in this event on the other side of the bracket). The league should be led by VCU and possibly Saint Louis this season, but the Minutemen have every right to believe they could challenge for the conference title -- something they've longed to do for years now. Pulling off an upset over the Lobos, or at the very least leaving Charleston 2-1, would get this team moving in the right direction.
Getting a read on Nebraska, UAB, Georgia, Davidson, Temple or Clemson in November would be tough to do, considering they all face a host of questions.
Matchup I can't wait to see: The first-round matchups are a bit lean, but I'll go with Temple-Clemson. The Owls are never really down under Fran Dunphy. They may be retooling more than rebuilding, and a summer trip to France will provide a head start to the season. Anthony Lee gives Temple a reliable player inside. He should be able to produce a double-double on occasion.
Clemson faces an important transition year. The Tigers now have to deal with three more teams in the ACC at a time when they also must try to move up in the conference. Clemson lost Devon Booker and Milton Jennings, but this should be a breakout season for K.J. McDaniels. The Tigers could use a quality win or two in Charleston, where they'll be somewhat of a home team and will look to get some much-needed momentum going into the ACC.
Potential matchup I want to see: UMass versus New Mexico in the semifinals. The Minutemen have a potential A-10 player of the year candidate in Chaz Williams, who has the ability to break the Lobos down off the dribble. He'll push Greenwood or Kendall Williams, depending on who has to guard him. Of course, UMass has to ensure it takes care of Nebraska to lock in the date with the Lobos. And New Mexico cannot -- repeat, cannot -- have a Harvard-like meltdown and lose to UAB in the first game.
Five players to watch
Kendall Williams, New Mexico: Williams won last season's Mountain West Conference player of the year award, beating San Diego State's Jamaal Franklin and NBA No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett. Williams can shine on a stat sheet, scoring 46 points in a win over Colorado State. He doesn't have Snell to play off this coming season, but can create and take his own shot at a high percentage.
Chaz Williams, UMass: The Minutemen were the benefactors of the Hofstra instability when Williams transferred to Amherst. He has been one of the top guards in the A-10 and has a chance this season to be one of the best guards nationally. Williams had 7.3 assists a game and kept his turnovers low at 3.5 last season. If he can manage a game consistently, the Minutemen should challenge for the A-10 title and an NCAA bid.
De'Mon Brooks, Davidson: Bob McKillop has always done an exceptional job of ensuring his star player has the right amount of touches and is in a position to succeed. Brooks should be the featured player this season. The Wildcats have one lame-duck year in the Southern before moving to the A-10. To count the Wildcats out of the SoCon title despite losing some quality players such as Jake Cohen would be a major mistake.
Ray Gallegos, Nebraska: The Cornhuskers will continue to take on the personality of Tim Miles. What does that mean? Well, expect this squad to play loose but with purpose. Gallegos has his work cut out for him in a matchup against Chaz Williams in the first round. But you can expect Miles to put Gallegos at ease. Get by the Minutemen and the Huskers would have the win they need to build off of heading toward the Big Ten.
Charles Mann, Georgia: The Bulldogs lost their go-to scorer in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who was a lock for the lottery and went early in the NBA draft. Mann had his moments last season for Mark Fox, scoring in double figures in two of the final four games. With KCP gone, Mann must be the man at times for UGA to avoid being scoring-challenged. This tournament should be a good barometer on what to expect.
Title-game prediction: New Mexico over Temple.
The pressure is on New Mexico to deliver a title. The Lobos should be able to pull it off, even though the opponent is wide open. But I'll go with Temple because it's difficult to ever dismiss the Owls.
Who others are picking:
Eamonn Brennan: New Mexico over Temple
Jeff Goodman: New Mexico over Clemson
Jason King: New Mexico over Temple
Myron Medcalf: New Mexico over Davidson
Dana O'Neil: Georgia over New Mexico