- Jason King
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It doesn’t boast the tradition of the Maui Invitational or a field stocked with Final Four contenders like the Battle 4 Atlantis. Still, don’t be surprised if the Charleston Classic turns out to be one of the most entertaining preseason tournaments of them all. Only one ranked squad (No. 16 Baylor) is featured in the eight-team bracket. But there aren’t any patsies, either.
Murray State lost just two games last season and returns a preseason All-American in Isaiah Canaan. This year’s Colorado team is even better than the one that upset UNLV in the NCAA tournament. St. John’s touts one of the most athletic rosters in the country, while Dayton should be greatly improved under second-year coach Archie Miller.
Expect a lot of exciting games and close scores this week.
The basics: Nov. 15-16, 18 at TD Arena in Charleston, S.C.
The set matchups: Dayton vs. Colorado, 12:30 p.m. ET; Baylor vs. Boston College, 3 p.m.; St. John’s vs. Charleston, 5:30 p.m.; Murray State vs. Auburn, 8 p.m.
The favorite: Baylor. The Bears have the best chance of any team to end Kansas’ string of eight straight Big 12 titles. Point guard Pierre Jackson is a Wooden Award candidate, and 7-foot-1 freshman forward Isaiah Austin may be, too, after a few more weeks. Austin, Cory Jefferson and Ricardo Gathers may form an even better frontcourt than the unit that had three players (Perry Jones III, Quincy Acy and Quincy Miller) drafted last season. And the Jackson-led backcourt is six deep. Baylor went 30-8 last season and reached the Elite Eight. This team may be even more dangerous.
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
Isaiah Austin, Baylor: Austin may have more upside than any player in college basketball. How many other 7-footers can bring the ball up the court, swish a 3-pointer on one possession and then drive to the basket for a dunk on the next? Physically, Austin needs to gain weight and strength. Still, despite being a bit frail, he’s one of the most unique players in college basketball.
Isaiah Canaan, Murray State: Big-school coaches have been kicking themselves the past two years for not recruiting Canaan, who may be the best point guard in America. Canaan has the green light to take shots from 5 or 6 feet beyond the 3-point arc, and his strength makes him tough to stop when he’s slashing to the basket. Canaan averaged 19 points for a Racers squad that went 31-2 last season.
Andre Roberson, Colorado: Roberson may be the best pure rebounder in the country -- and he’s only 6-foot-7. That didn’t stop the Buffaloes forward from averaging 11.1 boards per contest last season along with 11.6 points. Roberson may be even more productive this season thanks to the presence of standout freshman center Josh Scott, who will make it difficult for opponents to double-team Roberson.
Andrew Lawrence, College of Charleston: Lawrence was one of just two current college players to compete in the 2012 Olympics in London, where he represented his native Great Britain. A point guard, Lawrence averaged 13 points and 5.5 assists as a junior last season. He’s hoping to lead the Cougars back to the NCAA tournament under first-year coach Doug Wojcik.
D'Angelo Harrison, St. John’s: Harrison averaged a team-high 16.8 points for the Red Storm last season -- and he was only a freshman. Impressed as Steve Lavin was with his performance, the head coach wants Harrison to improve his shot selection, as he connected on just 37 percent of his field goal attempts in 2011-12. Harrison scored 22 points in Tuesday’s victory over Detroit.
FIVE BIG QUESTIONS
Who else steps up for Murray State?
Everyone knows about Canaan, but the senior point guard can’t do it all by himself. The Racers lost three starters from last season’s team, leading some to believe they won’t be nearly as dangerous in 2012-13. Head coach Steve Prohm is confident seniors such as forwards Ed Daniel and Stacy Wilson will flourish in increased roles.
Will Austin play for Baylor?
The freshman sprained his ankle midway through the second half of the Bears’ season-opening victory over Lehigh and was held out of a game against Jackson State two days later. Baylor coaches were hopeful Austin could return for today’s game against Boston College. The Bears don’t need Austin to beat the Eagles, but his presence will be vital in the semifinals and final.
How much has Dayton improved?
The Flyers won 12 of their first 16 games in Archie Miller’s first season but then fizzled down the stretch. A few key returnees -- especially senior Kevin Dillard -- will make Dayton dangerous in 2012-13, but if the Flyers don't notch a quality win or two in Charleston, they’ll still be regarded as a middle-of-the-pack Atlantic 10 team.
Can Auburn compete?
The Tigers haven’t reached the NCAA tournament since 2003, but strides are definitely being made. Other than Kenny Gabriel, Auburn returns virtually every key piece from a squad that went 15-16 last season. Tonight’s opening-round game against Murray State will be tough, but look for Tony Barbee’s squad to play some tight games in the consolation rounds.
Can anyone in this field beat Baylor?
Absolutely. The Bears may have looked like one of the top teams in college basketball last weekend, but it’s not as if they don’t have kinks to work out. Jackson can be careless with the ball, sharpshooter Brady Heslip is in a funk from 3-point range and it appears Austin won’t be 100 percent. Personnelwise, Colorado would appear to have the best chance of upsetting the Bears. The Buffaloes will certainly be motivated, as Baylor beat Colorado in last season’s NCAA tournament.
First round: Colorado over Dayton; Baylor over Boston College; St. John’s over Charleston; Murray State over Auburn
Semifinals: Baylor over Colorado; Murray State over St. John’s
Championship game Baylor over Murray State