When and where: Nov. 28-Dec. 1 at the HP Field House at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, Orlando, Fla.
Initial thoughts: The Old Spice Classic field has rarely, if ever, approached the density or strength of the Maui Invitational (historically) or the Battle 4 Atlantis (more recently). It typically, though, has plenty by which to recommend it, and in 2013 more than most. Oklahoma State star Marcus Smart will lead a Cowboys team determined to unseat Kansas at the top of the Big 12 into the Wide World of Sports Complex as the undeniable favorite, but Memphis won't be that far away.
Meanwhile, we'll get a very early look at whether new Butler coach Brandon Miller will be able to field a tournament-ready team just a few months after Brad Stevens' departure to the NBA's Boston Celtics. We'll see if Purdue can bounce back from an ugly (but in many ways promising) 2012-13 season. Will Saint Joseph's' band of returning seniors be ready to make the leap everyone anticipated and gave up on a season ago? LSU has an intriguing rebuilding group that might push the top half of the SEC. We'll also see if Washington State, after losing seniors Brock Motum and Mike Ladd, is going to be so bad as to put coach Ken Bone on the proverbial hot seat. There are a variety of things worth watching in this bracket, and that includes the hoop.
Marcus Smart returns for his sophomore season after Oklahoma State made an early exit from the NCAA tournament last season.
Matchup I can’t wait to see:St. Joe's versus LSU. This isn't the best game of the first round. That honor goes to Oklahoma State-Purdue, and, really, it isn't close. But St. Joe's and LSU are intriguing for slightly similar reasons.
The Hawks were everyone's vogue pick to win the Atlantic 10 last season, based primarily on the assumption that 2011-12's cadre of sophomores -- the Hawks returned all five starters -- would improve and coalesce as juniors. Instead, the Hawks became merely the latest example of why the muddy mix of "returning players" and "experience" and "chemistry" doesn't always translate into improvement. But Phil Martelli still has a good chunk of those players back for another go at this, and if he can coax better defense from everyone, then Saint Joseph's might transform its narrative yet again.
Meanwhile, LSU probably wasn't as bad as you think in 2012-13. The Tigers weren't great, of course, but they finished in the top 100, and they bring in a surprisingly talented recruiting class. Johnny Jones got "yes" answers from three ESPN 100 players, including No. 3-ranked power forward Jarrell Martin -- the program's best recruit since Glen Davis.
Potential matchup I’d like to see:Oklahoma State versus Memphis. When it comes to early-season tournaments, there is very little reason to root for anything but the best basketball. Every now and then there's a backstory baked into the proceedings, like an old rivalry given a random renewal in November. But, for the most part, our desires can be expressed in the simplest of terms: good basketball. That's the case here. This early before the start of the season, Memphis appears to be the second-best team in this bracket, and its backcourt (Joe Jackson and Chris Crawford, both excellent offensive players) should be a fascinating matchup for Smart and running mate Markel Brown. Recently, Memphis has often stumbled out of the gate before otherwise-solid seasons, which has cost the Tigers valuable lines on their NCAA tournament seed in March. Reversing that trend isn't as important in their first season in the American Athletic Conference, but quality nonconference wins are still utterly crucial, and it's going to be hard to find better chances than this.
Five players to watch:
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: NBA scouts really like Smart's game, but they're in love with the intangibles -- his work ethic, his drive and his desire to succeed. Those qualities have earned raves from coaches as long as Smart has played basketball, and they helped transformed Oklahoma State from the defensively soft 2011-12 group into one of the nation's best defenses last season. Smart turned down a shot at being a top-five pick to return to Stillwater. If he has developed the skills to go from "really good" to "frighteningly dominant" -- slightly better ballhandling and much better shooting -- they'll be on display at the Old Spice Classic.
Shaq Goodwin, Memphis: Goodwin's freshman season wasn't quite as good as his recruiting hype foretold, but there were tantalizing bits littered throughout. Now with Memorial Never-Got-There Club member Tarik Black having transferred and Adonis Thomas having left for the NBA draft, the keys to the Memphis frontcourt are decidedly in Goodwin's hands.
A.J. Hammons, Purdue: The Boilermakers weren't the easiest team in the country to watch last season. When they were good, it was usually because they were guarding, not because they were setting the scoreboard alight. But Matt Painter has one thing most coaches don't: a legitimate 7-foot NBA prospect. Hammons is that guy, and it's not just because he's big. He's also athletic for his size, with good ball skills and footwork. If he returns from the summer with a bit less big-man baby fat and a bit more low-post polish, well, look out.
Jarrell Martin, LSU: As mentioned above, Martin is the No. 3-ranked power forward prospect in the class of 2013. What wasn't mentioned is he is also the No. 11 overall talent. In many incoming classes, this would be worth noting, but little more. With the 2013 class regarded as the deepest and most talented in a decade, if not longer, it is something more. In fact, Martin is the highest-ranked 2013 prospect to not choose Kentucky, Duke, Arizona or Kansas. His situation at LSU will be different and arguably more interesting for it. Can the long-dormant Tigers rise again?
Kellen Dunham, Butler: Former coach Brad Stevens earned the reputation for not needing talent -- that he almost had to find unsung players and mold them for his system to work. That's probably true in general, but there were already signs before his departure to the Celtics that Butler's recruiting had gone up a notch or two since the back-to-back title-game runs in 2010 and 2011. For one, Indiana forward Cody Zeller listed the Bulldogs as among his final three recruiting options (North Carolina being the third). For another, he landed Dunham. Sure, Dunham wasn't Zeller, but he was an ESPN Top 100 player, and he was solid and efficient in big minutes as a freshman. Dunham will have to be even more efficient in even bigger minutes as a sophomore, particularly from 3-point range from which he ended up shooting just 34.5 percent, but he's capable.
Title-game prediction: Oklahoma State over Memphis.
As I wrote above, you just root for good basketball in these things, and Memphis' backcourt (especially if Michael Dixon is able to play) by far looks like the most interesting challenge to Smart and Co. in the Old Spice. But I don't think it would be much of a challenge. Jackson can really put the ball on the floor, and Crawford is a lights-out shooter (even off the dribble), but Smart and Brown look like they're going to lock down pretty much everyone in the sport this season. The Tigers included. Cowboys win.
Who others are picking:
Andy Katz: Oklahoma State over Memphis
Jeff Goodman: Memphis over Purdue
Seth Greenberg: Oklahoma State over LSU
Jason King: Oklahoma State over Memphis
Myron Medcalf: Oklahoma State over Memphis
Dana O'Neil: Oklahoma State over Memphis