- Robbi Pickeral, College Basketball
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While this year’s Puerto Rico Tip-Off field isn’t chock-full of ranked teams, the bracket is dotted with notable players and emerging squads hoping to prove their worth -- and perhaps pull an upset or two. Here’s a quick look:
The basics: Nov. 15-16, 18 at Coliseo de Puerto Rico in San Juan, Puerto Rico
The set matchups: Nov. 15 -- Akron vs. Oklahoma State, 10:30 a.m. ET; UNC Asheville vs. Tennessee, 1 p.m.; NC State vs. Penn State, 5 p.m.; Providence vs. Massachusetts, 7:30 p.m.
The favorite: NC State. There’s a lot of hype surrounding the sixth-ranked Wolfpack, and for good reasons: a strong finish last season that led to an NCAA Sweet 16 berth; the return of junior forward C.J. Leslie; and the addition of a heralded freshman class led by Rodney Purvis. This is the chance for Mark Gottfried’s squad to show it can, and will, build off last March.
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
Jeremy Atkinson, UNC Asheville: The Bulldogs lost their top three scorers from the squad that won the Big South and came oh-so-close to beating Syracuse in the NCAA tournament last season. Now they’re counting on this senior forward. He is averaging 20.5 points and eight rebounds for a team that has already beaten Western Carolina by 10, but lost to UNC Wilmington by eight.
Lorenzo Brown, NC State: The Wolfpack have plenty of weapons in Leslie, Purvis, Scott Wood and Richard Howell, but to be consistently successful, Brown has to be the leader of the Pack. He posted 15 points and seven assists in their season-opening blowout win over Miami (Ohio), and those stats are great. But his most important contributions may well be his calm, his confidence and his leadership when this team is tested.
Tim Frazier, Penn State: The guard was the only Division I player to average at least 17 points and six assists per game last season, setting a PSU season assist record (198) and recording 17 20-point games in the process. Pretty impressive, considering the team averaged only 61.8 ppg. The senior got off to a similar start this season, notching 23 points and six assists in a win over St. Francis (PA).
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: The preseason Big 12 Freshman of the Year recorded 8 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists and just 1 turnover in 34 minutes in his regular-season college debut against UC Davis. Highly praised for his competitiveness and court vision, the point guard’s versatility and decision-making will be key to how far the Cowboys advance.
Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee: Stokes wasn’t quite sure of his identity as a player when he joined the Volunteers out of high school during the middle of last season. But now the 6-8, 260-pound sophomore is a bruiser and a low-post threat. He recorded 10 points and five rebounds in the Vols’ season opener, and he will be looking to make things tough in the lane for foes this week. Making him even tougher: the fact that he has so many veterans around him.
FIVE BIG QUESTIONS
Will NC State live up to its ranking?
In this tourney, the Wolfpack are playing for more than what they hope will be the first of several championships this season; they're also playing for credibility. Win, and the kudos continue. Lose, and folks might wonder if NC State is ready for the spotlight. This tournament could set the tone for the rest of NC State's season.
How does Providence fare without Vincent Council?
Ricky Ledo’s ineligibility and a shoulder injury to Kris Dunn had already left the Friars with only seven scholarship players. Council’s hamstring injury not only cuts that to six but also means Providence will be missing the guy coach Ed Cooley considers the best guard in the Big East. Bryce Cotton started at point guard in Council’s place against Bryant and posted a double-double (24 points, 11 rebounds), but the competition is about to get a whole lot stiffer.
Can Oklahoma State rebound?
In their season opener, the Cowboys had trouble putting away a UC Davis team that won only five games last season, and one of the concerns remains their lack of size. OSU -- playing without expected starting center Michael Cobbins, who injured his toe during the preseason -- was outrebounded 40-28 versus UC Davis. The Cowboys will face some tall challenges during this tournament, beginning with Akron’s Zeke Marshall, and possibly continuing with Tennessee’s Stokes.
Who else will step up for UMass?
There’s no doubt that guard Chaz Williams is the star of this team, but the other Minutemen need to step up in big moments, too. They did just that earlier this week against Harvard, as Jesse Morgan and Sampson Carter bookended a Williams-forced turnover with 3-pointers to win by three points. Who’s next?
Who’s that guy with the 7-5 wingspan?
Why, that’s the aforementioned 7-foot Akron senior Zeke Marshall. He entered the season as the Zips’ career leader in blocked shots (246) and is averaging 4.5 blocks to go along with 11.5 points and 8.5 rebounds. And according to the school’s website, he was the first top-100 recruit to sign with a Mid-American Conference program since Rivals.com began its ranking system in 2003.
Opening games: Oklahoma State over Akron; Tennessee over UNC Asheville; NC State over Penn State; UMass over Providence
Semifinal games: Tennessee over Oklahoma State; NC State over UMass
Championship game: NC State over Tennessee