- Myron Medcalf, College Basketball Reporter
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Minnesota's better-than-average chances of winning a holiday tournament championship for the second year in a row (the Gophers won last season's Puerto Rico Shootout) is based on both their potential and the seemingly weak field at the 2011 Old Spice Classic.
But the latter is a misunderstanding. This is just a tournament with numerous squads that are trying to figure out what they are about a month away from league play.
Don't sleep on this event, because it offers as much balance as any holiday tournament this season, so there's potential for some outstanding competitions.
Other themes: New coaches trying to make good first impressions (Archie Miller, Sydney Johnson and Billy Gillispie); dangerous sleepers (Fairfield, Indiana State); hot seats (Jeff Bzdelik and Herb Sendek); and great mascot names (Sycamores and Stags).
Here are some Classic questions to ponder.
Which coach has the most at stake?
For the past four seasons, Minnesota coach Tubby Smith has endured one of the most up-and-down stretches in the country. His program has weathered legal issues, transfers and devastating injures.
Lost in the drama was a pair of NCAA tournament runs in 2008-09 and 2009-10. But the program's supporters are still awaiting evidence that Smith will build on that previous success, following last season's 1-10 finish in the final 11 games.
This is a tournament the Gophers can and should win, even though they have a young backcourt. Veteran forward Trevor Mbakwe and Ralph Sampson III, assuming he's not hampered by an ankle injury, will present problems for any frontcourt in the tournament. And freshman Andre Hollins continues to mature.
An Old Spice Classic title would prove that Smith is moving the program in the right direction. But if the team struggles, more criticism and questions will follow.
But he gets the best out of his teams on neutral floors. In 2008-09, the Gophers beat Louisville, the top seed in that season's NCAA tournament, in Glendale, Ariz. They topped eventual Final Four participant Butler in 2009 during that season's 76 Classic in Anaheim, Calif. And last year, Smith's squad defeated North Carolina and West Virginia on its way to a Puerto Rico Shootout championship.
What's the forecast in Orlando?
Hot for anyone sitting near Jeff Bzdelik or Herb Sendek.
Wake Forest expected some growing pains in Bzdelik's first season in 2010-11. But a 1-15 conference record last season was startling and prompted early talk of Bzdelik's job status. Bzdelik's second year got off to a rough start when standout J.T. Terrell left the program after a DWI arrest in September. Bzdelik's team is 3-0 heading into the holiday tournament.
Arizona State, however, is 1-2 after back-to-back losses to Pepperdine and New Mexico. It hasn't helped that stud freshman point guard Jahii Carson is still awaiting NCAA clearance to compete this season. With just one tournament appearance over the past five seasons, Sendek is certainly on the hot seat after coming off a 12-19 campaign.
Both coaches could use a strong outing in Orlando, since every victory will help.
What's the most intriguing potential matchup in the field?
A Sun Devils-Gophers title game would pit former Minnesota prep star Trent Lockett, who's averaging 17.0 ppg, against the team that failed to pursue him during his high school career. Lockett has blossomed at Arizona State, and a title-game matchup would present an opportunity for him to offer more evidence that Tubby Smith and the Gophers truly missed out on the hometown kid.
A Fairfield-Minnesota matchup is also a possibility. Sydney Johnson's squad lost to the Gophers on Nov. 17 in Minneapolis. But the Stags might have an opportunity for redemption in the championship final.
They can't get much worse than their 2-for-16 clip from the 3-point line during their first meeting.
Johnson should call Norfolk State's Anthony Evans. His Spartans lost to nationally ranked Marquette by 31 in their season opener Nov. 14 and nearly knocked off the same team seven days later in the Paradise Jam.
It can happen.
Who's the best player in the field?
Trevor Mbakwe has an opportunity to earn All-America consideration if he continues his hot start for the Gophers. Last season's Big Ten rebounding leader, Mbakwe is averaging 16.0 ppg, 9.8 rpg and 1.8 bpg. And he's making 76 percent of his free throws, a season after shooting 63 percent from the charity stripe.
His turnovers (3.3 per game) are his biggest problem. But he has truly evolved from his first season with the program. Due to injuries and legal challenges, last year was Mbakwe's first full year at the Division I level, making his development this season even more impressive.
What's the best first-round matchup?
I like Fairfield versus Arizona State.
A strong tournament would solidify Fairfield's sleeper status. The Stags are still trying to figure things out with a new coaching staff and standout Rakim Sanders, a transfer from Boston College, joining the crew.
Arizona State needs this tournament as much as the Stags, given last year's struggles and this season's early stumbles. It should be a battle.
Which team has the most upset potential?
Because the field is so balanced, it's hard to call any victories in the Old Spice Classic true upsets. But Indiana State is certainly a team that could disrupt the hopes of the bigger programs in the field.
The Sycamores have maintained the momentum they gained from the Missouri Valley tournament title last year. They're off to a 4-0 start, and three players (Carl Richard, Dwayne Lathan and Jordan Printy) average double figures.
They're going to be dangerous in this tournament.
Can Billy Gillispie rebuild in Lubbock?
No more Pat Knight for Texas Tech. And the bulk of last season's contributors to a 13-19 finish are gone, too.
This is Billy Gillispie's show, and it's time to rebuild.
Before the mess at Kentucky, Gillispie turned UTEP into a conference champion following a six-win season, and Texas A&M became a top-10 program during his tenure.
He's proved himself in the past, and he'll have to do it again at Texas Tech, a squad that has to find a way to wrestle players away from a multitude of Texas schools.
The Old Spice Classic is a good opportunity to see where the Red Raiders are right now and how far they have to go.
Ditto for Archie Miller. He's often referred to as Sean Miller's brother. He won't have to worry about that in the future if he finds success at Dayton. Just ask Jermaine Jackson.
Which program is worthy of a Disney movie?
The Old Spice Classic will be played at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex at Disney World, so perhaps a movie producer will check out this week's games.
I have the plot for the next feature film.
Minnesota's last four seasons have resembled a movie script. Tubby Smith has watched a player quit through a YouTube video, he's lost a star player to a midseason transfer after losing his starting point guard to injury, and he's in a prolonged fight for a new practice facility that the university promised him in 2007. Someone call Steven Spielberg, and Morgan Freeman for the lead role.
Who will win?
Man, this is such an even field. Every team has a shot.
But here are my predictions:
Indiana State over Texas Tech: The Sycamores will show up in Orlando.
Minnesota over DePaul: Mbakwe will feast on the Old Spice Classic field.
Wake Forest over Dayton: Jeff Bzdelik will maintain his undefeated start.
Arizona State over Fairfield: A possible matchup against the home-state school that overlooked him will be a major motivator for Lockett.
Minnesota over Indiana State: The Gophers' length will frustrate the Sycamores.
Wake Forest over Arizona State: Travis McKie will lead Demon Deacons to the title game.
Minnesota over Wake Forest: Tubby Smith will do it again by leading the Gophers to their second consecutive holiday tournament title.
Myron Medcalf covers college basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @MedcalfbyESPN
From the coaches to the players to the mascot names, Myron Medcalf previews the Old Spice Classic.