- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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R u guys ready 4 the Battle 4 Atlantis?
OK, so it's easy to poke fun at this tournament's name, which appears to have been crafted by a 14-year-old girl in a text message to her friends. Say what you want about the linguistic decision, but know this: The Battle 4 Atlantis' field is nothing to LOL about.
Outside of the Maui Invitational and the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, this might be the best of the early-season tournaments. It boasts one bonafide national title contender (Connecticut), the best defensive team in the country over the past two seasons and a Sweet 16 participant (Florida State), the Ivy League's runaway favorite (Harvard) and a decent batch of lesser-knowns like Bobby Cremins' Charleston squad, which won at Clemson on Tuesday night.
This field in the Bahamas isn't loaded, but it's decent, and intriguing questions abound. Let's run through five of those questions in advance of the tournament's 2 p.m. ET tip-off Thursday.
Can anyone stop Connecticut?
I'll answer this simply: No. At least not until the final, anyway. Connecticut is the obvious favorite here, and the Huskies' side of the bracket is littered with teams Jim Calhoun's talented powerhouse should easily beat. UNC-Asheville won't provide much of a challenge in the first round, and though neither UCF nor College of Charleston are complete pushovers, neither team features a fraction of the talent the Huskies have displayed early this season.
Still, the stakes are high. Why? UConn's nonconference schedule is largely laughable. The Huskies have already played (and roundly dominated) Columbia, Wagner, Maine and Coppin State. When they return from the Bahamas, they have home games against Arkansas, Harvard, Holy Cross and Fairfield. And, well, that's pretty much it. There's a January road game at rebuilding Tennessee.
Connecticut is the kind of team that should be targeting a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but unlike last year, when UConn beat the entire Maui field in November, the Huskies won't have many quality nonconference wins to bolster their resume. A win over Florida State in the Battle final would be nice. A loss before then, if not devastating, would at least be somewhat disconcerting -- and it would zap any seeding-related margin for error the Huskies have in the Big East going forward.
Of course, it's hard to see UConn losing to anyone but FSU here, and even then the Seminoles should be considered underdogs. Florida State is one of the few teams in the country with the defensive size and strength to cause the Huskies' supreme talents significant problems on the offensive end, but Leonard Hamilton's trademark physical man-to-man defense typically thrives against teams who can't match up athletically. With Alex Oriakhi, Andre Drummond and Roscoe Smith on the block, and Jeremy Lamb -- a 6-foot-7 scorer who morphed from a talented beanpole of a freshman to a dynamic NBA-ready small forward this summer -- the Huskies have no shortage for athletic talent.
Will Harvard have its moment?
For decades, Harvard basketball has languished in the Ivy League, a perennial doormat for whom the NCAA tournament has always been a pipe dream. The Crimson have a chance to erase that history this season. They're the obvious favorite in the Ivy League, the product of four years of improved recruiting under coach Tommy Amaker that promises to leave the rest of the conference in the dust.
In recent years, much of the Ivy has dedicated increased resources to its basketball programs -- and in some cases have relaxed traditional enrollment standards -- and Harvard has led the way. The end result, combined with Amaker's impressive recruiting stretch, is a team that looks like less like a low/mid-major novelty -- think Princeton and its coterie of undersized back-cutting guards -- and more like a program that can hang, at least in stretches, with some of the biggest basketball-obsessed schools in the country.
Outside of an NCAA tournament run or another thrilling one-game Ivy League title playoff (Harvard lost to Princeton in one last season), this may be the Crimson's high-profile moment in the sun. The only other nonconference opportunity against a top program comes Dec. 8, when they play at Connecticut. It would be much easier to slay the dragon that is UConn in the Bahamas, where the effect of homecourt advantage isn't likely to come into play. Even a win over Florida State in the semifinals -- another daunting task, but not an unrealistic one -- would serve as something of a coronation for Amaker's program-building efforts in Cambridge.
Over the summer, the Ivy League's presidents -- seemingly worried about the league's increased competitiveness and national profile -- got together and voted to raise the league's Academic Index, the baseline measure qualifying incoming athletes for admission. The new AI is sure to shrink the pool of players to Ivy schools, thereby making recruiting even more difficult. Amaker's open door to talent may be closing; if Harvard is interested in making a dent in the basketball universe, it should do so quickly. Can a tournament in the Bahamas be that moment?
Is UMass that good, or is Boston College that bad?
For all the talk of Harvard and Florida State above, let's not forget about Massachusetts. Yes, Massachusetts. The Minutemen were trucking along, beating the tar out of cupcake teams like Elon, Northeastern and NJIT, when all of a sudden they posted a result that made some in the Commonwealth sit up and take notice of: On Monday, UMass won 82-46 at Boston College.
Before we start crowning the Minutemen an A-10 contender, it should be noted that BC is in fact objectively awful this season. Just three days before receiving that 36-point stomach-punch from UMass, BC lost to Holy Cross by the only slightly less regrettable score of 86-64. Something is very clearly wrong with the Eagles this year. That much we know.
But couldn't that score be a function of Massachusetts, too? That seems fair. After all, the Minutemen are playing much-improved defense in 2011-12, ranking No. 48 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency rankings coming in to the Battle. Meanwhile, sophomore guard Chaz Williams is the rare efficient do-everything backcourt leader: He scores (17.3 points per game) and does so with ruthless accuracy (49 percent from the field, 42 percent from 3, 91.7 percent from the free throw line) and contributes assists (8.0 per game), rebounds (3.5 per game) and steals (2.3 per game), too. Clearly, UMass has improved. Enough to get to the NCAA tournament? Enough to take upset Florida State? This week should provide some answers.
Is this Andre Drummond's breakout week?
When Connecticut signed Drummond late this summer, its prospectus drastically changed. Drummond was the nation's No. 2 recruit, by all accounts a beast on the interior and one who would pair with returning center Alex Oriakhi to form one of the best and most physically imposing frontcourts in the country. Without him, UConn was seen as a very good, albeit young, team -- one that would have some issues moving on without star Kemba Walker. With him, the Huskies joined the ranks of North Carolina, Kentucky and Ohio State as a bonafide national title contender.
If that's true -- and to be fair, it's still awfully early -- it has more to do with the improvements of Lamb and point guard Shabazz Napier than any immediate impact from Drummond. The big man has adapted slowly in his first four collegiate games. He's averaged a mere 5.8 points in 17.3 minutes per game, and he's played more than 20 minutes on just one occasion (in a blowout win over Maine).
It's not as if Drummond is already worthy of the bust label: He was very good against Maine, scoring 11 points, grabbing 14 rebounds and swatting four shots. But his role was minimal in UConn's win over Coppin State (12 minutes, 1-for-2 from the field, four points, two rebounds), as Napier led the way with a 22-point, 13-assist, 12-rebound triple-double. Connecticut doesn't need Drummond to dominate right away; it's not as if the Huskies don't have plenty of talent all over the floor. But if this team plans to reach its full potential, Drummond will eventually have to live to up to the hype. Will he emerge this week?
Who are the other players to watch?
Bernard James, Florida State: James, a 26-year-old Air Force veteran with one of the best stories in college hoops, is also one of its most physically imposing players. The 6-10 James was key in FSU's run to the Sweet 16 last season, when his defensive presence and rebounding strength helped make up for the team loss of injured star Chris Singleton.
Keith Wright, Harvard: Wright was the Ivy League Player of the Year in 2011, and he's leading the way again this season, averaging 14.3 points and 6.7 rebounds in Harvard's three season-opening wins. The Crimson get balanced scoring all over the floor -- four other players are averaging double-digit points, including sharpshooter Oliver McNally -- but Wright is the spark that makes them go.
Marcus Jordan, UCF: At this time last year, Jordan -- son of Michael Jordan and brother to teammate and former Illinois transfer Jeffrey Jordan -- appeared to be college basketball's biggest breakout star. He led UCF to a 14-0 start, including a win over Florida, in the first few months of the 2010-11 season. But the Knights eventually faded and Jordan left the national radar. Could he trigger renewed attention this week?
Chaz Williams, Massachusetts: UMass has been rolling opponents his far in 2011; its last win before the trip to the Bahamas was the 82-46 win at Boston College. Williams is the main reason why. He's averaging 17.3 points, 8.0 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 2.3 steals per per game. Even better, he's getting those scoring numbers efficiently: Williams is shooting 49 percent from the field, 42 percent from 3-point range and 91.7 percent from the charity stripe.
Jeremy Lamb, Connecticut: This is an obvious inclusion. Chances are, you already know plenty about Jeremy Lamb. But just in case there's a single person reading an in-depth preview of the Battle 4 Atlantis that doesn't know the name, be advised: He does things like this. That is all.
Florida State over UMass
Connecticut over UNC-Asheville
Charleston over UCF
Harvard over Utah
Round 2 (winner's bracket)
Connecticut over Charleston
Florida State over Harvard
Connecticut over Florida State
Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work every Monday through Friday in the College Basketball Nation blog. To contact Eamonn, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or reach him on Twitter (@eamonnbrennan).