76 Classic serves as a proving ground
Consider the 76 Classic the Show Me Tournament.
In other words, show me what you've got and who you are -- a challenge applicable to at least four teams that will compete in Anaheim, Calf., as the next wave of early-season tourneys get set to begin.
New Mexico, Villanova, Saint Louis and Santa Clara are equal parts interesting and curiosity as this season begins. Each has skill, but each has enough questions to leave folks reserving judgment.
Rarely is a final verdict delivered in November (Connecticut in Maui a year ago notwithstanding), but these early-season tournaments do have the chance to offer some clarity, which is exactly what the 76 Classic could offer.
The tourney tips off on Thanksgiving with a 2 p.m. ET matchup on ESPNU between Boston College and Saint Louis. So before the turkey hangover settles in, here are a few questions to ponder:
Who's the wild card in this field?
That has to be Saint Louis.
A year ago, the Billikens were the trendy pick to compete with Xavier and Temple in the Atlantic 10, but off-court turmoil (Willie Reed and Kwamain Mitchell were suspended for an alleged sexual assault -- the charges were later dropped -- and Rick Majerus missed seven games due to health reasons) did Saint Louis in before it could get started.
During this preseason, hardly anyone talked about the Billikens, leaning more toward Andrew Nicholson and St. Bonaventure as a possible sleeper. SLU just sat quietly on the sidelines.
That might not be the case for much longer. With a nice win against Washington already on their résumé, the Billikens could leave SoCal as a team to watch. They have a favorable matchup in the opening round -- against struggling BC -- and have the talent to go toe to toe with Villanova.
Don't be the least surprised if Majerus' squad leaves Anaheim with a trophy.
Who enjoys their return to Anaheim most?
Drew Gordon and Lon Kruger both have played in this tournament before, albeit with different teams.
Gordon was on the UCLA roster two seasons ago, and Kruger coached UNLV at the 76 Classic last season.
This, however, could be the ultimate role reversal.
When Gordon last appeared in this tournament, he was part of a UCLA team that played two games and lost two games. Now with New Mexico, he has a good chance of winning the whole thing.
The fortunes have reversed for Kruger as well, just in the opposite direction. Kruger's Runnin' Rebels claimed the 76 Classic title last season, but as he tries to reconstruct Oklahoma, such goals might be a tad far-fetched.
Is Maalik Wayns ready for the spotlight?
That's really the key question for Villanova. The Wildcats had seniors last season in Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes, but they lacked leaders. Villanova needs a presence, someone other than coach Jay Wright to accept responsibility for this team. Wayns has to be the guy to do it.
Last season, Wayns played well but seemed to have his head in the clouds -- or maybe, more accurately, in the NBA draft -- too often. Now without Fisher to lean on in the backcourt, Wayns has to have laser focus.
He has players around him, young guys who could grow into a very good team by March -- Dominic Cheek, JayVaughn Pinkston and Mouphtaou Yarou make up a decent trio in the frontcourt -- but they need Wayns to get them the ball and guide this team.
The trick to being a terrific point guard is knowing when to score and when to pass.
Other players worth watching in Anaheim
Drew Gordon, New Mexico: Arguably the most talented player in the field, the UCLA transfer averaged a double-double last season after gaining his eligibility in December. If Gordon is on, the Lobos will be tough to beat.
Kwamain Mitchell, Saint Louis: His coach thought Mitchell would be a little rusty after a year off. Nice rust. In three games, Mitchell is averaging 12 points, four rebounds and five assists. With a good tourney, he could insert himself and his team into the national conversation.
Ryan Anderson, Boston College: The lone bright spot for the Eagles -- they lost by 22 to Holy Cross -- the freshman is living up to his top-100 billing, averaging 11 points and 6.5 rebounds early.
Niyi Harrison, Santa Clara: If Kevin Foster starts to get hot from the arc, he gets the nod here for Santa Clara. But for now, Harrison has been stat stuffing -- averaging 12.3 points and 6.3 rebounds -- and could be a big factor if Santa Clara has upset on its mind.
Brock Motum, Washington State: The Cougars might end up being a little better than expected -- that opener at Gonzaga sure was competitive -- and a big reason will be Motum, who has increased his scoring average from 7.6 ppg last season to 17.7 in three games this season. He's also throwing in 6.7 rpg and 2.3 apg.
Brian Conklin, Saint Louis: The Billikens needed someone to emerge from a glut at the forward position, and Conklin, the team's second-leading scorer last season, has taken the lead. The senior is leading the team in scoring (16.7 points per game) while chipping in with 4.3 rebounds per game.
Which first-round matchup is a must-see?
New Mexico-Santa Clara is worth a definite watch. The Lobos are my pick to win the tournament (see below), but their first step could be a tough one.
The Broncos aren't getting a lot of love in the WCC, what with BYU joining the league this season and the costly preseason injury to Marc Trasaloni. But Kerry Keating has a veteran team that gathered a lot of momentum toward the end of last season. If Kevin Foster gets hot -- he's been only so-so so far -- Santa Clara could be especially dangerous. Foster led the nation in both 3-pointers attempted and made last season.
Keating also has the insider edge when it comes to planning against Drew Gordon. He was on the UCLA staff that recruited Gordon to Westwood.
So who's the winner?
I picked New Mexico when the 76 Classic bracket was first revealed, and although there's a real temptation to go with the hotter team of the moment -- namely Saint Louis -- I'm sticking with my gut.
The Lobos have the best player in the field in Drew Gordon -- and he isn't even the team's leading scorer right now -- and often the best player wins.
New Mexico leaves with the hardware after beating Villanova.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.
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