Diamond Head Classic preview

By Christmas night, the Diamond Head Classic will have likely changed the direction of some potential NCAA tournament-bound teams.

Rarely does a tournament this late into the nonconference schedule have so much at stake for so many.

Here's a preview of the field:

Mississippi State: The Bulldogs have zero quality wins, two home defeats against lower-level teams (Florida Atlantic and East Tennessee State) and already lost one of their five key neutral-site nonconference games (Virginia Tech in the Bahamas).

Washington State: The Cougars, who drew the Bulldogs in the first round Wednesday (ESPNU, 3 p.m. ET), have a quality home win over Gonzaga. But they also lost at home to Kansas State 63-58. Wazzu needs to differentiate itself in Hawaii from Arizona, USC and anyone else that considers itself a challenger to Washington in the Pac-10.

Baylor: The Bears, who open with San Diego on Wednesday, (ESPNU, 5 p.m. ET), had visions of being a Big 12 title team. But they scheduled down, playing only one power six school to this point -- Arizona State at home -- before losing to Gonzaga 68-64 in Dallas on Dec. 18. That was the first time Baylor stepped out of Waco this season. How the Bears perform in Hawaii will be a barometer as to whether we should take the Bears seriously in the Big 12.

Butler: The Bulldogs, which open with Utah on Wednesday (ESPNU, 11 p.m. ET), have yet to find their rhythm this season. Injuries to Ronald Nored (out two games with a concussion) and Shelvin Mack (leg cramps) have slowed this team's progress. The Bulldogs did challenge themselves more than most of the teams in this field, but that's to be expected. Opening Louisville's new KFC Yum! Center was a tough test. Losing to Duke in New Jersey when Mack suffered from leg cramps and falling in the final possession at Xavier were all explainable and acceptable setbacks. Losing to Evansville at home in overtime was not. But a 33-point win over Stanford last Saturday might be a strong indicator that things have changed for the better. A three-game tourney win would do wonders for Butler's NCAA profile.

Florida State: The Seminoles consider themselves a real threat to finish second in the ACC to Duke. But losing home games to Ohio State and Florida may have skewed that prediction. The 58-44 loss to the Buckeyes is acceptable because Ohio State may be a national champ next April. The defeat against the erratic Gators might be more disappointing. Florida State plays host Hawaii (ESPNU, 1 a.m. ET) on Thursday, which means the Seminoles can add a true road victory to their résumé if they win. Florida State got a road win at Loyola Marymount on the way to Hawaii. The Seminoles have the top overall talent and possibly best defender in the event in Chris Singleton. An FSU title would confirm the Seminoles' ability to possibly finish second in the ACC.

Take note of…

  • How effective Baylor's Perry Jones is in the post. Jones averaged 8.9 rebounds through the first eight games.

  • How does Mack handle the leg cramps? He has had issues with this in the past and didn't play the final 12 minutes against Duke. Humidity will be a problem in Hawaii. So, too, will be playing three games in four days. Mack has to stay on the court for the Bulldogs to have a chance.

  • The possibility of multiple conference player-of-the-year candidates on the court: Mack and Matt Howard will be in contention for Horizon League player-of the-year honors. Singleton will be a candidate in the ACC, and Washington State's Klay Thompson will be in the mix in the Pac-10.

Dream matchups

Washington State versus Baylor in the semifinals and Florida State versus Butler on the other side would be the best-case scenario. Those four teams appear to be the group that could make the NCAA tournament at this point. A Washington State-Butler/Florida State final may not move the meter, but it could provide an early tease for the kind of game we could see in Dayton in the first four in mid-March.