Gonzaga and Davidson are the most experienced teams in this field. Might we see a mid-major finale? Stay tuned....
The basics: Nov. 22-23, 25 at HP Fieldhouse in Orlando, Fla.
The set matchups: Thursday – West Virginia vs. Marist, Noon ET; Vanderbilt vs. Davidson, 2 p.m.; UTEP vs. Oklahoma, 7 p.m.; Clemson vs. Gonzaga, 9 p.m. Friday – semifinals and consolation games. Sunday – consolation games and championship game.
The favorite: Gonzaga, ranked 17th in the AP poll this week, is clearly the team to beat. The Zags feature a versatile roster that lost only one key contributor from last season, and coach Mark Few will be looking to hone his team early in hopes of a 14th straight trip to the NCAA tournament.
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Jake Cohen, Davidson – The Wildcats return all five starters from the squad that won the Southern Conference championship, including Cohen, the league's reigning player of the year. He is averaging 10 points and 6.3 rebounds but is shooting only 32.3 percent. Davidson has a surprising 1-2 record.
Milton Jennings, Clemson – As one of only two scholarship seniors on this year’s team (along with forward Devin Booker), the former McDonald’s All-American has a chance to live up to his billing this season. He is averaging 10.5 points (second behind Booker) and 6.5 rebounds, and he needs to continue to be a major player for the Tigers to be a factor in this tournament.
Adam Kemp, Marist – The 6-foot-10 junior has averaged a double-double over his first three games (11 ppg, 10 rpg) and has developed as a reliable inside weapon. But he’ll have his hands full with some big foes during this tournament.
Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga – The guard led his team in scoring (13.6 ppg) as a freshman and is averaging 11 points and five assists thus far. He’s also made 6 of 13 3-point attempts, picking up where he left off last season, when he converted 40.1 percent from long distance.
Steven Pledger, Oklahoma – The senior has said that three straight losing seasons has fueled his fire. As a result, he is averaging 12 points and 42.1 percent shooting in the Sooners’ first two games. Those are stats he’ll want to keep building upon to keep his team winning.
FOUR BIG QUESTIONS:
How big of a difference will Kelly Olynyk make? After being suspended for the first three games of the season for violating the school’s code of conduct, the 7-foot Zags forward should make his season debut against Clemson on Thursday. He redshirted last year but averaged 5.8 points and 3.8 rebounds as a sophomore in 2010-11. He should add even more depth to an already deep squad.
Will the Mountaineers bounce back? After getting blown out 84-50 at Gonzaga on Nov. 12, West Virginia would probably love a rematch in the championship game, but the Mountaineers have to get there first. That means improving from the outside (they missed their first 10 3-pointers), taking better care of the ball (they turned it over 18 times) and, according to coach Bob Huggins, competing harder.
Who are these Vanderbilt guys? You might recognize sophomore guard Kedren Johnson, who converted the three-point play that gave the Commodores the lead for good when they upset Kentucky in the SEC tournament. But otherwise, it’s not a very familiar group. All five starters from last season are gone, and Johnson (who averaged only 3.1 ppg last season) is the leading returning scorer. He is averaging 19.5 points so far this season, followed by junior Kyle Fuller (16.0) and freshman Kevin Bright (10.0).
Will the brothers keep leading? It’s always fun to watch brothers who are teammates, especially when those brother-teammates are leading their team in scoring. UTEP’s Chris Washburn, a 6-foot-8 freshman, is averaging 12.5 points and 3.5 rebounds off the bench, while 6-7 sophomore Julian Washburn is a starter averaging 11 points and 2.5 rebounds.
Opening games: West Virginia over Marist; Davidson over Vanderbilt; Oklahoma over UTEP; Gonzaga over Clemson
Semifinals: Davidson over West Virginia; Gonzaga over Oklahoma
Championship: Gonzaga over Davidson