Until Connecticut’s opening day victory over Michigan State in Germany, there wasn’t much reason to get excited about the 2012 Paradise Jam. And even after a gutty, fired-up UConn team showed us it’s not ready to wither just yet, the P-Jam (which is an abbreviation I just made up, I think; let’s go with it) is far from the best early-season tournament out there. That would be the Battle 4 Atlantis, which basically drank every other early-season tournament’s milkshake.
Even so, there are a few teams and players worth keeping an eye on.
The basics: Nov. 16–19 at University of the Virgin Islands
The set matchups: Mercer vs. George Mason, 1:30 p.m. ET; Illinois-Chicago vs. New Mexico, 4 p.m. ET; Wake Forest vs. Connecticut, 6:30 p.m. ET; Quinnipiac vs. Iona, 9 p.m. ET
The favorite: Connecticut. New Mexico isn’t far off -- the Lobos are still criminally underrated in the 2012-13 Mountain West conversation -- but it’s hard to look at what UConn did to Michigan State and not be impressed (particularly because the Spartans took down Kansas four days and a 4,500-mile trip from Germany to Atlanta later). The Huskies’ backcourt -- Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright, Omar Calhoun and lengthy wing DeAndre Daniels -- appear to be playing fast, scrappy, motivated basketball under hungry young coach Kevin Ollie. And they have a straightforward route to the tournament title game.
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: Napier struggled with leadership issues throughout the Huskies’ lackluster 2011-12 season; he fully admitted other players simply didn’t want to hear it. But Napier is now a legit veteran presence with a national title on his résumé, and this greenhorn UConn team revolves much more around his perimeter abilities.
Ryan Boatright, Connecticut: Boatright’s freshman season was like many freshman seasons: promising but flawed. This season, he appears to be playing much more of a true point guard role, with Napier working more frequently off the ball, and the decision-making that made him a liability last season looks to be much improved.
Tony Snell, New Mexico: The Lobos have a really good chance to win this tournament -- if UConn is the favorite, it’s not by that much -- and Snell is a major reason why. He led New Mexico’s 86–81 comeback win over Davidson Tuesday morning with 25 points, including a final-minute shot-clock-beating 3 to help seal the deal.
MoMo Jones, Iona: Iona lost national assists leader Scott Machado and senior forward Mike Glover. It will gain former Iowa State point guard Tavon Sledge and former Toledo forward Curtis Dennis. But Jones -- the former Arizona point who transferred to Iona last summer -- should get the touches to have a very big season, even if he isn’t always the most efficient scorer in the country.
C.J. Harris, Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons still have a big talent hole to climb out of before they get competitive in the ACC again, but that doesn’t mean you should overlook Harris. The guard had a breakout junior season, shooting 50.7 percent from 2, 42.2 percent from 3 and 84.4 percent from the line while lowering his turnover rate and drawing shooting fouls frequently.
FIVE BIG QUESTIONS
Is this Connecticut thing real?
As good as UConn looked Friday night -- and it did look good -- it’s important to temper this kind of exuberance this early in the season. It was only one game (in Germany, no less) and Michigan State hardly had its finest outing. A convincing jaunt this weekend will hardly guarantee Big East title contention, but it will be another green shoot.
Where is George Mason right now?
Paul Hewitt enters his second season at George Mason with the program arguably as bereft of talent as at any point in the past five seasons. That’s what happens when you lose two leading frontcourt scorers, Ryan Pearson and Mike Morrison (and your program’s best recent scorer, Luke Hancock, is preparing to debut for Louisville). Mason looks likely to slide this season, but did open with a win over Virginia. This tournament will tell us more.
Is New Mexico good enough down low?
The Lobos have plenty of perimeter talent. Kendall Williams and Snell are gifted scorers, Hugh Greenwood is a crafty point, Demetrius Walker is finally getting it, and Jamal Fenton can really go. But after losing Drew Gordon to the draft, can New Mexico find and develop some interior presence in time to compete with UNLV and San Diego State?
Is Wake on its way?
There’s no two ways about it: Jeff Bzdelik’s tenure has been a disaster thus far, and that’s before you consider the comparatively gleaming record of the man (Dino Gaudio) he replaced. But Bzdelik did improve Wake to a 13-win outfit last season after losing two starters from an 8–24 team, and Harris and Travis McKie form a really nice scoring combo. The Demon Deacons aren’t going to challenge for the ACC title anytime soon, but there’s at least a chance they won’t be horrible. So there’s that.
Will ESPN.com college football editor Brian Kelly shave his head if his alma mater, Quinnipiac, wins this tournament?
I don’t know, but I triple dog dare him.
First round: Iona over Quinnipiac (sorry BK); UConn over Wake; New Mexico over UIC; George Mason over Mercer.
Semifinals: UConn over Iona; New Mexico over George Mason.
Championship: UConn over New Mexico.