A primer for the Charleston Classic

The Charleston Classic may not be the sexiest of the nonconference tournaments this fall. But at least the event touts something that few others can claim.

A Final Four team.

Seven months after its stunning run to the NCAA semifinals, Virginia Commonwealth and popular coach Shaka Smart will return to center stage when the tournament tips off Thursday afternoon at Carolina First Arena.

The Rams' first-round game certainly won't compare to the hype of the Final Four, but as the marquee team in the field, you can bet plenty of eyes will be on VCU as it tries to build on the momentum of last season's accomplishment.

Winning the Charleston Classic won't be easy for Smart's Rams. Here's what you need to know about the rest of this year's field:

(Editor's Note: For a printable version of the Charleston bracket, click here)


Coach: Doug Wojcik
Last season's record: 19-13 overall, 11-5 in Conference USA
Top player: Steven Idlet, a 6-foot-11 center, is averaging 15 points through two games. He averaged 11.6 points and 6.3 boards last season, which makes him Tulsa's returning leader in both categories.
The skinny: Tulsa went four consecutive years with 20 or more victories before last season's 19-win campaign. This is a decent team but certainly not one of Wojcik's strongest.

Coach: Ken McDonald
Last season's record: 16-16 overall, 8-8 in the Sun Belt
Top player: Freshman guard Derrick Gordon is averaging a team-high 17.5 points through two games, but he's shooting just 32 percent from the field.
The skinny: The Hilltoppers lost their season opener to St. Joseph's before defeating Tennessee State. Kahlil McDonald is the team's only senior, but Gordon was a highly rated prospect who is one of seven newcomers.

Coach: Trent Johnson
Last season's record: 11-21 overall, 3-13 in the SEC
Top player: Multiple recruiting services hailed 6-foot-9, 250-pound forward Johnny O'Bryant as one of the top prospects in the country at his position. He'll need to have a huge season to bring the Tigers back to respectability.
The skinny: Johnson's job could be in jeopardy if LSU doesn't turn things around in a hurry. Winning a first-round game against Northwestern would give the Tigers a much-needed jolt of momentum following an inexcusable loss to Coastal Carolina in which LSU was outrebounded by 20.

Coach: Bill Carmody
Last season's record: 20-14 overall, 7-11 in the Big Ten
Top player: Despite his unorthodox shot, guard John Shurna is regarded as one of the top long-range threats in college basketball. He averaged 16.6 points last season.
The skinny: Shurna and Drew Crawford form a solid returning class, but replacing guard Michael Thompson (16.3 points and 4.3 assists) won't be easy.

Coach: Shaka Smart
Last season's record: 28-12 overall, 12-6 in the CAA
Top player: Bradford Burgess averaged 14.4 points a game last season. With the departures of Jamie Skeen, Brandon Rozzell and Joey Rodriguez, he'll be the primary scoring option.
The skinny: After making last season's Final Four, the Rams will be under a huge spotlight as they attempt to rebuild.

Coach: Kevin Willard
Last season's record: 13-18 overall, 7-11 in the Big East
Top player: Senior forward Herb Pope had 21 points and 14 rebounds in a season-opening win against St. Francis. He averaged 9.8 points and 7.9 rebounds a year ago.
The skinny: The Pirates have a solid nucleus with Pope, point guard Jordan Theodore and forward Patrick Auda. But a lack of depth will keep Seton Hall near the bottom of the Big East standings.

Coach: Brian Gregory
Last season's record: 13-18 overall, 5-11 in the ACC
Top player: Glen Rice Jr. is one of the few scoring threats Gregory inherited from Paul Hewitt. Rice averaged 12.8 points last season but shot just 30 percent from 3-point range.
The skinny: The Yellow Jackets finished below .500 three of the last four seasons under Hewitt. Another losing record seems likely.

Coach: Phil Martelli
Last season's record: 11-22 overall, 4-12 in the Atlantic 10
Top player: Carl Jones averaged 17 points a game a year ago and had 16 in a season-opening win against Western Kentucky.
The skinny: The Hawks have won just 11 games in each of the last two seasons. But five players with starting experience return.

Best first-round game: LSU vs. Northwestern. Despite its recent loss to Coastal Carolina, this season's LSU team should be much better than the one that went 5-27 in the SEC over the past two seasons. Northwestern, meanwhile, is led by All-Big Ten candidate Shurna. These may be the two best teams in the tournament, which doesn't say much for this year's field.

Potential upset: Seton Hall over VCU. The Pirates have one of the Big East's top forwards in Pope, and Theodore had 25 points in Seton Hall's season opener. VCU lost most of its key pieces from last season's Final Four squad.

Three storylines

1. Northwestern's quest for an NCAA bid.
If the Wildcats want to earn their first NCAA tournament berth in school history, they'll need to win this tournament. A loss to any team in this mediocre field will be a black mark on Northwestern's resume.

2. Did Smart make the right choice?
A lot of schools were interested in hiring Smart after last season's Final Four run, but he decided to stick with the Rams. With only one key player (Burgess) returning from that team, it looks like it could be a rebuilding year at VCU.

3. A new coach at Georgia Tech.
Former Dayton coach Gregory wasn't the Yellow Jackets' first choice to replace Hewitt, but that's not to say he's incapable of turning around Georgia Tech's struggling program. A first-round win against St. Joseph's would be a good start.

Projected champion: Northwestern. Look for the Wildcats to get by LSU and Tulsa before beating Seton Hall in the title game.

Jason King covers college basketball for ESPN.com. The Dallas native lives in Overland Park, Kan.