For four teams, playing in the U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam Men's Basketball Tournament is nothing more than a vacation. Each team could win a game, one likely will win two. But none is expected to win an opening-round game, let alone made much noise on the island. On the other hand, four other teams likely will get an early taste of whether the 2006-07 season will bring madness or sadness come March.
Team with the most to gain: Iowa
Team with the most to lose: Alabama
Team with the most to prove: Villanova
Favorite to win: Alabama
Longshot to win: Middle Tennessee State
Don't sleep on: Virginia Commonwealth
Team-by-Team previews for all eight schools:
Middle Tennessee State
College of Charleston
ESPN college hoops expert and former UCLA coach Steve Lavin called the Crimson Tide one of his Top 5 teams this season. Three players will be key if Alabama can make this year as memorable as its Elite Eight run in 2004.
Junior point guard Ronald Steele (14.3 ppg, 4.2 apg last year) is the team's motor and however Steele's season goes, 'Bama will follow. Steele has a self-imposed weight on his shoulders this season. Despite hitting many clutch shots a year ago, most helping the Crimson Tide reach a fifth-straight NCAA Tournament, his last shot of the season is the one that hurts him the most. Trailing UCLA in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, 61-59, Steele hurled a 3-pointer that bounced off the rim, giving UCLA a victory as the Bruins marched to the National Championship game. With the added drive for this season, and the acknowledgement his head coach Mark Gottfried thinks he's the best point guard in the nation, he likely will have a stellar season.
He'll also get plenty of help from small forward Mykal Riley (18.4 ppg last year) and, 6-foot-10 senior Jemareo Davidson (14.3 ppg) – 'Bama's clog in the middle. Before the season Gottfried said of Davidson, "I think he's as good as any big man in the nation. You don't see a lot of guys who can do what he does." With the inside-outside presence unmatched by many teams, Alabama could be a force in every game this season, regardless of the opponent.
Also on the Tide's side is the fact No. 1 Florida and No. 7 LSU are getting nearly all of the SEC's attention thus far. That's more reason for the Tide to roll off three straight in the Paradise Jam, sending an early message to everyone. Best-case scenario: Alabama does what it should and wins the eight-team tournament.
Middle Tennessee State
Coach Kermit Davis, despite seeing his squad snake bitten with injuries, has a good feeling about this year. Davis feels the Sun Belt Conference is as wide open as it has been in his tenure with the Blue Raiders. After a first-game shellacking at the hands of Tennessee, Middle Tennessee State methodically defeated Cumberland Tennessee 60-47. The win, however, looks like it will be sandwiched between another blowout as the Blue Raiders don't have much hope against the No. 10 Crimson Tide. Best-case scenario: After a loss to 'Bama, the Blue Raiders can knock off Toledo to secure a spot in the fourth-place game.
Steve Alford is still the Iowa coach, after most of the summer was spent wondering if he would be offered, and likely accept, the Indiana head coaching position. But, it was never offered and Alford ended up signing a contract extension with Iowa. All that aside, not much is expected from the Hawkeyes this season. The entire nation is fixated on Ohio State and Wisconsin as the class of the Big Ten. After those two, projecting the rest of the conference standings seems to be a crap shoot. That's not an unfamiliar position for Iowa. Last season, Iowa started the season as an little-known, experienced sleeper team. The nation wasn't dreaming for long as the Hawkeyes sprinted to the finals of the Preseason NIT. The run included a victory over favored Kentucky in the semifinals and the 68-59 loss to Texas in the title game was closer than the score indicated.
By the end of the year, Iowa had posted a 25-8 record, including the Big Ten Tournament Championship. The year ended abruptly, however, as Northwestern State's Jermaine Wallace hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, giving the Demons a 64-63 victory. Best-case scenario: Iowa makes a run to the tournament finals, including a win over Alabama, before falling to the Wildcats.
Stan Joplin's Rockets will be playing with heavy hearts this season. In October, backup center Haris Charalambous died during conditioning when a blood vessel to his heart ruptured. But if the team can get over the tragedy, this year might not be so somber. The Rockets return four starters and almost 85 percent of its scoring from last season. Guards Justin Ingram (14.6 ppg) and Kashif Payne (8.4 ppg) will get the majority of scoring chances but, both being solid passing guards, will get teammates involved plenty. Joplin – who is a former disciple of Michigan State coach Tom Izzo – has one big concern this season: Rebounding. The Rockets were 10th in the MAC last year in rebounding margin (-3.0) a number that could hamper a good season. With all the pieces in place Toledo is a decent bet to win the MAC this year and grab a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Best-case scenario: A two-and-done, by beating a relatively unknown Iowa team in the first round before losing to tourney favorite Alabama.
Oklahoma transfer and new Atlantic 10 Player-of-the-Year candidate Drew Lavender will carry the Musketeers on his back this season. All four returning starters for the Musketeers – guard Stanley Burrell (14.4 ppg), guard Justin Cage (10.5 ppg), forward Justin Doellman (11 ppg) and forward Josh Duncan (9.1 ppg) – all topped nine points per game a year ago. Add in an experienced point guard in the mix and those numbers should be equaled or bettered. With the A-10 being wide open this year – last year's winner George Washington lost four starters including Pops Mensah-Bonsu – it looks like Xavier has a shot as good as anybody to snatch the crown. With the field in the Virgin Islands being just as wide open, it wouldn't be a shock to see Xavier celebrating with a trophy Monday night. Best-case scenario: Xavier becomes this year's mighty A-10 school, knocking off 'Nova and 'Bama en route to the tourney crown.
You've likely never heard the name Anthony Grant before but you'll likely hear it by the end of the season. Grant was an assistant on Florida's 2006 Championship team last year and now takes over the Rams. His biggest goals: Continue Virginia Commonwealth's success and play more of a fast-paced tempo. Over the past five years, the Rams have won at least 18 games, including at11 Colonial Athletic Association contests per season. Last year, Virginia Commonwealth finished with 19 victories, but still only finished sixth in the league. With Paradise Jam not having the strongest field and the Rams looking to find an identity (maybe this year's George Mason?), a run to the final isn't out of the question. Best-case scenario: Defeat Xavier, Villanova before hitting reality in the tournament finals.
Losing three stars to the NBA is never easy for a team but the Wildcats don't expect much drop off. Allan Ray and Randy Foye, both seniors, were expected to have NBA careers but Lowry was only a sophomore, and his departure was semi-surprising. Nonetheless, Jay Wright's team has moved on and, despite little national attention – Villanova has been routinely picked to finish sixth or seventh in the league behind Pittsburgh, Georgetown, Syracuse, Marquette, Louisville and Connecticut – expects to be in the Final Four mix come March.
Mike Nardi will be one of the household names donning a 'Nova jersey on the floor this season. Last year, Nardi played the roll of the fourth guard the Wildcats deployed when they went super-small. This year, he'll be taking – and likely making – many of the shots his fellow NBAers did in 2005-06.
The team's wildcard is senior Curtis Sumpter. In 2004-05, he averaged 15 and 7 and was a big reason the Wildcats nearly knocked off North Carolina in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. The Tar Heels, of course, won the championship that year. But Sumpter missed last season with a knee injury. If Sumpter's physical and mental health is back to full strength, he might be a Player-of-the-Year candidate.
If 6-foot-8 senior forward Will Sheridan provides a serious low-post threat, coupled with Nardi's maturation and a back-to-normal Sumpter, don't be shocked to see 'Nova in its first Final Four since 1985. Best-case scenario: Villanova coasts for two games, knocks off Alabama in the title game and finds itself ranked in the polls next week.
College of Charleston
The Cougars are the wildcard of the tournament. Bobby Cremins is at the helm, six years after coaching his last game at Georgia Tech. He replaces Tom Herrion, who averaged a 20-9 record in four seasons. Of course, the school's beef with Herrion was a steady decline in wins (25 in his first year to 17 last season). Charleston returns four starters, including Dontaye Draper, who is a Player-of-the-Year candidate. The team's only problem is a lack of depth. Still, the Cougars are the favorite to represent the Southern Conference in the NCAA Tournament. In the Paradise Jam, they aren't – and shouldn't be – expected to do much. Best-case scenario: Use experience to nearly shock Villanova in the first round. Two wins after the opening round loss are not out of the question.