Texas 77, St. John's 76
Maryland's D.J. Strawberry was clearly the star of what started out as a terrific game, fizzled in the middle, and remained close late.
A controversial call may have changed the outcome of this game, as Maryland should have been charged with a shot clock violation with four seconds left. But officials ruled that a seeming airball by Maryland's Eric Hayes did indeed graze the rim, and MSU's Idong Ibok was immediately whistled for an offensive foul on the rebound. But star Strawberry, whose three-point shooting and ability to get out in transition keyed Maryland, missed two free throws, making Gary Williams sweat just a few moments longer until the Spartans were unable to tip in an intentional miss at the line by Drew Neitzel.
Maryland's interior players weren't much of an offensive force, but collectively their defensive presence kept the Spartans' big men at bay. Ekene Ibekwe registered four blocks in the game, most coming in the first half. Rebounding was a concern for Maryland, as this year's Spartan team finally seems to be taking to heart what Izzo preaches. State won the battle of the boards 36-21. Drew Neitzel had another solid performance for Michigan State, which looks to be a bit safer NCAA Tournament team than many had thought entering the CvC Classic.
Texas 77, St. John's 76
In a game that was played at a higher level than the championship, Texas narrowly staved off the Red Storm of St. John's. Kevin Durant was simply brilliant in this one, living up to his billing as one of the top freshmen in the country. From my vantage point, D.J. Augustin simply needs a few more possessions under his belt to really get the feel for college shot selection and distribution to teammates. The explosiveness is there with Augustin; he just needs to control it in certain situations. If he develops this skill, taking over the full-time ballhandling duties rather than sharing them with A.J. Abrams, it will free Abrams to move to what seems to be a more natural off-guard position. No televised shooter has impressed me more in the early-going than the sophomore guard from Texas.
St. John's made a game effort but in the end was handed its second loss. Guard Avery Patterson was solid from behind the arc, going 6-11, and big man Lamont Hamilton showed why he is a potential Big East First Teamer in pulling down 11 boards. Anthony Mason, Jr., also gave the Johnnies a nice spark off the bench. But for all the experience on Norm Roberts' team, again, shot selection was a problem down the stretch. St. John's was terrific in transition early in the game but credit Texas coach Rick Barnes with slowing the game to a halfcourt pace late, his team making a conscious effort to get back on D quickly.
Maryland 92, St John's 60
The storyline on this game is simple: Maryland (and particularly Ekene Ibekwe) got into the paint early, scored a bunch, and got Red Storm star player Lamont Hamilton in foul trouble. In the second half, the Red Storm guards simply could not stop penetration by their Terrapin counterparts. D.J. Strawberry, Greivis Vazquez, and Mike Jones got into the lane at will in Maryland's halfcourt offense. Transition baskets off of St John's misses (which were many) made life even easier for the Turtles.
Maryland was impressive, St. John's disappointing, but ultimately, we'll get a better read on each team when they face tomorrow's respective opponents: Michigan State and Texas. It seemed to this observer that St. John's just had an off-night at a bad time.
Michigan State 63, Texas 61
Drew Neitzel's driving layup with 2.4 seconds remaining capped a well-played game in a fitting manner. Neitzel was the key for the Spartans for most of the night, making 3's early, finding his teammates late, and demonstrating the leadership for which so many fans in East Lansing have been waiting for two solid years. Drew Naymick grabbed a couple of critical offensive rebounds and freshman Raymar Morgan ended up leading the Spartans in scoring with 18. MSU still looked a bit inept on offense at times, but given the date on the calendar and the fact that they lost something like 3/4 of their scoring from a year ago, it was a solid performance.
In a game which was supposed to be all about the Texas freshmen Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustin, it was sophomore A.J. Abrams who stole the show for the Longhorns. Abrams was terrific from outside the arc, particularly in the second half, and kept the 'Horns in a game which might have gotten out of contol.
To be sure, both Durant and Augustin played a solid game, though both disappeared from the action during the last five to six minutes. Durant has the potential to take over games (a la Carmelo Anthony) and simply needs a few more occasions to develop that skill.
A fantastic win for Michigan State's resume, as Texas will only get better throughout the course of the year.
The pre-conference tournament with the longest name (officially, the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic Benefiting Coaches Vs. Cancer) features 12 teams with incredibly long odds at making the NCAA Tournament and four who, at the very least, should be in the conversation for an at-large bid in March. Though it features one of the weaker fields of the pre-conference tournaments we're highlighting here on Bracketography, it's an important tournament for two reasons: 1) the 2006-2007 season tips off with Vermont vs. New Orleans! 2) it provides an early barometer for four storied programs who find themselves relative NCAA Tournament enigmas this year.
Team with the most to gain: St. John's
Team with the most to lose: Maryland
Favorite to win: Texas
Longshot to win: Loyola (MD)
With that said, here's a look at the individual matchups (projected winners in caps):
TEXAS vs. Alcorn State
St. Bonaventure vs. Chicago State
After losing three NBA draft picks (LaMarcus Aldridge, P.J. Tucker, and Daniel Gibson), Rick Barnes has reloaded. Barnes knew long before this season tipped off that he would be a bit shorthanded, and planned for it by signing six fresmen. Among those freshmen are PG D.J. Augustin, who is expected to share ballhandling duties with sophomore A.J. Abrams, and lanky 6'9" Kevin Durant, who's one of the true stars of the 2006-2007 class. Almost everyone expects Durant to be a one-and-done type of player, but he should have a huge impact for the 'Horns in every game that he does play. The first two games of the Coaches Vs Cancer Tournament will give the Horns a chance to work out whatever chemistry issues might be apparent on such a young team, and their opponents will test them just enough once they get to New York to see how they perform under pressure. But make no mistake, Texas has to be considered the favorite to win this event. And, should they win, the expectations will creep even higher across Burnt Orange Nation.
Alcorn State finished 2006 ranked #302 in the RPI. It's RIP for the presumably soon-to-be-renamed Braves, especially against Texas in its home opener at the Erwin Center. Alcorn should have a chance to knock off shorthanded Chicago State in the consolation matchup, however.
This could be a great building block for Bonnies' coach Anthony Solomon as he tries to turn around a program that was left in utter shambles by the criminal actions of Jan van Breda Kolff. St. Bonaventure finished A-10 play with only two wins last year, and missed the 12-team conference tournament (the Atlantic TEN has FOURTEEN teams, for those of you scoring at home). Offense wasn't much of an issue, as SBU finished a respectable fifth in the conference in scoring. The defense, however, was worst in the conference. If the Bonnies can put points on the board on a neutral floor (it bodes well that two of their leading returning scorers are big men), they should win their opening game, only to get crushed by the Longhorns in the second round.
Chicago State is one of the nation's few remaining basketball independents, after "resigning" from the Mid-Continent Conference at the end of last season...apparently due to repeated NCAA violations by the women's basketball program. The Cougars would have returned four starters, but three were deemed academically ineligible to start the season. A win in one of its two opening games would make Chicago State's dim outlook for the season season seem just a bit brighter.
MICHIGAN STATE vs. Brown
Central Michigan vs. Youngstown State
Michigan State is in a similar situation to their presumptive semifinal opponent, Texas. Having lost Shannon Brown, Maurice Ager, and Paul Davis to the NBA, few people will recognize the starting five for the Spartans in 2006-2007. Izzo will preach defense to a team that looked confused at times with its back to its own basket last year, and I have a feeling it will sink in this year. MSU's success ultimately will come down to how it executes on offense, though, and many expect the Spartans to struggle to score points, given that 72% of their scoring offense from a year ago must be replaced. PG Drew Neitzel, now a junior, and by far the MSU player with the most experience, simply must take more of a scoring initiative if Sparty is to be successful this year. Little-used sub Travis Walton may be asked to take over the ballhandling duties in order to free Neitzel for more scoring opportunities. The Spartans' first two games should allow the nation a chance to see who will step up inside for the team as well--my pick is Bosnian National Team player Goran Suton.
Look for a bit of the Princeton offense from Bill Carmody/Pete Carril disciple Craig Robinson's team. That should suit Michigan State just fine, as the Spartans probably don't have the firepower to explode in transition as they have in previous years. The Bears do return all five starters, and that experience might help them win the consolation game.
Not a lot went right for Central Michigan last year during a 4-24 season, and the days of NCAA Tournament appearances behind Chris Kaman seem to be long gone. New coach Ernie Ziegler is trying to get the Chips to play stout defense, and one would expect the early-arriving Spartan faithful at the Breslin Center to support an in-state team. Look for CMU to finish the CVC at 1-1.
The Penguins have one of the unique nicknames in college sports. They also have a unique scorer in G Quin Humphrey, whose name has been bandied about as a potential Horizon POY. But again, YSU will be playing a virtual road game, and even top-caliber teams tend to struggle on the road earlier in the season.
ST JOHN'S vs. North Florida
Loyola (MD) vs. Navy
Norm Roberts is slowly but surely returning the Red Storm to glory. At the start of February 2006, the Johnnies had just knocked off Pitt and Louisville and were sitting at .500 in conference play. So the potential is there this year, as undersized SG's Darryl Hill and Eugene Lawrence, and big men Anthony Mason and Lamont Hamilton all return. It was Hamilton's play in the big games last year which led the Johnnies to victory, but JuCo transfer G Avery Patterson is expected to have a significant impact this year as a steadying influence. It may not be quite as effective as Villanova's multi-guard offense last year, but this is the year St. John's is ready to make a strong run at the NCAA Tournament. What better way to make that statement than to win what is essentially a home season-opening tournament at Madison Square Garden?
Division I newcomer UNF almost DNF in '05-'06. The Ospreys finished last year's campaign at 332 in the RPI, but at least they were consistent, as their Nonconference RPI and SOS were an identical number. It's going to be another rough year for the Tampa, Florida, school.
In only his third season at the school, Jimmy Patsos, a former Maryland assistant, has done a remarkable job turning around this Baltimore program. Local product and Providence transfer Gerald Brown has been lighting it up in exhibition play. The Greyhounds will win their opening round game and might play St. John's closer than most observers expect.
David Robinson does not play for Navy, anymore, but if he had any eligibility left, I'd bet the Midshipmen would start him even at age 41. Navy does have two 6'10" forwards (Ben Biles and Trey Stanton), however, that could cause North Florida some trouble in the consolation game.
Vermont vs. New Orleans
I look for D.J. Strawberry and Mike Jones to have breakout years for Maryland. If they don't, it could be another season of disappointment for Terps fans and coach Gary Williams. These two guards were rated among the top in their respective classes when they came to College Park, but have only clicked in spurts. There's less pressure on them to handle the ball, however, this year, with newcomers Greivis Vasquez and Eric Hayes looking ready to shoulder some of the load. Inside, Ekene Ibekwe and James Gist will need to score just enough to open up outside looks for what should be a guard-dominated team.
Though they do travel to Illinois in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, as well as host Winthrop, the rest of the nonconference schedule is exceedingly weak for Maryland, a factor which hurt the Terps' case for an at-large bid last year. Maryland needs to take care of business in the first two rounds and get at least one win in New York, or the doubts will start creeping up again.
The Pirates made the NCAA Tournament last year, which led to the firing of coach Bobby Collins (!). Hampton won four games in the MEAC Tournament, only to lose the "Opening Round" NCAA Tournament game against NEC Champ Monmouth. It may have been the manner in which Hampton lost (71-49), but not every coach will be Steve Merfeld (everyone's favorite celebratory-leg-kicker in CBS' NCAA Tournament highlights). I for one hope the Pirate administration gives new coach Kevin Nickelberry a bit of slack if the team loses to Maryland by a similar margin.
Can we get Tom Brennan some more face time this year? He's got to be one of the more articulate studio analysts in all of college basketball, and seemingly always wears a smile. Coach Mike Lonergan is yet another Gary Williams disciple, and nearly led the Catamounts on a shocking run back to the NCAA Tournament last year before falling in the America East Championship Game. Look for Terps fans to send Lonergan (and his team) positive vibes at the Comcast center. That is, unless the Cat plays the Turtle in round two.
Bo McCalebb might be the most explosive player you've never heard of, and he plays for the Privateers. Bo is a first-team All Sun Belt player from 2004-2005 and returns in 2006 after sitting out most of last year with a wrist injury. Those of you who watch the UVM-UNO opener on ESPNU will be pleasantly surprised with the level of play. UNO could pull a mini-upset with a win over Vermont.