Year two of the 76 Classic (known as the Anaheim Classic in its first incarnation) showcased eight NCAA teams who all have hopes (of varying legitimacy) of playing in the NCAA tournament in March. The tournament, played in front of a sparse “crowd” at the Anaheim Convention Center over Thanksgiving weekend, was won by Wake Forest who defeated Baylor in an entertaining final Sunday night. While there are more than three months remaining until we find out who will advance to the Big Dance, we did get some answers and some clues as to what to expect from these teams over those months.
1. Wake Forest came away with the championship, after looking fairly underwhelming in the first two rounds. They were outrebounded in the first game by an undersized Cal State Fullerton team and then outrebounded by a significant amount in the semifinal by UTEP. However, the Demon Deacons enjoyed a talent gap over both teams and came away with wins despite uninspiring performances. However, in the final against Baylor, Wake looked every bit the team that had its fans excited in the offseason. They attacked the boards with abandon, getting double-digit rebound games from James Johnson, L.D. Williams and heralded freshman Al-Farouq Aminu, and dominated the game in the paint, coming away with a 13-point victory despite hitting only one three-pointer on the evening. Wake Forest does have some questions that need to be answered before they can be considered a threat to ACC rivals North Carolina and Duke. They don’t seem to have a consistent three-point threat, point guard Jeff Teague turns the ball over a bit too much and has some trouble getting the offense started, and their depth is somewhat suspect. However, they have a ton of talent. Johnson is a highly skilled athlete with a variety of talents all over the floor, Aminu is bound to improve by leaps and bounds as the season progresses and Teague can certainly put the ball in the hoop. There will be ups and downs for this team throughout the year, but they are capable of playing with almost anyone in the country on a given good night.
2. Baylor in many ways was the opposite of Wake Forest in this tournament. The Bears looked mighty impressive in the first two rounds, but then had their weaknesses exposed in the championship by Wake Forest. However, given that the Bears only shot 8-31 from three-point range in the final, missing multiple open looks throughout the game, an occurrence that will not be repeated often, Baylor has to be pretty enthusiastic about their chances in the Big Twelve. While Baylor will have to deal with questions about their interior game and rebounding ability, there is no doubt that they have very skilled players in the backcourt. Curtis Jerrels, Henry Dugat, LaceDarius Dunn and Tweeny Carter can definitely present matchup problems for most teams they will face. However, the more three and four guard lineups the Bears field, the more they will have to rely on players like Kevin Rogers and impressive freshman Quincy Acy to carry the load on the glass, something they were unable to do in the final.
3. While Arizona State came away with what had to be a disappointing third place finish, the Sun Devils look poised to compete for a Pac-Ten championship. The Devils wrapped blowouts of Charlotte and UTEP around a loss to Baylor in the semifinal round, a game in which the Bears pulled away with a 14-0 run near the start of the second half with the ASU starters on the bench, and withstood a barrage of ASU threes at the end to hold on. James Harden was perhaps the best player of the tournament, as was likely expected, after games of 15, 32 and then 40 points in the third-place match. Arizona State still remains a team based around Harden and senior big man Jeff Pendergraph, but the Devils did get some good production out of guard Ty Abbot, wing Rihards Kuksiks and point guard Derek Glasser, who has turned into a very effective operator of Herb Sendek’s offense. They still don’t get the ball to Pendergraph nearly enough, but if they ever do get him a sufficient number of touches, this could be a tough Devil team.
4. St. Mary’s got the tournament off to a poor start, laying a major stinker on Thanksgiving morning against UTEP, turning the ball over 19 times and going a meager 3 of 24 from 3-point range (“led” by a startling 0-9 from 3-point land and a 1-4 assist to turnover ration from Patty Mills). The Gaels did gain some measure of redemption in their next two games, defeating Cal State Fullerton the next day, then withstanding a late charge by Providence to take the consolation bracket. However, despite some good things in those final two games, St. Mary’s fans have to be a little nervous about their backcourt should Mills run into an injury, some foul trouble or just a bad night. While there are some very good shooters in the backcourt, their ballhandling skills are not great and the Gaels can struggle a bit against defensive pressure. Their frontcourt tandem of Omar Samhan and Diamon Simpson remains imposing (and improved), but in order to compete for a WCC title against the ever tough Gonzaga Bulldogs, Randy Bennett’s squad will need to get stronger play from its guards.
5. UTEP leaves Anaheim with a 1-2 record over the course of the weekend, but it has to be considered a good 1-2 despite a bad loss to Arizona State on Sunday. The Miners really took it to St. Mary’s in the first game of the tournament, then came back 24 hours later to outwork Wake Forest (outrebounding the Deacons by 17, including a 24-1 advantage on the offensive glass) only to lose a tough one at the end. UTEP is definitely not lacking for talent (Stefon Jackson and Randy Culpepper are two guards who can play with just about anyone in the country) or size (three players who get regular time are 6-11 or taller), but they have been a little short on experience. If for no other reason, the experience of getting to play St. Mary’s, Wake Forest and Arizona State over the course of three days should be a major boon to a rising program.
6. It is a good thing that Providence rallied to score the final 10 points of their consolation semifinal against Charlotte on Friday night, or that would have been an awful long flight for an 0-3 weekend. As it is, Friar fanatics have some reason to have some optimism as their team has shown some improvement under new head coach Keno Davis. Providence struggled in its opening round game against Baylor, then got a spark from sophomore reserve swingman Marshon Brooks down the stretch of its game against Charlotte to salvage its only win of the tournament. On Sunday, the Friars got outscored by 20 points in their first half against St. Mary’s, but put on a furious second half rally to get within 6, which was the final margin. The Friars definitely have some strong talent on the team, but given the beasts they’ll have to fight in the Big East, this seems like more of a season to grow on for Davis and his squad.
7. Cal State Fullerton got to sleep in their own beds on the night before Thanksgiving, and that may have had something to do with their ability to put a scare into favorite Wake Forest on the opening day of the tournament. Led by senior guard Josh Akognon, the Titans cut a 14-point second half Demon Deacon lead to 3, but were not able to finish the deal. After a big loss to St. Mary’s on Friday, Fullerton rebounded to knock off Charlotte in overtime to salvage one win over the weekend. While Fullerton took a few lumps from some of the bigger boys, they look to be a strong contender in the Big West. Athletic frontcourt players like Gerard Anderson, Aaron Thompson, Pap Guisse and Ray Miller provide a strong compliment to Akognon’s excellent scoring ability, and could provide the Titans a springboard to the big dance.
8. Charlotte came away from Anaheim with an 0-3 record, a losing streak of six games, and some wounds to lick, but there is some hope for an underachieving squad. Down the stretch of regulation in their game against Cal State Fullerton on Sunday, An’Juan Wilderness was not only the best player on the floor, he was one of the better players of the tournament. He followed Josh Akognon all over the floor, he grabbed rebounds, he made timely assists, he scrapped on the floor for loose balls and generally willed his 49ers back into the game. And, frankly, the 49ers at this point have nowhere to go but up. However, Wilderness, together with athletic frontline players like Charlie Coley and Lamont Mack, three-point threats like Rashad Coleman and Ian Anderson, and quick little point guard DiJuan Harris do form a solid nucleus for a Charlotte team that should see more success over the course of the season than they have had so far.
All in all, quite a fun tournament, with several very good games and eight compelling teams. Given the strong field announced for the 2009 tournament (UCLA, Clemson, Minnesota, Texas A&M, West Virginia, Butler Portland, and Long Beach State), this looks like a strong tournament to look forward to in the future.