Tuesday, December 1, 2009

2009 76 Classic Roundup

Year three of the 76 Classic featured the strongest field in the brief history of the tournament, and arguably the strongest field of any of the early season tournaments this season, boasting four ranked teams plus a couple of mid-majors who figure to be right in the thick of things in their conference. The tournament, which was played in front of a somewhat sparse crowd at the Anaheim Convention Center, was captured by West Virginia, who dominated upset-minded Portland in the final Sunday night. While the season has only just begun, and there is a lot to shake out between now and Selection Sunday, we did get to find out a little about what to expect from these teams over the coming months.

Before I get into a breakdown of each team’s weekend, here is my all-tournament team:

Da’Sean Butler, Sr, West Virginia
T.J. Campbell, Sr, Portland
B.J. Holmes, Jr, Texas A&M
Shelvin Mack, Soph, Butler
T.J. Robinson, Soph, Long Beach State

1. West Virginia wrapped blowout wins over Long Beach State and Portland around a tough battle with Texas A&M to capture the 76 Classic title. Behind strong performances by senior Da’Sean Butler, who averaged almost 19 points per game over the tournament, including a spectacular 26 in the final, and sophomore Kevin Jones (13 ppg over the tournament), the Mountaineers looked long, athletic and deep. Sophomore Devin Ebanks made his season debut for Coach Bob Huggins in the second game of the tournament, after sitting out the first three games of the season due to “personal reasons.” Ebanks looked especially strong in the A&M game, tallying 14 points and grabbing nine rebounds to help the Mountaineers advance. If there is a concern for West Virginia at this point, it may be on the glass, as they were outrebounded by Texas A&M, the opponent that was similar in terms of athleticism and size. However, the Mountaineers have to be pretty pleased with their play over the weekend, routinely going ten men deep on their bench and getting good production out of everyone. West Virginia certainly looks to have the makings of a strong contender for the Big East title.

2. Portland was the surprise of the tournament, advancing to the final upon the strength of an opening round demolition of UCLA and a semifinal that they almost let slip away against Minnesota. Senior point guard T.J. Campbell was huge in the semi for the Pilots, scoring 23 (including four three-pointers) en route to the upset. While Portland ran into a buzzsaw in the finals, this weekend has to be considered a huge success for the Pilots, with the win over Minnesota giving them a signature win upon which to hang their hat. They’ll have a chance to add another key win this week when they visit Washington. While Portland didn’t have the athletes to hang with West Virginia in the final, they are a well-coached team who can cause problems for quality opponents with their ability to knock down open threes (Campbell and junior guard Jared Stohl each had nine threes over the tournament) and to get opposing offenses out of sync with their 2-3 zone, which was instrumental in their two victories this weekend. While they may not have the athletes that Gonzaga has, they could cause the Zags problems with their style of play.

3. Texas A&M came into this tournament as a bit of an afterthought. Most of the pre-tourney talk centered around the ranked teams (Butler, Minnesota, West Virginia and Clemson) or struggling UCLA, or even the two upset-minded teams (Long Beach State and Portland. But the Aggies came out of this weekend with wins over two of the ranked teams (despite their best efforts to give Minnesota third place – missing their last nine free throws and 12 of their last 15) and a strong showing against the eventual champion. Senior guards Derrick Roland and Ronald Sloan impressed with their athleticism and all-around games, and senior forward Bryan Davis was impressive defending the post and hitting the glass, but it was diminutive junior B.J. Holmes who was the spark for the Aggies, knocking down threes, playing tough man defense and taking several charges throughout the tournament. While A&M probably doesn’t have the depth or size to challenge Texas or Kansas for Big 12 supremacy, they look to be a solid tournament team and an upper-division finisher in the Big 12.

4. Minnesota got their tournament off to a good start with a win over Butler in a game played at a very high level. The Golden Gophers got strong play from senior forward Damian Johnson (18 points, four assists, four steals, three rebounds, a block and a three, all on seven-of-eight shooting), sophomore center Colton Iverson (13 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks) and sophomore point guard Devoe Joseph (14 points, three rebounds, three assists, two threes) and significant contributions from a deep bench. However, the rest of the tournament had to be disappointing for Tubby Smith’s squad as they dropped two tough games to close the tournament. Against Portland, they never really figured out the Pilot zone, shooting only 33% from the field for the game, and in the third place game, fell behind in the first half (during which neither senior guard Lawrence Westbrook nor junior guard Al Nolen played due to disciplinary reasons), and were never able to get all the way back, despite Texas A&M’s best efforts to let them back in. Nevertheless, the Gophers look to have a deep and talented team that should be improved over last season. Iverson and fellow sophomore center Ralph Sampson III seem to have a better grasp of what is expected of them and Johnson has stepped forward as a team leader. Throw in a tough backcourt trio of Nolen, Westbrook and Joseph and the Gophers look to be a well-rounded squad, even with the future of currently suspended recruits Trevor Mbakwe and Royce White still in doubt.

5. Clemson walks away from Anaheim with a 2-1 record for the weekend, and they have to be feeling better about themselves than they did after a first-round struggle against Texas A&M and perhaps more of a battle than they expected from Long Beach State. Clemson struggled at times over the tournament with their half-court offense and got uneven performances from several players up and down their roster. Head coach Oliver Purnell even left junior forward Jerai Grant (a starter in Clemson’s first-round game) on the bench for the entirety of their second game. But, in the end, the Tigers showed great determination in battling back against Butler and pulling out a tight win in a game where they were down double figures in the second half. While Clemson still lacks a traditional low-post threat (despite senior forward Trevor Booker’s impressive abilities), and is prone to bog down in the half-court offense, their speed and athleticism can still give opponents trouble and they look to be a solid middle-of-the-pack ACC team with legitimate NCAA tournament hopes.

6. Butler has to be licking their wounds a little after a disappointing one-point loss in the Consolation Final, leaving Anaheim with only a tight victory over a bad UCLA team. The Bulldogs relinquished a double-digit second half lead against Clemson, despite strong performances from sophomore guard Shelvin Mack (15 points, eight rebounds, four assists) and sophomore forward Gordon Hayward (20 points and 12 rebounds). And really, it was Butler’s perimeter defense (usually a strength) that let them down, allowing Clemson’s Demontez Stitt and Andre Young to combine for 31 points, 23 of which came in the second half. Junior forward Matt Howard seemed to be in foul trouble the entire tournament, yet still managed to scrape together 13 points per game over the tournament. It was Mack, however, who shone most brightly for the Bulldogs, averaging 19 ppg over the tournament on a combination of perimeter shots and penetration. While Butler will most certainly be the team to beat in the Horizon, Coach Brad Stevens has to be somewhat concerned that his team left a good-looking win over Clemson on the table. However, Butler will have more chances to score quality non-conference wins (games against Georgetown, Ohio State and Xavier remain) before Horizon play begins.

7. Long Beach State winds up leaving the tournament with a 1-2 record, and yet they still have to be feeling pretty good about themselves. Despite getting blown off the court by eventual champion West Virginia on Thanksgiving, the 49ers rebounded to give Clemson all it could handle in their second game, before handling the dominant Southern California program, UCLA, pretty easily on Sunday. The 49ers had some problems with West Virginia’s length (much like everyone in the tournament did), but they have enough size and athleticism to more than matchup to the Big West standards. They’ll need it before they ever reach conference play though, with trips to Texas, Kentucky and Duke all looming. Sophomore forward T.J. Robinson was the big man for the Niners in Anaheim with games of 25 points and 15 rebounds against Clemson and 25 points and 13 rebounds against UCLA, but sophomore point guard Casper Ware, junior guard Greg Plater and senior guard Stephan Gilling also made strong contributions.

8. UCLA came into this tournament having bounced back somewhat from their opening game loss to Cal State Fullerton with wins over Cal State Bakersfield and Pepperdine. But while the Bruins gave a strong effort in their second round loss to Butler, the whole weekend was a shocking disappointment. While it is no secret that UCLA is way down this year, the extent to which they are down was made stunningly apparent with huge and unimpressive losses to Portland and Long Beach State sandwiched around a solid performance against Butler (a game in which they made it interesting in the second half, despite being down as much as 14 early in the game). There is a lack of talent in Westwood, especially in the backcourt, and while Ben Howland will eventually get things going in the right direction, the rest of this season could devolve into a mere exploration of the younger players on this team, to see if guys like freshmen Reeves Nelson, Brendan Lane, Mike Moser and sophomore J’mison Morgan are going to be capable of contributing to future teams. And, again, it cannot be understated just how bad the Bruins looked: lack of coherent offensive structure, no talent able to improvise outside of the offense, and perhaps most disturbing, limited effort defensively. The whole program, from head coach on down to the last player off the bench, had to be embarrassed by their performance.

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