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November 22, 2010

Weekly Watch: Tourneys kick into gear

We're two weeks into the season, and there already have been a handful of surprises and disappointments. More could be on the way through the Thanksgiving weekend.

Minnesota, which received only a fraction of the fanfare other Big Ten programs had in the offseason, made a major statement last week by defeating North Carolina and West Virginia in the Puerto Rico Tip-off. The Gophers' 5-0 start includes victories over two other teams that played in last season's NCAA tournament (Wofford and Siena) and one over another solid mid-major (Western Kentucky).

North Carolina, on the other hand, is struggling as it did at the start of last season, when the Tar Heels landed in the NIT. Heralded freshman Harrison Barnes managed only 17 total points in losses to Minnesota and Vanderbilt; his struggles included 0-of-12 shooting against the Gophers.

This week has a number of important non-conference games and some of the top tournaments of the season, with the Preseason NIT, the Maui Invitational and the Old Spice Classic.

Maui Invitational (begins Monday): Wichita State and Connecticut have something to prove in their opener, but there are storylines elsewhere. Kentucky (facing Oklahoma) and Washington (facing Virginia) will be favorites to advance to the second round. Wildcats freshman G Brandon Knight would be tested against Washington's defense-oriented backcourt duo of Justin Holiday and Venoy Overton.

Paradise Jam (Final Monday, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands): Old Dominion and Xavier lost their star players from last season's team and are working on finding new identities. Xavier guard Tu Holloway scored 31 points against Seton Hall, but no one else hit double figures. ODU has been more balanced with Ben Finney, Frank Hassell and Kent Bazemore.

NIT Season Tip-off (Semifinals Wednesday in New York, final Friday): Like last season, Tennessee has answered off-court issues with wins. But the semifinal against VCU will be the first game the Volunteers played since the suspension of Bruce Pearl from the first half of the SEC schedule. VCU could be in line to make a statement against Tennessee and a potential matchup in the final with either Villanova or UCLA. VCU senior G Joey Rodriguez is averaging 18.3 points and 10.3 assists.

Old Spice Classic (begins Thursday in Orlando): Wisconsin and Temple may be the top teams in their respective brackets, meaning a potential defensive clinic in the Sunday final. The Owls' road to the final may be a little tougher than it once appeared. First-round opponent California is inexperienced, but two players (Harper Kamp, 25 points, and Jorge Gutierrez, 20 points) set career-highs in a surprisingly easy 89-64 win over New Mexico last week. Georgia is off to an undefeated start with wins over Colorado and Saint Louis, two NCAA tournament hopefuls. In the second round, Wisconsin would draw either Texas A&M or Boston College, led by ex-Cornell coach Steve Donahue. Donahue's Big Red vanquished Wisconsin in the second round of the NCAA tournament last season.

76 Classic (begins Thursday in Anaheim, Calif.): Virginia Tech is licking its wounds from a 73-57 loss at Kansas State on Tuesday. The Hokies draw Cal State Northridge, which already has lost to Cal and UCLA this season. Oklahoma State is something of an unknown quantity without James Anderson. The Cowboys face DePaul, led by first-year coach Oliver Purnell in the first round. The other side of the bracket is more notable for non-Big Six hopefuls. UNLV already has beaten Wisconsin and faces Tulsa on Thursday. Murray State breezed through the Ohio Valley Conference last season and defeated Vanderbilt in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Racers draw another "brainiac" school here in Stanford.

Game of the week: Duke vs. Marquette, Monday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN2. We may see better matchups as the preseason tournaments sort themselves out, but this is the best game we know for sure will occur. This will be Duke's first test of the season after facing Princeton, Miami (Ohio) and Colgate to start the season. Marquette hasn't been tested, either. Blue Devils freshman PG Kyrie Irving is living up to his billing; he is averaging 14.3 points and has 20 assists and just three turnovers.

Individual matchup to watch: Arizona F Derrick Williams vs. Kansas F Marcus Morris, Saturday, ESPN/ESPN2, 10:30 p.m. Morris could be one of the top players in the country, but he still is going to have to adjust to the absence of C Cole Aldrich. Morris faces an aggressive forward in Williams, who had 27 points and 14 assists Thursday against New Mexico State.

Don't overlook this one: Villanova vs. UCLA, Wednesday, 9 p.m., ESPN2. The Bruins are 3-0, with wins over Cal State Northridge, Pepperdine and Pacific. That might not sound like a big deal, but those are the kinds of teams that beat UCLA early last season. Reeves Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt are off to big starts, averaging nearly a double-double apiece. Villanova, its opponent in the preseason NIT semifinal, is 4-0. One of UCLA's major weaknesses last season was its guard play. How will the Bruins handle Villanova's guard-heavy lineup? Wildcats G Maalik Wayns has thrived in an expanded role, averaging 13.5 points and 7.0 assists.

Mid-major game to watch: Wofford at Xavier, Saturday, 6:30 p.m., Fox Sports Ohio. Wofford gave Wisconsin all it could handle in the first round of the NCAA tournament last season. Now, the Terriers -- who returned four starters -- are facing all they can handle in their non-conference schedule. They've already lost on the road to Minnesota and Clemson and in the Charleston Classic to Georgetown. Wofford recovered by defeating George Mason in overtime in the consolation game of the Charleston Classic. Most important, they have found some scorers other than star F Noah Dahlman. Xavier hasn't always been sharp this season, but Tu Holloway scored 31 points in a 57-52 win Sunday over Seton Hall.

Coaching matchup to watch: South Carolina's Darrin Horn at Western Kentucky, Saturday, 7 p.m. Horn is a Western Kentucky alum who took the Hilltoppers to the Sweet 16 in 2008. Horn left his alma mater for a higher-profile conference, but the Gamecocks might not be the better team in this matchup. The Hilltoppers' Juan Pattillo, an Oklahoma transfer, has had a double-double in four of five games this season.

Injury update: Seton Hall guard Jeremy Hazell will miss the next four to six weeks with a broken wrist, which means he could be back for the start of the Big East schedule. Hazell was off to an excellent start, showing more discipline with his shot. He averaged 24.0 points in three games while shooting 52.6 percent from the field. Meanwhile, Gonzaga could have star F Elias Harris back as early as tonight against Kansas State.

Stat watch: Syracuse has not been nearly as efficient as it was last season. It nearly sunk the Orange against William & Mary. Syracuse won 63-60, but there are a few problems that need to be solved before it faces North Carolina State on Dec. 4 and Michigan State on Dec. 7. Syracuse is shooting 42.4 percent from the floor (compared to 51.6 percent last season). And after going 5-of-22 from 3-point range against William & Mary, Syracuse is shooting just more than 30 percent from beyond the arc (39.1 last season). Losing Wes Johnson and Andy Rautins is a big reason, but Syracuse needs to find an offensive identity without those two.

Tournament implications: Old Dominion vs. Xavier, Monday, 8:30 p.m., Fox Sports Net, and VCU vs. Tennessee, Wednesday, 7 p.m., ESPN2. The Colonial Athletic Association hasn't received two NCAA tournament bids since 2007, when VCU won the conference tournament and ODU was an at-large selection. The CAA looks to be deep enough to get two this season, and we might see some indication of that this week when ODU and VCU get the chance for marquee victories in some preseason tournaments.

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