When Ole Miss dropped their first regular season game of 2014 to Charleston Southern, 65-66, most followers of the team threw their hands up in the all-too-common exasperation felt about Rebel basketball. Then, however, the Basketbears went on to win last year's Emerald City Classic and in the process knock off at-the-time No. 23 Creighton and perennial powerhouse Cincinnati.
Those early season tournament wins count for something. The Bearcats landed a No. 8 seed in 2015's NCAA Tournament, which earned them a second-round date with Kentucky, and we all know how that one ended. Still, many who know the calculus of March bracketology held up the Rebs' win over Cincinnati as some of the style points that pushed them into the Big Dance last year, and so this year's Charleston Classic presents a perfect opportunity for the Rebel roundballers to commence building their tournament résumé right here and now -- as is also the case with those other teams in attendance.
Towson, Long Beach State, Seton Hall, George Mason, Bradley, Oklahoma State, Virginia and Ole Miss. These eight teams travel to the Holy City on Thursday to begin a descending-echelon style mini-tournament consisting of 12 games in three days. Each team plays one game per day, and the two teams left undefeated on Sunday play a championship game. So simple. So easy. Tournament basketball, y'all.
Let's take a look at the field of 12.
No. 6 Virginia (ACC)
The Cavaliers represent the class of the tournament field. Last year's No. 2 seed in the East Region lost in the second round to Final-Four-bound Michigan State, and the Cavs are currently No. 4 in KenPom's estimation. True, UVA dropped a stunner to George Washington on Monday, but it's good to exorcise those demons early, as Ole Miss found out a year ago. Further, with an AdjD of 90.5 points allowed per 100 sets, Virginia sits just behind Kentucky is defensive prowess. Senior Malcolm Brogdon is one of the best guards in the country, and not just because he's clipping 16.5 points a night. The guy turned in 24 steals last year and 44 the year before, and his presence as leader, motivator and ubiquitous influencer throws the Cavaliers into another gear.
Oklahoma State (Big 12)
Should Ole Miss handle George Mason and Oklahoma State dispatch Towson, the Rebs and Cowboys will meet on Friday afternoon for wind sprints and fast-break drills. Oklahoma State ranks No. 56 in KenPom's latest check-in, with an AdjO metric of 107.1 points per 100 possessions. Jeff Newberry, Chris Olivier, and monster man Phil Forte III are all averaging more than 13 points per game, with Newberry currently on a 13.0-10.0 double-double streak. The Cowboys blasted UT Martin out of Stillwater, 91-57, in their season opener. Add in to the mix that a solid core of Travis Ford's men landed a No. 9 seed in last year's Dance -- only to lose to Oregon, whom Ole Miss beat during the regular season -- and a Cowboys-Rebels scrap on Friday could turn into a real spitting match.
George Mason (A 10)
The Patriots are Ole Miss' opening round opponent and they've dropped games to Colgate and Mercer so far this season. Otis Livingston, Marko Gujanicic and Marquise Moore are all averaging double digits in scoring, but only barely, and the Patriots' production falls precipitously off from there. Curiously, George Mason is putting up a better rebounding differential on the offensive end, 24-13, than on the defensive side of the wood (50-55), due in no small part to gargantuan Shevon Thompson, a 6'11 senior out of Jamaica. That sort of inside size could spell trouble forSebastian Saiz, who will have to be nimble in the post to gain separation.
Seton Hall (Big East)
The Pirates haven't played in the NCAA Tournament since 2006, but somehow it feels like they're always there. Perhaps that 2004 upset of Arizona, 80-76, in the first round still echoes out from so long ago. Anyway, at 2-0 with wins over Dartmouth and Wagner, Isaiah Whitehead enters the Charleston Classic averaging 18 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. Big men Angel Delgado and Ismael Senogo have both raked in 19 boards this season, and with an AdjT hovering around 80 possessions per 40 minutes, the 49ers also know the run 'n gun style of play.
Though the College of Charleston's TD Arena is the tournament's host site, the Cougars can only play in the tournament once every four years. So, Towson (1-1) will be the only representative from the Colonial Athletic Association, and they face off against Oklahoma State on the opening Thursday. William Adala Moto has poured in 35 points in the Tigers' first two games, and the team is averaging over 72 per outing (against La Salle and Morgan State, granted). Byron Hawkins and John Davis are also averaging double-digit points per game, and 6'8 forward Walter Foster has ripped off 19 boards. Last year's 12-20 (5-13 CAA) record surely stings, and chances are few that they squeak by the Cowboys.
Long Beach State (Big West)
The 49ers (2-0) comprise a major step up in level of play, having just beaten BYU, 66-65, on Nov. 16. A full five players are averaging more than 10 points per game, with senior guard Nick Faust accounting for 12 points and 7.5 boards per outing. Sophomore point man Justin Bibbins is strong on the dish with 12 assists on the season. Long Beach can also play fast when they want to, with a 72 AdjT according to Ken Pomeroy. That they're matched with Seton Hall first thing on Thursday night makes appointment viewing for 7:30 p.m. CT on ESPNU.
The Bradley Braves enter the weekend 1-1, fresh off a 90-60 shellacking at the hands of Arizona. Freshman guardDwayne Lautier-Ogunleye leads the team with 12 points per game, and with their first matchup set against Virginia, one expects very little from a team that went 9-24 (3-15 MVC) last season.
The uncanny draw of early season tournaments like the Charleston Classic is one of ignorance and surprise. Nobody ain't played nobody so far, and November wins can pay dividends on Selection Sunday next Spring.