I’m writing this at almost 2 in the morning, so if you see any mistakes, bear with me and/or e-mail me. Happy Thanksgiving.
Usually these contrived holiday tournaments feature either a crappy field or one power team beating up on a mid-major. Not so with this year’s 76 Classic which will take place in Anaheim, California. As we did with Maui, we will take a team by team tour through the field (and hopefully guess the champion correctly like we did with Maui)
West Virginia v. Long Beach State
Gone are the John Beilein days of the 1-3-1 zone and the shooting tons of threes, but this West Virginia team packs some punch. There isn’t a Kevin Pittsnogle or a Joe Alexander type player, but the Mountaineers feature lots of depth. West Virginia has gotten just 12% of its points from beyond the arc so far this year, and they are shooting just 50% from the line, so they need to maximize their two point attempts. Given the fact that they have just a 50% EFG, they could be primed for an upset. The 49ers have a little bit better offense than West Virginia (albeit against worse competition) but their defense has been pretty bad so far this year, allowing almost a point per possession. Long Beach is going to have to shoot better than they have so far from beyond the arc to have a chance – their two most frequent shooters are a combined 18-54 from three.
Texas A&M v. Clemson
This is a matchup of two teams who are outside the conversation in their respective conferences and are itching to get into the conversation. The Tigers actually had a pretty damn good offense last year, averaging 116.1 points per 100 possessions, good for 16th nationally. This was fueled by their ability to get 2nd shots – they had the 17th best offensive rebounding team in the country. Of course, their best offensive rebounder from last year is gone, so that will be a point to watch. The Aggies meanwhile were thought of as a gritty defensive team by the mainstream, but in reality they were another very good offense. They scored 113.6 points per 100 possessions, but since they were so slow (65 possessions per game – 231st overall) their defensive numbers were inflated. The Aggies will probably rely on the Senior trio of Donald Sloan, Bryan Davis and Chinemelu Elonu (how was he not on the all name team?).
Portland v. UCLA
UCLA opened up their season by losing to Cal State Fullerton. I don’t see them suffering an upset here, for no other reason than the cliched one that they will have an opportunity to have a resume win in the semifinals. The three best players off the 3rd ranked Bruin offense last year (Darren Collison, Josh Shipp, Jrue Holliday) are all gone, and in their place are guys like Michael Roll and Nicola Dragovic. Roll actually had the 17th best O-Rating last year, partly buoyed by his 52% shooting from beyond the arc, but that was in extremely limited playing time. Regardless of UCLA’s struggles, I think they’ll come out on top.
Butler v. Minnesota
This is the game to watch. Butler, as we’ve said, is led by foul drawing/shooting machine Matt Howard. Howard has been pounding the defensive glass so far, but is really struggling in other areas of his game, posting just a 35.7 EFG. Willie Veasley, Gordon Hayword and Shelvin Mack have been picking up the slack in his downturn. The Gophers, meanwhile, have dealt with the dismissal of star recruit Royce White and have not been challenged yet. He takes a lot of shots, and sometimes some unnecessary ones, but Laurence Westbrook is the key to the Gophers offense. Even though he had just a 50% EFG he drew quite a few fouls for a guard and shot his free throws at an 83% clip last season. He also shot 35% from three.
This could go a lot of different ways, but I think I’m going to play it save and pick Butler to win the classic.