The early season tournament season is under way, first with the NIT Tip-Off and now the Puerto Rico Classic, beginning Thursday.
The even in San Juan will be a proving ground for the major teams involved. For NC State, it’s a chance to prove the Wolfpack belong in the national elite. For Oklahoma State, Tennessee and UMass, it’s a chance to prove they’re ready to contend for the NCAA Tournament.
Here’s our preview of the action down in Puerto Rico
Overriding question: Can NC State deliver on preseason promise?
After adding McDonald’s All-American Rodney Purvis to Sweet 16 veterans C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown, the Wolfpack will be under the microscope early this season. Being picked by ACC coaches to win the league (Athlon picked NC State second after Duke) only ramped up expectations. NC State will be tested, though, in San Juan. If NC State is indeed an ACC title contender, the Wolfpack should make easy work of its side of the bracket, but Oklahoma State and Tennessee -- both hopeful to return to the NCAA Tournament -- are stocked with talent. Emerge from this field, and NC State will be on its way to delivering on expectations. Fail, and Mark Gottfried’s team will have questions into games against Michigan and Connecticut.
Intriguing matchup: Oklahoma State vs. Tennessee in the semifinal
Both have realistic hopes of returning to the NCAA Tournament after falling short last season. A potential meeting between the two teams Friday could be telling. Oklahoma State added freshman point guard Marcus Smart to the mix this season. He could be a stabilizing force who make the talent around him better. That seemed to be the case in the opener when Smart had seven assists and eight points in the 73-65 win over UC Davis. Tennessee was green to start last season but improved enough to go 10-6 in the SEC. That wasn’t enough for an NCAA Tourney bid, but it built plenty of momentum for the Volunteers’ this season.
Player to watch: Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee
Stokes was a major reason for the Vols’ resurgence late in the season, so how his presence for a full season lifts Cuonzo Martin’s team will be worth watching. In Puerto Rico, Stokes will be even more the focal point as fellow forward Jeronne Maymon misses the remainder of the month while recovering from knee surgery. Together, Stokes and Maymon form the SEC’s top frontcourt. For the time being, Stokes is going to have to get used to double and triple teams.
PUERTO RICO TIP-OFF
Site: San Juan, Puerto Rico
Individual matchup to watch: Penn State’s Tim Frazier vs. NC State’s Lorenzo Brown
Brown, the top point guard in the ACC, will be worth watching throughout the tournament. He’ll open with Tim Frazier, who’s a one-man show for a team that’s going to struggle to win games in the Big Ten this season. From there, Brown could face UMass’ 5-foot-9 dynamo Chaz Williams and potentially either Tennessee’s Trae Golden or Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart.
Freshman to watch: Rodney Purvis, NC State
The McDonald’s All-American is the only new face in the NC State starting lineup, which returns four starters from last season. Brown, Leslie and forward Richard Howell will shoulder more of the load than Purvis, so he needs to be more of a complementary player. At least in the opener, he thrived in that role.
Mid-major to watch: UMass
The Minutemen already had a close call this season, scoring the final eight points in a 67-64 win over Harvard on Tuesday. Point guard Chaz Williams scored 12 points and added 10 assists, the last of which off a drive to the basket to Sampson Carter for the game-winning three-pointer against the Crimson. The Minutemen draw Providence, who will struggle to win games without point guard Vincent Council.
By David Fox