In a field full of mid-level high major basketball programs, it is two non-BCS programs that may just rise up. The 2012 Old Spice Classic does not boast the most star-studded field but it does have the makings of a very competitive tournament. Gonzaga and fellow non-BCS squad Davidson are the current 'sexy' picks to advance to the finals but a number of heavy hitters are laying in wait.
The Field. As I said, this is a bit of an odd combination of decent major teams and two of the top non-BCS teams. On one half of the bracket, we have West Virginia, Marist, Davidson, and Vanderbilt. One the bottom half, we have Oklahoma, UTEP, Clemson, and Gonzaga. Over the past five years, each of these teams have had plenty of incredible moments. Whether it was Da'Sean Butler for West Virginia, Blake Griffin for Oklahoma, Steph Curry for Davidson, or Clemson having incredible regular seasons, these are some programs that know how to win. As it stands now, most of them are rebuilding or are in the early process of reloading.
Interestingly enough, Davidson is probably the other best team heading into the tournament but has struggled this year. They return all five starters from a team that won the Southern Conference last year but are 1-2 on the young season with not so good losses to New Mexico and Milwaukee. The Wildcats will enter the Old Spice as a team looking to jump star this season and three solid wins are just what they need. Leading Davidson is Jake Cohen, a versatile senior forward who is extremely efficient and can get things done in so many ways. Standing in Davidson's way to a championship appearance is...you guessed it...West Virginia. The Mountaineers are in desperate need of a bounce back after a tough start to the season headlined by a 34 point loss to Gonzaga. Make no mistake, West Virginia is still going to be a very dangerous team in 2012 and this tournament might be their jumping off point.
Gonzaga's first matchup is against a pretty intriguing team, the ACC's Clemson Tigers. I say intriguing because this is a team that has a hard time adjusting to new coach Brad Brownell. Their two leaders Devin Booker and Milton Jennings haven't exactly had the best relationships with Brownell. This season, Booker was suspended for violating team rules and last season, Jennings and Brownell got in each others face and Jennings wound up suspended. Both are super talented players but really do need to carry the Tigers this season. Three starters from last year need to be replaced and it remains to be seen who exactly can fill those roles. UTEP and Oklahoma are in the other first round game on Gonzaga's side and many expect OU to come out of this game. Steven Pledger leads the Sooners but, like the other teams in this tournament, they are going to struggle with depth in 2012.
The Outlook. As unbiased as I can possibly be...this is a tournament that Gonzaga should absolutely win. According to Ken Pomeroy, Gonzaga is easily the odds on favorite to win the tournament. They are a 52% favorite to win, followed by Davidson at 15%. Numbers aside, the Bulldogs and Davidson are really the two programs in this tournament that aren't still looking for holes to fill in their rotation. While Oklahoma, West Virginia, Clemson, and Vanderbilt all have nice pieces to the puzzle, only the Bulldogs and Davidson tout a talented and experienced core. One player that Zags haven't had at their disposal yet is Kelly Olynyk. The redshirt big from Canada is expected to compete for big minutes and potentially start for Mark Few. Depending on his ability, he can make the Zags go from dangerous to downright deadly.
The Picks. Here's how I have it. Winners in bold:
West Virginia v. Marist
Davidson v. Vanderbilt
Oklahoma v. UTEP
Gonzaga v. Clemson
West Virginia v. Davidson
UTEP v. Gonzaga
West Virginia v. Gonzaga
The Schedule (All Times Pacific)
West Virginia vs. Marist, 10 a.m. (ESPN2)
Vanderbilt vs. Davidson, 12 p.m (ESPN2)
Oklahoma vs. UTEP, 5 p.m. (ESPN2)
Gonzaga vs. Clemson, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)
West Virginia-Marist winner vs. Vanderbilt-Davidson winner, 10:30 a.m. (ESPN)
Oklahoma-UTEP winner vs. Gonzaga-Clemson winner, 5:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
West Virginia-Marist loser vs. Vanderbilt-Davidson loser, 1 p.m. (ESPNU)
Oklahoma-UTEP loser vs. Gonzaga-Clemson loser, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
Championship game, 5 p.m. (ESPN2)
Third-place game, 2:30 p.m. (ESPNU)
Fifth-place game, 9:30 a.m. (ESPNU)
Seventh-place game, 12 p.m. (ESPN3)