Tournament: Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off
When and where: Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, Nov. 21-22
Teams involved: Bufalo, Florida, NC A&T, Niagara, Old Dominion, Purdue, Saint Joseph's, Vermont
Initial thoughts: After last season, Purdue coach Matt Painter gave A.J. Hammons a reality check. The big man with big dreams and a motor that's too often near empty thought about turning pro. There was no guarantee that he'd get drafted and avoid life in the D-League, Painter told him. Plus, Hammons, who finished 11th nationally in block percentage, had more work to do. The young man who scored 17 points (7-for-10) and grabbed 10 rebounds in a first-round loss to Cincinnati in the NCAA tournament? Hammons must bring him to every game.
That's what Painter tried to convey to Hammons, who ultimately decided to stay in West Lafayette for another season. At the time, Painter didn't know that he'd enter 2015-16 with one of the best frontcourts in America. A month later, Purdue secured that distinction when Caleb Swanigan, the 6-foot-8, 275-pound prospect who was ranked ninth in the 2015 class by RecruitingNation, de-committed from Michigan State and picked Purdue in May. Add Isaac Haas, the 7-2 center who averaged 7.6 PPG in just 14.6 MPG and the return of six of the seven top scorers from an NCAA tourney team and you have the most intriguing assembly in the Big Ten.
Yes, Maryland is the frontrunner to win the conference crown and the Terrapins could be the No. 1 team in America entering the season. Michigan State is strong again. Tom Crean has NBA talent and athleticism at every slot. Caris LeVert is back for Michigan. Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker are in the NBA now, but Nigel Hayes could be the next Draymond Green as he takes on a greater role for Wisconsin.
The Boilermakers, however, look like a squad that could play its way into the top tier of the league.
The field for the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip Off doesn't stand out. Not this year. But it has some interesting storylines.
Old Dominion knocked off VCU, Richmond, LSU and Murray State last season. Will Jeff Jones' squad pick up a pair of Power 5 victories in this tournament? How will former Louisiana Tech coach Michael White handle his new assignment at Florida? Can St. Joseph's DeAndre Bembry pull St. Joseph's from the A-10's basement after a 13-18 season? And will Purdue live up to the surprising and sudden hype?
Why you'll want to watch: White kept three of the four recruits in a good recruiting class that Billy Donovan assembled. And Dorian Finney-Smith returns, along with promising sophomore Devin Robinson and hot-cold point guard Kasey Hill. The Gators lost Chris Walker and Michael Frazier II to the pros and Eli Carter, who transferred to Boston College.
Robinson could develop into a pro. But he was just too small last season. He'll grow in 2015-16 and bulk up. He has to.
A championship game between Purdue's strong frontcourt and a Florida team that will play through its wings could be interesting. Freshman KeVaughn Allen, a four-star shooting guard, will play big minutes early for White's squad.
Florida in flux is one reason to watch.
But Old Dominion, which finished 39th overall in adjusted defensive efficiency, has another strong crew and a Conference USA contender with Trey Freeman (16.9 PPG) back to lead. The addition of East Carolina transfer Brandan Stith, who has a 7-foot wingspan, should help Old Dominion on the defensive end.
Florida-Purdue is a possibility, but Purdue can't overlook Old Dominion in the opening round. Without a strong mix of teams, this tournament is at a disadvantage. Some of the individual talents provide the best reasons to watch.
It's not easy to disrupt the entire recruiting scene but Swanigan's de-commitment from Michigan State did just that. It's not clear why he made the decision, but if things work out in West Lafayette, he won't stay long.
He's a powerful big man who should be a load for any opponent. And he'll push Hammons. The senior has no guarantees with Swanigan and Haas back. That competition should be a good one for the entire program. If you're a big man at Purdue and you don't bring it every night, you won't play. It's that simple.
Bembry has a beautiful afro and game. But he struggled against St. Joe's top opponents last season. He finished 14-for-40 (35 percent) combined in three games against ranked opponents (Gonzaga, Villanova and VCU). But the 6-6 forward has a chance to elevate his profile if he succeeds in this tournament.
Same goes for Robinson, who had the instincts and ability last year but lacked the muscle. He'll play a larger role for Florida.
Freeman scored 25 points in a win over LSU last November. He's an essential contributor for Old Dominion.
Swanigan, however, will be the main attraction in a tournament that, on paper, won't make anyone too excited but will still provide a glimpse of some of the country's most talented players.