Mickey and Mai Tais: Early-season excursions test teams' mettle

Jared Trexler
College Basketball Contributing Editor

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - I always marveled at the way Gene Keady pulled off the Hawaiian attire.

The former Purdue head coach was a broad-shouldered, steely-eyed man's man, one of those guys never caught with the pink drink or snacking on Wheat Thins. Yet, Keady would gladly wear a necklace made of flowers to spend several days on the Big Island judging the readiness of his players, testing their late- game execution and learning the proficiencies and deficiencies of his team in a true tournament setting only replicated when it matters most in March.

It was that important to him and his Boilermakers. Just like it is important to every coach searching for answers. Early-season holiday visits run the spectrum in beauty and luxury. The envious embark on San Juan, Maui, Cancun and Disney. Others are regulated to "holidays" in Charleston, South Carolina and Kansas City, Missouri.

Yet, no matter if a team's plane lands in paradise or purgatory, the main purpose is to pass a litmus test set forth by a variety of tournament-quality circumstances that expose and elevate teams and players for the long, winding road ahead.

When coaches return home from these events they have "teaching moments" on tape and internal player reports full of situations to focus on in individual skill drills. Practice is a valuable commodity between Thanksgiving and Christmas, as players and coaches juggle family time, fall final exams and practice in a time period void of many actual games.

Those that are played are pivotal to all involved. Everyone has a job to do. This isn't about Mickey and Mai Tais, but rather the self-discovery for each coach and his players.

Below are the marquee early-season tournaments of note complete with what to watch for and team thoughts.


When: Championship rounds on November 22-23 in Kansas City, Missouri

Team Thoughts: Like many Gazelle Group-run events, the four marquee host schools automatically advance to the championship round no matter an improbable upset in earlier games. Duke's first showcase with the target on its back begins versus Marquette on Monday, which returns Darius Johnson-Odom but also features plenty of fresh faces in what is being initially billed as a rebuilding year. The marquee game of the semifinal round features Kansas State and Gonzaga, which already lost to San Diego State in an earlier round. After Zags head coach Mark Few takes tournament organizers to dinner as a show of thanks for the format, he must find a way to better handle the backboards. The Aztecs took it to the Bulldogs on the glass, and if Kansas State's Curtis Kelly plays, which is still up in the air, the task will certainly be tall.

What to Watch For: Easing into the season was a plus for freshman point guard Kyrie Irving and transfer Seth Curry, who have demonstrated their skill sets as advertised. Irving is running Duke's well-oiled machine to a better than 3- to-1 assist to turnover ratio and Curry is making over 50 percent of his long- range shots. Now the test comes, not necessarily against the Golden Eagles, but in how Irving handles a pro-Wildcat atmosphere in Kansas City if Jacob Pullen's club gets past Gonzaga. The talent barometer is through the roof at this tournament with the likes of Duke's Kyle Singler and Pullen (two-fifths of my preseason All-American team) along with Gonzaga's Stephen Gray, who scored 35 points in the loss to the Aztecs. Look for the maturation of a Gonzaga supporting cast; it may determine its success outside the bubble of the West Coast Conference. Also keep an eye on Kansas State's "other players", which all stepped up in the victory over Virginia Tech. Was that a mirage? If not, these Wildcats are nationally legit bordering on title-worthy when Pullen stays out of foul trouble.


When: Championship rounds on November 26-27 in Atlantic City, New Jersey

Team Thoughts: Another Gazelle Group event will bring Georgia Tech, Michigan, Syracuse and Texas El-Paso to Atlantic City in the days following Thanksgiving. This classic should be dubbed "teams in transition" because each is shifting and at times sliding to find its place. Georgia Tech has a young team, but head coach Paul Hewitt may be running out of time, especially after an embarrassing loss to Kennesaw State last week. Michigan's head coach may have more rope, but John Beilein is using his early-season travels as a way to incorporate seven freshman and six sophomores to his 1-3-1 zone defense and offensive philosophy based on sharp cuts without the ball and spacing. One of the freshmen, Tim Hardaway, Jr. (name sound familiar?) is off to a flying start. Syracuse's Kris Joseph is struggling early in his role as "the man", shooting under 30 percent and averaging less than double figures before Sunday's breakout. His teammate Rick Jackson is off to a good start as the Orange's main threat on the interior. UTEP's main draw is its new head coach, Tim Floyd, but the early returns already include a loss to Pacific, which in turn was waxed by still-evolving UCLA.

What to Watch For: Randy Culpepper is a great guard to build a program around, and Floyd has the sweet shooter at his disposal. Culpepper can take over games, and after watching the Yellow Jackets twice this season, I wonder if they can handle Culpepper's dribble penetration. Speaking of Georgia Tech, a team still developing its identity should attack the rim more. Look at the movement in the Yellow Jackets' offense, as stagnation equals wasted scoring trips. Their top two scorers, Glen Rice, Jr. and Iman Shumpert, are hovering around the 20-percent shooting mark from long distance. Syracuse rarely leaves the state of New York before conference play, so head coach Jim Boeheim's venture several hours south should be a good acclimation project for star freshman Fab Melo, who has been unselfish, bordering on tentative to date.


When: November 22-24

Team Thoughts: "Aloha" will be a tough goodbye for fans who flock to Maui to see a big-time event with storylines abound. One team with a solid identity, Michigan State, leads a field with several "name" programs searching for theirs while plodding through the early season. Who are John Calipari's Kentucky Wildcats sans John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins via the NBA draft and Enes Kanter due to eligibility issues stemming from a form of salary he took while playing in Turkey? Who are Jim Calhoun's Connecticut Huskies after Kemba Walker and with recruiting violations hanging over the program's head? Who are the Oklahoma Sooners, the team that routed Coppin State or needed overtime to escape North Carolina Central? The tournament's sleeper may be Washington, the Pac-10 favorite with the speedy guard, Isaiah Thomas. The field also includes Virginia, which is trying to resurrect itself from the bottom of the ACC, and tourney host Chaminade.

What to Watch For: The maturity of Michigan State in its first test of the season. Everyone waxes about the veteran presences on the floor and on the sidelines, and rightfully so. The Spartans should get a good test of their moxie in any of several major-conference players. It will be interesting to see Washington's Thomas use his speed to test the repaired Achilles of the Spartans Kalin Lucas if the two teams square off. Lucas' burst and lateral quickness are basketball traits only truly tested in game situations. Look at how UConn's Walker integrates the rest of his teammates in the offense. A nameless supporting cast will need to be recognized if the Huskies are to mature throughout the season. The ball will initially be in Walker's hands so he is largely responsible for their growth.


When: November 24-27 in Anchorage, Alaska

Team Thoughts: This is the quintessential barometer event for new head coach Steve Lavin's St. John's Red Storm. Dwayne Poole, Jr. showed plenty of promise in the narrow loss at St. Mary's and in the second half of a comeback victory over Columbia. This tournament is manageable for Lavin's crew with just one other power school in the field, Arizona State. The Sun Devils are not seen as a serious threat in the Pac-10 then went out and laid an egg in a season- opening loss to New Mexico. Ball State already had one game to judge its competition level on Saturday versus an angry Butler squad at Hinkle Fieldhouse, and it drove into a buzzsaw, 88-55. This field also includes Southeastern Louisiana from the Southland Conference, Southern Utah from the Summit, Houston Baptist from the Great West and tourney host Alaska-Anchorage, a Division-II squad.

What to Watch For: Keady traded in his Hawaiian shirts for parkas. He is now an assistant under his former disciple Lavin, and the two could not have different appearances. So, after talking with friends about Lavin's New York motif, look at St. John's set offense, because we already know the Red Storm is athletic enough to generate points in transition. Also, make a note to watch Arizona State guard Trent Lockett, a sharpshooter who can fill up a stat sheet quickly.


When: November 25, 26, 28 in Orlando, Florida

Team Thoughts: The fifth edition of this event may feature its most balanced field. Steve Donahue's first real test as Boston College's new head coach will come on the 25th versus Texas A&M in a matchup of two teams that may end on the NCAA bubble, which means a victory is a big-time notch on the resume. Lavoy Allen and nationally-ranked Temple can score one for mid-majors and the Atlantic-10 by taking down California, which is not the same team without departed guard Jerome Randle. Jon Leuer is the benefactor to Jordan Taylor's freelance ability, and Wisconsin's offense runs through those two and Josh Gasser. The Badgers are seen as a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten finisher this season, so winning this event would go a long way to disposing that notion. Georgia has already taken down power-conference foe Colorado without projected conference standout Trey Thompkins, while Notre Dame's offense and defense go through Ben Hansbrough.

What to Watch For: Defenses. Several of these squads' personalities are framed by their defensive identifies. Temple plays a lot of matchup zone with plenty of length on the wings. Wisconsin plays tight on-ball man-to-man with solid principles, as does Notre Dame. Points may be at a premium in a tournament that also features the coaching talents of California's Mike Montgomery, the Fighting Irish's Mike Brey and Wisconsin's Bo Ryan.


When: November 25, 26, 28 in Anaheim, California

Team Thoughts: How big is the loss of J.T. Thompson? It looked large as Virginia Tech didn't put up much of a fight -- unless it was with the officials -- in last week's loss to Kansas State. It appeared to be a perfect storm for Virginia Tech, as Pullen was saddled with early foul trouble and Kelly was out due to disciplinary reasons. Yet, the Hokies' struggles coincided with Malcolm Delaney's shooting woes, and there was no one else (where were you Dorenzo Hudson?) to pick up the slack. Virginia Tech starts this event versus Cal State Northridge, which has already been handled by both UCLA and California. Oliver Purnell left Clemson for DePaul in an offseason move seen by many as lateral at best (despite the Chicago media market and the Blue Demons place in the Big East). He already has headaches with his team's inconsistent shooting, resulting in an early-season loss to Western Carolina. Oklahoma State eases through the out-of-conference slate, so this event is its only measuring stick until a New Year's Eve tilt with Gonzaga. The rest of the field includes Murray State, in the first Fine 15, but now out after an uninspired performance in a 16-point loss to Mississippi, Stanford, Tulsa and UNLV, which dropped Old Spice Classic participant Wisconsin, 68-65, to notch an impressive tournament-resume booster on Saturday.


  • 1. Maryland needs to practice free throws. The Terrapins had Pittsburgh on the first-half ropes, leading, controlling the game's pace and handling the glass with Panthers standout Brad Wanamaker on the bench with two fouls. However, an early 0-for-6 effort from the charity stripe allowed Pittsburgh to surge to a four-point lead late in the opening 20 minutes. Overall, Maryland was 14-of-30 in a nine-point loss. It was better (13-of-18) in a four-point defeat at the hands of Illinois, but consistency on freebies will be mandatory come conference play. One silver lining is the Terps played two possible Top 10 teams within single digits despite two setbacks.

  • 2. Demetri McCamey's two 20-plus-point outings in New York didn't just label him a true scorer, but also an efficient one. McCamey played within himself in an 8-for-16 effort in the overtime loss to Texas, but had to have more than 15 combined points from Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale. He needed just nine shots to score 20 points in the consolation game victory over Maryland, but again Illinois' inside combination scored just 15 total points. They or D.J. Richardson need to support McCamey's unselfish effort or the guard will need to change his offensive mindset.

  • 3. Great job by Dante Taylor and Lamar Patterson off the bench in the victory over Maryland. Wanamaker played very little in the first half, yet the Panthers withstood the storm and pushed ahead in the second half. Pittsburgh's bench will be important in Big East play because its physical style will put head coach Jamie Dixon in some foul predicaments.

  • 4. Texas is better than many thought. The young Longhorns stood toe to toe with two heavyweights, inching past Illinois in overtime then dropping a two- point decision to the Panthers. Jordan Hamilton was big time with 28 points in the loss to Pitt. Cory Joseph was out of control on the sprint to the basket in the final seconds, which is a sign of inexperience. A more mature player is not only under control but eyeing both the rim and wing players for a last- second drive-and-kick jumper.


  • 1. North Carolina can't play in the half court, which leads to unnecessary chances on defense, which leads to easy baskets for the opposition. It is no surprise a Roy Williams-coached team is more comfortable in transition, but the Tar Heels have no half court offensive identity in the season's early stages. Freshman Harrison Barnes' preseason knock was his lack of killer instinct, and the super talent must quickly learn the offense must move through him and skilled post man Tyler Zeller. Far too often North Carolina is playing an off- the-dribble game with somebody other than Barnes, when in truth the ball should enter the post at least once to space the defense. North Carolina will improve, but this was just another example of meaningless preseason rankings. This team is still unsettled at the point with a freshman go-to player and a lack of frontcourt depth.

  • 2. John Jenkins is a big-time scorer with great feel for time and place on the court. Vanderbilt needs more consistency from Jeffrey Taylor, who scored just five points in the loss to West Virginia before a better 15-point outing in the victory over North Carolina. The biggest surprise out of Puerto Rico may be the improvement of Commodores big man Festus Ezeli. The loss of A.J. Ogilvy to graduation was supposed to make the Commodores a more well-rounded team in the words of head coach Kevin Stallings at SEC Media Days. Ezeli's evolution into an offensive threat, a more adequate free-throw shooter (he shot below 40 percent last season) and a better rebounder will make the Vandy opposition respect the interior instead of shadowing an extra defender to Jenkins' side of the court.

  • 3. These Golden Gophers may run through Al Nolen, but balance and fundamentals cement Tubby Smith's bunch as Big Ten sleepers. Nolen is a legitimate scorer, but Minnesota received contributions from Blake Hoffarber, Trevor Mbakwe and Colton Iverson in victories over North Carolina and West Virginia that will help seeding come March. Yes, I said seeding not selection. Barring major injury, these Golden Gophers will be playing meaningful hoops later this season.

  • 4. Casey Mitchell can fill it up, scoring 31 and 27 points in the two pivotal games in San Juan. Yes, West Virginia came up small in the final loss to Minnesota, but it wasn't because of Mitchell's productivity. One wonders what happened to the sweet stroke of Joe Mazzulla, though, and the Mountaineers can't survive the arduous Big East schedule without another player but Mitchell in double figures.

    FINE 15

    1. Duke (3-0): Its first test comes this week against a top-20 team and its star player (here's hoping its Pullen and Kansas State).

    2. Michigan State (2-0): Spartans' offensive efficiency is a good sign as they embark on the distractions of Maui.

    3. Pittsburgh (5-0): Almost moved it up a spot with two quality victories over Maryland and Texas in New York. The bench -- and Ashton Gibbs -- proved big.

    4. Kansas State (3-0): A lot to digest. Pullen now sixth on school's all-time scoring list, but effort and execution was lacking over the weekend in victory over Presbyterian. Wildcats may have been guilty of looking ahead to statement week, but will they have Kelly back?

    5. Villanova (4-0): Tour through Northeast mid-majors gets broken up by statement game against upstart UCLA. It is the first and only look at how good Wildcats are until the game versus Temple just before the New Year.

    6. Syracuse (4-0): Syracuse looks out of sync early, still figuring out role definition and it almost caught up with it in a three-point win over William & Mary. Freshman Fab Melo is prime example with a goose egg on the scoreboard in just 12 minutes against the Tribe. The good news? Kris Joseph was better with 18 points in the win.

    7. Kansas (3-0): Big news in Lawrence comes when Josh Shelby can play.

    8. Illinois (4-1): Overtime loss to Texas does not hurt Illini too much as they still pass the eye test. Now, time to find a secondary scoring option.

    9. Missouri (2-0): Fast and furious tempo meant great returns versus North Florida. Western Illinois played at a snails pace, and lost by just five to the Tigers in the opener. Missouri's success will come with dictating tempo, but also being able to grind out victories in conference play.

    10. BYU (3-0): Six-point victory over Utah State better than non-purists realize. Jimmer Fredette has been as advertised early.

    11. Baylor (3-0): LaceDarius Dunn's season debut could come Monday night versus Lipscomb. Struggles versus LaSalle illustrated his importance.

    12. Purdue (3-0): E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson are doing the heavy lifting, which is fine against the Alcorn State's of the world. Another week to find more offensive balance before Virginia Tech comes calling.

    13. Kentucky (2-0): Who are these Wildcats? Maui will provide a glimpse at the answer.

    14. Memphis (3-0): Good second-half rebound by a young team to down LSU. Coupled with victory over Miami-Florida, these Tigers are maturing fast.

    15. Florida (3-1): Took foot off the gas in second half versus Morehead State. Gators shot under 30 percent from beyond the arc. Troubles still lie in that area.

    Trexler is the author of "99 Things You Wish You Knew Before...Filling Out Your Hoops Bracket." Click HERE to purchase the Kindle version...and stay tuned on an updated hardcopy edition this winter! Trexler also wrote "Penn State Football: An Interactive Guide To The World of Sports", a detailed look at the Nittany Lions' storied football history. It can be purchased HERE.

    Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Jared Trexler at jtt128@comcast.net.

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