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What we learned from early season tourneys


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Four Big East teams — Pitt (Legends), Syracuse (CBE), UConn (Paradise Jam) and Villanova (Philly Classic) — and three teams from the ACC — North Carolina (Maui), Duke (2K Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer) and Wake Forest (Anaheim) — won tournament titles.

Legitimate national championship contenders

North Carolina

Point guard Ty Lawson's decision to return for his junior year is already paying huge dividends. Lawson scored 22 points and had 11 assists as the Tar Heels blew past Notre Dame in Maui and was an easy choice for MVP in that high-powered classic. He had 22 assists and only two turnovers in three games on the island.

Connecticut

The Huskies showed they have the ability to make a run at the whole thing when they defeated Miami in the semifinals of the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands, then squeezed the life out of Wisconsin with full-court pressure in the finals, scoring 31 points off turnovers in a 76-57 win. It hasn't taken long for freshman point guard Kemba Walker, who had 12 points and four steals in 29 minutes off the bench against the Badgers, to make an impact.

Legitimate candidates for the Final Four

Duke

The Blue Devils won their four games in the 2K Classic by an average of 28.5 points, defeating improved Michigan, 71-56, in the finals at the Garden. We like the changes Mike Krzyzewski has made in his lineup, plugging sophomore Nolan Smith, a quicker, more effective on-the-ball defender, at the point for gritty but still injured Greg Paulus; going with a more traditional front line, starting 7-0 junior Brian Zoubek in the middle to take some of the stress off versatile 6-8 sophomore Kyle Singler, who no longer has to be the team's lone inside scoring option; and bringing a seemingly re-energized Lance Thomas off the bench as a sixth man. The Dukies should have fresher legs this March.

Gonzaga

The Zags, who are the best team on the West Coast, have developed a necessary toughness to go with their experience and perimeter shooting, punching out SEC favorite Tennessee, 83-74, to win the Old Spice Classic — the one tournament that could match up with Maui — in neutral Orlando. We're still not sure about their rebounding, but they can shoot it from distance, making 11 threes against the Vols, including four from sophomore guard Steven Gray.

Pitt

The Big East's Panthers prefer to play in the 80s, but they showed they can grind it out, too, holding Washington State to just three points in the final 4:59 of a 57-43 victory in the finals of the Legends Classic at Newark, N.J. Pitt is allowing just 59 points per game.

Better than we thought

Oklahoma

It's easy to see why NBA scouts feel the Sooners' 6-10, 251-pound sophomore Blake Griffin will be the first pick in the draft this June. Griffin lit up the Garden at the NIT Season Tipoff, going off for 32 points and 15 rebounds in a semifinal victory over UAB and then accumulating another double double — with 18 points and 21 rebounds — during an overtime victory against a tough Purdue team that could contend in the Big Ten.

Syracuse

The Orange distinguished themselves from other Big East wannabes when they defeated Florida on a neutral court in Kansas City, Mo., then defeated defending national champion Kansas, 89-81, in overtime in a de facto road game at the Sprint Center to win the CBE Classic. Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim got back in the game when he abandoned his 2-3 zone and went to an aggressive man-to-man defense with 14 minutes to go in regulation and his balanced team caught fire.

Davidson

Junior All-America guard Stephen Curry is the one player I'd pay to see in college basketball. Curry may play in the Southern Conference, but he has personally made Bob McKillop's Wildcats nationally competitivve, exploding for 44 points, making six threes and personally willing his team back from a 21-point deficit during a 82-78 loss to Oklahoma in the NIT Season Tipoff regional finals at Norman.

Biggest surprises

Xavier

The Musketeers struggled with Missouri and needed a half-court shot to get by Virginia Tech in overtime at the Puerto Rico Tipoff in San Juan and frankly, we had questions about their point guard situation when the season began. But the Atlantic 10 favorites got a huge national win when freshman point guard Terrell Holloway, stepping in for departed Drew Lavender, shot a 10-for-10 from the line and scored 13 points as the Musketeers defeated Memphis, 65-58, in the championship game.

Tennessee

We thought there might be some transition here after Bruce Pearl lost his two best 3-point shooters — Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith — but the Vols look like they haven't missed a beat. Forward Tyler Smith might be the star of this SEC contender, but UT, which defeated Georgetown, 90-78, in the semifinals of the Old Spice Classic, can go 10 deep and wore out the exhausted Hoyas with defensive pressure, forcing 20 turnovers.

Not as good as we thought

UCLA

Ben Howland has coached the Bruins to three straight Final Fours, but four might be a stretch for this young team. All-America center Kevin Love is gone and it may be time to take the leash off gifted freshman guard Jrue Holiday, the best of Howland's prime-time but unproven recruits.

Memphis

It's obvious John Calipari's post-NCAA runner-up is a work in progress. Freshman guard Tyreke Evans, a top 5 recruit last year, will eventually be an NBA first-round drft pick, but he is not the second coming of Derrick Rose. Evans scored 12 points, but was 4-for-16 from the field during the loss to Xavier, and the Tigers, who were notorious for their free-throw shooting woes last year, were 15-for-30 from the line and allowed the Musketeers to shoot 37 free throws.

Michigan State

We're willing to write off the Spartans' 80-62 loss to Maryland, a bottom-tier ACC team, in the first round of the Old Spice Classic as just one of those early-season abberations. But talented junior forward Raymar Morgan, who took three shots and scored four points in a foul-plagued 14 minutes, has to be a consistent factor if Michigan State wants to advance deep into March Madness.

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