Commentary

Butler one of several ranked teams at 76

Originally Published: November 25, 2009
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- OK, Brad Stevens, we get it. You've heard enough of this Final Four chatter in October and November.

Sounds cool, trendy and of course a bit over the top. Right?

Or maybe it's just hard to grasp for a program that has been considered the darling, not the targeted, for so long. To someone like Stevens, pitting Butler a favorite to reach Indianapolis doesn't make the least bit of sense.

"Trust me, I'd love to be a team there some day and I told our guys to believe in it," Stevens said after arriving in Anaheim on Tuesday for the 76 Classic, which begins on Thanksgiving, "but we're all stabbing at the dark to be there because you don't know about injuries and which guys will step up. I've never been there so it's hard for me to talk about it."

[+] EnlargeGordon Hayward
AP Photo/Michael ConroyIn Anaheim, Gordon Hayward and Butler will have their first chance in the national spotlight this season.

Whether No. 10 Butler is a legitimate Final Four team isn't going to be decided by Sunday night. But how the Bulldogs perform here might go a long way toward changing perception. If the favorites hold, Butler would have to go through Minnesota, UCLA and West Virginia or Clemson for the title. On Thursday, the Bulldogs open with the 16th-ranked Golden Gophers at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2.

Butler has already recorded two true road wins at depleted Northwestern and Evansville, and still has to play another two true road games at Ball State and UAB. And sandwiched in there is a game against Georgetown in the Jimmy V Classic in New York and home games against Ohio State and Xavier.

"How many teams will have already played in Chicago, in L.A. and then in New York in a span of two weeks?" said Stevens. "This is a heck of a test for us. Just like we have everybody back, so too does Minnesota."

The Bulldogs' big three of Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard have been as good as advertised. The big surprise may be the play of senior small forward Willie Veasley, who gets no pub despite averaging nine points and four rebounds per game last season. Veasley is at 9.7 points and 4.3 rebounds a game this season.

"He's outstanding," Stevens said. "He's been one of the most unselfish players we've had here. He didn't shoot 3s the first two years he was here and now he has made five in three games this season [he made 34 as a junior]. He has improved and been a team-first guy."

Butler will be an NCAA tournament team, a Horizon League champ and a squad that could make a run to Indianapolis. Will all those high hopes be justified with a tournament title this weekend?

"They're handling all of this great," Stevens said. "I don't think [the top-10 ranking has] been much of an issue at all. Being on the road so much has helped."

Here's a look at the other teams competing at the 76 Classic:

No. 16 Minnesota (3-0)

What's at stake? The Gophers have a shot to prove they can be a real contender in the Big Ten with a strong showing here. They open Thursday with a stiff test in No. 10 Butler.

Who has stood out so far? Lawrence Westbrook has been a go-to player with 18.5 points a game. He missed the Utah Valley win with food poisoning, but will return for the Butler game on Thanksgiving.

Who is the surprise? So much was made of the hyped newcomer class, but with suspensions taking out Royce White and Trevor Mbakwe, freshman Rodney Williams has emerged as a legit scorer with 15 ppg. He's shooting 65 percent from the field.

Projection: The Gophers should be an NCAA tournament team that can win a game or two while there. Anything less would be considered a disappointment in Minneapolis.

Portland (3-0)

What's at stake? The Pilots are coming off a seven-point home win over Oregon. The victory over the Ducks might be muted a bit by Oregon's loss to Montana. Still, it was a significant win and proves the Pilots are living up to their preseason hype of being a challenger to Gonzaga. Showing well in this tournament would do wonders for the Pilots' national profile, which has been dwarfed by Gonzaga, Saint Mary's and even San Diego of late. Portland's 17-point win over Seattle is looking better and better as Cameron Dollar's team now has wins over Weber State, Fresno State and at Utah.

Who's hot: Nik Raivio. The senior guard is averaging 19 points and nine rebounds. Yes, you read that right. The Pilots also are getting quality board work out of legacy big man Luke Sikma, who is pulling down 9.3 boards a game.

What will happen if … the Pilots beat UCLA (Thursday 11 ET, ESPN2)? Well, Portland will be relevant nationally for quite some time this season. The problem is, there is no guarantee Oregon and UCLA will be in the NCAAs. Portland will definitely play an NCAA tournament team Friday, regardless of what happens with Butler or Minnesota. The team has three remaining true road games -- at Idaho, Nevada and Washington. Could the Pilots find themselves in the at-large pool come March?

Prediction: Portland could be an NCAA team come March, but at the very least should be in the NIT.

UCLA (2-1)

What's at stake? Hate to say this in late November, but the Bruins' chances for an NCAA bid are in serious jeopardy if they don't do well here. Part of the reason is because the schedule is daunting in the coming weeks. After this slate of three games in four days, the Bruins host top-ranked Kansas, then play deeper and more experienced Mississippi State at the Wooden Classic here in Anaheim before a home game with New Mexico State (should be a win) and a road game at Notre Dame. The Bruins also have that stinging season-opening loss to Cal State Fullerton on the résumé.

Trouble: The suspension of Nikola Dragovic is not good. Dragovic's attorney says Dragovic was the victim, not the aggressor, and that they were stunned by the charges of felony assault. A year ago, Dragovic was arrested for battery with his live-in girlfriend, but no charges were filed. So the cloud above Dragovic still hovers and his status for this week is still unknown.

Injuries: The Bruins haven't been able to hold practices with the entire team because so many players, notably Tyler Honeycutt, have been hurt. The freshmen class has talent, led by Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson, but there needs to be more production.

Leadership: UCLA is still finding its identity, and it would help if someone would step up to become the go-to guy. Drew Gordon is scoring (15.7 ppg), but Malcolm Lee (13.3 ppg) probably has more of the game to be the man in late-game situations. The Bruins may have to harbor down and become a defensive team for their identity to emerge.

Prediction: The Bruins may struggle to get an NCAA bid at this juncture. An NIT berth is looking more realistic unless they can get on a nonconference roll and win some key games, beginning this week. Yes, the Fullerton loss did expose them that much and the Pac-10's poor nonconference showing so far means the league could be headed for just three bids, much like the SEC last season.

No. 8 West Virginia (2-0)

What's at stake? To some degree Villanova lived up to its hype by winning the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. The Cats are the preseason pick to win the Big East title. But West Virginia was given strong consideration to claim the title, too (including by me). But a lot of that depended on Devin Ebanks' being next to Da'Sean Butler. Ebanks hasn't played this season because of a personal absence that hasn't been explained by anyone at WVU. He was at The Citadel game Tuesday night in Charleston, W.Va., but it's still unclear if he will make the trip and play against Long Beach on Thanksgiving at 2 p.m. (ESPNU).

What's certain? The Mountaineers knew they would get scoring out of Butler and that's exactly what has occurred. He's scored 52 points in the team's first two games. Point guard Darryl Bryant isn't too shabby, either, with 15 points a game. The Mountaineers have also been getting good play out of Kevin Jones and Casey Mitchell. Expect solid role play out of Wellington Smith and John Flowers as well. The competition will change dramatically, but allowing an average of 55 points in two games is pretty darn good. If defense can be the staple, the Mountaineers will be difficult to stop.

Prediction: West Virginia has Final Four potential, but only if Ebanks is on board full-time. WVU is now no longer the lone pick to knock off Villanova from its favorite perch. Syracuse and Cincinnati have been very impressive in the early going. And that doesn't even include Louisville, Connecticut and Georgetown, all of which are still viable.

Long Beach State (3-1)

[+] EnlargeLarry Anderson
Matt Cashore/US PresswireThe 76 Classic is part of a brutal slate of games for Larry Anderson and Long Beach State.

What's at stake? The 49ers are essentially the home team here. What's at stake is that they have a chance to make a name for themselves like Cal State Fullerton did last week with an upset at UCLA. The Big West has lacked national recognition for some time, and there could be plenty of reason to pay attention if Long Beach can make itself relevant again.

The problem with the 49ers is that they play a brutal schedule. Regardless of what happens this week, beginning with the West Virginia game at 2 p.m. ET on Thursday (ESPNU), the 49ers still have to go to Texas, Kentucky and Duke (having already played and lost at Notre Dame). No one would expect a win at any of those three national title contenders, but the key will be to ensure coach Dan Monson doesn't have a confidence issue with this squad after that onslaught is over.

Hot hand: Monson brought in sophomore Larry Anderson with the hope he would be a contributor. Anderson saw his average go from 10.8 points last season to 18.8 through four games this season. If he can go off against the Mountaineers, then who knows, maybe the 49ers will have a chance for a signature win. But getting one win, let alone two, against this field will be extremely difficult.

Prediction: Making the NCAA tournament by becoming the Big West champ is still in play. There's no reason to believe Long Beach State won't be in the mix for the bid.

Texas A&M (3-0)

What's at stake? The Aggies may be the most intriguing team in this field. They are a bit of a mystery. Texas A&M has three victories so far, winning at SMU and over Angelo State and Samford. But the loss of Chinemelu Elonu early to the NBA draft, as well as the graduation of sharpshooting Josh Carter, raised serious questions about how well the Aggies could board inside and whether or not they had the talent to make a third straight NCAA appearance under Mark Turgeon.

The key was the return of Donald Sloan, Derrick Roland, David Loubeau and Bryan Davis. So far, Sloan (20 ppg), Roland (15.7) and Loubeau (10.7) have been consistently solid. But can this team become any more relevant now than it was a year ago, when it made a late run in the Big 12 to finish 9-7?

The schedule: The Ags have a much more daunting slate that will tell us a bit more about this squad. A home game against North Texas, one of the favorites in the Sun Belt, won't be an easy path to a win. Playing New Mexico, one of the hottest teams in the Mountain West, could be trouble -- obviously so could a road game at Washington in the Pac-10/Big 12 Hardwood Series. Having rival Texas twice on the schedule when the Longhorns are projected to go to the Final Four will be difficult. But having these power-rating games should help the overall perception of the team.

Prediction: I'm waiting to see this group. It's hard to project A&M in the NCAAs, but a surprisingly good showing here could make that prospect likelier.

No. 19 Clemson (4-0)

What's at stake? Clemson can position itself as a real player in the ACC title race if the Tigers get through this field. I don't think it's a reach at all to say Clemson should be one of the four teams that are favored to win this event (the others being West Virginia, Butler and Minnesota).

The program is hardly going soft in nonconference games this season. The rap on the Tigers in the past has been that they build up the win total in November and December against mush. But Clemson did play two true road games already, even if they were at Liberty and UNC Greensboro. Thursday's game against A&M (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2) starts a brutal stretch of games. After the 76 Classic, Clemson heads home to host Illinois in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and then hosts South Carolina. And guess where the Tigers open the ACC? Duke on Jan. 3. We will know sooner rather than later if Clemson is a real player.

What's to like? As expected, Trevor Booker has been a solid post player with 13.8 points and 10 rebounds a game. But the unknown was shooting and who else would be a major factor. Senior forward David Potter averaged just 4.9 points a game last season yet busted out with 17 in the win over Liberty. The Tigers have been consistent on offense with Tanner Smith, Andre Young and Noel Johnson all contributing well.

Clemson's defense has always been an Oliver Purnell staple. Purnell may not have as many high-flying athletes for his press, but the D has been just as effective, holding opponents to 53.3 points a game so far. The competition soon changes, though, and so too will the numbers.

Prediction: Clemson is an NCAA tournament team. Will it compete with Duke and UNC atop the ACC? How the Tigers perform this week will go a long way toward forming a perception of how good this team is and can be this season.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com