Things to know for the 76 Classic
The 76 Classic served as a springboard for two eventual Final Four teams last season (Butler and West Virginia), and this season's field includes five teams that made the NCAA tournament or the NIT in 2009-10.
The action at the Anaheim Convention Center gets going on Thanksgiving with four games. Virginia Tech-Cal State Northridge (ESPNU, 2 p.m. ET) tips things off, followed by DePaul-Oklahoma State (ESPN2, 4:30 ET), Murray State-Stanford (ESPNU, 9 ET) and Tulsa-UNLV (ESPN2, 11:30 p.m. ET) in the opening round.
So while you're giving thanks for plenty of good basketball being played during Feast Week, here are some thoughts on who and what to watch out for in this tournament:
Players to watch
Malcolm Delaney, Virginia Tech: He led the ACC in scoring last season, then withdrew his name from the NBA draft to return to school for his senior season, citing on Twitter his desire to reach the Final Four. First, Delaney needs to lead the Hokies to an NCAA tournament bid, which eluded them last season. The point guard is off to a fine start, averaging 21.7 points per game and maintaining his form as a top free throw shooter.
Tre'Von Willis, UNLV: After a four-game suspension, Willis came off the bench in the Rebels' win over Wisconsin. He is expected to do so again, at least at the start of the tournament. The senior guard led the team in scoring last season, averaging 17.2 points per game, but pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge related to a domestic incident during the offseason. Expect his role to grow as the weekend progresses.
Dwight Powell, Stanford: The 6-foot-9 freshman forward is the Cardinal's prized recruit and already has worked his way into the starting lineup, averaging 9.7 points per game and leading the team with a .688 field goal percentage. The Canadian represents a crop of young Pac-10 players who will have to emerge if the conference is to regain its status as one of the nation's best.
Marshall Moses, Oklahoma State: The senior forward has helped replace some of the production after Big 12 player of the year James Anderson left early for the NBA draft. He's averaging 16.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per game and is scoring at a clip that nearly doubles his average from a turbulent junior season. Things went south on the court in January when coach Travis Ford suspended him for one game after an arrest on a marijuana possession charge. But he's off to a good start this season.
Chace Stanback, UNLV: The Southern California native returns home and is playing some of the best basketball of his career. With Willis missing from the lineup, Stanback has led the team scoring (17.3 ppg) and is coming off a career-high 25 in a win against Wisconsin, during which he hit the go-ahead jumper in the final minute. The emergence of the former UCLA transfer is one of many reasons the Rebels are expecting to make it back to the NCAA tournament.
Isaiah Canaan, Murray State: On a veteran, senior-laden team, it's the sophomore guard who has emerged as the team's best scoring option. The reigning Ohio Valley Conference freshman of the year is averaging 11.7 points per game after leading the team in 3-point shooting last season (.482). His steady play was a bright spot in the Racers' loss to Mississippi on Nov. 17, and he will need to perform well as they look to regain their form from last season.
Brandon Young, DePaul: The freshman point guard initially signed a national letter of intent with then-coach Jerry Wainwright. After deciding to stick with the team that is now coached by Oliver Purnell, he has a major role in the program's rebuilding project. Young is averaging 13.5 points and 5.5 assists. The tournament should give him some seasoning and represents a tough test before heading into Big East play.
Justin Hurtt, Tulsa: The preseason first-team All-Conference USA selection is stepping up at the right time, averaging a team-high 18.7 points per game. The Golden Hurricane have been without his backcourt mate Donte Medder, who is working his way back from an ACL injury suffered at the end of last season. Depth is also a concern in the backcourt after guard Glenn Andrews parted ways with the team last week.
Other assorted thoughts
• Many observers wonder whether Murray State can be a surprise team in the NCAA tournament after its first-round win over Vanderbilt last season, but during this tournament, coach Billy Kennedy probably would settle for his team going back to the basics. Relying on balanced contributions got the Racers 31 wins last season, and although seniors B.J. Jenkins and Isacc Miles are off to slow starts, Murray State didn't look good in a 16-point loss to Mississippi. The 76 Classic should be a fine test to see where the Racers stand.
"The quality of opponents there will be a great experience," Kennedy said in a statement. "I talked to [Butler coach] Brad Stevens, and he said they got something positive out of it even though they lost two of three [last season]." Butler went on to beat Murray State in the second round of the NCAA tournament and advanced to the national championship game.
• After a distraction-filled offseason, UNLV is getting contributions from a variety of players despite a roster that had taken some hits. Anthony Marshall has started in place of Willis, and he's played well, averaging 10.7 points per game. Stanback and Oscar Bellfield have increased their scoring outputs, while Kansas transfer Quintrell Thomas has worked his way into the starting lineup. In the win over Wisconsin, it was sophomore reserve guard Justin Hawkins who stole an inbounds pass and hit two big free throws in the final seconds. He leads the team in steals, while redshirt freshman Carlos Lopez leads the team in blocks, providing a crucial defensive presence while coming off the bench.
• Delaney is a tremendous scorer, but Virginia Tech needs to find reliable options to take some pressure off him. The Hokies fell from the rankings and were left exposed after a 16-point loss to Kansas State on Nov. 16. Delaney committed nine turnovers against the Wildcats, and backcourt mate Dorenzo Hudson didn't shoot well (5-for-13 from the field). The Hokies have Jeff Allen in the frontcourt but are thin there, with J.T. Thompson out for the season following knee surgery and Florida transfer Allan Chaney sidelined indefinitely with a heart ailment. It would help if 6-9 Cadarian Raines could return from foot injuries during the tournament.
• Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins has raved recently about the leadership and maturity of sharpshooter Jeremy Green, who is averaging 14.7 points per game with last season's Pac-10 scoring champ, Landry Fields, in the NBA and no longer by his side. That's good news for a Cardinal team that is without a senior and looking for Green to help bring along its young players. Stanford has a core of talented freshmen in Dwight Powell, Anthony Brown and Aaron Bright, who are getting plenty of early playing time. Josh Owens is another junior who is playing well after redshirting last season because of an undisclosed medical condition.
• Cal State Northridge is only two seasons removed from giving Memphis a first-round scare in the NCAA tournament, but the Matadors won only 11 games last season and should probably count as progress that they led Cal at halftime last week before losing big. They'll be facing an ACC opponent for the first time in an opening-round game against Virginia Tech. Coach Bobby Braswell served as an assistant under Seth Greenberg at Long Beach State, and the Matadors' top players, Lenny Daniel and Rashaun McLemore, are Richmond, Va., natives. But for the best human interest story of the tournament? Senior Michael Lizarraga, known for being the only deaf Division I basketball player, has emerged this season as the team's second-leading scorer (9.7 ppg) and rebounder (five rpg).
Diamond Leung covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.