No. 5-ranked Oklahoma State begins a three-game run at the Old Spice Classic in Kissimmee, Fla., with a game against Purdue Thursday on the Disney World campus.
OSU enters as the tournament favorite, with Memphis — a team the Cowboys routed 101-80 last week — the only other ranked team in the field, at No. 21.
All in a name. The Cowboys are the current heavyweight in the field, drawing the spotlight with one of the nation's elite players in Marcus Smart and a team being pegged by analysts as a legitimate national title contender. While others in the field are hoping to build March resumes, there are past and recent heavyweights in play with Purdue, Butler, Memphis, Saint Joseph's and LSU. Washington State and Sienna are also in the field.
Probing Purdue. After a run of seasons as a Big Ten contender, the Boilermakers slipped a year ago, finishing 16-18 overall. While this team is young, there's optimism for a return to the NCAA Tournament, behind guards Terone and Ronnie Johnson and 7-footer A.J. Hammons, who many project as a legitimate NBA center prospect. Purdue used a soft early stretch of home games to start 5-0, but will be playing away from home for the first time and facing a major upgrade in competition in the Cowboys. Said coach Matt Painter: “I know if Oklahoma State plays the game and does exactly what they want, they're going to win the game. That's just the way it's going to happen. We have to be able to go out and take them out of some things that they want to do to disrupt them.”
Familiar Foes. While the two teams haven't met since 1991, Painter knows Smart and Markel Brown through their involvement this summer with USA Basketball. Count Painter among the OSU believers, because of what he's seen. “They can not only play with anybody in America, they can beat everybody, just because their guards are so good.”
Upset, anyone? The field includes a few possible sleepers. Butler won't back down from anybody, yet seems to be in a transition year, both in terms of talent and with former coach Brad Stevens gone to coach the Celtics. LSU and St. Joe's, who play each other in the opening round, are dangerous. The Tigers' huge frontcourt of Jordan Mickey and Johnny O'Bryant III could pose matchup problems for the Cowboys if they upset their way to the title game.
Rematch brewing? OSU and Memphis are strong favorites, putting them on a collision course in Sunday's final. The Tigers seemingly would welcome a chance at redemption, after firing blanks in the first meeting, which had been a highly anticipated matchup.