Right after ESPN’s exhaustive 24-hour national TV marathon, perhaps the signature symbol of the beginning of a new college basketball season is the 2K Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden.
Kevin Durant had his national breakout as a freshman at the Classic in 2006. Derrick Rose did the same in 2007. Florida began its run toward the first of two straight national championships in 2005. Evan Turner‘s run toward his handful of National Player of the Year trophies made tracks through in Classic in 2009.
This year’s field features some of the best the Big East, ACC, Big 12 and Big Ten have to offer, as #5 Pittsburgh takes on Maryland in one semifinal tonight, and #13 Illinois plays Texas in the other semi. The championship and consolation games take place on Friday. Here are some matchups to watch in the semis:
PITTSBURGH (3-0) vs. MARYLAND (3-0)
7 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2
Jordan Williams vs. Pitt’s frontcourt
Working by committee, the Panthers are one of the best rebounding teams in the nation — six of their players are averaging five or more boards per game, led by redshirt freshman Talib Zanna‘s 8.3 rpg. The Terrapins are more like the Orlando Magic, with Williams playing the role of Dwight Howard and having to control the glass pretty much by himself. The 6-10 sophomore is pulling down 13.7 rebounds a night, while no one else on the team is averaging more than four and a half. Williams is also Maryland’s go-to scorer inside, putting up 21.0 ppg. He’ll have a host of looks thrown at him by Pitt coach Jaime Dixon, from the long and lanky Zanna to burly center Gary McGhee to athletic 6-9 sophomore Dante Taylor.
Ashton Gibbs vs. Pe’Shon Howard
Gibbs, a junior point guard, is a Big East P.O.Y. candidate and proven clutch performer who many think will guide Pitt to a deep NCAA Tournament run. Howard, a freshman PG, came in with visions of starting but has come off the bench so far. However, Howard did hit the game-winner that lifted Maryland past College of Charleston last week, and had 8 assists and 3 steals in the opener against Seattle. Matching up with Gibbs (19.3 ppg, 5.3 apg, 45% 3PA) will be a defining test for the freshman who is a big part of Maryland’s efforts to succeed in the post-Greivis Vasquez era.
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TEXAS (2-0) vs. ILLINOIS (3-0)
9 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2
Fighting Illini’s size vs. Longhorns’ athleticism
Illinois boasts 6-9 forward Mike Davis (the Big Ten’s leading returning rebounder) and 7-1 center Mike Tisdale. Texas isn’t exactly small — 6-9 freshman Tristan Thompson (14.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg) and 6-6, 240-pound senior Gary Johnson (16 ppg, 8 rpg) anchor the frontcourt — but after losing NBA draft picks Damion James and Dexter Pittman from last year, they’ve been more of a perimeter-oriented team. The Longhorns may need swingman Jordan Hamilton (22.5 ppg) to play more like a forward than a guard tonight to bang with their Big Ten foe.
Cory Joseph vs. Demetri McCamey & Brandon Paul
This will be the first of many tough tests during the non-conference schedule for Joseph, a freshman point guard who was a high school All-American. After Illinois’ backcourt, he faces North Carolina (Dec. 18), Michigan State (Dec. 22) and UConn (Jan. 8). Against the Illini he’ll have to guard McCamey, an NBA-caliber player who is putting up 14.7 points and 8.0 assists, and keep an eye on and protect the ball against Paul, who is averaging 2.7 steals per game.