By Mike Mahon
The 9th annual Emerald Coast Classic college basketball tournament is right around the corner — bigger and better than ever. Eight teams will compete in the tournament, which will be held at Raider Arena on the campus of Northwest Florida State College Nov. 24-25.
Alabama will face Ohio State in a semifinal round game at 6 p.m. on that Friday, while Oregon will play Santa Clara at 8:30 p.m. The third-place game will be played at 3 p.m. on Saturday Nov. 25 with the championship game scheduled for a 6 p.m. tip-off on that Saturday.
Fans can purchase tickets online by visiting www.emealdcoastclassic.com and clicking on the ticket link. Session tickets gets fans into both games of the session.
Alabama was ranked No. 1 in the final Associated Press basketball poll and was the top overall seed in the 2023 NCAA Tournament, while advancing to its ninth Sweet 16 Tournament appearance in school history. Head coach Nate Oats guided the Crimson Tide to a 31-6 record, winning both the SEC regular-season and post-season tournament titles.
Oregon advanced to the quarterfinal round of the 2023 NIT en route to a 21-16 record. The Ducks have won 20 or more games in each of Dana Altman’s 13 seasons as head coach, advancing to the 2017 NCAA Final Four.
Ohio State went 16-19 in 2022-23, advancing to the semifinal round of the Big Ten Tournament. The Buckeyes were No. 52 in the final NET rankings.
Santa Clara, under coach Herb Sendek posted a 23-10 record last year — the most regular season wins at the school since the 1968-69 season —while advancing to the NIT.
“The reputation of our tournament has allowed us to attract teams from the premier basketball conferences in the country,” said tournament director Maury Hanks, chief executive officer of Global Sports. “We strive to bring the best college basketball teams possible to the Emerald Coast of Florida. Fans are also going to see some of the top collegiate players in the country this year.”
Alabama’s backcourt is expected to be anchored by returning senior Mark Sears and Hofstra transfer Aaron Estrada, who enters his fifth season. Oats dipped into the transfer portal more than any of his previous four off seasons since being hired at Alabama in 2019.
The first two targets were Estrada and fourth-year Cal State Fullerton guard Latrell Wrightsell. Then, after North Dakota State forward Grant Nelson withdrew from the NBA draft in May, he chose the Tide over Arkansas. That gave the Tide one of the nation’s most coveted transfers and a unique 6-foot-11 big man who can play like a guard.
Alabama scored another big win for its front court in June when 2024 prospect Jarin Stevenson reclassified to 2023 and joined the Tide, with Alabama fending off North Carolina for one of the Tar Heel State’s own players. The 6-11 Stevenson has already drawn comparisons to Clowney, who became a first-round NBA draft pick after arriving last year in Tuscaloosa as an under-the-radar recruit from South Carolina.
Alabama rounded out its roster by picking up Mohamed Wague, a 6-foot-10 forward from West Virginia, through the transfer portal in July.
“We had great chemistry last year,” Oats said. “I think that’s part of the reason we were No. 1 in the country and had the year we had. We know that. It comes with the culture you built. I think we’ve done a really good job with both the transfers and the freshmen making sure that they’re really high-character kids.’’
Oregon features seven newcomers on this year’s roster as they reload and retool the program. Experience returns in seniors N’Faly Dante, Jermaine Couisnard, and Keeshawn Barthelemy, plus juniors Nate Bittle and Brennan Rigsby. Altman said the Ducks will lean on the five experienced players to help usher in their newcomers this season.
Last November the Ducks signed a three-man high school recruiting class that’s made up of point guard Jackson Shelstad, wing Mookie Cook, and forward Kwame Evans Jr. All three players were either 5-star prospects when they committed or signed with the Ducks.
Oregon later added JUCO All-American and guard Jadrian Tracey to pair with other transfers in Mahamdou Diawara of Stetson, Jesse Zarzuela of Central Michigan, and Kario Oquendo of Georgia.
The Ducks will lean on the experience and talents of senior and starting center N’Faly Dante. The 6-foot-11 big man returns for a fifth and final season for the Ducks. Last year was his best season as he averaged 13.4 points and 8.4 rebounds, while starting in a career-high 30 of 31 games played. Senior Jermaine Couisnard was expected to be one of the team’s top players and leaders last season after a transfer from South Carolina when healthy, but he missed a chunk of the start of the season with an injury and then again late in the year. In 19 games Couisnard averaged 12.8 points and shot 33 percent from the field.
Dante and Couisnard combined with Oregon’s other three returners in Keeshawn Barthelemy, Nate Bittle, and Brennan Rigsby will be leaned on to lead the program this season as the Ducks blend a bunch of new faces yet again together.
Ohio State has the pieces to be a dark horse in the Big Ten Conference as Chris Holtmann enters his seventh year as head coach. Look for sophomore guard Bruce Thornton, who averaged over 16 points per game in the final eight games of his freshman year, to break out following a strong close to last season. Roddy Gayle Jr. and big man Felix Okpara should be settled in more, while veteran Zed Key looks to be a double-double man in the Big Ten. A key transfer to monitor is fifth-year senior Jamison Battle, who was All-Big Ten honorable mention choice last year at Minnesota averaging 12.4 pointsand looks to be a part of a winning team and a turnaround this season in Columbus.
“He’s a really proven, gifted scorer,” Holtmann said. “Now we’ve got to get him to do a little bit better, defending and being a better rebounder on both ends.”
“I look up to a player like Klay Thompson,” Battle said. “Someone who can come out here and shoot off the dribble, shoot off the bounce but not over-dribble. Two to three dribbles are all I need.”
Santa Clara is coming off back-to-back third place finishes in the West Coast Conference. Among the eight new faces joining the Broncos are 6-7 guard Adama Bal, a transfer from Arizona; guard Jalen Benjamin, a graduate transfer from Mount St. Mary’s; guard Tyeree Bryan, a transfer from Charleston Southern; and 7-1 center Francisco Caffaro, a transfer from the University of Virginia; and forward Johnny O’Neil, a transfer from American University.
Benjamin was a two-time all-league performer at Mount St. Mary’s where he averaged 16 points last season while enjoying nine 20-point games Caffaro has played for the Argentine National Team on five previous occasions, beginning when he was just 15 years old. He averaged 7.4 points and 9.0 rebounds at the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup. O’Neil was a three-year starter at American University where he was an all-league performer. He averaged 11.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and tallied 51 blocks in 30 appearances last season.
Other games at Northwest Florida State College on Friday Nov. 24 have Mercer playing Tennessee State at 11 am while Southeastern Louisiana meets Western Michigan at 1:30 p.m. These teams will play their second game Nov. 25 with tip offs at 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Admission is free for those games.