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Theron could wind up on Top of World

Nov 19, 2002 3:27 AM

   Several college basketball tournaments tip-off the first big weekend of college hoops. These include the Top of the World Classic (Alaska), the Paradise Jam (Virgin Islands), the Hispanic Fund Classic (Baton Rouge, LA), the Sooner Invitational (Norman, Oklahoma), the Hawaiian Airlines Tip Off tourney (Honolulu, Hawaii) as well as the preseason NIT.

   Ball State's Theron Smith will be in the Top of the World tourney, and you may see him playing pro basketball next season. Smith was a preseason nominee for the prestigious John Wooden national player-of-the-year award.

   This is the best time of the year for sports bettors. Here’s a close look at the Top of the World Classic, which starts this Thursday from Fairbanks, Alaska.

   Thursday, Nov. 22:

   Wisc-GBay vs. Alaska Fairbanks: The host Nanooks won only four games last season and are rebuilding. Fairbanks is a guard-oriented club that plays tough defense to make up for its lack of size, led by sophomore guards Brad Oleson and Chris Smith. The Nanooks went out in the first round last year of this tournament, losing to Pac 10 representative Washington, 82-70.

   Wisconsin-Green Bay, of the Horizon Conference, is off to a 9-21 season and is also rebuilding under a new coach, Tod Kowalczyk. This team does have a size and experience edge with 6’-8” junior Mike King and 6’-9” junior Greg Babcock (9 ppg, 6 rpg). The backcourt is led by a 6’-3” sophomore from Norway named Calix N'diaye (9 ppg). Green Bay was 10-14 ATS, and 3-13 SU/6-8 ATS away from home. G-Bay was outscored by a 71-61 average on the road last season.

   Centenary vs. Nebraska: The Independent Conference clashes with the Big 12. Like many college basketball teams, Centenary was terrific at home (12-2 SU) but poor on the road (2-11 SU). Traveling from Louisiana to Alaska doesn’t make this a short road trip, either. Guard Andy Wisnewski (19.6 ppg, 5.7 apg) is a deadly all-around scorer, but this team has no seniors and lacks height.

   Nebraska took a nice step up last season, playing hard and improving to 13-15 SU. The Cornhuskers were 12-7-1 against the spread and 7-4 ATS away from home. They were a poor shooting team (39% from the field) but may have a sleeper in juco transfer Nate Johnson. Johnson is a talented scoring guard who averaged 27 ppg last season at Penn Valley JC. They also have some young height in 6’-9” sophomore John Turek and 6’-8” junior Andrew Drevo.

   Friday, November 23:

   Weber State vs. UC Santa Barbara: Good matchup between one of the top teams in the Big Sky and one of the best of the Big West. Weber State has most of its key players back from a club that went 18-11. Big Sky leading scorer Jermaine Boyette (17 ppg) runs a strong backcourt on a team that averaged 75 points per game while shooting 39% from 3-point land. Weber was poor away from home at 4-8 SU, 4-7 ATS.

   The UC Santa Barbara Gauchos (20-11 SU, 14-13 ATS) enjoyed a breakthrough season and they have four starters back. Senior Mark Hull 6-foot-8 (14.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg) is an outstanding all-around shooter (77 percent from the line) along with 6’-4” junior Branduinn Fullove (14 ppg, 42 percent from 3-point land). They have a lot of height and depth up front.

   Last season, the Gauchos were the best free throw shooting team in the Big West (76%) and #1 defensively allowing teams to shoot 37% from the field! They were tough at home (13-2 SU, 8-6 ATS), and (7-9 SU/6-7 ATS) on the road. They lost to Arizona 86-81 in the first round of the NCAA tourney as a +13 dog.

   Jackson State vs. Ball State: Jackson State suffered through a tumultuous 9-19 season with problems on and off the court. They look to wipe the slate clean starting here, but it won’t be easy against a very talented Ball State bunch. Jackson State has two key returnees in 6’-3” guard Tim Henderson (17.5 ppg) and Cliff Walker (6.6 rpg). They will have to carry a young team with a lot of new faces. Jackson State was 3-12 SU away from home where they were outscored by an 80-67 average. They were also a poor shooting team (43% from the field, 61% from the line).

   By contrast, Ball State is off a brilliant 23-12 season that included upset wins over Kansas and UCLA. They were snubbed by the NCAA in March, so they may be on a mission this year. Senior Theron Smith 6’-8”is an NBA talent who averaged 19.9 points, 11 rebounds per game, while 6’-3” Chris Williams (15.9 ppg, 38% from long range, 82% from the free throw line) handles the backcourt.

   Ball State plays great defense and has added a 6’-8” JC transfer  Cameron Echols, who pulled down 32 boards in a game last year. The offense averaged 78 points per game and shot 37% from 3-point land. Ball State was 10-9 SU, 8-10 ATS away from home.