The Diamond Head Classic has become a Christmas tradition for many basketball fans, as there are only a handful of college basketball games in the days just before and after December 25th. For hardcore basketball fans, the final day of the event falls on Christmas Day, providing an escape from the usual dinner table conversations.
Last season, the Oklahoma Sooners took on the Harvard Crimson in the finals. Harvard knocked off the BYU Cougars and the Auburn Tigers to reach the finals, and were looking for their third-straight upset to take home the title. In the end, Buddy Hield and the Sooners were too much for the Crimson, cruising to the 83-71 victory and the 2015 Diamond Head Classic title.
This time around, seven new teams will try their hand in Hawaii. While there are two clear-cut favourites, anything is possibly over the holiday break.
All four quarter-final match-ups promise to bring more excitement to the holiday season, and things get started with a match-up that features two teams who were in the 2016 NCAA Tournament.
Tulsa Golden Hurricane v. Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks
The first game of the 2016 Diamond Head Classic is arguably the best match-up of the quarter-finals, as two teams who found themselves in the 2016 NCAA Tournament go head-to-head. Tulsa found themselves in a First Four game in Dayton, while the Lumberjacks once again dominated the Southland Conference to earn an automatic berth into the Big Dance.
Both teams will be missing key pieces of their NCAA Tournament teams in 2016-17. The Lumberjacks will be without star forward Thomas Walkup, who graduated following last year, and guard Trey Pinkney, among others. But, they return a strong group of players, led by Ty Charles and Jovan Grujic.
As for the Golden Hurricane, the loss of guards James Woodard and Shaquille Harrison will undoubtedly hurt the team’s overall production. The addition of transfer Junior Etou will help relieve some of the pain, but Tulsa won’t be the same team they were a year ago. Still, a first round match-up like this one is must-watch basketball.
*NOTE: Tulsa and Illinois State are on opposite sides of the bracket due to the team’s playing in the regular season on December 7th.
Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles v. San Diego State Aztecs
One half of the championship showdown takes part in the second game of the quarter-finals, as the San Diego State Aztecs take on a rebuilding Southern Mississippi program who are coming off a dismal season in 2015-16.
The back court duo of Trey Kell and Jeremy Hemsley are a high-scoring tandem who will lead the Aztecs from the back end. When you add in Missouri Tigers‘ transfer Montaque Gill-Caesar to the mix, and the Aztecs have one of the nation’s most underrated back court rotations. Up front, the addition of transfer Valentine Izundu bolsters an already impressive forward group that features Max Hoetzel and Zylan Cheatham.
For the Golden Eagles, guard Khari Davis will have his hands full with the guards of the Aztecs. But, he has the talent to be able to hold his own on both ends of the floor. Southern Mississippi will look to catch the Aztecs looking ahead to the semi-finals and steal a victory. Raheem Watts and Eddie Davis III will need to put together big performances for the Golden Eagles to have a shot at the upset.
San Francisco Dons v. Utah Utes
The roster for the Utah Utes will be without a ton of familiar faces in 2016-17, and Head Coach Larry Krystkowiak will face another rebuilding test. Jakob Poeltl, Jordan Loveridge, Brandon Taylor, and Dakarai Tucker all graduated, and Brekkott Chapman and Chris Reyes both transferred following the 2015-16 season. Thus, Lorenzo Bonam and Kyle Kuzma are the stars of the team heading into 2016-17.
Losing the kind of talent that the Utes did will be tough to overcome, but they have pieces in place to keep themselves relevant in the Pac-12 this season.
As for the Dons, leading scorer Devin Watson transferred following last season, dealing a blow to the future of San Francisco in the process. In 2016-17, the Dons will be a younger team, with eight freshmen on the roster. Both Ronnie Boyce and Dont’e Reynolds will see more court time due to increasing roles with the team, and their production should see a nice boost.
The Dons will lean heavily on their seniors, while hoping that their young guns can get accustomed to the NCAA quickly. Against an experience team like Utah, relying on freshmen may spell disaster.
Illinois State Redbirds v. Hawaii Warriors
In comparison to the 2015-16 season, the Warriors will look vastly different this time around. They no longer have the likes of Stefan Jankovic (NBA Draft), Roderick Bobbitt (graduation), Aaron Valdes (Pro) or Stefan Jovanovic (transfer) on their roster. Forward Mike Thomas will step into a bigger role in 2016-17, and the addition of UCLA transfer Noah Allen will help, but Hawaii will likely take at least a step back after their impressive season a year ago that resulted in a Big West tournament title and an NCAA Tournament berth.
As for the Redbirds, Paris Lee is back to lead the way, and the likes of Tony Wills and MiKyle McIntosh will assume larger roles and will look to bolster a roster that will be without DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell. Despite the Warriors being the host team, Illinois State has a great chance of advancing to the semi-finals with a win over Hawaii.
*NOTE: Hawaii is banned from post-season play in 2017.
– T. Bennett