By BILL SCHNIER
Special to the Parade
They join Iowa State and Northern Iowa as the top rated teams in the 2011 SPI Invitational, scheduled for Nov. 25-26 at the SPI Convention Centre.
Rice, representing Conference USA, is picked to finish in the top half of the league this season after a 14-18 record a year ago. The Owls have one of the country’s most intriguing players in 6’7” junior Arsalan Kazemi, who averaged 15 points and 11 rebounds in 2010-11 while shooting 52 percent from the floor. He was recently named to C-USA’s all conference first team.
Supporting Kazemi will be junior guard Tamir Jackson (13 ppg) and senior guard Connor Frizzelle (11 ppg). The talented threesome will lead the Owls, who beat top rated Memphis by double-digits just last February, and New Orleans 83-49 to open this season. Coach Ben Braun is also counting on 7’2” center Omar Oraby to provide rebounding and needed depth in the frontcourt.
At Providence, first year coach Ed Cooley inherits a young team that lost Marshon Brooks to the NBA, but has a solid returning nucleus in junior point guard Vincent Council, sophomore guard Gerard Coleman, and rebounders Kadeem Batts, a sophomore, and Bilal Dixon, a junior.
The Friars went 15-17 last year when Brooks was Mr. Everything on offense. Without him, Providence will depend on a balanced attack and improved defense to survive in the rough and tumble Big East Conference. Providence native Cooley, who replaced Keno Davis as head coach, grew up as a Friars’ fan, and has injected a wave of enthusiasm into the Ocean State faithful since he was hired away from Fairfield in March.
Don’t look past Northern Colorado when assessing the potential champions in this years’ Thanksgiving Weekend tournament. The Lumberjacks (Greeley, CO) were 21-11 last season, winning both the regular season and conference championship in the Big Sky Conference. Coach BJ Hill lost four starters from that team, but 6’8” senior forward Mike Proctor is back along with top returning scorer Elliott Lloyd, a 6’2” junior guard who averaged 7.5 ppg as a sophomore.
Completing the 2011 SPI field are Western Illinois, Southern University and Florida A&M. Each of the eight teams will play two games at the Convention Centre, with four games each on Friday, Nov. 25 and Saturday, Nov. 26.
In the final two games on Nov. 25, Northern Iowa will play Rice at 5 pm, with Iowa State taking on Providence at 7.30 pm. On Saturday, the two Iowa teams switch opponents with UNI opposing Providence at 6.30 p.m., and the Cyclones playing the Owls at 9 p.m.
Tournament tickets, priced at $55 for all eight games, can be purchased at the SPI Convention Centre Box Office by calling (888) 774-8587 or online at www.sopadre.com. Anyone purchasing a $55 tournament ticket will receive a second ticket free (two for $55), and also one complimentary ticket for the SpawGlass Sweet Sixteen high school tournament scheduled Dec. 2-3 at the Convention Centre – featuring defending national champion Houston Yates High School and St. Thomas of Houston, who won the 2011 Texas private school championship.