For the first time in its brief three-year history, the Veterans Classic field doesn't contain a preseason top 25 team. But the tournament that will kick off the Navy men's basketball season has again drawn a formidable group of entrants.
On Veterans Day, the Midshipmen will welcome Marquette, Vanderbilt and Ohio State to Alumni Hall for the Nov. 11 season-opening doubleheader. Marquette and Vanderbilt will begin the session at 6:30 p.m., with Navy facing Ohio State in the 9 p.m. nightcap.
The tournament has attracted top-shelf teams during its existence. Michigan State launched its 2014-15 Final Four campaign with a 64-59 triumph against Navy during the inaugural event. North Carolina, which defeated Temple, 91-67, during the 2015 Veterans Classic opener, reached the NCAA championship game last season.
The 2016 field features four teams with significant basketball histories. Marquette, an annual contender for the Big East title, was the 1974 national runner-up and won the 1977 NCAA championship. Vanderbilt has reached the NCAA Sweet 16 four times and earned an Elite Eight berth during the 1965 season. Ohio State, the 1960 NCAA champion, lost in the title game four other times, most recently in 2007.
Navy, an NCAA Elite Eight squad during the 1985-86 campaign, is coming off its best season in seven years. Head coach Ed DeChellis's squad posted a 19-14 record and finished in a four-way tie for fourth place in the Patriot League standings.
But Navy will have to replace three of its top players from the 2015-16 squad. Point guard Tilman Dunbar and center Will Kelly graduated, while forward Jace Hogan decided to leave the Academy. Kelly, the Patriot League's reigning Defensive Player of the Year, finished second on Navy's career blocked shots list behind Basketball Hall of Fame member David Robinson.
The Midshipmen welcome back two frontcourt starters. Junior forward Shawn Anderson averaged a team-high 13.2 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game during the 2015-16 campaign. Tom Lacey, a junior forward, added 4.5 points and 4.2 rebounds. Senior guard Tim Abruzzo made valuable contributions off the bench, averaging 6.6 points and a team-leading 1.2 steals per game.
Following the loss of three of their top four scorers, DeChellis stressed Navy will have to be disciplined at the defensive end.
"We're a team that really needs to defend, rebound and take care of the ball," DeChellis said during the Patriot League's preseason media conference call. "We can't give up easy baskets by turning the ball over. We also need to shoot the ball better from the perimeter and make our free throws."
Ohio State, which lost its only previous encounter with the Midshipmen during the 1931-32 season, made seven consecutive NCAA tournament appearances before playing in the 2016 National Invitation Tournament. The Buckeyes, who finished 21-14 overall and 11-7 in the Big Ten, will return their top six scorers. Ohio State is solid at the forward spots, with senior Marc Loving (14.0 points, 5.3 rebounds per game), junior Keita Bates-Diop (11.8 points, 6.4 rebounds) and junior Jae'Sean Tate (11.7 points, 6.4 rebounds). Head coach Thad Matta's backcourt is led by sophomore JaQuan Lyle (11.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists) and junior Kam Williams (8.3 points).
The opening game of the Veterans Classic will feature two teams that lost their best players to the NBA Draft last summer. Marquette, which posted a 20-13 overall mark and 8-10 Big East record last season, waved goodbye to center Henry Ellenson. During his freshman year, Ellenson led the Golden Eagles in scoring (17.0 points) and rebounding (9.7) before becoming a first-round pick of the Detroit Pistons.
Despite the loss of Ellenson, head coach Steve Wojciechowski's Golden Eagles have a strong returning core led by senior center Luke Fischer (12.1 points, 6.2 rebounds per game). Wojciechowski, a former Duke standout who grew up in Severna Park, Md., will rely on a deep backcourt, including sophomore Haanif Cheatham (11.8 points, 2.2 assists), redshirt junior Duane Wilson (11.6 points, 2.5 assists), senior Jajuan Johnson (10.2 points) and sophomore Traci Carter (4.6 assists).
Following a first-round NCAA tournament loss to Wichita State, Vanderbilt hired former Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew to run the program. The Commodores suffered heavy losses on NBA Draft night, losing first-round choices Wade Baldwin IV and Damian Jones. Vanderbilt doesn't have a returning player who averaged double figures last season. Junior guard Matthew Fisher-Davis (9.7 points), junior forward Jeff Roberson (9.3 points, 5.6 rebounds) and senior center Luke Kornet (8.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.0 blocks) will try to help the Commodores improve on last season's 19-14 finish (11-7 in the Southeastern Conference).