ANCHORAGE No one can accuse the University of Alaska Fairbanks of plotting an easy path to the finals of the BP Top of the World Classic basketball tournament.
The Nanooks open Thursday against a NCAA tournament team. If they win, they'll face a 20-game winner from a year ago. In the finals, they would likely face either a Big Ten contender or another NCAA tournament team.
''It's going to be a fight, that's for sure,'' said Alaska Fairbanks coach Frank Ostanik, in his first season after eight years as an assistant.
Five teams in the field won at least 20 games, including the Nanooks. Under coach Al Sokaitis, who resigned in April, Alaska Fairbanks won back-to-back championships in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference. Last year, the team reached the finals of the NCAA Division II West Regional playoffs. Two years ago, the team won the Top of the World Classic, defeating three Division I teams.
Alaska Fairbanks is led by GNAC Player of the Year Brad Oleson. The 6-4 swing player averaged 22.9 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists. The Nanooks also return senior point guard Chris Smith and four experienced frontcourt players.
Long-range shooting has helped in their success, Ostanik said, but winning this year will depend on defense.
''If we're going to beat teams, it's not because we outshoot anybody,'' he said. ''It's because we defend them and make them shoot over us for 40 minutes.''
UAF opens against last year's champions of the Atlantic Sun Conference, Central Florida.
The Golden Knights (25-6, 17-3) are the media's preseason pick to repeat as conference champions.
Central Florida returns two starters. Point guard Gary Johnson averaged 7.6 points per game last season. Forward Marcus Avant, a 6-8 senior, started 29 games and averaged 3.9 rebounds.
Whoever wins will take on either perennial Big West Conference favorite Utah State or Georgia Southern.
Utah State (25-4, 17-1) lost their guards but return frontcourt starters Nate Harris, Spencer Nelson and Jason Williams. Harris and Nelson are preseason all-conference picks.
Georgia Southern (21-8, 11-8 Southern Conference) is led by guard Terry Williams, who dished out 5.4 assists per game but was slowed in the preseason by knee surgery. Also returning is Elton Nesbitt, who led the team in scoring last year with 15.7 points per game.
Northwestern (14-15, 8-8 Big Ten) is the sole entrant from a major conference. The Wildcats have never reached the NCAA tournament but have high aspirations under coach Bill Carmody.
Northwestern finished fifth in the conference last year and return 10 letter winners and four starters, including 6-8 forward Vedran Vukusic, who averaged 14.3 points per game and was an honorable mention All-Big 10 team.
Guard T.J. Parker, the brother of San Antonio Spur Tony Parker, led Northwestern with 115 assists and averaged 8.8 points per game.
The Wildcats open against Portland (11-17, 5-9 West Coast Conference). The Pilots are led by led by Eugene ''Pooh'' Jeter, an all-conference first-team pick last year, and 6-8 sophomore Dreshawn Vance, third in the league in blocked shots.
Western Michigan (26-4, 15-3 Mid-American) dominated its conference last year but lost frontcourt players Mike Williams, the MAC Player of the Year, and Anthony Kann. They return starting guards, Ben Reed, who averaged 16 points per game, and Brian Snyder, who averaged 4.8 assists per game.
The Broncos open against New Mexico State (13-14, 6-9 Sun Belt Conference), which lost three starters from last season and this year feature eight new players, including five junior college transfers and one true freshman.
Head coach Lou Henson will not make the trip. He is recovering from an undisclosed illness, according to the media relations department. Assistant head coach Tony Stubblefield will direct the team in Fairbanks.
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