NICEVILLE — Emerald Coast basketball fans, the NCAA is coming to you.
RELATED: Tickets for Emerald Coast Classic on sale
For the sixth straight year, the Emerald Coast Classic college basketball tournament returns to NWF State’s The Arena on Friday, featuring four teams that cracked the March Madness bracket earlier this year in Florida State, Purdue, Tennessee and Virginia Commonwealth, while Alabama State, Chattanooga, Chicago State and Jacksonville State round out the eight-team field.
The semifinal round games on tip off Friday afternoon and will feature FSU playing Tennessee at 6 p.m. followed by VCU and Purdue at 8:30 p.m.
The championship game tips off at 6 p.m. Saturday with the third-place game set for 3 p.m.
So, in advance of this post-Thanksgiving hoops action, here’s a quick breakdown on each of the four premier squads set to do battle in the Panhandle:
FLORIDA STATE (6-1 overall)
FSU stumbled out of the gate in 2019, but only just.
After posting a school record 29-8 mark in 2018-19 and winning 16 of its final 19 games en route to a Sweet 16 appearance, the Seminoles were upended by Pittsburgh, 63-61, in their season opener.
All they’ve done since?
Win. A lot.
Four days after falling to the Panthers, FSU thrashed rival Florida 63-51 behind sophomore Devin Vassell’s 13 points and six rebounds to kick off its current six-game win streak — a streak that will be tested when it tips off against No. 17 Tennessee at 6 p.m. Friday.
"They have some guys who are really, really talented and are making big plays, showing a lot of maturity," FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said Tuesday. "They deserve their national ranking, and we are going to take them seriously. It’s another typical ACC type game that we are going to be facing, at the highest level come Friday."
For the season, Vassell leads an offense averaging 80.8 points per night with 12.3 points per game, teammates Trent Forrest (12.2), M.J. Walker (11.3) and Patrick Williams (10.8) close behind.
Forrest, a senior from Chipley, has also dished out a team-best 4.7 assists per game, while 6-foot-9 sophomore Malik Osborne is pulling down a team-best 5.7 rebounds.
Defensively, FSU is holding opponents to just 60.3 points per game on 36.5% shooting, the Seminoles prowess on full display Tuesday night when they doubled up fellow Emerald Coast Classic participant Chicago State 113-56. Vassell and 6-8 freshman Patrick Williams each had a team-high 16 points, while the Cougars shot just 36.5% from the floor and turned the ball over 22 times.
PURDUE (3-2 overall)
After debuting at No. 23 in the preseason AP Poll, the Boilermakers have done little to prove they deserve to stand among the NCAA’s elite.
Purdue, which advanced to the Elite Eight in March and ranked No. 8 in the final 2018-19 USA Today/Coaches Poll after posting a 26-10 record, topped Green Bay in its opener before dropping each of its next two games to Texas, 70-66, and Marquette, 65-55.
However, the Boilermakers have started to climb out of their doldrums in recent weeks, ascending back above .500 with wins against Emerald Coast Classic foes Chicago State, 93-49, and Jacksonville State, 81-49, behind 27 combined points from Jahaad Proctor.
A win in its matchup against No. 20 VCU at 8:30 p.m. Friday could be what Proctor and Purdue need to reassert themselves in the Top 25.
A 6-3 senior, Proctor has been Purdue’s most consistent offensive option thus far, averaging 15.6 points per night on 50.8% shooting, while 7-3 junior center Matt Haarms (12.0) and sophomore Eric Hunter Jr. (10.0) also average double figures.
As a team, the Boilermakers are averaging 74.8 points per game against just 58 points allowed, while shooting 46.3% from the floor and 33.9% from 3.
No. 17 TENNESSEE (5-0 overall)
The Vols are rolling.
Scratch that. They’re still rolling.
Tennessee tied a school record with 31 wins this past season and advanced to the Sweet 16, spending the entire season ranked in the top 10. The performance earned coach Rick Barnes the 2018-19 Werner Ladder Naismith Men’s Coach of the Year award, as well as the National Coach of the Year by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association of America.
So what have Barnes and the Vols done for their encore? Try five straight wins out of the gate, including a 75-62 victory against then-No. 20 Washington on Nov. 16 in Toronto; Senior Jordan Bowden led four Volunteers in double figures with an 18-point, 12-rebound double-double.
Try 40.8 rebounds and 73.8 points per game on a 46.5% shooting clip with a sterling 38.5% mark from beyond the arc.
Try holding opponents to just 55 points a night on 36.4% shooting.
Headed into their 6 p.m. Friday tip against Florida State, the Vols are getting a team-best 16.6 points a night from Bowden, while Lamonte Turner (13.6), Yves Pons (13.0) and John Fulkerson (11.4) also average double-digit scoring figures.
No. 20 VCU (6-0 overall)
The Rams didn’t make it out of the NCAA tournament’s opening round in March, but it’s clear they aim to correct that in 2020.
After capturing the 2019 Atlantic 10 Conference regular season title en route to a 25-8 record this past year, VCU is off to a 6-0 start, including an 84-82 victory against then-No. 23 LSU in Richmond — coach Mike Rhoades’ first against a ranked opponent. The Rams forced 26 turnovers and got a 17-point, 11-rebound double-double from Junior forward Marcus Santos-Silva.
Facing off against Purdue at 8:30 p.m. Friday should give VCU another chance to test its mettle.
On the season, Santos-Silva is averaging 11.5 points a night with a team-high 10.5 rebounds, while senior Marcus Evans leads the squad in scoring with 15.2 points per night.
As a team, the Rams average 77.3 points per game on 44.8% shooting and 37.2% from 3. Their opponents have not fared so well, averaging just 61.8 points per game and 21.2 turnovers.