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49 days ‘til opening day: College of Charleston headlines the final Great Alaska Shootout

NCAA Basketball: Charleston at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Nov. 10 couldn’t come soon enough.

As we slide through the final weeks before college basketball returns, we’ll look at one storyline about the upcoming season that lines up with the number of days until opening day. Keep coming back to see if we have the creativity and dedication to pull this off. No promises.

It’s Sept. 22 and we’re just 49 days from opening day.

That makes us think of the 49th addition to the Union: Alaska. The country’s largest state may be closer to Russia than it is to the campus of a Div. I program, but it still has some college basketball history.

For 40 years the University of Alaska Anchorage has hosted the Great Alaska Shootout over Thanksgiving, one of the first tournaments to capitalize on the NCAA’s exempt event rule.

The GCI Great Alaska Shoot­out began as a dream of Bob Rachal, who coached the University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolves during the 1977-78 season. Rachal, who died of cancer in 1985, wanted to put a fledgling UAA basketball program on the map and do it in style. With a personality reminiscent of a 19th century riverboat gambler, he parlayed an NCAA rule that said games outside the contiguous 48 states ­didn’t count against your normal allotment of 28, plus the lure of Alaska itself, into a winning hand.

The big gamble was whether the UAA and the community could attract big-name schools to the new tournament, in Alaska of all places. The gamble paid off. Coaches jumped at the chance to squeeze in three “free” games against top-flight competition, not to mention the recruiting possibilities a trip to Alaska afforded.

At one point, it was a destination for blue bloods. Kansas, Kentucky, UCLA, North Carolina and Louisville all cut down the nets at various times since the late 70s. Ray Allen, Dwayne Wade and Klay Thompson have taken home the tournament MVP award.

In recent years, it’s seen some legitimate mid-majors do battle. The Middle Tennessee team that would take down Michigan State won in 2015. Isaiah Canaan took home the 2011 MVP award after leading Murray State to a double overtime championship game win over Southern Miss. And last season, two future NCAA Tournament teams — Nevada and Iona — met for the title.

But with exempt tournaments blooming in places like the Bahamas and Puerto Rico, the 2017 edition of the Great Alaska Shootout will be its last. So raise an Alaskan Amber to one heck of a run. And then open up another and check out this year’s event. Here’s the final field:

  • Alaska Anchorage (Div. II)
  • Cal Poly (Big West)
  • CSU Bakersfield (WAC)
  • Central Michigan (MAC)
  • College of Charleston (CAA)
  • Idaho (Big Sky)
  • Sam Houston State (Southland)
  • Santa Clara (WCC)

The most intriguing of these, by far, is College of Charleston. The Cougars have been a consistent defensive force the past two seasons, and return key pieces from a 25-win team. This includes All-CAA first team point guard Joe Chealey and All-CAA second team forward Jarrell Brantley. There’s also sophomore Grant Riller, who’s poised to be one the league’s best scorers.

They checked in at No. 10 on our “Slightly Less Way Too Early But Still Way Too Early” power rankings. This could be their coming out party.

Idaho should present a stiff challenge. The Vandals return all five starters from a solid team that finished 12-6 in Big Sky play and won a game in the CIT. Longtime coach Don Verlin has a big-time scorer in senior wing Victor Sanders (20.9 PPG). CSU Bakersfield should also be solid, with an elite scorer of its own in junior guard Damiyne Durham.

If this were a year ago, Central Michigan and Santa Clara would’ve brought two of the best mid-major guards in the country in Marcus Keene and Jared Brownridge, respectively. Both players are gone, so instead they’ll bring two rebuilding programs.

The tournament begins on Nov. 22.