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Empire Classic preview: Chippewa men's basketball to play Gonzaga, Bellarmine in Las Vegas


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Central Michigan guard Jermaine Jackson points during the Chippewas' exhibition win over Olivet.

It's November, not March, but Central Michigan men's basketball will get the top team in the country on a Monday night .

No, the Chippewas won't be playing for a national championship. Instead, it will be their fourth game of the 2021-22 season to start their run in the Good Sam Empire Classic on national television in Las Vegas. 

It's a new opportunity for a program beginning a turnaround. First, the Chippewas will play No. 1 Gonzaga at 11 p.m. Monday on ESPNU, then Bellarmine at 7 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN+. The chance to showcase the program on a stage like this isn't lost on CMU and its players. 

The Empire Classic is a four-team event, featuring No. 2 UCLA in addition to CMU and its two opponents. The Bruins will play Bellarmine at 8 p.m. Monday and Gonzaga at 10 p.m. Tuesday. 

"It's big," said head coach Tony Barbee. "It's big for a lot of different reasons, for the current team and recruiting them, we told them we're gonna play against the best and when you try to recruit the best players in the country, the best players want to play against the best players and the best teams. I told them we would do that."

Here's a look at each of CMU's Empire Classic opponents: 

No. 1 Gonzaga
Head coach: Mark Few (23rd season, 634-125)
Record: 4-0
Key players: Drew Timme (6-10 Jr. forward), Andrew Nembhard (6-5 Sr. guard), Chet Holmgren (7-foot Fr. forward)

The scoop: Mark Few's program has traditionally been among the nation's best, but this year may be his best team. He has the nation's top recruit in Holmgren, a national player of the year contender in Timme and a plethora of experienced guards led by Nembhard. 

Few returns plenty of contributors from last year's team, which didn't lose until the national championship game. Timme is the best of the bunch. He's an efficient, do-it-all big man who is elegant around the rim, shooting 62 percent from the floor and averaging 20.8 points per game. 

Nembhard is the general of a deep backcourt, dishing 5.5 assists per game. The senior is joined by upperclassmen Rasir Bolton and Julian Strawther, who is shooting an even 50 percent from beyond-the-arc to begin the year. 

Holmgren is the crown jewel of the group, a likely one-and-done who is the highest rated recruit in program history according to 247Sports Composite rankings. The youngster is coming off an 18-point, five-rebound performance against Bellarmine. 

Saying Holmgren is the only standout freshman would be selling the group short, however, as guard Hunter Sallis was a fellow five-star and Nolan Hickman a high-four-star. Both Sallis and Hickman come off the bench but possess plenty of scoring pop. 

Bellarmine
Head coach: Scott Davenport (17th season, 375-124)
Record: 0-4
Key Players: Dylan Penn (6-3 Sr. guard), Juston Betz (6-3 Sr. guard), Ethan Claycomb (6-7 Sr. forward)

The scoop: Bellarmine was a powerhouse in its own right at the Division II level before making the jump to DI last season. In their first season at the highest level, the Knights were 14-8 and finished second in the Atlantic Sun conference. 

Bellarmine has already tussled with two Top-10 opponents in Gonzaga and Purdue. The Knights other two opponents, Murray State and Saint Mary's, are traditionally mid-major threats and both made the NCAA Tournament as recently as 2019. 

Scott Davenport's roster is full of experience, as six players hold at least redshirt junior status. Among them is Penn, who was a first-team ASUN performer last year and is averaging 14.8 points per game. He also leads the team in assists, with 4.5 per game. 

The continuity on this team is unique, as it returns 75 percent of its contributions from last season. Betz is a career-rotational player who has taken on a bigger role as a senior, as has Claycomb. 

Forward Curt Hopf, the only freshman who has played, has averaged 5.3 points per game.

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