Your in-season tournament guide
North Carolina will prevail in the stacked Maui Invitational, even without Psycho-T
Pitt will have a cakewalk in a watered down Legends Classic
The Old Spice Classic will be the first look at Georgetown freshman Greg Monroe
When the NCAA passed legislation in 2006 that repealed the "two-in-four" rule -- which had limited college basketball teams to playing in only two exempt, early season tournaments over a four-year span -- the biggest casualty was the value of the word "classic." The legislation opened the floodgates on what the colorful wordsmiths behind the NCAA Division I manual call "Multiple-Team Events," which provide teams with an exemption to sneak in two extra regular-season games, upping the max allowed from 29 to 31. Thus there are 50 of of these tournaments scheduled for 2008-09, and no fewer than 28 of them have "classic" in their title.
Only one of those 28, the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden, has woven itself into the fabric of college hoops (or at least the world of college hoops as presented by ESPN) enough to be considered a classic. Only one other tournament, the Old Spice Classic in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., has a rich enough field (with Georgetown, Gonzaga, Michigan State and Tennessee) to potentially be a classic. But it also suffers from the ignominy of being named after a deodorant, which may cancel out its aims at excellence. Many of the other "classics" are held on a school's home court, as a thinly veiled excuse to profit off of a couple of extra home games. Naming them "Loopholes" would be more appropriate.
The point here: Not all classics are created equal, and only 20 percent of the 50 early-season tournaments, if that, are worth your attention. Before their preliminary rounds get underway on Monday, I present to you the top 10:
1. Old Spice Classic, Nov. 27-30, Orlando, Fla. (Georgetown, Gonzaga, Maryland, Michigan State, Oklahoma State, Siena, Tennessee, Wichita State)
Perhaps "The Swag" will catch on as the unofficial nickname of this tourney. It has the deepest field of any multi-team event, with only one pushover, Wichita State, out of eight teams. It lacks a clear headliner, but has four ranked teams with intriguing questions: Georgetown (is freshman center Greg Monroe a game-changer or a role-player?), Gonzaga (will Josh Heytvelt ever return to elite form?), Michigan State (is there a dominant offensive player -- or two -- to take over for Drew Neitzel?) and Tennessee (is Bobby Maze the answer to your point guard ills?).
And if you're wondering about another intriguing question -- how a tournament named after a deodorant, in just its second year of existence, became the creme de la creme -- here's your answer: ESPN. The Old Spice Classic is held in a Disney venue (the Milkhouse), booked and promoted by ESPNPlus, and televised on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU. Given the power ESPN wields in terms of recruiting exposure and guarantee money, some of the older, less connected tourneys -- like the Great Alaska Shootout or now-defunct Top of the World Classic -- didn't stand a chance against this upstart.
Projected Winner: Michigan State. Expect it to be a coming-out party for the new-look Spartans, who have the most athletic team in the field.
2. Maui Invitational, Nov. 24-26, Maui, Hawaii (Alabama, Chaminade, Indiana, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Oregon, St. Joe's, Texas)
Maui might have been the No. 1 event ... but there's a strong chance Wooden-and-Naismith winner Tyler Hansbrough won't even be playing, ruining a potential Ultimate Pale Duel with Notre Dame's Luke Harangody in the final. (An army of student managers would have been required to keep track of the Hustle Stats in that game.) UNC will still have three or four future NBA players in its starting lineup without Hansbrough, though, so a title game between the Heels and the Irish or Texas will still make for decent TV. If anything, it'll give Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington an opportunity to each put up 30.
Projected winner: UNC. Too many horses, too much experience -- even sans Psycho T.
3. 2K Sports College Hoops Classic, a.k.a. Coaches vs. Cancer, Nov. 20-21, New York (likely semifinalists: Michigan, Southern Illinois, Duke, UCLA)
Coaches vs. Cancer doesn't exactly feature a fearsome foursome this time around, making for some mediocre semifinal games at the Garden. The potential Duke-UCLA final, though, makes it all worth it. There's no bigger game in November than this one, which serves as not only Jrue Holiday's first major-stage showcase, but also Nolan Smith's first real test as the Blue Devils' starting point guard. Will Duke, as Seth Davis attested a few weeks back, be much improved with Smith running the show?
Projected winner: Duke. Coach K's teams tend to play their best ball prior to February, and they'll draw a huge, partisan crowd in New York.
4. Anaheim Classic, Nov. 27-30, Anaheim, Calif. (Arizona State, Baylor, Cal State Fullerton, Charlotte, Providence, St. Mary's, UTEP, Wake Forest)
This field is nicely stocked with three on-the-rise teams from major conferences (Arizona State, Baylor and Wake Forest) and two of the better mid-majors (St. Mary's and Cal State Fullerton). It's also a summit for elite guard play, with All-America candidates James Harden, Patrick Mills, Curtis Jerrels and Josh Akognon. This would be a good place for Harden to prove that all the NBA scouts' rave reviews of him from the LeBron James Skills Academy were deserved.
Projected winner: Arizona State. The Sun Devils aren't going to be an NCAA bubble team this time around.
5. Paradise Jam, Nov. 21-24, St. Thomas, V.I. (Connecticut, Iona, La Salle, Miami, San Diego, Southern Miss, Valparaiso, Wisconsin)
UConn is the obvious favorite, but upsetting the Huskies in November -- before they add Stanley Robinson and Ater Majok to bulk up their frontcourt -- will be easier than upsetting them in March. Miami, which has two sweet-shooting guards in Jack McClinton and James Dews, might be the best candidate to do it ... but San Diego, which upset UConn in the first round of the '08 NCAA tournament, probably has a decent blueprint as well.
Projected winner: UConn. Freshman point guard Kemba Walker, whom the Huskies could have used against the Toreros last time, will make the difference.
6. Jimmy V Classic, Dec. 9-10, New York (Texas vs. Villanova, Davidson vs. West Virginia)
This would have been a phenomenal field last season, when all four of these teams reached the Sweet 16 or Eight Eight, and D.J. Augustin and Joe Alexander were still in college. Now we get two ranked teams -- Texas and Davidson -- who will be trying to survive with elite shooting guards trying to run the point. Everyone assures us that A.J. Abrams will be just fine without Augustin, and Steph Curry will be just fine without Jason Richards, but will that really be the case? I won't believe it until I see it.
Projected winner: Texas over Villanova (The 'Cats lack the size to battle with the 'Horns' frontcourt, which is both large and deep); WVU over Davidson (Frosh Devin Ebanks, a one-time Indiana commit, should make a splash here).
7. CBE Classic, Nov. 24-25, Sprint Center, Kansas City (likely semifinalists: Syracuse, Florida, Kansas, Washington)
Three years ago in November, a young and unheralded Florida team used an early-season tournament it wasn't expected to win -- the Coaches vs. Cancer -- as a coming-out party and a springboard to a national-title run. The team the Gators beat in the final at the Garden was none other than Syracuse, whom they meet in the semifinals in Kansas City. Will this be the start of something big again for Billy's Kids?
Projected winner: Florida. (But by no means does that mean I'm slotting them to cut down the nets in Detroit.)
8. NIT Season Tip-Off, Nov. 26, 28, New York (likely semifinalists: Boston College, Purdue, Oklahoma/Davidson, Arizona/UAB)
The tourney-formerly-known-as the Preseason NIT is intriguing less for its potential title-game matchup -- Purdue vs. Oklahoma, a defensive bloodbath -- than the decent possibility that two of the regional host teams could be upset prior to reaching New York. Oklahoma will likely have to beat Davidson in Norman, and Arizona will likely have to beat UAB in Tucson. UAB might actually be favored against the Wildcats, given the sad state of their program heading into this season.
Projected winner: Purdue, in a nail-biter over the Blazers, who'll leave NYC looking like a C-USA title contender.
9. Puerto Rico Tip-Off, Nov. 20-23, San Juan (Chattanooga, Fairfield, Memphis, Missouri, Seton Hall, USC, Virginia Tech, Xavier)
A good field with one glaring bracket problem: Why are Memphis and USC set to meet in the semifinals rather than the final? The only high-quality team on the other side of the field is Xavier, which shouldn't have much trouble reaching the title game. There's no good reason to get bent out of shape about the set-up of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off ... but still, it's the principle of the thing.
Projected winner: Memphis. Demar DeRozan will outscore Tyreke Evans, but the game won't be decided by freshmen. The Tigers' supporting cast is deeper and more talented.
10. Legends Classic, Nov. 28-29, Newark, N.J. (Akron, Eastern Kentucky, Farleigh Dickinson, Mississippi State, Pittsburgh, Texas Tech, Washington State)
This tourney will go from having Texas and Tennessee -- a legitimately huge November duel -- in its inaugural title game last year ... to having Pittsburgh against either Washington State or Mississippi State this year. Anchoring the Newark event with a highly ranked Big East team was a smart move ... but it's sorely lacking in a real challenger for the Panthers.
Projected winner: Pitt, in a cakewalk.