Butler-Marquette, Memphis-VCU among best early-season matchups
Tennessee, Oklahoma St. could be problematic for NC State at Puerto Rico Tip-Off
Despite teams like UNC and Texas, the Maui Invitational should be wide open
The Battle 4 Atlantis is easily the best nonconference event of the 2012-13 season
Sure, it's still summer, but it's never too early to start thinking about the holidays. And whether it be alongside turkey and trimmings or a slew of holiday gifts, nothing goes better with late-year cheer than college basketball. This year's slate of early-season tournaments shouldn't disappoint, even if you can't talk your spouse or employer into sending you to the Bahamas for the loaded Battle 4 Atlantis.
(Tournaments are listed by dates of play.)
Date: Nov. 15-16, 18
Teams: Auburn, Baylor, Boston College, Charleston, Colorado, Dayton, Murray State, St. John's
Overview: This is a sneaky-good event, especially if first-round games hold to form. Colorado should be an upper-third Pac-12 team. Dayton is always feisty in the Atlantic 10. Charleston gets to host a Big East team. Murray State can try to bolster its potential at-large hopes. You also could have a possible semifinal of Colorado and Baylor, a rematch of last season's NCAA Round of 32 game as well as a former Big 12 rivalry.
Matchup to watch: Colorado-Dayton. With the gap between the good and bad teams in this bracket, this is an enormous game for both of these teams. Win and you likely draw Baylor and then get a third solid game on the schedule, win or lose in the semifinal. Lose and you're probably playing Boston College and then another middling team that lost its opening game. The Buffaloes are very young and could be vulnerable early as they integrate a number of freshmen into the rotation. Situations like this are why you see more and more power-conference teams entering "rigged" events where they're guaranteed games against specific foes. It's harder to hit the right schedule strength, especially for a young team, when two of your nonconference games are this variable.
Date: Nov. 15-16, 18
Teams: Akron, Massachusetts, NC State, Oklahoma State, Penn State, Providence, Tennessee, UNC Asheville
Overview: NC State will be the highest-ranked team in the event, but strange things happen in this tourney and there are several teams in the field good enough to pick off the Wolfpack (especially if Rodney Purvis is not available). Tennessee may be the most dangerous hurdle; the Pack and Vols could meet in the final. Oklahoma State has a lot of explosive talent on the roster and the winner of the UMass-Providence game won't be a walk in the park for NC State in a potential semifinal. Oh, and don't forget about Akron, which should be a major player in the MAC race.
Matchup to watch: UMass-Providence. Odd that the regional rivals have to come to Puerto Rico to engage, but the Minutemen should be a solid threat in the Atlantic 10 this season and the Friars, assuming they can get Ricky Ledo eligible, have a sudden influx of significant talent. This game should be a high tempo and high scoring matchup, and the winner gets into the much more desirable winner's side of the bracket, locking up two more quality games. Oklahoma State-Akron also bears watching. The Zips easily could take out the Big 12 Cowboys on the neutral floor, especially with an awkward 10:30 am ET start.
Date: Nov. 16-19
Teams: Connecticut, George Mason, Illinois-Chicago, Iona, Mercer, New Mexico, Quinnipiac, Wake Forest
Overview: Huh? Another seemingly lopsided bracket that has the event's two best teams -- George Mason and New Mexico -- in the same side, meaning a potential semifinal matchup. Whoever wins that matchup, should it occur, should be favored to handle anyone coming out of the bottom.
Matchup to watch: Mercer-George Mason. With Mason maybe having one eye on the Lobos, could the Bears spring an opening-round surprise? They bring back most of the talent from last season's squad that won the postseason CIT tournament, winning at Old Dominion, Fairfield and Utah State to do so. This is a dangerous game for Mason to overlook.
Date: Nov. 19-21
Teams: Butler, Illinois, Marquette, Mississippi State, North Carolina, Texas, USC, Chaminade (host)
Overview: This event lacks the overall star power of the loaded 2011 field, but there are still plenty of storylines to watch. North Carolina and Texas will be featuring heavily overhauled rosters after the NBA draft took its toll. Butler and (especially) USC have high-impact transfers who should be immediate difference-makers. Mississippi State and Illinois are breaking in new head coaches. The field is really wide open, with no dominant team despite some big brands in the bracket.
Matchup to watch: Butler-Marquette. I can't believe this was set up as a quarterfinal and also the first game of the opening quadruple header (mid-afternoon Eastern Time tip). The Bulldogs and Golden Eagles could emerge as the two best teams from this field. Butler's major weakness from last season -- perimeter shooting -- should be remedied in a big way by Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke and freshman Kellen Dunham. Marquette still has a lot of talent left from its second straight Sweet 16 team, even after the departures of Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder. It's also a terrific style contrast of tempos and approaches, and a matchup of two excellent head coaches. Additionally, with Butler moving to the Atlantic 10 this season, this is a big game for nonconference schedule strength and possible NCAA at-large consideration.
Date: Nov. 22-24
Teams: Duke, Louisville, Memphis, Minnesota, Missouri, Northern Iowa, Stanford, VCU
Overview: Last year, this event was won by Harvard. This year's winner will have a bit more national pedigree as this is easily the best nonconference event of the season. What's not to like in this event? There are zero weak teams and a number of teams that could broach the top 10 this season if things break right. Louisville will start the season well above that mark, but Missouri, Memphis, Duke, VCU and Northern Iowa all look set for very strong seasons, and Minnesota and Stanford should be very much in the mix for NCAA berths, too.
Matchup to watch: Memphis-VCU. Unlike last year in Maui, when the Tigers were bamboozled by Michigan's efficiency, this game should suit their style. First team to 100 wins? Not out of the question, nor is the strong possibility VCU advances. Duke-Minnesota will be anything but a breeze for the Blue Devils and don't expect Louisville to walk over a Northern Iowa team that could challenge Creighton for the Missouri Valley Crown. That's a dangerous game for the Cardinals and should be the style opposite of Memphis-VCU, with maybe 60 percent of the scoring.
Date: Nov. 22-23, 25
Teams: Cal, Drake, Drexel, Georgia Tech, Pacific, Rice, Saint Mary's, Xavier
Overview: No national powers in the field, but some interesting teams to keep an eye on. Xavier obviously is retooling after losing Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons. Drexel, thanks to conference realignment, may have inherited the mantel of Colonial favorite. Saint Mary's should joust with Gonzaga yet again for West Coast Conference bragging rights. Rice features stat wonk hero Arsalan Kazemi. Plus there's the entertaining possibility of a Cal-Saint Mary's final, which would force the Golden Bears into playing a game that they don't want to schedule.
Matchup to watch: Drexel-Saint Mary's. This is even more egregious than the Maui Classic because there's a really good chance these are the two best teams in the event. How you have this as a quarterfinal along with Georgia Tech-Rice is beyond me. This game will be a wonderful contrast of styles between the Gaels' typically free-flowing offense and the Dragons' relentlessly sticky defense. Can the Gaels push tempo and create shots? Can the Dragons score enough to win? This is also huge for two teams who may end up needing at-large bids and may well be in head-to-head contention around the bubble. These teams finished 41st and 42nd in Ken Pomeroy's rankings last season.
Date: Nov. 22-23, 25
Teams: Clemson, Davidson, Gonzaga, Marist, Oklahoma, UTEP, Vanderbilt, West Virginia
Overview: This is one of those events where the relative lack of marquee teams and the general balance should make for a good tournament, albeit one that might not help the winner all that much. Gonzaga may be the nominal favorite but there are a number of teams in the field good enough to pip the Zags. The top half of the bracket, with West Virginia, Davidson and a rebuilding Vanderbilt, looks to be the better side, but Oklahoma and (especially) Clemson should have something to say in the bottom half.
Matchup to watch: Davidson-Vanderbilt. Brand recognition says to favor the Commodores here, but with Vandy having suffered significant personnel losses and Davidson bringing back a very good team, it would be surprising if the Wildcats were not favored in this game. This is one of those classic mid-major teams peaking with a bunch of seniors, including inside-outside big man Jake Cohen. It wouldn't be a shock at all to see a Davidson-Gonzaga final, with the Wildcats also picking off West Virginia.
Date: Dec. 22-23, 25
Teams: Arizona, East Tennessee State, Hawaii, Indiana State, Miami, Mississippi, San Diego State, San Francisco
Overview: The 2012 version may escape its usual overshadowing from the Maui Classic as there are several very legit teams in the field and you could end up with an excellent final. Arizona and San Diego State are the headliners and could meet in the title game, but watch out for Miami. The Hurricanes should be a dark horse threat in the ACC and pose a significant threat to Arizona in a potential semifinal. The Aztecs are loaded this season, and if their frontcourt imports pan out, should be a threat on a national level, not just inside the Mountain West.
Matchup to watch: Miami-Arizona (potential semifinal). None of the quarterfinals look particularly compelling on paper, so let's jump to a possible matchup between the Canes and Cats. Arizona's young frontcourt would have their hands very full with Reggie Johnson and Kenny Kadji. Will this Christmas event come late enough in the season for Arizona to have evolved from the departure of several key seniors from last year's club? Will Mark Lyons be comfortable enough at the point and able to win a dual with Durand Scott?
2K Sports Classic: Ummmmm. Your guess is as good as mine. Oregon State, Alabama, Villanova and Purdue comprise the field. All four teams are rebuilding or replacing significant personnel departures. It's not clear that even the winner of the event will get all that much of a boost or actually be an NCAA team come March.
CBE Classic: Kansas will be favored in the Kansas City event, but the Texas A&M-Saint Louis semi should be worth admission on its own. The Billikens should be the preseason pick to win the Atlantic 10 and the Aggies should be more settled than last season, when head coach Billy Kennedy's illness really helped derail things from the outset. If it's a Kansas-Saint Louis final, count me in. Two outstanding coaches and local teams that should generate a lot of buzz in the Sprint Center.
Coaches vs. Cancer Classic: Excellent potential in a four-team field of BYU, Florida State, Notre Dame and Saint Joseph's. The Seminoles may be a nominal favorite, but anyone winning (aside from maybe BYU) wouldn't be a surprise. The Irish return a lot of talent for another Big East run and the Hawks may have their best team since the Jameer Nelson/Delonte West days.
Great Alaska Shootout: Without a major name program in the field, this looks like Belmont's event to lose. Despite losing several seniors off the latest excellent Bruins squad, they still have Kerron Johnson and that should be enough to tame a field that includes Loyola Marymount and Oral Roberts.
Global Sports Classic: UNLV is in its hometown for an event that includes Oregon, Cincinnati and Iowa State. The Rebels should handle the Ducks in a semi and would be favored over either team in a final, although a UNLV-Cincinnati matchup could be very intriguing.
Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic: Ohio State should handle a four-team field that includes Rhode Island, Seton Hall and Washington. All four teams suffered significant personnel losses, but Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas should be more than enough to see the Buckeyes through.
Las Vegas Invitational: Who set up these predetermined semifinals? Arizona State and Arkansas slog through one matchup to meet the winner of ... Wisconsin-Creighton? Huh? That game is easily better than any potential matchup the following day. The Badgers will be replacing standout point guard Jordan Taylor but have more than enough coming back to trouble Doug McDermott and Co. in what should be a tremendous style contrast.
Legends Classic: Now this is a four-team event worth watching. Indiana should handle Georgia fairly easily in one semifinal, but the other one -- UCLA-Georgetown -- is a doozy. The Hoyas, starting with Otto Porter, have more than enough talent back to handle a talented but young Bruins team that has a lot of question marks about it and will have to fly cross-country. That might not be a good recipe against the disciplined system of the Hoyas, even as they try to replace Henry Sims. Either team against the Hoosiers will be worth watching in the final.
NIT Season Tip-Off: This remains one of my favorite tournaments because it's an actual tournament. If one of the host teams loses before it gets to Madison Square Garden, so be it. The full field is not yet completely set, but the host teams are Michigan, Virginia, Kansas State and Pitt. The Wolverines and Wildcats should be very good once again this season. Pitt has to be better than last year between improved health and overall mojo. Virginia looks the most vulnerable of the four after losing do-everything Mike Scott.
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