Breaking Down the Five Best Non-Conference TournamentsPosted by Chris Johnson on October 22nd, 2012
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
For the first time this offseason, thanks to new NCAA legislation allowing coaches to work with their teams over the summer, coaches began official practice with a good grip on what to expect from their teams this season. This is a generally positive development. It helps eliminate some of the rust players typically carry into fall workouts, allows coaches to begin formulating and implementing tactical tweaks earlier than usual, and gives incoming freshmen a chance to leave a positive first impression while benefiting from a longer and more relaxed transition into their college careers. Sadly, this takes some of the luster off Midnight Madness, which is traditionally viewed with excitement and anticipation as the official start of hoops practice and the symbolic commencement of another season-long slate of hardwood drama. But from a coaches perspective, getting an early look at your team before the usual date would seem like a positive change of pace, if nothing else.
With teams starting preseason preparations early this year, some of the usual sloppiness of non-conference play should be replaced by a more crisp and disciplined brand of basketball. This hypothesis may or may not bear fruit, but whatever the effect of the rule – whether it better conditions teams for promising starts, or eliminates the intensity of fall preseason workouts – the value of an extended offseason program will be put to the test in rather abrupt fashion with the annual slate of non-conference tournaments. These little events spring up stateside just as much as they do in island states and commonwealths, from Las Vegas to Brooklyn, Hawaii to Puerto Rico, and pretty much anywhere with a basketball court, hotels and some bleachers. It’s awful hard to keep track of them all, so I’ve chosen five events to narrow your focus. Each fixture is intriguing in its own way, and a variety of factors went into constructing the list. Exciting games between top teams carried the most weight.
On a side note: I decided to exclude mega-events such as the ACC/Big Ten and SEC/Big East Challenges, as well as the Preseason NIT. Those are great events, no doubt, but they’re great events each and every year. Plus, they don’t fit the categorical purpose of this exercise, so listing them here is unnecessary. I also excluded mini-events such as the Gotham Classic, Jimmy V Classic, Champions Classic and Wooden Classic in favor of actual tournament-style events.
1. Legends Classic
- Where: Barclays Center; Brooklyn, New York
- Teams: Indiana, Georgia, UCLA, Georgetown
- When: November 19-20
Before we get to breaking down the matchups, the venue – the state of the art Barclays Center, which offers a cutting-edge food-ordering app, free wi-fi and the very real possibility you might spot hip-hop mogul Jay-Z, 2013 Super Bowl halftime diva Beyonce, or both – is a spectacle on its own, an urban hoops palace taking a lead role in modernizing the sports viewing experience with unprecedented technological amenities. Watching basketball played on that court is exciting no matter what teams inhabit it. Then you take a shiny new stadium and put two Top 25 squads on the floor, both of whom will still be figuring out their lineups and rounding into form, and it’s hard to envision anyone being disappointed by the end product. If Indiana can get by Georgia in one semifinal and UCLA takes care of business against Georgetown in the other (which, admittedly, is far from a guarantee), the championship game could make for one of the upcoming college hoops calendar’s best non-conference games altogether, let alone the bracketed tournament variety. Indiana will get its first real test of the season, while UCLA may still be feeling things out with an expected freshman-heavy lineup. If I had my druthers, I’d rather see this game played later on in the schedule, mostly because of the very real possibility that No. 1 recruit Shabazz Muhammad won’t be available due to an ongoing NCAA review of possible violations committed during his recruitment. With Muhammad, the potential Indiana-UCLA Final is a Final Four-worthy bout. Without him, it’s exciting but incomplete, insofar as it won’t accurately gauge the Bruins at full strength against another legitimate national title contender.
2. Battle 4 Atlantis
- Where: Atlantis, Bahamas
- Teams: Missouri, Duke, VCU, Stanford, Memphis, Northern Iowa, Louisville, Minnesota
- When: November 22-24
There isn’t a game in this opening round not worth your watch. Each contest pits two NCAA Tournament contenders, and at least two of them features Final Four-caliber teams. Preseason No. 2 Louisville (as chosen by the USA Today coaches poll) is the front-runner going in, but will need to get up to speed quickly against the likes of Northern Iowa, who has loaded its non-conference schedule with high-major heavyweights (see: Notre Dame, UNLV) in preparation for a strong season. If the Cardinals survive that test, SEC newcomer Missouri, college hoops’ transfer hotbed, will launch its uptempo attack against Rick Pitino’s traditionally stingy halfcourt defense. To get there, Missouri needs to get by Stanford, which looks poised for a top-half Pac-12 finish. Duke, Memphis, VCU and Minnesota highlight the other side of the field. That’s as tantalizing a four-team selection as you’ll see in any nonconference tourney this season. It wouldn’t shock me to see any of these teams not only get to the final, but take down Louisville, Missouri, Stanford or UNI once there. Duke’s first round test with Minnesota is particularly interesting. We’ll see Trevor Mbakwe make his return on a national stage, plus a litany of talented complementary pieces spacing the floor. Memphis may hold a slight advantage over VCU in terms of talent, but that’s old hat for these Shaka Smart-led Rams. Two years ago, VCU was a nice story, a classic case of a Cinderella challenging its bigger, more privileged power conference competitors. Now VCU expects to compete with the nation’s best. However it plays out, the semifinal and final matchups of this one won’t disappoint. This bracket is brimming with Tournament-bound outfits who have promising seasons ahead of them.
3. Maui Invitational
- Where: Lahaina Civic Center; Maui, Hawaii
- Teams: North Carolina, Butler, Marquette, Mississippi State, Texas, USC, Illinois, Chaminade
- When: November 19-21
Palm trees, beautiful sunsets, scenic overlooks, college basketball players, coaches wearing those vintage Hawaiian button-downs – this is what we’ve grown to expect with our yearly hoops diet from the Aloha State. This year’s bracket features a batch of intriguing first-round match-ups. Let’s start with Butler and Marquette, which will pit two likely NCAA Tournament-bound teams undergoing important lineup tweaks. The Golden Eagles lose stars Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom, while the Bulldogs will be working in Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke and sharp-shooting guard Kellen Dunham to help offset the departure of perimeter stalwart Ronald Nored. At the other end of the field, Texas will bring its typically young roster (highlighted by surprising holdover Myck Kabongo) against new head coach John Groce at Illinois. Groce and his well-connected staff have already made headway on the recruiting trail, but the uptempo pace he’s implementing is a more immediate reward of the Illini’s hire. There’s plenty we don’t know about these teams, so the unknown factor is reason unto itself for your viewing attention. That uncertainty also applies to North Carolina, who faces Mississippi State before a potential semifinal with the Butler-Marquette winner. The Tar Heels are the favorite here, but they’ll face a stern test in the semifinal. For my money, seeing James Michael McAdoo in his first real test on a national stage as UNC’s purported go-to frontcourt scorer is the biggest storyline.
4. Puerto Rico Tip-Off
- Where: Coliseo de Puerto Rico; San Juan, Puerto Rico
- Teams: Akron, Oklahoma State, Tennessee, UNC Asheville, NC State, Penn State, Providence, Massachusetts
- When: November 15-16, 18
There’s been no lack of preseason chatter about NC State’s expected rise to the upper echelon of the ACC. Most believe this year offers a prime opportunity for the Wolfpack to surge past their Tobacco Road rivals. That fate will be decided months from now, in the throes of the conference season at campus gyms with geeked up crowds overseeing and enlivening the proceedings. First, NC State will test its preseason reputation on a Caribbean island, and the test will not be an easy one. Getting by Penn State in the first round isn’t the issue, nor is the second round tilt with either Providence or UMass (though I do expect UMass to make some noise in a loaded A-10 this season). It’s the final, where either Tennessee or Oklahoma State will give NC State’s loaded roster a credible challenge. The Cowboys have two likely first-round draft picks in Le’Bryan Nash and freshman Marcus Smart, plus the return of swingman senior JP Olukemi, to throw at the Wolfpack. SEC contender Tennessee will attack Mark Gottfried’s frontcourt with precocious sophomore Jarnell Stokes and senior Jeronne Mayman. NC State faces a tough battle either way, though the Volunteers’ interior depth could give Richard Howell and C.J. Leslie all they can handle. The good news for Tennessee and/or Oklahoma State is the Wolfpack may not have congealed their talent into the two-way juggernaut we might see come March. In November, even elite teams have positional and schematic issues to sort out.
5. Diamond Head Classic
- Where: Stan Sheriff Center; Honolulu, Hawaii
- Teams: Ole Miss, San Diego State, San Francisco, Indiana State, Arizona, ETSU, Miami (FL), Hawaii
- When: December 22,23 and 25
The optimal final pairing would feature Arizona and San Diego State, two western teams with designs on league title runs. For the Wildcats, the main point of attraction is freshman Kaleb Tarczewski, a deft interior scorer and glass-cleaning force who turned down offers from Kansas and North Carolina before committing to Sean Miller. Tarczewski will need to find comfort in Xavier transfer Mark Lyons, a gifted passer and ball-handler who carries serious emotional baggage into his final season. If these two newcomers can work a productive half-court system, Arizona is primed for a top three Pac-12 finish, with the potential for greater feats in the NCAA Tournament. At this early stage of the season, that dynamic may be fragile, at best, but the Wildcats will need to figure things out in a hurry, for a talented Miami squad likely awaits in the semifinal. San Diego State is the front-runner to emerge on the other side of the bracket, though projected semifinal challengers Indiana State or Ole Miss are both capable of upsetting the Aztecs. Jamaal Franklin is one of the nation’s best players, and this early season event offers just the type of national platform he needs to prove as much. Arizona will be favored against any team in this field, but winning the title will require the Wildcats unleashing the highest reaches of their latent talent, a level of performance that may remain unattainable until the latter portion of the season.
Just Missed The Cut
- Coaches vs. Cancer Classic – Two teams expected to compete at the top of their respective leagues, Notre Dame and Florida State, highlight the field. Even better, we could get Michael Snaer and Jack Cooley, two All-America level talents, staging an intriguing individual battle. Don’t sleep on St. Joe’s, either.
- CBE Classic – The potential final matchup of Kansas and St. Louis could serve as an early litmus test for the Big 12 frontrunners. Unfortunately for the Billikens, lead guard Kwamain Mitchell, who underwent foot surgery last week, won’t be available, but interim coach Jim Crews will incite a valiant effort from a team that gave Michigan State all it could handle in the Third Round last year’s NCAA Tournament.
- 2K Sports Classic – With host teams Villanova, Purdue, Alabama and Oregon State slotted for semifinal matchups, any championship outcome is officially on the table. From afar, Alabama’s ferocious defense would appear to gives the Tide a slight advantage over the rest of the field.
- Anaheim Classic – In one semifinal, the reigning WCC champion, St. Mary’s, faces a transitioning Xavier squad who carries loads of uncertainty and unanswered questions into the 2012-13 season. In what seems like Mathew Dellavedova’s sixth year leading the Gaels (seriously, shouldn’t this guy have graduated already?), laying the foundation for a successful title defense starts with a strong performance in this early-season event.
- Old Spice Classic – At opposite ends of the bracket, you have Gonzaga, the preseason WCC frontrunner that brings back much of last season’s starting rotation, including backcourt savant Kevin Pangos and wing Elias Harris, and West Virginia, who for the first time this season will take its talents to the Big 12. I don’t expect the Big 12 to change the Mountaineers’ hard-nosed style, and it certainly won’t change before league play begins. Expect a hard-fought final between two Tournament-worthy teams, should both squads get through the opening rounds.