College basketball holiday tournament preview (part II)

With several events already underway, we’re into the heart of the holiday tournament season in college basketball. From this week through early December we’ll see many of the country’s top teams in action, testing themselves against non-conference competition and getting accustomed to the tournament format that defines March. You can read Part I of our holiday tournament preview right here.
Now here’s a look ahead at the biggest remaining tournaments beginning today, November 22nd.
Battle 4 Atlantis (November 22-24)
The Battle 4 Atlantis is held annually at the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas, and has become one of the biggest early season tournaments. It draws a few of the top teams each year, with 2017 being no exception. As with the Maui Invitational, this tournament presents an eight-team bracket in which the winners advance and the losers play in a consolation side. Here are the opening matchups.
Villanova vs. Western Kentucky
This shouldn’t be close, but it’s worth tuning in to get a look at Villanova. The Wildcats have been convincing early on, and seem to be getting the jump they needed from a few of last year’s supporting players (namely, Mikal Bridges and Eric Paschall). Bridges and Cousy Award candidate Jalen Brunson could make up the nation’s best backcourt. Western Kentucky, meanwhile, already has a loss to Missouri State and could be in for a long night.

Purdue vs. Tennessee
I suspect a lot of people are writing Purdue off after the departure of Caleb Swanigan, but this should still be an impressive team. The Boilermakers are 4-0 with a win at Marquette and have topped 100 points three times; leading scorers Carsen Edwards, Dakota Mathias, and Vince Edwards are all returning players (and could all shoot 40 percent from three), and Isaac Haas is the tallest structure in Indiana. As for Tennessee, there’s not too much to be excited about. The Volunteers always seem to make a few games interesting when they have no business doing so, but this is a fairly inexperienced team. Head coach Rick Barnes is its most improved member, having advanced from ludicrously overrated to completely irrelevant.
SMU vs. Northern Iowa
SMU will be favored, but this could be a sneaky good game. The Mustangs are 4-0 against a soft schedule, and will have the best player on the court in Shake Milton. Still, SMU may not be quite as strong as it was in 2016-17 (the team will miss Semi Ojeleye, who’s now with the Boston Celtics) and Northern Iowa can always be pesky. The Panthers are 3-1 with the lone loss coming at North Carolina – early experience that could pay off in an event like this.
NC State vs. Arizona
NC State is a total toss-up. The Wolfpack lost Dennis Smith Jr. to the NBA Draft, and seond-leading scorer Terry Henderson when the NCAA refused to extend his eligibility. Sharpshooter Maverick Rowan made an absolutely absurd decision to turn pro, and now Abdul-Malik Abu – the team’s best big man – is dealing with a knee injury. Throw in a new head coach in Kevin Keatts and it’s impossible to say what will happen with this team. Arizona, meanwhile, is as good a team as there is in the country right now. Tune in to watch Wooden Award candidate Allonzo Trier (averaging 30 points during a 3-0 start) and potential top NBA Draft pick Deandre Ayton.

NIT Season Tip-Off (November 23-24)
Like many other early tournaments, the NIT Season Tip-Off begins on college campuses with early rounds (which essentially amount to tune-ups for the best teams in the field). Four teams make it to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, and this year it’s not out of the question that all four could make it to the NCAA Tournament come March.
Virginia vs. Vanderbilt
Virginia has become a legitimate NCAA power under Tony Bennett, but this might be the least talented team the coach has had since rising to prominence. Sophomore Kyle Guy has had some big games early on, but the Cavaliers’ backcourt looks a bit lonely with London Perrantes having graduated. Vanderbilt, meanwhile, already has two losses, though neither was a disaster (at Belmont, and in overtime against #10 USC). The Commodores can make this a good game.
Rhode Island vs. Seton Hall
Quick reminder that Rhode Island was really good last season. The Rams came within 10 points of Duke, beat Davidson and VCU twice each, won the Atlantic-10 Tournament and upset Creighton (and nearly Oregon) in the NCAA Tournament. The top-two scorers from that team – Jared Terrell and EC Matthews – are both back. Seton Hall, meanwhile, is also an exciting team. Desi Rodriquez and Angel Delgado are both among the most underrated big men around, and senior guard Khadeen Carrington is off to a hot start. This should be one of the best games of Feast Week.

AdvoCare Invitational (November 23-26)
This tournament is suffering from a name (and sponsorship) change, and was previously known as the Old Spice Classic.  It’s now been running for over 10 years, and it’s yet another event with eight teams and brackets for both winners and losers. The 2017 field isn’t the most exciting one you’ll see this week, but there are some likely Big Dance teams in the bunch.
Missouri vs. Long Beach State
Well, this isn’t as fun as it should have been. With star freshman Michael Porter Jr. now out for the season, Missouri isn’t the team so many people were excited to see – though its veterans should still get it over the hump against a Long Beach State team with a few ugly losses under its belt already.
St. John’s vs. Oregon State
St. John’s has been fairly irrelevant for a while now, but could be on the way back up. The Red Storm are 4-0 already (albeit against very weak competition), and sophomore guards Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett are averaging a combined 32.3 points. Oregon State is coming off a horrible 2016-17 season (they won five games), and at 2-1 already seems improved. Tres Tinkle, a forward averaging 21.3 PPG, is the Beaver to watch. He also happens to be the son of coach Wayne Tinkle.
UCF vs. Nebraska
UCF isn’t the pushover you might expect. Former Duke assistant Johnny Dawkins, who spent years at Stanford without making progress, finally seems to have something cooking as a head coach. Through a 3-0 start, the Knights have six players averaging double figures – including 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall, who is really 7-foot-6 and whose name is really Tacko Fall. This could be a pretty decent team – and very likely a better one than Nebraska.

West Virginia vs. Marist
West Virginia got throttled by Texas A&M in its first game, in what I’d call one of the most surprising results we’ve seen in the young season. But the Mountaineers have since righted the ship against a few easier opponents, allowing an average of 58 points in three games. They should make quick work of Marist, which recently fell to 0-3 with a 21-point loss to Army.
Phil Knight Invitational (November 23-26)
This is a brand new event, and appears to be a one-time thing. Also being referred to as “PK80,” it’s a sort of double-tournament featuring some of the nation’s best (Nike-sponsored) teams and meant as a celebration of Nike founder Phil Knight’s 80th birthday. I say double-tournament because this invitational actually features 16 teams split into two eight-team brackets (and the winners of the brackets will not play one another). Each mini-tournament will feature winners’ and consolation brackets.
“Victory Bracket”
North Carolina vs. Portland
Portland is playing the Chaminade role as a de facto host, and should just be happy to be on the court. North Carolina, meanwhile, will be looking to make a statement in this bracket after a good but not great start to the season. As expected the Tar Heels are relying heavily on potential All-American Joel Berry II, and Luke Maye has made a nice leap (averaging 19.3 PPG so far). But keep an eye on Sterling Manley. If the Heels become a Final Four contender this year, it’ll be because the 6’11’’ freshman asserts himself as a dominant big man.

Arkansas vs. Oklahoma
Arkansas will be looking to set up a very interesting rematch with North Carolina in the second round here. The Razorbacks just about had UNC beat in the second round of the tournament last season before UNC advanced and went on to win the national title. It would probably be a close game again – the two already have one shared opponent in Bucknell, and Arkansas had a far easier time with the Bison (though this sort of comparison never means much). First, however, Arkansas will have to get past a solid-looking Oklahoma team. The Sooners have a stud freshman in Trae Young  and a very good big man in Khadeem Lattin.
Connecticut vs. Oregon
This should be a fun one. Connecticut is looking to make it back into the Big Dance behind a strong veteran backcourt (what else for the Huskies?), and Oregon is attempting to overcome the loss of its three best players in Dillon Brooks, Tyler Dorsey, and Jordan Bell. The Ducks probably have a slight edge here given that they’re returning a star point guard in Payton Pritchard and brought in the #15 freshman in Troy Brown (who’s leading the team in scoring early on).
Michigan State vs. DePaul
It’s pretty much a tune-up game for the Spartans, who will be gunning to win this tournament after coming up short in the Champions Classic. There will be a huge talent gap in this opening game, but the Spartans are still fun to watch.
“Motion Bracket”
Duke vs. Portland State
Portland State is actually 4-0, including a win over Portland. Like Portland, however, this team will be happy to be playing the role of host. The Blue Devils have been imperfect since topping Michigan State at the Champions Classic, starting slowly in a pair of home games, but they still look like the best team in the country for now and will be a strong favorite in the Motion Bracket.
Butler vs. Texas
Butler’s in a transition year under new head coach LaVell Jordan, but there’s some talent on the roster (including last year’s first- and third-leading scorers Kelan Martin and Kamar Baldwin). Texas, meanwhile, has gotten off to a hot start, despite not facing any serious competition. Mohamed Bamba, the Longhorns’ star freshman, is the player to watch – particularly if he winds up going against the Duke frontcourt of Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. in the second round.

Florida vs. Stanford
The Gators should have a fairly easy time of this one, though Stanford has at least one scorer in Reid Travis (21.2 PPG through five games) who could give the Florida defense some trouble. I buy Florida as one of the best teams in this bracket, but not in the country.
Ohio State vs. Gonzaga
This probably won’t be a very close game. Ohio State may begin to claw its way back toward relevance under new head coach Chris Holtmann, but the personnel just isn’t there yet. Gonzaga, despite losing arguably its four best players from the team that reached the national title game in April (Nigel Williams-Goss, Przemek Karnowski, Zach Collins and Jordan Mathews), still has more talent. Sophomore big man Killian Tillie seems to be en route to a breakout year, upping his averages from 4.2 points and 3.2 rebounds to 12.3 points and 8.7 rebounds so far.

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