Five non-conference tournaments to watch in college hoops this year
Some of the best college basketball in November and December can be found in tournaments. Before the conference season begins in January, elite programs face off against each other in holiday tourneys and other intriguing events like the Champions Classic, which will feature four likely top-25 teams. Below are five of the best to add to your calendar.
This event belongs in its own category. From star power to high-profile coaches to a great venue, the Champions offers practically everything you could want out of a preseason college hoops tournament. The biggest knock on this event is its size, but even acknowledging that unfortunate reality is a backhanded compliment. And while there’s no obvious, must-see individual matchup – which may turn off some of the casual NBA-inclined fans who tuned in to see Jabari Parker vs. Andrew Wiggins last year – you won’t want to miss these two games. In the undercard, a Michigan State team looking to overcome the loss of Keith Appling, Gary Harris and Adreian Payne will take on a Duke squad being touted as a national title contender. Then Kansas will face Kentucky in a matchup featuring 10 players listed on DraftExpress’ 2015 mock draft. None of these teams will be in peak form in the middle of November, but their performances will set a baseline for expectations over the rest of the season.
This is a great field that would have been better if not for Oregon’s tumultuous offseason that included the dismissal of three players following sexual assault allegations (and two arrests for shoplifting this weekend). Villanova, which brings back every starter besides James Bell from last year’s No. 2 seed, will be a frontrunner in the Big East but faces a tough early test in VCU. You’ll recall the Wildcats knocked off then-No. 2 Kansas and then-No. 23 Iowa in last year’s Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament. Beating the Rams in this spot could again give Villanova a tentpole win before opening Big East play. Still, this could be the best team of Shaka Smart’s tenure – bolstered by possibly his best recruiting class – even as VCU tries to cope with losing seniors JuVonte Reddic and Rob Brandenberg. The second game includes a Wolverines team that’s re-tooling after Nik Stauskas, Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III left for the NBA. This event provides a nice early showcase for wing Caris LeVert, who’s expected to assume a larger role for the Wolverines after making major strides as a sophomore last year.
This year’s Maui field includes a national championship contender and a few other interesting teams. Arizona lost Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon from the group that won 33 games, a Pac-12 regular season championship and narrowly missed the Final Four. But the Wildcats could be even better this season. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley form an imposing frontcourt, veteran T.J. McConnell returns to man the point and incoming freshman Stanley Johnson has the talent and physical tools to make a major impact right away. To win this event, the Wildcats could have to face San Diego State, which played Arizona tough in a nine-point loss at Viejas Arena last November, brings in a strong recruiting class (albeit injured) as well as Arizona transfer Angelo Chol and returns several key contributors including Winston Shepard, Matt Shrigley, Dwayne Polee II and J.J. Obrien. Other teams to watch in this bracket include BYU, which features bulk scorer Tyler Haws; Kansas State and underrated sophomore Marcus Foster; and Pittsburgh, which will likely have to fare without guard Cameron Wright.
Battle 4 Atlantis
The B4A takes the cake as this year’s best non-Champions Classic nonconference tournament. Florida-Georgetown and UCLA-Oklahoma make for two alluring first-round matchups. The Gators lose the core of last year’s Final Four team (Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather) but return enough pieces to push Kentucky in the SEC. Skilled guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera leads the Hoyas, which also reportedly return center Josh Smith. The Sooners will have most of their significant contributors back from a team that reached the NCAA tournament last season, and UCLA will lean on its incoming recruiting class after watching Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and Zach LaVine turn pro. Depending on how the games shake out, the championship game could have the makings of a Final Four-type bout. Heavyweights North Carolina and Wisconsin are positioned on opposite sides of the bracket.
Jimmy V Classic
Can the Hoosiers bounce back after winning 17 games and missing the NCAAs last season? A more pertinent question in regards to this tournament is whether Indiana can limit Montrezl Harrell on the inside. This will be a good early test for Tom Crean’s team, which labored offensively last season and figures to rely heavily again on point guard Yogi Ferrell (as well as an incoming recruiting class that includes five-star shooting guard James Blackmon Jr.). Even without high-scoring guard Russ Smith, offensive glass cleaner Stephen Van Treese and 2013 Final Four MVP Luke Hancock, Louisville looks like the clear favorite in this matchup. For Illinois, this is a prime opportunity to notch a statement win as it works to compensate for the loss of starting point guard Tracy Abrams to an ACL injury. There are better matchups in other tournaments listed here, but plenty of people will be watching this event because of the teams involved.