- After a jam-packed week of Thanksgiving tournaments brought many teams their first real test, we looked at who passed and who failed.
Feast Week is coming to a close, with only Sunday’s AdvoCare Invitational final between Villanova and Florida State left among the marquee meetings.
It was an eventful week, which kicked into gear when Virginia Tech outlasted Purdue last Sunday in an exciting Charleston Classic final and ended late Friday night with Kansas edging Tennessee in overtime in the NIT Tip-Off.
The Thanksgiving week tournaments served as the first major tests for many teams, and brought varied results to both contenders and the best of the rest. We wrapped up an eventful slate by looking at the biggest winners and losers, as well as a few that fall somewhere in-between. To keep it consistent, we only included teams that played in a multi-day tournament between last weekend and Friday.
Feast Week Winners
The Bulldogs are the big winners of the week for a very simple reason: they beat Duke—and won the most loaded tournament of November. A worryingly close call against Illinois in the quarterfinals and a slow start against Arizona in the semifinals were both erased with the victory over the Blue Devils, and left no doubt that the Zags are contenders for the national title. And they did it without forward Killian Tillie, their second leading scorer and rebounder last season. In the meantime, Rui Hachimura, Zach Norvell Jr. and Brandon Clarke put on a show.
It took overtime, but the Jayhawks notched a marquee win over No. 5 Tennessee in the NIT Tip-Off at the Barclays Center on Friday night. It was Kansas’s second win already this season over a top-10 team* (*Michigan State was top 10 when the two played, and is currently No. 11), a claim only Duke can also make. Dedric Lawson had his coming out party as a Jayhawk in Brooklyn, combining for 50 points, 25 rebounds and eight assists in the two wins, while freshman Devon Dotson was excellent against the Vols.
It was easy to consider the Spartans a bit of an afterthought after their Champions Classic loss to Kansas, where the Jayhawks controlled most of the game before a late MSU charge, but they reintroduced themselves in a big way in Vegas. The Michigan State-North Carolina showdown never came to pass, but the Spartans stomped all over UCLA and then turned around and showed their comeback ability the next night after falling behind 25–6 against Texas.
The Cavaliers didn’t always make it look pretty, but they got through the Battle 4 Atlantis field to win the crown and, more important, pick up a solid win over No. 25 Wisconsin in the final. UVA held the Badgers to just 46 points and 0.79 points per possession, letting star senior Ethan Happ get his buckets and instead zeroing in on limiting Wisconsin’s other players, which it did successfully.
While most of America was probably enjoying Thanksgiving dessert, the Longhorns were picking up one of the more impressive wins of this young season in outdueling North Carolina in a barnburner in Vegas. Kerwin Roach II had 32 points in the win and freshman Jaxson Hayes was strong as well. Texas then jumped out to a big early lead against Michigan State on Friday, and while it ultimately gave it away and was stymied in the second half, the tournament should be seen as a nice step forward for an unranked Longhorns team.
Last Sunday, the Hokies and Purdue played a game worthy of a March spotlight as the former held out for a six-point win to take the Charleston Classic. Also impressively, Virginia Tech dispatched a Northeastern team that had just beat Alabama by 28 in the semifinal. The Hokies are deep and sophomore Nickeil Alexander-Walker is one to watch.
Auburn and Iowa State
Neither of these teams won the Maui Invitational, but they left the island with plenty to be positive about. The Tigers hung with Duke as long as they could in the semifinal and picked up wins against Xavier and Arizona, while the Cyclones shook off a loss to the Wildcats to rout Illinois and San Diego State. But the real story is that Iowa State did it without four key players: star Lindell Wigginton, forwards Cameron Lard and Zoran Talley and center Solomon Young.
The Red Raiders quietly made a big statement in Kansas City by beating USC and then cruising past favored Nebraska to win the Hall of Fame Classic. Jarrett Culver came up big, as did grad transfers Matt Mooney and, against the Trojans, Tariq Owens. In the process, Texas Tech reset the expectations for what was thought by many to be more of a rebuilding year.
The Wolverines made sure there was no hangover after routing Villanova by taking care of George Washington and Providence to win the Air Force Reserve Tip-Off, once again showing off their elite defense. Freshman Ignas Brazdeikis continues to impress.
This one is contingent on not getting blown out by Villanova in Sunday’s final, but unlike the Wildcats, the Seminoles already have a strong win at the AdvoCare Invitational. FSU battled back to beat No. 19 LSU in overtime, using its veteran advantage to advance to the championship. It can make another statement by getting by ‘Nova.
The Pac-12 has generally been off to a nightmare start this season (see below), but a bright spot has been the 5-0 Sun Devils, which upset No. 15 Mississippi State in the MGM Main Event semifinals behind its new physical style of play and then beat an underrated Utah State team for the crown. Freshman Luguentz Dort poured in 50 combined points across the two games, including 33 against the Aggies.
The Sooners took third at the Battle 4 Atlantis, which was a good showing for a team not expected to make a ton of noise in the Big 12. An opening win over Florida was impressive, and while it couldn’t hang with Wisconsin, Oklahoma finished up with a win over Dayton to move to 5-1 on the season. Senior Christian James averaged 19 points and shot 47% from three in the tournament.
The Big East has had a pretty bad start to the season, but the Bluejays brought it some much-needed success by knocking off No. 16 Clemson to win the Cayman Islands Classic, with sophomore Ty-Shon Alexander exploding for a career-high 36 points. Double-digit wins over Boise State and Georgia State are good for their résumé as well.
The Bulldogs put the clamp on Northwestern in a 78–59 win at the Wooden Legacy Classic and then nearly took Miami to overtime on Friday, were it not for a last-second putback dunk. Between the two results, Fresno State jumped up 39 spots on kenpom.com and safely into the top 100.
The Knights’ season got off to a rocky start with a loss to lowly Florida Atlantic in their second game, but they had a nice bounce-back by winning the Myrtle Beach Invitational with wins over Cal State Fullerton, Saint Joseph’s and Western Kentucky.
The Golden Gophers picked up a pair of nice wins at the Vancouver Showcase over Texas A&M and Washington to move to 5-0 on the season. For a team that’s trying to make last season’s brutal second half a distant memory, that’s a good start.
Feast Week Losers
Yes, the Blue Devils lost to a top-three team, and a defeat at the hands of Gonzaga is nothing to hang your head at. But Duke was the favorite to win in Maui and had some dreams of an undefeated season just two weeks ago. Coach K’s program had never even lost a game at the Maui Invitational before. The loss also showed the young Blue Devils need to work on end-of-game situations and certain defensive areas, though the experience will likely help them in the long run.
I’ll let a Friday night tweet by my colleague Max Meyer sum up the current state of the Pac-12:
Results from the Pac-12's last eight non-conference CBB games following UCLA's 94-78 loss to UNC:— Max Meyer (@TheMaxMeyer) November 23, 2018
1 win (Arizona State over Utah State)
6 double-digit losses (Washington losing to Minnesota by two the exception there)
Is it possible this conference is even worse than last year?
Notably, however, the Bruins were the team that left the Las Vegas Invitational 0-2, with losses to Michigan State and then North Carolina. Now, losing to those teams is far from shameful (both are ranked in the top 11), but UCLA wasn’t competitive with the Spartans from the start in a 20-point loss and fell off down the stretch against the Tar Heels, losing by 16. Freshman Moses Brown, who had feasted on lower competition to start the season, managed just 12 total points and fouled out in only eight minutes against UNC.
The Vols had a big opportunity in front of them in the NIT Tip-Off and let it slip away in overtime. It’s obviously not that losing to the No. 2 team in the country is some type of indictment; in fact, Tennessee was a 3.5-point Vegas underdog heading in. But it led for much of the second half and got Udoka Azubuike to foul out early, yet couldn’t put the Jayhawks away, which predictably came back to bite it. It’s a missed chance for the Volunteers to grab a marquee win, and, along with a game against Gonzaga in a couple weeks, was one of only two chances for them to get one before SEC play starts.
The Cornhuskers let a Texas Tech team still adjusting to its new pieces have its way with them in Kansas City, losing by 18 and managing just 52 points (including 0.79 per possession). That’s not the start a senior-laden team wanted to get off to this season, and now a trip to Clemson awaits on Monday.
Xavier and Illinois
The Illini got the distinction of going 0–3 in Maui, though they did play inspired basketball in the opener against Gonzaga behind a sublime performance by Trent Frazier. Illinois is having success with forcing miscues under Brad Underwood’s turnover-inducing defensive style, but not turning it into consistent stops right now. Xavier, meanwhile, took Auburn to overtime in a loss but fell to a San Diego State team that got blown out by both Duke and short-handed Iowa State.
Everyone’s favorite Ramblers had a tough go of it against Boston College in the final of the Fort Myers Tip-Off, losing by 12. The Eagles, on a neutral court, are the type of team that Loyola ideally should be able to pick up a non-conference win against, or at least stay within single digits. It’s hard not to feel like it’s a missed opportunity, especially with No. 6 Nevada coming to town Tuesday.
SEC Would-Be Contenders Florida and Mississippi State
The Gators fell to Butler Friday night to finish 1–2 at the Battle 4 Atlantis, including a defeat to Oklahoma. That’s a disappointing trip for Florida no matter how you slice it, and right now it doesn’t look close to the fringe top-25 team it was thought to be in the preseason. Meanwhile, Mississippi State fell to Arizona State at the MGM Main Event and only beat Saint Mary’s by four in the consolation game. It’s early, and odds are this is growing pains for the SEC pair.
The Big Ten has had a strong overall start this season, but the Nittany Lions losing to Bradley at the Cancun Challenge isn’t part of it. The Braves aren’t a bad opponent, ranking 95th on kenpom.com, but they hadn’t beat a Big Ten team since 2009. When coupled with Penn State’s earlier loss to DePaul, it’s the kind of early-season disappointment that could loom large for it come March.
Penny Hardaway scored the biggest off-the-court win of the week, but his current Tigers have tough sledding right now, losing by 20 to Oklahoma State (perhaps the Big 12’s worst team) at the AdvoCare Invitational.
Tom Crean was never going to bring an overnight turnaround, or anything close to it, to Athens, but a 91–67 loss to Georgia State (also a talented mid-major!) is not exactly the kind of moral victory the Bulldogs are looking for this year.
The Colonials got blown out by both Michigan (understandable) and South Carolina (…less understandable) at the Air Force Reserve Tip-Off to fall to 0-5 on the season. Yikes.
Somewhere in the Middle
The Badgers won the games they were supposed to in beating Stanford and Oklahoma, but couldn’t solve Virginia’s Pack Line Defense in the Battle 4 Atlantis final. Good as Ethan Happ is (and he’s very good), Wisconsin can’t afford to be a one-man show too often this year—yet that’s what it was reduced to offensively against the Hoos. D'Mitrik Trice followed up his impressive 25-point effort against the Sooners with only five vs. UVA.
The Tar Heels suffered their first loss of the year in their first real test, and that was against a Texas team that didn’t even come into the Las Vegas Invitational ranked in the top 25. The Longhorns look underrated, but that doesn’t erase the defensive concerns in giving up 92 points and letting Texas shoot 46% from three and 57% inside the arc—not to mention the 17 turnovers on offense. Perimeter defense was a thorn in UNC’s side all last season, and even UCLA shot 46% in the Heels’ bounce-back win on Friday. The positives for North Carolina: this team can really, really score, and freshman Coby White looks like the real deal. If Nassir Little really gets going, look out.
If you were rooting for Thanksgiving week to go off-script, you were probably only partially satisfied. The Maui Invitational went largely as expected, until Gonzaga knocked off Duke in the final (no doubt, a big deal). Texas spoiled UNC’s Las Vegas Invitational, but No. 11 Michigan State took the crown, and favored No. 2 Kansas held off No. 5 Tennessee. The Battle 4 Atlantis went as expected, and the AdvoCare Invitational has so far as well. There's been some surprises elsewhere, like Texas Tech and Arizona State. But nothing met the craziness of last year's Battle 4 Atlantis, when Purdue and Arizona wound up battling to avoid eighth place.
It’s hard to say what exactly to make of the Wildcats right now—other than the fact that Justin Coleman was clearly a strong grad transfer pickup. The first half of their Maui Invitational was solid—beating Iowa State and leading Gonzaga at halftime—but they were then overpowered by the Zags and lost by 16 to Auburn. The latter two are both top-10 teams, so the deck was always stacked against Arizona, but its lone win came against a team missing four players, including its star. The good news is that by March, few may remember that fact.
The Red Storm won the Legends Classic in Brooklyn to move to 5-0, but they didn’t exactly do it convincingly. They had to come back late to beat a Cal team that was blown out by Yale and Temple and needed overtime to beat VCU by one. Wins are wins, but it feels like the Johnnies are playing with fire right now.
The Golden Eagles needed overtime (and some lucky misfortune by Louisville) to escape the NIT Tip-Off with a win, but they held their own for one half in a nine-point loss to Kansas. Marquette hasn’t had the start to the season it wanted, but it was important to leave Brooklyn with at least one victory.
The Jury’s Still Out
The Wildcats rebounded from their two-loss week by beating Canisius and Oklahoma State comfortably at the AdvoCare Invitational, but neither of those wins is going to garner much attention. The real test comes in Sunday’s final against Florida State. If ‘Nova wins, or even loses a close one, it’ll be a positive sign for a team still finding its way. A blowout loss, however, would raise many of the same questions that plagued it only a few days ago.