Every year before the start of conference play, college basketball’s best teams travel around the country—and sometimes outside of it—to compete in early season tournaments that often end up giving fans sneak previews of what it will look like when the nation’s biggest powerhouses face off in the NCAA Tournament. With the help of SI’s yearly 1-351 rankings, we’re picking the top five early season tournaments to watch based on the excitement of the potential final matchups, which are listed below the name of each tournament.
5. Maui Jim Maui Invitational
Date: Nov. 10-22
Potential Matchup: Wichita State (4) vs. Notre Dame (16)
The Maui Invitational hosts a slew of good teams this year, including four in the top 50 of SI’s rankings, which should make every game in the tournament worth watching. However if the two highest ranked teams push through to the finals, a Shockers-Fighting Irish contest would be one of the earliest matchups of top-ranked talent this year. The Shockers ended last season as one of the nation’s top teams despite being eliminated early from the tournament by Kentucky. Wichita State returns all five starters from the 2016-17 campaign, but they’ll find themselves with an early season challenge in Bonzie Colson and the Irish if they face Notre Dame in the final of the Maui Invitational. Colson is a senior leader for the Fighting Irish, and challenger for Player of the Year; he makes any game winnable for Notre Dame, and will be the focal point of the Irish offense as a power forward projected for 18.7 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.
4. Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic
Date: Dec. 19-25
Potential Matchup: Miami FL (12) vs. USC (13)
Aside from USC and Miami, no other team in the Diamond Head Classic ranks in the top 75 of SI’s rankings, which should allow for the two to coast through the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds with relative ease. Once there, the contest on Christmas Day promises to be action-packed. Although this is the only matchup on the list that doesn’t include a top-ten ranked team, Miami’s 12th-ranked defense could prove to be the toughest opponent to date for the Trojans sixth-ranked offense. The Hurricanes boast one of the best defenses in the ACC—no small feat—and have four names projected to score double-digit points on their roster. But if there is a duo of players that can break down the Miami defense, it’s Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu, USC’s two power forwards projected to average 15.4 and 15.0 points per game, respectively. Walking away with the trophy from the Diamond Head Classic will be no easy task for either team.
3. Phil Knight Invitational—Victory Bracket
Date: Nov. 12-26
Potential Matchup: Michigan State (2) vs. North Carolina (18)
The Phil Knight Invitational undoubtedly lays claim to the highest number of March Madness-bound teams out of all the early season tournaments, supported by the fact that it’s on this list twice with two different brackets. The Victory Bracket (Michigan State, Georgetown, North Carolina, Portland, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Oregon and Connecticut) is jam-packed with top 50 teams, and shockingly may not even be as tough as the Motion Bracket. The main attraction from this half of the PK80 Invitational, as it is being referred to in honor of Nike founder Phil Knight’s 80th birthday, will be the potential final game between Roy Williams’ reigning champion Tar Heels and SI’s No. 2-ranked Michigan State Spartans, lead by Player of the Year frontrunner Miles Bridges. North Carolina fell far in our rankings this year due to a mass exodus of talented starters, but if Joel Berry II returns from his hand injury in time for a battle against Michigan State, the veteran guard will make it tough for Bridges and the Spartans to walk away with a victory.
2. Phil Knight Invitational—Motion Bracket
Date: Nov. 14-26
Potential Matchup: Duke (3) vs. Florida (10)
The other half of the PK80 Invitational, the Motion Bracket (Portland State, Duke, Butler, Texas, Florida, Stanford, Ohio State and Gonzaga), is set up for a final game as thrilling as any NCAA Tournament final can be. With more expected of them than almost every team in the country this season, the Blue Devils will be aggressive from game one, but how well will their freshman favored roster be able to play together this early in the season? Grayson Allen’s talent is undeniable, as his projected numbers and play in seasons past put him in among the favorites for Player of the Year honors. But will Allen—the only senior on the Duke roster—effectively fill the role of a leader capable of bringing the team together for a National Championship? Their first real test could come late in November if they face off against a top-ten ranked Florida squad, further bolstered this year by a pair of transfers from Virginia Tech and Rice. Named to the first-team all-conference as a sophomore last year, Gators shooting guard KeVaughn Allen is projected for almost as many points per game (16.7) as Grayson Allen (18.7), and could be the Duke guard’s opposing force if the two go head-to-head in the finals.
1. Bad Boy Mowers Battle 4 Atlantis
Date: Nov. 10-24
Potential Matchup: Arizona (1) vs. Villanova (5)
The Battle 4 Atlantis poses likely the most anticipated out-of-conference game this early in the season. The only tournament with a potential matchup that includes two teams from SI’s top five, this title game is a chance for Arizona to prove its dominance and for Villanova to climb the ladder of the elite. Lead by Allonzo Trier, a strong contender for Player of the Year honors, Arizona returns from a Pac-12 Conference Title year with a squad talented enough to win it again. Trier averaged 17.2 points and 5.3 rebounds per game last season, and as an Arizona veteran undoubtedly NBA-bound, he helps make the Wildcats a legitimate national title contender. However, one of the biggest challenges for the team may come early in the season, and late in November. With a cluster of talented juniors in Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo and Mikal Bridges, Villanova could be even stronger in a post-Josh Hart era. Brunson—a three-year starter and one of Trier’s competitors in the Player of the Year race—is ready to fill Hart’s leadership role as Villanova’s new go-to scoring option. It’s the Wildcats of the east battling the Wildcats of the west, as this potential title game looms large for both teams.