The first two months of the college basketball season unfold without much notice from the larger sports viewing public. The pro game is a bigger draw than its amateur counterpart until March, and football reigns supreme through the turn of the new year. But the lack of attention paid to CBB in November and December should not be confused for a lack of importance. The games that teams play now will affect their placement (or lack thereof) on the bracket come March. A signature nonconference win could mean the difference between a No. 3 seed and a No. 4 seed, or a First Four invite and an invitation to the NIT.
It’s important to keep that in mind as you dig into the first version of a new column on SI.com. Each Thursday, we'll dive deep into four storylines from around the country that, as disparate as their topics may seem, are bound by some underlying thread designed to enhance your appreciation of the season as it unfolds.
This week, our inaugural column will focus on Feast Week tournaments, most notably the Battle 4 Atlantis, PK80 and Maui Invitational. (We thoroughly covered Tuesday’s Champions Classic event.) These early events run through the Thanksgiving holiday and offer up some mouth-watering matchups and sneak previews of what's to come in March. If you have any feedback or requests for what you’d like to see in this space, feel free to let us know.
PK80, Motion Bracket: Dreaming of Bamba v. Bagley
There is a handful of intriguing opening-round games in the PK80, the 16-team event in Portland, Ore., commemorating Nike co-founder Phil Knight’s 80th birthday. But one potential second-round bout would produce one of the most compelling individual matchups of the entire season. On Thanksgiving Day, Duke takes on Portland State and Butler faces Texas. If both the Blue Devils and Longhorns win (possible), or both of them lose (highly unlikely), two of the top recruits in the class of 2017 should square off the following afternoon.
Duke’s Marvin Bagley III and Texas’s Mohamed Bamba check in at No. 1 and No. 4, respectively, in the final class of 2017 Recruiting Services Consensus Index (RSCI), a composite that incorporates data from multiple services, and they’re both viewed as candidates to be selected with the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft. Getting them to face off this early in the season would be something like a dream scenario for professional scouts, and it would also allow for a clash between arguably this freshman class’s most powerful offensive (Bagley) and defensive (Bamba) forces.
Sports Illustrated’s proprietary projection system pegs Bagley to average 16.5 points per game, behind only Missouri forward Michael Porter Jr. (19.3) among Division I frosh. Earlier this month, we explained how the addition of Bagley would have given Kansas a bigger boost than any of his other five finalists, including the Blue Devils, but he nonetheless projects as a high-volume scorer and rebounder with a shot to make a run at the National Player of the Year award in Durham, assuming senior teammate Grayson Allen doesn’t hog the spotlight, which seems more likely after he went off for a career-high 37 points in Tuesday’s win over Michigan State.
Unlike Duke, Texas doesn’t belong in the national (or Big 12 conference, frankly) championship conversation, but it could have a top-10 defense this season. That’s because Bamba, at 6’11’’, 225 pounds with a 7’9’’ wingspan, has the potential to turn Texas’s basket area into a virtual no-fly zone, swatting drivers who dare throw up shots from close range and spooking others into doing the same. SI likes the Blue Devils to produce the No. 1 offense in the country in 2017–18. Trying to score with Bamba patrolling the paint would be a nice early litmus test.
So, what are the chances this matchup actually takes place? Though Duke is a lock to beat Portland State, which was picked ninth in the Big Sky’s preseason media poll, the Longhorns will have their hands full against a Butler squad that lost head coach Chris Holtmann to Ohio State this offseason (and replaced him with former Bulldogs guard LaVall Jordan) but brings back productive forward Kelan Martin and perimeter pest Kamar Baldwin. Butler would happily scuttle this tantalizing one-on-one tilt and pick up a potentially valuable nonconference W in the process.
Should the Blue Devils and Texas advance, we’re assuming neither Bamba’s recent concussion nor the eye poke that sidelined Bagley after only 10 minutes against the Spartans on Tuesday night will keep them off the floor.
Battle 4 Atlantis: No Biggie, no problem
Had Caleb “Biggie” Swanigan returned to Purdue as a junior, the Boilermakers would have opened the season at No. 2 in the nation in our rankings. Swanigan was an effective scorer inside and beyond the arc who hoarded rebounds on both ends of the floor, blocked shots and got to the free throw line at a high rate. There’s no one on Purdue’s roster that can do everything he did last season, but his departure won’t hurt the Boilermakers as much as many seem to believe. No Big Ten team poses a bigger threat to Michigan State for the conference championship.
The case for Purdue starts with a pair of players surnamed Edwards. Point guard Carsen is on track for a sophomore breakout after a promising stint with Team USA at the FIBA U19 World Cup this summer, and senior forward Vince brings high-level play- and shot-making from the wing and doubles as one of the Big Ten’s most accurate free-throw shooters. Including the latter Edwards, the Boilermakers return four players who drained at least 40% of their three-point attempts in 2016–17 (The others are seniors P.J. Thompson and Dakota Mathias and junior Ryan Cline.)
That doesn’t answer the question of who’ll fill in for Swanigan in the paint. This does: Isaac Haas, a Monstar-sized senior (7’2’’, 290 pounds) who rated out as one of the Big Ten’s most effective glass-cleaners against conference competition when he was on the floor last season. Haas won’t come close to matching Swanigan’s statistical production—he logged only 19.5 minutes per game as a junior, and he hasn’t topped 21 minutes in any of Purdue’s three contests this season—but he gives the Boilermakers a towering presence on the interior who’ll deter basket attacks and draw defensive attention away from their perimeter snipers.
Even with Swanigan out of the picture, our model expects Purdue to win 12 games in league play, claim a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament and play top-25 offense and defense. Other media members and coaches apparently aren’t buying in: The Boilermakers check in at No. 20 in the preseason AP Top 25 poll and No. 21 in the preseason Coaches poll, below Big Ten teams Michigan State, Minnesota and Northwestern. The Spartans justifiably sit at No. 2 in both polls. As for the Wildcats and Gophers, let’s just say we’re more skeptical, particularly about Minnesota, even after Monday’s 12-point win at Providence.
The chart below shows SI’s projected top-five teams in the Big Ten, along with their offensive, defensive and overall Division I rankings and preseason poll placements.
You probably didn’t see Purdue’s first game this season against a high-major foe, an 86-71 win at Marquette that coincided with the Champions Classic, and its opener in the Battle 4 Atlantis should be a snooze. The Boilermakers face Tennessee, which could finish near the bottom of the SEC. But Purdue seems likely to get a crack at Big East favorite Villanova on Thursday in the second round. (To make that happen, the Wildcats will need to take out Western Kentucky in the first round.) A matchup with Villanova would serve as a helpful barometer of the Boilermakers’ post-Biggie ability.
PK80, Victory Bracket: The Trae-but of Oklahoma’s top freshman
Of the 20 prospects rated higher than Trae Young in the RSCI, only one figures to more profoundly alter the trajectory of his team this season: Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr (No. 2 overall). But the 6’10’’ wing has been dealing with a leg injury, and it’s not clear when he’ll be available. In any case, the PK80 offers a far superior field than the Tigers’ Advocare Invitational event, and one of the reasons why is the presence of Young, who’ll get his first run against the caliber of foe he’ll confront in the Big 12. The Sooners, which opened the season with a pair of wins over Omaha and Ball State, will meet Arkansas and, if they prevail, probably North Carolina.
When Young chose Oklahoma over Kansas and Oklahoma State last February, it helped shift the focus from the Sooners’ dismal 2016-17, which ended with an 11-20 record and a ninth place finish in the Big 12, to 2017-18. Young was a two-time state Gatorade Player of the Year who put up 42.6 points per game as a senior at nearby Norman North (Okla.) High, and SI projects only four freshmen to top his freshman scoring average of 15.2 PPG: Porter (19.3), Bagley (16.5), Alabama’s Collin Sexton (16.4) and Kentucky’s Hamidou Diallo (16.1).
Two of those four players, Bagley and Diallo, will suit up for bluebloods who could be in the running for the national championship, and both Sexton and Porter are potential lottery picks in next summer’s draft, with the latter a candidate to be taken No. 1 overall. Young isn’t showing up on most 2018 mocks, and the school he chose is a football powerhouse picked last month to finish sixth in its own conference. Neither Young’s modest 2018 draft stature nor his team’s limited ceiling should dissuade you from watching him this season.
For Oklahoma to make a run at a tourney berth after missing the field in 2017, head coach Lon Kruger is going to need to greenlight Young firing away pretty much whenever he sees fit. The Sooners should be solid on defense, thanks in part to rim-protecting big man Khadeem Lattin, and they’ll also have former esteemed recruit Kameron McGusty to supplement Young’s backcourt scoring. But we still peg Oklahoma as the No. 68 offense in Division I. Though that would be a big step up from the Sooners’ No. 118 finish in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted points per possession in 2016-17, it’s short of what they’ll need to challenge Kansas at the top of the Big 12.
If Young is capable of lifting Oklahoma higher than that, and consequently pushing it into a more favorable first-round matchup in the NCAAs than the one it would get with a projected No. 10 seed, he should show it against Arkansas and, hopefully, North Carolina in Portland. The Razorbacks look bubble-bound, but they’ll put up enough points to move Young to unleash his advanced scoring arsenal. A head-to-head PG dual between Young and reigning Final Four MOP Joel Berry III makes a prospective meeting with the Tar Heels more interesting.
Maui Invitational: The basketball form of a renewed football series
Michigan and Notre Dame are rebooting their football series in September 2018 in South Bend, but for now, a hardwood fixture between the two programs in a tropical locale will suffice. In the first round of the Maui Invitational, the Fighting Irish will battle tournament host Chaminade, a DII school in Honolulu, and the Wolverines will take on LSU. Notre Dame should breeze past the Silverswords, and Michigan ought to have an easy time putting away the Tigers. If both tilts go as expected, the Fighting Irish and Wolverines would stage a semifinal on Tuesday.
This possible matchup is so appealing less because of the quality of the teams than their style of play. Both Michigan and Notre Dame project to score in bunches, and both of them are expected to bleed points. To be more specific, the Wolverines opened the season with our No. 16 offense and No. 86 defense, while the Fighting Irish ranked fourth in offense and 65th in defense. Pit these squads against one another, and the result could be glorious: an offensive clinic featuring a legit NPOY candidate and a potent stretch big who might get drafted next summer.
It’s long past time Notre Dame got more respect in the preseason. Head coach Mike Brey has shown he can mold elite offenses despite major roster turnover. The Fighting Irish have finished in the top 25 in KenPom’s adjusted points per possession seven of the last nine seasons. Hitting that mark in 2017-18 won’t be an issue. Senior center Bonzie Colson is an efficient two-point scorer who helps extend possessions by snaring his team’s missed shots, and he showed last season that his shooting range extends beyond the three-point line, knocking down 43.3% of his 60 attempts.
Michigan’s Moritz Wagner has a more robust track record as a deep threat, having canned 45 of his 114 (39.5%) tries from beyond the arc in 2016-17, and the Wolverines will need him to increase his scoring output after losing starters Derrick Walton, Zak Irvin and D.J. Wilson—their three highest-usage players last season other than Wagner. But Michigan’s top long-range gunner, Duncan Robinson (43.8% on 377 attempts over two-plus seasons), is back, and it tapped the transfer market for a former top-50 recruit from Kentucky in Charles Matthews, plus Ohio graduate transfer Jaaron Simmons.
Neither of these squads are sturdy enough defensively to mount conference championship runs, and they’re vulnerable to being bounced before the second weekend of the NCAAs. But they also have the firepower, as well as the individual star power, to trip up ostensibly superior opponents, including next week at the Lahaina Civic Center. Assuming, again, that Notre Dame and Michigan advance from their first-round matchups, the winner could have an opportunity to take down American Athletic Conference favorite and Final Four contender Wichita State.