Before you write off the bevy of November college basketball tip-off tournaments as unimportant and gimmicky, I ask you to pause, breathe and reconsider. No sport can begin a season the way it ends one, but college basketball comes the closest. It gives viewers a little taste, just the slightest whiff of the very thing that leaves fans wanting more at the end of March: brackets.
Tournaments do not exist in the four major American sports during the regular season. But college basketball managed to inject meaning and a level of fun into the start of its season by creating a series of bracketed tip-off tournaments that often set up unique non-conference matchups while offering fans the chance to immediately overreact to their favorite group of teenagers that have not been playing together nearly long enough to look like an actual basketball team.
These early-season tournaments have a little bit of everything; exotic neutral site locations, coaches in Hawaiian shirts, rare non-conference matchups between powerhouse programs, imminent upsets and more. One year, we even had the aircraft carrier game. The only difficulty is trying to decide which events are worth watching. It’s tough to do at the start of college basketball season when prognosticators are still trying to distill the value of transfers, recruits, departed seniors and coaching changes into some sort of vaguely accurate numerical rankings with a limited sample size at hand. Still, we generally know which teams are good and which are bad, and that’s really all you need.
So, with that in mind, these are the tip-off tournaments worth watching that should wet your whistle for another wild winter of college hoops.
Battle 4 Atlantis
Where: Paradise Island, Bahamas
When: November 27-29
Who: UNC, Oregon, Michigan, Gonzaga, Iowa State, Seton Hall, Alabama, Southern Miss (Bracket)
The Battle 4 (why not for? Don’t make it complicated) Atlantis traditionally features a strong field of teams, and this year is no exception. The Battle enters its ninth year with half of its participants ranked in the KenPom top 25, alongside a stronger cast of unranked supporting characters than most tournaments of a similar variety. Six of the eight teams come from the Power 5 conferences/Big East/A-10, and Gonzaga is one of the two exceptions.
The bottom half of the bracket is loaded, with an enticing first-round matchup between Seton Hall, one of the most efficient offensive teams of the early season and one that returned four of its five starters from last year, and Oregon, the Pac-12 tournament champion from 2019 led by the returning Payton Pritchard and key transfers Anthony Mathis and Shakur Juiston. The winner likely plays Gonzaga (matched up against Southern Miss in the first round), paced by its elite frontcourt of Filip Petrusev, Drew Timme and Corey Kispert, for a spot in the finals. On the other side of the bracket, a UNC squad expected to contend atop a loaded ACC and led by freshman sensation Cole Anthony will face off with Alabama in the first round before the victor takes on the winner of Michigan-Iowa State.
The Zags and the Tar Heels are the most likely finals matchup, but Oregon, Seton Hall and Michigan are not far off the pace and should provide some competitive matchups on both sides of the bracket. The defense-first Wolverines begin the Juwan Howard era hoping to steal a bid out of the Big Ten as Eli Brooks, Jon Teske and Isaiah Livers attempt to plug the gaps left by the departures of Iggy Brazdeikis and Jordan Poole for the NBA. Iowa State looks to build on a fifth-place finish in the Big 12 last season with its 24th-ranked offense led by senior forward Michael Jacobson and the all-sophomore backcourt of Tyrese Haliburton and Rasir Bolton.
Alabama fans will get their first look at new hire Nate Oats as he attempts to manage a transitional year for a Tide team that lost three of its top six rotational players and is ranked outside the KenPom top 50. The team hoping to make the biggest upset noise, Southern Miss, ushers in a new coach in Jay Ladner and sits outside the top 200 nationally despite a third-place finish in Conference USA a season ago and a strong start to 2019-20 from London native Boban Jacdonmi. It should be a great weekend of basketball in the Bahamas and as good an option as any for kicking off the year.
Maui Jim Maui Invitational
Where: Maui, Hawaii
When: November 25-27
Who: Michigan State, Kansas, BYU, Georgia, Dayton, Virginia Tech, UCLA, Chaminade (Bracket)
The Maui Invitational is one of the oldest such tournaments in existence, as 2019 will mark the 35th iteration of Hawaii’s favorite sporting event sponsored by a sunglasses company. The Maui is known for bringing in the nation’s top teams, and this year is no different as No. 3 Michigan State and No. 4 Kansas will cross half the Pacific to participate. Hosted by Division II Chaminade University of Honolulu, the tournament features an intriguing collection of programs to round out the field.
Michigan State, with the most efficient offensive team in the nation paced by senior Cassisus Winston and coming off a sweep of last year's Big Ten regular season and tournament, will face Virginia Tech in the first round for the opportunity to play the winner of Georgia-Dayton for a trip to the finals. On the other side, Kansas, hoping to bounce back from its first season without any sort of Big 12 title since 2003-04 (as well as a tight opening-night loss to Duke), draws hosts Chaminade in the first round before almost certainly playing the winner of BYU-UCLA.
Everyone should be (rightfully) excited about a potential Michigan State-Kansas showdown in what could well be a late-round March Madness preview, but the other teams in the field bear mention as well. In just his second year at the helm, Tom Crean brought the No. 10 recruiting class in the nation to Athens, highlighted by its biggest signee since Lou Williams in shooting guard Anthony Edwards. He'll now attempt to wrangle his stable of young talent into form in time for Maui.
The Bulldogs will face off with Dayton in the first round, a deep squad led by redshirt sophomore forward Obi Toppin that, in all, returns five of seven players who appeared in 30 or more games last season. The tournament also features a trio of first-year coaches; Virginia Tech’s Mike Young looks to rebuild a post-Buzz Williams world for the Hokies around a stingy defense and the all-freshman backcourt of Landers Nolley II and Nahiem Alleyne. BYU’s Mark Pope takes over a veteran team returning 10 lettermen from last season that should nip at the heels of Gonzaga and St. Mary’s in the WCC with a top-50 offense.
But the most intriguing of the bunch is new UCLA coach Mick Cronin, who will attempt to end the Bruins’ two-year tournament drought with a talented but unproved roster featuring freshmen Jaime Jaquez Jr., Tyger Campbell and Shareef O’Neal as well as sophomores Jalen Hill and Jules Bernard. Though it may not have the top-to-bottom quality of some of the other tournaments, the Maui Jim has the big-ticket teams you want to get a look at early in the season.
Where: Orlando, Florida
When: November 28-29 and December 1
Who: Maryland, Marquette, Texas A&M, Davidson, Harvard, Temple, USC, Fairfield
The Orlando Invitational returns for a 14th year with a field of teams that makes up for a lack of big-ticket programs with a collection of teams that should play each other close. No. 7 Maryland and Marquette are the biggest big dogs here as top-20 KenPom teams, while Harvard is the favorite in the Ivy League, Texas A&M welcomes Buzz Williams into the fold and Temple returns three starters after a tournament run last season.
Maryland returns four-fifths of its starting five (with Bruno Fernando now in the NBA) along with its three top reserves and should ride its top-10 offense to a first-round win against a Temple squad projected to finish middle-of-the-pack in the AAC and that will lean heavily on guards Nate Pierre-Louis and Quinton Rose. The Terps will then face the winner of Harvard-Texas A&M, a good test for both squads as the Crimson attempt to knock off a Power 5 school and begin their quest to avenge two consecutive losses in the Ivy League final with a roster almost entirely unchanged from a year prior (12 of 13 rotation players are back). The Aggies hope to see Williams inject some life into an underachieving roster that brings back most of its pieces from a disappointing 2018-19 campaign.
On the other side of the bracket, USC brings an overachieving offense to the table led by five-star freshmen Onyeka Okongwu and Isaiah Mobley in the frontcourt and senior captain Jonah Matthews at shooting guard. The Trojans should handle a Fairfield squad currently sitting at No. 282 in the KenPom rankings (and slated to finish at the bottom of the MAAC) in the first round.
USC's second-round opponent will come from one of the best opening-round games of these tournaments. Davidson finished second in the A-10 regular season and bowed out in the conference tournament semis, and it begins 2019-20 with its top six scorers still in Wildcat red (led by reigning A-10 POY Jon Axel Gudmundsson). Marquette sits at No. 20 in the KenPom rankings (despite being unranked nationally) thanks to the No. 10 offense, led by the senior backcourt of reigning unanimous Big East POY Markus Howard and the Golden Eagles’ best defender Sacar Anim. Both squads have the opportunity to make an early-season statement with an opening-round win and a run out of the lower half. With this many quality squads eager to start the year on a good note, the Orlando Invitational should be a highly competitive tournament.
Myrtle Beach Invitational
Where: Conway, South Carolina
When: November 21-22 and 24
Who: Villanova, Baylor, Mississippi State, Utah, Middle Tennessee, Coastal Carolina, Ohio, Tulane
The Myrtle Beach Invitational is in just its second year but welcomes another solid slate of contenders to South Carolina the weekend before Thanksgiving. No. 17 Villanova, winner of six straight season-opening tournaments, comes in as the favorite after a sweep of the Big East last year and appears loaded (but young) in the frontcourt with five-star freshman Jeremiah Robinson-Earl checking in alongside sophomores Saddiq Bey and Cole Swider. No. 24 Baylor might have something to say about that, as the Bears finished strong in the Big 12 last season and begin 2019-20 with a top-16 defense despite a loss to Washington in their second game.
A potential Villanova-Baylor final is reason enough to tune in to the Myrtle Beach Invitational, but the other six teams in the field will be hunting for an early-season upset. Middle Tennessee, the program that upset Michigan State in the 2016 NCAA tournament tournament as a No. 15 seed, draws 'Nova in the first round and is returning all three of its double-digit scorers from last season. Mississippi State, a tournament team a year ago, takes on Tulane in the other top-half matchup with the Bulldogs slated to be a middle-of-the-pack contender in the SEC and led by senior guard Tyson Carter in the backcourt with sophomore forward Reggie Perry as the spearhead down low. The Green Wave are rebuilding in their first year under former Georgia State coach Ron Hunter and will be hard-pressed to beat Mississippi State with a roster of freshman and transfers ranked 270th in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency.
On the lower half of the bracket, Baylor draws an Ohio team that lost four of its five top scorers from last year and is projected to finish near the bottom of the MAC. The winner of that game will face the victor of Utah-Coastal Carolina, with the perennially overachieving but young Utes led by a trio of sophomores in Timmy Allen and Riley Battin down low plus Both Gach in the backcourt. They face a Chanticleers team (and 73-year-old head coach Cliff Ellis) that should be in the mix in the Sun Belt this season but currently sits in the 170s on KenPom after leading scorer Zac Cuthbertson graduated. Villanova-Baylor still appears to be the likely matchup in the final, but the road to get there is littered with teams primed to play spoiler.
2K Empire Classic
Where: New York, New York
When: November 21-22
Who: Duke, Georgetown, Texas, Cal
The 2K Empire Classic is a good old-fashioned four team showdown at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The tournament is worth watching, first and foremost, because Duke is playing. The No. 1 Blue Devils, surprise surprise, are talented once again despite the departure of a few guys you might have heard of from last year’s team. Tre Jones and Alex O’Connell are the two most important returners, bolstered by the usual collection of blue-chip recruits in five-star frontcourt talents Vernon Carey and Matthew Hurt. Reinforcements on the wing arrived as well in the form of four-stars Cassius Stanley (leading scorer) and Wendell Moore.
Their potential competition includes Georgetown, a program slowly working its way back to the rarified air it once occupied alongside the likes of Duke. The Hoyas sit at No. 70 in the KenPom rankings but return a trio of freshman starters from last year’s squad in Mac McClung, James Akinjo and Josh LeBlanc while adding 7-foot Turkish transfer Omer Yurtseven (17.0 points per game to start the season) from NC State. Georgetown will be battling for position with Creighton, Butler and Xavier behind Villanova and Seton Hall in the Big East all season.
The Texas-Georgetown game should be a good test for both sides as Shaka Smart will look to keep his seat cool with a quick start to the season after what has been, to this point, an underwhelming run as the Longhorns coach. Texas is a young team that lost its top two scorers from last season, but returners Matt Coleman, Andrew Jones and Courtney Ramsey appear to have stabilized the backcourt while a pair of four-star freshman big men, Will Baker and Kai Jones, develop in the frontcourt.
Duke’s first opponent is Cal, a team with expectations much lower than any of the other three programs in the Empire Classic. Mark Fox begins his tenure with the Golden Bears simply looking to improve on two eight-win seasons in a row, so don’t expect too much from one of the worst Power 5 teams in the nation. They could pull the upset of the season with a first-round win over Duke, but don’t hold your breath. In any case, this tournament has the intrigue to make it onto your viewing schedule ahead of Thanksgiving.