Feast Week is upon us and for Alabama men's basketball, the competition is about to be underway. On Thanksgiving Day, the No. 18 Crimson Tide will begin play in the 2022 Phil Knight Invitational in Portland, Ore. against No. 12 Michigan State — currently one of the hottest teams in the country.
The eight-team field for this year's PKI is loaded with talent, starting with the No. 1 team in the country in North Carolina. The rest of the field are as follows: Alabama, Iowa State, Michigan State, Oregon, Portland, UConn and Villanova.
The Spartans mark the Crimson Tide's first opponent of the tournament. Michigan State has had an incredible start to the season, including beating Kentucky in Indianapolis as well as downing as well as fellow PKI participant Villanova.
During his press conference on Tuesday evening, Alabama head coach Nate Oats laid out just how much of a threat the Spartans pose to his Crimson Tide squad.
"We're looking forward to playing Michigan State," Oats said. "They're good. We've played four decent mid-major teams but this will be our first high-major team we play. They shot up in the rankings — and rightfully so — they should be 4-0.
"They've got some quality wins under their belt, they've played some tough teams, they're a typical Tom Izzo-coached team. I mean, they're tough, they're physical, they're gonna guard you — they're not gonna beat themselves."
An added element to the game is the matchup between Oats and Michigan State head coach and close friend of Nick Saban, Tom Izzo. During Oats' time as head coach at Romulus High in the Detroit area of Michigan, Izzo and Oats had become acquainted due to Oats frequently volunteering for the Spartans' summer camps.
When Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne was fielding Oats as a potential new hire back in 2019, it was Izzo's recommendation that helped him get the job. And now for the first time, Oats and Izzo will get to face each other on the court.
Oats said that the experience of heading into a game to compete against Izzo is surreal.
"He's the guy I've always looked up to," Oats said of Izzo. "I grew up in Wisconsin, I moved to the Detroit area to take a high school job and honestly part of it was I was kinda right there in the same state. He was always great to me when I worked the camps before I took the Romulus job, and then when I took the Romulus job I was up there all the time.
"I've always looked up to him. He was always great to me as a high school coach."
Should the Crimson Tide prevail against the Spartans, it will face the winner between UConn and Oregon. Should it lose, it would face the loser between those same two programs. Either way, it will be a tough two-game stretch for Alabama with potential to stretch to a very difficult three games.
Oats has always been a firm believer in scheduling tough games early in the season to test a team's mettle, and this year is no different. The Crimson Tide has a plethora of difficult challenges early, all scheduled to help Oats and his assistants iron out the teams problems early.
Since arriving at Alabama in 2019, Oats and the Crimson Tide have participated in a regular-season tournament in each of his first three seasons. In 2019, Alabama went 2-2 in the Battle 4 Atlantis, bookending the tournament with wins over Furman and Southern Miss while losing to North Carolina and Iowa State.
In the 2020-21 season, the Crimson Tide traveled to Asheville, N.C. for a Maui Invitational that had shifted locations due to the pandemic. While Alabama lost its opening game to Stanford, it rallied and won its final two games over UNLV and Providence to finish fifth out of the eight teams.
Last season, the Crimson Tide took part in the ESPN Events Invitational, which saw Alabama repeat the exact same path it took in 2020. The Crimson Tide opened the tournament by losing 72-68 to Iona in a rematch of the previous season's NCAA Tournament opening round, the won its final two games against Drake and Miami.
This year's Phil Knight Invitational marks Oats' fourth regular-season tournament in as many seasons with Alabama, and this year presents a Crimson Tide team that is arguably the best roster that he's fielded since his arrival to Tuscaloosa.
Michigan State certainly poses a big challenge for Alabama, as well as whichever two teams the Crimson Tide faces afterwards. Whether Oats and Co. go 3-0 or 0-3, he's confident that there is plenty to be learned about his team over the course of the tournament.
"It's going to be our first real test against another high-major team, so I want to see if we can continue to rebound like we have," Oats said. "We're obviously not going to continue to rebound like we have with the rebounding margin, but can we outrebound a team in Michigan State?
"So can we take care of the ball, can we rebound it, can we be physical without fouling, can we handle their physicality without letting it get to our heads? Those are some of the big questions that I've got."
Without further ado, here's a team-by-team breakdown of the participants of the 2022 Phil Knight Invitational, followed by the official bracket with a schedule and tipoff times/TV networks:
(Teams organized by highest odds to win tournament, according to FanDuel)
2021-22 Record: 29-10
Current KenPom Ranking: No. 17
Odds to win: +230
Outlook: Let's go ahead and get this out of the way: the sky is the limit for this North Carolina team. The Tarheels went to the national title game last season and returns the majority of its key pieces — enough to warrant them being the preseason top-ranked team in the country. UNC possesses arguably the best backcourt in the country in RJ Davis and Caleb Love, and the team's leading scorer in Armando Bacot returns in the frontcourt. While North Carolina will likely miss big man Brady Manek, Pete Nance is another big that can shoot from anywhere on the court. Leaky Black is also back, adding to the Tarheels' defensive prowess.
North Carolina is the heavy favorite to win the PKI, and with good reason. The field of the tournament presents the Tarheels with their toughest competition yet this season, but make no mistake: there aren't many teams that can hang with UNC this season.
2021-22 Record: 19-14
Current KenPom Ranking: No. 13
Odds to win: +420
Outlook: While Alabama might not have gotten the preseason recognition like North Carolina, the Crimson Tide has been sneaky good over its first four games of the season. While a 4-0 start doesn't turn many heads in this year's PKI field, it's the manner of the wins that's more impressive in Oats' fourth season in Tuscaloosa.
Alabama brought in the No. 3 recruiting class in the country last year, per SI All-American, headlined by freshman phenom forward Brandon Miller. Through the Crimson Tide's first four games, Miller is averaging 20.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game — just shy of a double-double. Miller isn't the only weapon for Alabama, though. Between guards Mark Sears and Nimari Burnett, forwards Noah Gurley and Rylan Griffen alongside center Charles Bediako, Oats has one thing that he's been missing most in his first three seasons: depth.
And with senior guard Jahvon Quinerly having returned earlier than anticipated from an ACL injury, look out for Alabama in this year’s tournament.
Alabama Arrives, Practices at Phil Knight Invitational
2021-22 Record: 22-12
Current KenPom Ranking: No. 22
Odds to win: +450
Outlook: Izzo returns four starters from last year's NCAA Tournament team, and it shows. The Spartans have started the season 3-1, including wins over Kentucky on the road and against Villanova. Michigan State also gave Gonzaga a run for its money in San Diego, losing by the slimmest of margins: 64-63. The AP voters have seen the potential in the Spartans as well, rocketing them up from unranked to No. 12 in the latest poll.
The backcourt of AJ Hoggard and Tyson Walker gives Izzo a top-five unit in the Big Ten. Joey Hauser shot 40-percent from 3-point territory last season, making him a deep threat. Last season, Michigan State's long-range shooting ranked second in their conference last season, and that doesn't looked to have changed in 2022. While the Spartans might rank below North Carolina and Alabama in terms of betting odds, don't sleep on Sparty: they might just win the whole thing.
2021-22 Record: 30-8
Current KenPom Ranking: No. 32
Odds to win: +650
Outlook: Villanova reached its third Final Four in seven years last season and were debatably one rough Justin Moore injury away from potentially winning a national title. Combine that with the retirement of head coach Jay Wright after 20 seasons with the Wildcats, and it was a sad offseason for Villanova fans. Unfortunately for Villanova, the 2022-23 season hasn't brought much relief under new head coach Kyle Neptune. Over their first four games, the Wildcats have emerged with a 2-2 record. While a narrow 73-71 loss at Michigan State is somewhat understandable, a 68-64 loss at home to Temple is not.
That being said, Villanova brings a decent bit of talent with it to the PKI, including three returning starters alongside one of the best sixth men in the country in guard Caleb Daniels. While there's no timetable for the return of Moore, Eric Dixon and Brandon Slater make their returns and present posable threats. Forward Cam Whitmore and guard Mark Armstrong are also two freshmen additions that will likely contribute heavily for the Wildcats this season.
2021-22 Record: 23-10
Current KenPom Ranking: No. 20
Odds to win: +650
Outlook: UConn might have started the season 5-0, but head coach Dan Hurley has had all the adversity he could handle. The Huskies entered the 2022-23 season with c-team captain Andre Jackson out with a fractured pinky, while Jordan Hawkins entered concussion protocol following the team's season opener against Stonehill College. Combine that with four transfer guards being added to the mix, and the beginning of the season could have been rough for Hurley and UConn.
The Huskies haven't exactly had a difficult slate of games to start the season. However, that doesn't make them any less potent. Junior forward Adama Sanogo is averaging 21.4 points and 8.0 rebounds per game while guard Tristen Newton, forward Alex Karaban and sophomore guard Jordan Hawkins are all averaging double-digit points. The tournament will provide UConn with its first true tests of the season, but it has the tools to leave the PKI with its heads held high.
2021-22 Record: 20-15
Current KenPom Ranking: No. 38
Odds to win: +850
Outlook: The Ducks have started the season 2-2, with all four games being played at home — not exactly the start that head coach Dana Altman and his team wanted. For Oregon to be able to compete at a high level this season, it's going to have to dramatically improve on the defensive end — something that the Ducks couldn't put together last year. Will Richardson is the leader of the team this year, and for good reason: the senior guard averaged 14.1 points, 3.6 assists and 3.9 rebounds last year.
The biggest question for Oregon continues to be its defensive rebounding. Last year, the Ducks ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in defensive rebounding rate and have shown improvement over its first four games, but not enough to warrant a full turnaround. Centers Nate Bittle and Kel'el Ware will ultimately provide relief in the rebounding game, but only time will tell if that will be a permanent fix. Another factor will be forward N'Faly Dante, a 6-foot-11 senior who can be quite imposing when healthy, but has dealt with multiple injuries over the past few seasons.
2021-22 Record: 22-13
Current KenPom Ranking: No. 53
Odds to win: +900
Outlook: The Cyclones might have started the season 3-0, but don't let that success fool you: this team has its issues. All three of Iowa State's games have been at home and against far inferior opponents: IUPUI, North Carolina A&T and Milwaukee. With Wick Brockington gone, the Cyclones have a lot to work through on both ends of the court — particularly on offense. In 2021-22, Iowa State was one of the worst teams in the Big 12 in most offensive metrics. And now, the Cyclones have lost both of their top scorers from last season.
Head coach T. J. Otzelberger brought in Jaren Holmes and Osun Osunniyi from St. Bonaventure in the offseason courtesy of the transfer portal. Osunniyi is an immediate impact player on defense and has been anchoring the Cyclones' defensive frontcourt. Holmes is a physical guard that can score at pretty much any level. Forward Aljaz Kunc of Slovenia and Temple transfer Jeremiah Williams will also likely be impactful in the PKI, but the rest of Iowa State's roster poses major question marks.
2021-22 Record: 19-15
Current KenPom Ranking: No. 130
Odds to win: +19000
Outlook: A 4-2 start to the season is not a bad look for the Pilots and head coach Shantay Legans. While Portland lost at Kent State and against Seattle U, the Pilots downed Lewis & Clark, Florida A&M, Portland State and Air Force — winning the four games by an average of 21 points, no less. Legans arrived in Portland last season after coaching four seasons at Eastern Washington, bringing three players with him including Mike Meadows and Tyler Robertson. Both Meadows and Robertson averaged double-digit points, with Robertson averaging 15.3 points per game last season. The remaining three starters for the Pilots are forwards, all of which measure at 6-foot-8 or taller.
While the odds are stacked against Portland in the PKI, the Pilots certainly have a shot at being one of the better teams in the West Coast Conference.
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