Biggest Winners and Losers of Men's College Basketball's Early Season Tournaments

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesFeatured Columnist IVNovember 29, 2022

Biggest Winners and Losers of Men's College Basketball's Early Season Tournaments

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    Purdue's Zach Edey
    Michael Hickey/Getty Images

    "Feast Week" in men's college basketball was almost too much channel-flipping, bracket-tracking madness to handle.

    Just between the Maui Invitational, the Battle 4 Atlantis and the two big Phil Knight tournaments in Portland, ranked teams suffered a combined total of 13 losses from Nov. 21-27. That includes No. 1 North Carolina, No. 3 Kansas and No. 6 Gonzaga all taking an L on Black Friday. (Rankings have since changed considerably.)

    And those are just four of the 29 early season tournaments that played out over the course of the past two weeks.

    In an effort to recap some of the major recent developments, we'll highlight the five biggest tournaments by crowning a biggest winner and biggest loser from each of them.

    After that, we'll also briefly hit on a handful of other winners and losers from the less-stacked tournament fields.

Battle 4 Atlantis Winner: Tennessee's Ball-Hawking Defense

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    Tennessee's Tyreke Key defends USC's Drew Peterson
    Tim Aylen/Bahamas Visual Services via AP

    The Tennessee Volunteers offense has a lot of work to do before we can start taking this team seriously as a title contender. In the opening week of the season, they lost by 12 to Colorado, scoring just 66 points in an 80-possession game. And this past week in Nassau, they were held slightly below one point per possession (208 points in 210 possessions).

    The defense, on the other hand, is making an early case for best in KenPom history.

    Between the three wins over Butler, USC and Kansas, Tennessee had 35 steals and forced a total of 59 turnovers. And while that aggressive style typically results in a lot of fouls, Tennessee actually made more free throws (44) than its opponents attempted (40).

    Not only did they force a lot of turnovers, but their opponents shot a pedestrian 36.9 percent from the field. The Vols made life miserable for USC's Drew Peterson and Kansas' Jalen Wilson, holding both of those volume scorers below one point per field goal attempt. (Peterson scored nine points on 10 shots; Wilson had 14 points on 15 FGA.)

    Now for the kicker: They did it without Josiah-Jordan James (knee injury) who averaged 1.4 steals and 1.1 blocks per game last season. Once he gets back up to full speed, a defense that already leads the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency could get even better.

    If that happens and highly touted freshman Julian Phillips finds his shooting stroke (37 percent from the field; 1-of-11 from three), then we can start talking about national championship potential.

Battle 4 Atlantis Loser: Dayton's At-Large Hopes

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    Dayton's Mike Sharavjamts and NC State's Casey Morsell
    Tim Aylen/Bahamas Visual Services via AP

    Dayton was supposed to be one of the best mid-majors in the nation this season, if not one of the best teams, period. The Flyers brought back all seven of the leading scorers from a 24-win team and landed at No. 24 in the preseason AP poll.

    They did suffer an early disappointing road loss to UNLV, but they were given a massive opportunity to re-stake their claim as a contender in the Battle 4 Atlantis, where they could have gone through Wisconsin, Kansas and Tennessee to win the title.

    Instead, they're headed back to Dayton with a trio of losses to Wisconsin, NC State and BYU.

    As a result, they already may well have fallen irreparably out of the at-large conversation.

    Losing the opener to the Badgers was the real heart-breaker. The Flyers had every opportunity to win a 43-42 rock fight in which Wisconsin scored just one point in the final 4.5 minutes.

    That missed opportunity sent the Flyers to the loser's half of the bracket, where they blew a 10-point first-half lead against the Wolfpack and squandered a 23-point first-half lead against the Cougars.

    Adding injury to insult, starting guards Kobe Elvis and Malachi Smith got hurt against BYU and "are out for the foreseeable future," according to head coach Anthony Grant.

    Just an outright disaster of a week for what is now a 3-4 team with nothing better than a home win over SMU on its ledger. Even if they win at Virginia Tech (Dec. 7) and go 6-0 for the rest of nonconference play, the Flyers would enter A-10 season needing to go something like 16-2 in league play to have a realistic argument for an at-large bid.

Continental Tire Main Event Winner: Tony Bennett, Virginia

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    Virginia's Tony Bennett
    AP Photo/Chase Stevens

    Last season was Virginia's worst in over a decade. The normally impenetrable pack-line defense couldn't stop much, the perimeter shooting was awful and the Cavaliers looked like a team that had to replace six of its primary eight players from the previous season.

    But this time around, all six leading scorers came back, and Tony Bennett put together a rock-solid recruiting class featuring four 4-star guys. He also added Ohio transfer Ben Vander Plas for some much-needed experienced depth in the frontcourt.

    As a result, preseason expectations were relatively back to normal for what had been an annual title contender.

    However, then-AP No. 16 Virginia was a considerable underdog in the loaded four-team Continental Tire Main Event, featuring (rankings at the time) No. 5 Baylor, No. 8 UCLA and No. 19 Illinois. Yet, the Cavaliers upset both Baylor and Illinois thanks to a newfound strength: free-throw attempts.

    Thanks in large part to their snail-like pace, Virginia typically ranks in the bottom 100 nationally in free-throw rate. In Las Vegas, though, they outscored Baylor and Illinois by a combined margin of 52-16 from the charity stripe.

    The Friday game against Baylor was the first time since January 2015 that UVA attempted more than 30 free throws in a game. So for them to put up 32 and 35 in consecutive games was equal parts bizarre and brilliant coaching.

    Both the Bears and the Illini switch a ton on defense, and Virginia was able to use that to its advantage, consistently getting into favorable matchups and drawing a lot of fouls.

    We'll see if it's an approach Bennett and the Cavaliers try to employ in the future, but it worked wonders for a pair of early marquee victories.

Continental Tire Main Event Loser: UCLA Bruins

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    UCLA's Amari Bailey
    Michael Hickey/Getty Images

    Got to love a loaded four-team tournament...unless, of course, you're the unfortunate team that goes home with a pair of losses.

    That was UCLA's fate in Las Vegas, where it lost a pair of great games against Illinois and Baylor.

    No need to panic after losing a pair of Elite Eight-caliber games. At any rate, North Carolina bounced back from the same situation last season to reach the national championship game.

    Still, it was a deflating start for UCLA.

    The Bruins led by as many as 15 points in the second half against Illinois, but the Illini reeled off a 29-8 run to take over. UCLA forced 21 Illinois turnovers, but it simply had no answer for Terrence Shannon, who shot 8-of-9 from three-point range.

    In the consolation game against Baylor, it was LJ Cryer and Adam Flagler combining for 50 of the Bears' 80 points in what was another disappointing defensive effort from UCLA. That duo wasn't quite as on-fire as Shannon was, but they did shoot 8-of-16 from deep when they weren't busy getting into the lane without much resistance.

    Though somewhat understandable given the quality of the competition, it was the first time under Mick Cronin that UCLA allowed at least 79 points in regulation in consecutive games.

    Meanwhile, UCLA's highly touted freshmen Amari Bailey and Adem Bona combined for just 13 points between the two games.

    Bailey has scored in double figures in every other game played thus far, but he couldn't get anything to fall against much better defenses. We'll see if things go better for him (and the Bruins) in mid-December when they play at Maryland and face Kentucky in NYC in the span of three days.

Maui Jim Maui Invitational Winner: Oumar Ballo, Arizona

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    Arizona's Oumar Ballo
    Darryl Oumi/Getty Images

    You know how it feels like Drew Timme has been at Gonzaga for at least a decade?

    Well, like Timme, Oumar Ballo was a 4-star recruit in Gonzaga's 2019 class.

    Ballo was an academic redshirt for his first season in Spokane. He subsequently played just 6.3 minutes per game as a freshman during Gonzaga's near-undefeated 2020-21 campaign. Then, when longtime Mark Few assistant Tommy Lloyd got the job at Arizona, Ballo followed him into the desert, where he still played sparingly (15.2 MPG) last season as Christian Koloko's backup.

    But at long last, the big man is finally getting his opportunity to shine.

    And, goodness, did he ever shine in Maui.

    Ballo averaged 21.0 points and 10.7 rebounds in Arizona's victories over Cincinnati, San Diego State and Creighton. He saved his best for last, going for 30 and 13 against Ryan Kalkbrenner and the Bluejays in the Maui Invitational championship, scoring Arizona's final eight points of that 81-79 victory.

    Between the Pac-12 and NCAA tournaments, Arizona played six games last March, in which Ballo played a combined 89 minutes and attempted just 14 shots. But in Wednesday's Maui championship game alone, Ballo made 14 buckets for what is the early heavy favorite for "Most Entertaining Team to Watch in 2022-23."

Maui Jim Maui Invitational Loser: Louisville Cardinals

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    Louisville's El Ellis
    Darryl Oumi/Getty Images

    It was clear from the 0-3 start to the year that this was not going to be a season for Louisville to remember fondly. But at least the Cardinals were oh-so-close to winning those initial games against Bellarmine, Wright State and Appalachian State, losing each of them by a single point.

    In Maui, we got a better sense of just how ugly this season is going to be for Louisville.

    The Cardinals lost their opening-round game against Arkansas by 26 points. The next game against Texas Tech went even worse for Louisville, which allowed a 34-5 run en route to a 32-point loss. And in the seventh-place game against Cincinnati, the Cardinals lost by 19, at one point allowing the Bearcats to score on 12 out of 13 possessions.

    All told, they made 49 field goals and committed 55 turnovers.

    It was all sorts of ugly, and it led me to look up if it was even worse than Chaminade's poorest showing in the Maui Invitational.

    It wasn't.

    But it's kind of close.

    The Maui Invitational has been an eight-team tournament every year since 1986, making this the 37th installment of this great event. And this is just the sixth time that the eighth-place finisher lost each of its three games by at least 19 points. The other five were all by Chaminade, in 1988, 2004, 2005, 2011 and 2021.

    Chaminade is a D-II school, though, and while it got smoked in the five years listed above, it has played in this eight-team tournament 30 times without getting as consistently blown out as Louisville just was.

Phil Knight Invitational Winner: The Deep, Defensive Connecticut Huskies

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    Connecticut's Donovan Clingan
    AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

    With an honorable mention to Iowa State for knocking off both Villanova and North Carolina to crash the championship game, Connecticut just had an incredible week in Portland.

    The Huskies entered the PK85 at 5-0 with all five wins coming by a margin of at least 20 points, but they hadn't played anyone worth mentioning. All five games were at home, and the best opponent was probably UNC-Wilmington. Tough to gauge from that start just how good this team might be.

    Now that they've beaten Oregon by 24, Alabama by 15 and Iowa State by 18 on a neutral floor, though, it sure is starting to feel like the Huskies could be the best team in the country.

    In all three games, their defense was on point.

    The Huskies held each of their foes well below one point per possession. They had at least seven blocks and at least eight steals in each of the first two games, and they thrived in more of a pack-line approach against the less offensively-inclined Iowa State on Sunday night, suffocating Caleb Grill (one point vs. UConn after scoring 31 against North Carolina) and just destroying the Cyclones on the glass.

    Depth was also a major factor in all three games, with Andre Jackson, Joey Calcaterra, Donovan Clingan and Hassan Diarra all playing key parts as reserves.

    Heck, both Jackson and Clingan had double-doubles off the bench against the Cyclones, and you could legitimately argue for six different Huskies as MVP of the tournament.

    Semi-bold prediction: Of the 19 remaining undefeated teams, Connecticut will last the longest before suffering its first loss.

Phil Knight Invitational Loser: North Carolina Tar Heels

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    North Carolina's Pete Nance
    AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer

    Villanova looked like a hot mess in going 0-3 in the Phil Knight Invitational, even losing by double digits to Portland. But the Wildcats still don't have freshman phenom Cam Whitmore (thumb) or veteran leader Justin Moore (Achilles). Maybe they'll turn things around once they're healthy.

    What's North Carolina's excuse for going 1-2, though?

    The preseason No. 1-ranked Tar Heels narrowly survived their opening-round game against Portland before back-to-back late collapses against Iowa State and Alabama.

    Against the Cyclones, a 60-53 lead with less than four minutes remaining somehow devolved into a 70-65 loss, as ISU's Caleb Grill (31 points) just refused to miss.

    Against the Crimson Tide, UNC was up eight with nine minutes left in regulation and led by as many as six points in the third overtime before coming up just short in the fourth extra period.

    Both games could have gone either way, so maybe we shouldn't overreact too much. However, there's no denying the Tar Heels defense needs a lot of work.

    The 102-86 game against Charleston on Nov. 11 was the first indicator of that, but they allowed over 1.0 points per possession in all three games played in Portland.

    Making matters worse, Northwestern transfer Pete Nance—who was sensational with 28 points against Portland—was a relative non-factor in the latter two games, combining for 13 points, 15 rebounds and seven turnovers in 57 minutes played.

    Nance has been held to single digits in four of seven games thus far, and the offense—though relatively potent—hasn't lived up to the hype as a result.

    No rest for the weary, either, as this two-game losing streak could easily turn into four if they're not careful. The Tar Heels play at Indiana and at Virginia Tech this week.

    And here's a fun premature factoid for you: North Carolina endured four-game losing streaks in just four of the past 22 seasons, which not so coincidentally are the four seasons they missed* the NCAA tournament. If they lose to the Hoosiers and Hokies, it might already be time to start panicking in Chapel Hill.

    *Officially, they didn't miss the 2020 NCAA tournament because there wasn't one. But they went 14-19 and had already been eliminated from the ACC tournament before the season was shut down.

Phil Knight Legacy Winner: Zach Edey and the Purdue Boilermakers

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    Purdue's Zach Edey
    AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

    Over the past two seasons, Zach Edey was a highly efficient big man who played sparingly.

    The 7'4" center averaged 23.6 points and 12.1 rebounds per 40 minutes as a freshman and then kicked it up a notch for 30.3 points and 16.2 rebounds per 40 minutes as a sophomore. Those are more or less "Blake Griffin at Oklahoma" numbers, as the former Sooner put up 20.7 and 12.8 as a freshman, followed by 27.3 and 17.3 as a sophomore.

    But because Edey only played 14.7 minutes per game as a freshman and 19.0 minutes per game as a sophomore, y'all lost your minds every time last season that I put out a National Player of the Year rankings with Edey in the top 10.

    Now that Trevion Williams is gone, though, Edey's playing time has increased to just under 30 minutes per game, and he is continuing to dominate to the same degree against great competition.

    In the process of leading Purdue to three consecutive blowout victories over West Virginia, Gonzaga and Duke, Edey averaged 22.7 points and 10.3 rebounds.

    Against Gonzaga, Edey and Drew Timme pretty much avoided each other, ultimately finishing with similar stat lines. But Edey was the difference-maker in that game, keeping Gonzaga's offense from getting into its rim-running routine while also opening up the perimeter for the Boilermakers by forcing the Zags to be constantly vigilant about sending a double team into the post.

    Against Duke, Edey destroyed a starting frontcourt of Dereck Lively II, Kyle Filipowski and Mark Mitchell that might all be in the NBA a year from now. Purdue's big man had 21 points and 12 rebounds while that trio combined for just 16 and 13.

    The season is only a few weeks old, but at this early stage, Edey should be the frontrunner for NPOY, and Purdue is making an indisputable case for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Phil Knight Legacy Loser: Duke Blue Devils

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    Duke's Kyle Filipowski
    Soobum Im/Getty Images

    As far as wins and losses go, it was a fine tournament for the Blue Devils. They beat Oregon State and Xavier before falling to a very good Purdue team in the championship game.

    But at no point in those three games did it feel like we were watching a "second weekend of the tournament" team, let alone a national championship contender.

    Please don't misinterpret that as some way-too-early proclamation that Duke will get bounced before the Sweet 16. We've got a long way to go until March, and this is a young team with two key potential lottery picks (Dereck Lively II and Dariq Whitehead) who were injured in the preseason and haven't yet come close to living up to their potential.

    Things could change in a big way.

    If the big dance began tomorrow, though, yes, I'd have a hard time picking this team to win two games. Right now, Duke's offense is uncharacteristically anemic.

    The Blue Devils were held to 54 points by Oregon State and 56 by Purdue. In the previous 11 seasons combined, they were held to 56 points or fewer just twice—once in 2020 against Virginia's No. 1 ranked defense and once in 2017 against a solid Miami defense on a night Grayson Allen didn't play. They shot a combined 7-of-48 (14.6 percent) from three-point range against the Beavers and Boilermakers.

    Even in the win over Xavier, the offense was just OK, generating 71 points in 66 possessions. At least Mark Mitchell got into a groove in that one to give the Blue Devils something other than Kyle Filipowski and Jeremy Roach trying to shoulder the load.

    Again, that could change if and when the two aforementioned freshmen get going. At any rate, no one could have guessed two months ago that Lively would shoot 2-of-6 from the field in this entire tournament.

    But Duke is now 1-2 against teams in the KenPom top 150 with just two such games remaining in nonconference play—vs. Ohio State on Wednesday and against Iowa in New York City on Dec. 6. Not saying they need to win at least one of those games in order to make the NCAA tournament, but, you know, it sure would help.

Other Tournament Winners

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    Kansas State's Keyontae Johnson
    AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

    Taylor Hendricks, UCF (Baha Mar Hoops Bahamas Championship): Per 247Sports, Hendricks received offers from seven high-major programs, including Florida and Florida State, before opting to become one of the highest-rated recruits in UCF history. So far, so good for the freshman from Fort Lauderdale, who had 16 points and 12 rebounds in an overtime victory over Oklahoma State before going for 19 points in the championship game victory over Santa Clara.

    Charleston Cougars (Charleston Classic): Participating in the Charleston Classic for the first time since 2016, the Cougars entered the tourney on their home floor as the worst member of the eight-team field, per KenPom. But they stomped Davidson in the first round, pretty comfortably took care of Colorado State in the semifinals and stunned Virginia Tech with a come-from-behind victory in the championship game. Could the Colonial Athletic Association be a multi-bid league for the first time since 2011?

    Mississippi State Bulldogs (Fort Myers Tip-Off), Arizona State Sun Devils (Legends Classic), St. John's Red Storm (Empire Classic) and Maryland Terrapins (HOF Tip-Off): The Continental Tire Main Event was, well, the main event as far as four-team fields are concerned. But these four major-conference teams also made big early impressions by winning a pair of games against KenPom top 100 opponents on neutral courts. Arizona State had the most impressive individual win in destroying Michigan, but Maryland's back-to-back blowout wins over Saint Louis and Miami really put the Terrapins on the national radar.

    Kansas State Wildcats (Cayman Islands Classic): It wasn't exactly a gauntlet of an eight-team field, but consecutive victories over Rhode Island, Nevada and LSU was an impressive run for what was supposed to be the worst team in the Big 12. The Wildcats needed overtime to beat the Wolfpack and had to overcome a double-digit deficit in the second half against the Tigers, but they improved to 6-0 with Markquis Nowell and Keyontae Johnson leading the charge.

    Siena Saints (ESPN Events Invitational): By conference, this tournament consisted of AAC, ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC and the MAAC. One of those things is not like the other, and yet Siena went 2-1 with victories over Florida State and Seton Hall. Sure, FSU isn't any good this season, but Seton Hall might be a tournament team. And if the Pirates finish the season ranked 73rd or better on KenPom (currently No. 58), it would go down as Siena's best win in terms of year-end KenPom rankings since beating No. 54 Iona in 2011-12.

Other Tournament Losers

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    Florida State's Cam'Ron Fletcher
    Chris Leduc/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Florida State Seminoles (ESPN Events Invitational): As bad as Louisville was in the Maui Invitational, Florida State might have been worse in this event. The Seminoles lost by 17 to Siena, by 10 to Stanford and by 17 to Nebraska, none of whom have any realistic hope for an at-large bid at this point. FSU is now 1-7, and we might as well call it 1-9, because based on what we've seen thus far, there is no way this team is winning games against Purdue or Virginia this week.

    Loyola-Chicago Ramblers (Myrtle Beach Invitational): Not only did the Fightin' Sister Jeans go 0-3 in this event, but they got destroyed in all three games. Tulsa, Boise State and Texas A&M handled Loyola-Chicago by a combined margin of 57 points. Against the Aggies, the Ramblers made 15 field goal and committed 27 turnovers. Might be a long, long first year in the A-10.

    Saint Mary's Gaels (Wooden Legacy): The good news is Saint Mary's will have other opportunities to prove itself in nonconference play, with huge games against Houston and San Diego State on tap for the next two Saturdays. But the overtime loss to Washington in the championship game of the Wooden Legacy was a major disappointment, especially considering they blew a five-point lead in the final 90 seconds of regulation

    The Cancun Challenge Championship Game: There was some incredibly fun basketball during Feast Week, and then there was Auburn vs. Northwestern. In that battle of undefeateds, the Tigers and Wildcats shot a combined 7-of-45 (15.6 percent) from three-point range and 27-of-106 (25.5 percent) from the field. Auburn squeaked out a 43-42 win in what was the first game in almost a decade in which neither team scored at least 44 points in a meeting between major-conference schools. (Georgetown beat Tennessee 37-36 on Nov. 30, 2012 in a rock fight for the ages.)