Predicting the Best 15 CBB Games in the 2014 Early Season Tournaments
With few exceptions, the vast majority of nonconference college basketball games feature matchups that don't exactly prompt much excitement from a casual fan. The top teams pad their home schedules with opponents that don't pose much of a challenge and, therefore, don't provide much interest to anyone beyond the most devoted fans.
To find a good game during the preseason, you have to look toward the many exempt tournaments that are scattered throughout the schedule in November and December. Now that every team is allowed to play in one of these every season, there are so many out there that it can be a laborious task to search for must-see matchups.
Or, you can just check out our list of the 15 best possible early tournament games for the 2014-15 season.
Only one of these games is guaranteed to happen, however. For the rest, we are projecting which teams will make it through their respective brackets to meet up in the semifinals or title games. We've also indicated other possible matchups that could happen in these tourneys—the Battle 4 Atlantis (over Thanksgiving Weekend in the Bahamas) could almost make up half this list if we didn't limit it to one per event—but the ones highlighted are our "dream" matchups.
15. Gulf Coast Showcase Semifinals: Evansville vs. Green Bay
Where: Fort Myers, Florida
When: Nov. 25, 6 p.m. ET
Diehard college basketball fans don't wait until March to start searching for the next Cinderella—they're on the lookout as soon as the season begins. These early tournaments are a great breeding ground for mid-major contenders, and the Gulf Coast Showcase has a few notables, including tournament host Florida Gulf Coast.
But it's a potential semifinal pairing between Evansville and Green Bay that has the most intrigue because it would pit two of the nation's top returning scorers against each other.
Evansville's D.J. Balentine, a 6'2" junior guard, was seventh in Division I last season with a 22.8 points-per-game scoring rate. He averaged 25.3 points in three games against Wichita State, including 31 in the Missouri Valley Conference semifinals.
Green Bay's Keifer Sykes, a 6'0" senior guard, was tied for 20th nationally at 20.3 points per game in 2013-14. He dropped 32 on Wisconsin last November and, prior to this tournament, will warm up with another game against the Badgers.
The only bad thing about this potential mid-major battle is that it's not going to be televised.
14. MGM Grand Main Event Final: Oklahoma State vs. Tulsa
Where: Las Vegas
When: Nov. 26, 8:30 p.m. ET
Las Vegas' informal push to be the western hub of neutral-site college basketball is most noticeable during conference tournament time, with four different leagues playing their tourneys in Sin City during a 10-day span in March. But the preseason features a trio of events as well, including the inaugural MGM Grand Main Event in the same arena where the Pac-12 will hold its tournament.
The 7-team tourney—hey, it's Vegas, baby!—features both a "heavyweight" and "middleweight" bracket, each with its own interesting matchups. The most notable, from the heavyweight field, would have Sooner State foes Oklahoma State and Tulsa tangling in the title game.
This will require Oklahoma State to get past Oregon State and Tulsa to take down Auburn in a battle of high-profile first-year coaches. If that happens, we'll get a chance to see what Frank Haith saw when he decided to leave Missouri for Tulsa. We'll also see how OK State looks with mercurial star Marcus Smart.
13. Great Alaska Shootout Final: Colorado State vs. UC-Santa Barbara
When: Nov. 30, 12:30 a.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Before the proliferation of preseason tournaments, the Great Alaska Shootout was one of the best early showcases of college basketball talent in the country. Past champions of the 37-year-old tournament include Arizona, Duke, Michigan State, North Carolina, Syracuse and UCLA, but of late it's hard to find teams willing to jaunt near the Arctic Circle around Thanksgiving.
It's become more of a place to spot potential standout teams outside the power conferences (last year Harvard blew out TCU for the title). Two seasons earlier, Murray State's 23-0 start included a win over Southern Mississippi in the Great Alaska final.
This year's eight-team field includes 2014 NCAA tournament surprise Mercer, but the matchup we're hoping to get in the final is Mountain West hopeful Colorado State against the Big West's UC-Santa Barbara. This might not seem worth staying up past midnight for holiday hoops, but that means you're not aware of UCSB double-double monster Alan Williams.
Williams, a 6'8", 265-pound senior power forward, averaged 21.3 points and a Division I-leading 11.3 rebounds last season while recording 16 double-doubles. His first game in the tourney, against Washington State at midnight ET on Thanksgiving night, will serve as a perfect holiday nightcap.
12. Paradise Jam Final: LSU vs. Seton Hall
Where: St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
When: Nov. 24, 10 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Pretty much every island within a few hours of the continental United States has a preseason tournament—except Bermuda, which seems like a major oversight that needs to be addressed. Most of the attention goes to the events in Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas, but the Paradise Jam on St. Thomas is a decent tourney that, from time to time, features some teams worth watching.
Last year's final saw Maryland top the eventual Big East tourney champion, Providence. This year we could get another matchup of sleeper power programs if LSU and Seton Hall can each win their first two games.
LSU brings back 6'8" forward Jordan Mickey, who averaged 12.7 points and 7.9 rebounds as a freshman last season. He'll now be paired in the frontcourt with 7'1", 301-pound freshman Elbert Robinson III, the next in a long line of large men the Tigers have put in the paint over the years.
Seton Hall doesn't have the size to match those guys inside, but what it does have is one of the most exciting freshmen guards in the country in 6'4" 5-star prospect Isaiah Whitehead.
11. Continental Tires Las Vegas Classic Final: Illinois vs. Memphis
Where: Las Vegas
When: Nov. 28, 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: Fox Sports 1
Thanksgiving in Las Vegas sounds pretty appealing for college basketball junkies, with the previously mentioned MGM Grand Main Event preceding the holiday and the Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic following on the weekend.
Eight schools have been pre-slotted into Friday matchups, with 2014 NCAA tourney Cinderella Stephen F. Austin relegated to the lesser bracket. The upper field features better matchups. Any potential final will be entertaining, but the most enticing one would have Memphis squaring off with Illinois.
Not only do we get to see some great talent in Memphis' Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols—as well as Illinois' Rayvonte Rice—but we will also see the strategy that hot young coaches Josh Pastner and John Groce use against each other.
10. Puerto Rico Tip-off Semifinals: Connecticut vs. Dayton
Where: San Juan, Puerto Rico
When: Nov. 21, 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: ESPN2 or ESPNU
Connecticut officially begins its national title defense on Nov. 14 at home against Bryant, but the first chance we'll get to see the Huskies on television is during their visit to the Caribbean for the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. They'll face a pretty good lineup of opponents, no matter how the bracket plays out, but the game that has the most early-season intrigue would be a semifinal matchup with Dayton.
These teams actually shared a court during the NCAA tournament, as both were part of the pod played in Buffalo (but in different regions). That was where Dayton shocked both Ohio State and Syracuse on its way to making the Elite Eight, while UConn outlasted St. Joseph's in overtime before upsetting Villanova en route to its second national title in four seasons.
UConn opens the Tip-Off with Charleston, a traditionally strong mid-major program that might not be at full speed yet, since it had a coaching change during the summer. The Huskies should win that one to reach the semis, where—if they don't see Dayton—they'll get potential SEC sleeper in the form of Texas A&M. In the final, UConn could see Boston College, New Mexico or West Virginia—basically ensuring a weekend of quality competition.
9. CBE Hall of Fame Classic Final: Iowa State vs. Maryland
Where: Kansas City
When: Nov. 25, 9:30 p.m. ET
Most of the preseason tourneys are in a far-off locales or among the major urban sprawl. Kansas City doesn't really count as either, but it's still a place to catch some good preseason action for the final rounds of the CBE Hall of Fame Classic.
The tournament actually features 12 teams, but only four of them get a chance to play at the Sprint Center (and those have already been predetermined). That's a shame, because Sun Belt power Georgia State, instead, gets to play some lesser competition in Oakland, Michigan at the same time.
But the Kansas City pairings are still good ones, with the prospect of seeing reigning Big 12 tournament champion Iowa State against Big Ten newcomer Maryland in the final. Fred Hoiberg's latest transfer-heavy Cyclones roster should have a decided advantage, but it will still be fun to see the likes of Georges Niang and UNLV transfer Bryce Dejean-Jones take on Terrapins veteran Dez Wells and highly touted freshman point guard Melo Trimble.
8. 2K Sports Classic Final: Syracuse vs. Texas
Where: New York City
When: Nov. 21, 7 p.m. ET
Madison Square Garden is considered among the most hallowed college basketball venues in the country—not just because it has long been the home of the Big East tournament, but also because it's hosted numerous preseason (and postseason) tourneys over the years. The first of those in 2014 is the 2K Sports Classic, another of those events that calls itself a tournament but really isn't.
Only the big names of this eight-team field get to play at MSG, while the others go to Fargo. Not that we have anything against Fargo, but it's no Big Apple.
However, it does mean that we're guaranteed to get a good final, no matter what teams from the field of California, Iowa, Syracuse and Texas make it through. Given our choice, we'd like to see Jim Boeheim implement his famed Syracuse zone defense to try to limit the touches that Texas' sizable frontcourt (which includes prized recruit Myles Turner) gets.
7. Coaches vs. Cancer Classic Final: Duke vs. Stanford
Where: Brooklyn, N.Y.
When: Nov. 22, 9:30 p.m. ET
New York's preseason gatherings aren't limited to the island of Manhattan, as Brooklyn's Barclay's Center has its own impressive lineup of neutral-site games in November and December. And since the first of these in 2014 will have its games aired on the reality show-heavy TruTV network, we're going to describe the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic like the made-for-TV event that it is.
Featuring some of the most notable schools in the country—ones that also happen to have well-known basketball programs—you won't believe what gets caught on camera. Duke, Stanford and Temple are three of the most well-known private schools around, while UNLV is among the more famous public institutions. They've all been really good at basketball at one time or another, and they are all expected to be good this season.
It won't be a viewer vote that determines who makes the final—we have to eschew the contrived format at some point—but if those tuning in had their choice of matchups, the most headline-grabbing one would be Duke against Stanford. This would allow Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins, fresh off his Sweet 16 run last season, to go toe-to-toe with former coach and mentor Mike Krzyzewski of Duke.
6. NIT Season Tip-off Final: Gonzaga vs. St. John's
Where: New York City
When: Nov. 28, 7 p.m. ET
Hey, look, another New York-based tournament! But this is the granddaddy of them all, the NIT Season Tip-Off, which, since 1985, has been the standard bearer for preseason tourneys, with its expansive 16-team field and traditional survive-and-advance format.
Well, it used to be those things. Now it has 11 teams that will first play games that have no bearing on the final pairings. Those games will then be followed by predetermined games at Madison Square Garden over Thanksgiving. That means last year's classic final between Arizona and Duke (won by Arizona) was the last that was truly exhibiting teams that made it through a full bracket.
Even with the change in format, the marquee games should still be good ones. Having part-time MSG tenant St. John's in there helps, too—and what will make for the best final is if the Red Storm get a chance to win the title against what should be the best Gonzaga team in years.
5. Legends Classic Semifinals: VCU vs. Villanova
Where: Brooklyn, New York
When: Nov. 24, 7 p.m. ET
If you're going to list three tournaments from the same area, you might as well keep going and add a fourth for a nice, even number. And with that, we give you the Legends Classic.
The final four has an intriguing lineup of programs that have all been supremely successful the last few years, but (because of attrition) two of them might not be as good this year. The other two, however, look pretty stacked. As fate would have it, the similar teams are paired against each other in the pre-set semifinals, so we're going to cheat here and highlight one of those rather than hope for a good final.
VCU and Villanova are each favored to win their respective leagues this year and could meet up during the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, depending on how the season goes. Just in case that doesn't happen, they will tangle at the Barclay's Center in an enticing matchup of VCU's "Havoc" attack against the tried-and-true Villanova system that Jay Wright has used for years.
4. Diamond Head Classic Final: Colorado vs. Wichita State
When: Dec. 25, 8:30 p.m. ET
For the purpose of this list, our definition of "preseason" is quite fluid. Most of the tournaments are early enough in the 2014-15 season to feel like they're part of a team's preseason, but in technical terms we're really referring to events that occur prior to teams starting conference play.
The Diamond Head Classic doesn't happen until Christmastime—which makes it more like a midseason event—but for those who head to Hawaii for it each year, it almost serves as a vacation right before getting into the rigorous league slate. Since 2009, the traditional eight-team bracketed tourney has drawn a great mix of power- and mid-major conference teams, with Iowa State beating Boise State last season and Arizona edging San Diego State in 2012.
This year's field is more of the same, and if it plays out as expected, then—after all the presents have been opened and the dishes from Christmas dinner have been put in the dishwasher—we'll get to see Pac-12 contender Colorado take on Wichita State in the final. Wichita State would have a bit of a gauntlet to get through beforehand, though, as they will open with Loyola Marymount before facing either rising-power Nebraska or tournament host Hawaii.
3. Orlando Classic Final: Kansas vs. Michigan State
Where: Lake Buena Vista, Florida
When: Nov. 30, 1 or 4 p.m. ET
TV: ESPN or ESPN 2
With ESPN broadcasting the majority of televised college basketball games each year (including many of the most notable preseason tournaments), it's not surprising that "The Worldwide Leader In Sports" created some of its own events in the process. And with ESPN being owned by Disney, the fact that one of the better ones is going to be played in a gym at Disney World shouldn't be a surprise to anyone.
The Orlando Classic (previously known as the Old Spice Classic) is entering its ninth year. Its past champions include Memphis, Gonzaga (twice) and Notre Dame. This time, though, there's a good chance that a college hoops blue blood will become the winner, thanks to what is arguably the tournament's best field yet.
There are potential pitfalls along the way in the form of Georgia Tech, Marquette and Tennessee, but the most likely (and by far best for ratings purposes) final would pit Kansas against Michigan State. These teams will have had extensive opportunities to scout each other—not just from this tournament, but also during the Champions Classic doubleheader on Nov. 18 in Indianapolis.
Kansas and Michigan State met in that rotating, four-team event in 2012 (and will again next year), but it's impossible to have too many meetings between the great coaching minds of Bill Self and Tom Izzo.
2. Maui Invitational Final: Arizona vs. San Diego State
Where: Lahaina, Hawaii
When: Nov. 26, 10 p.m. ET
What is arguably the best field every year is the one that descends on the tiny Lahaina Civic Center on the island of Maui in Hawaii. The Maui Invitational never disappoints, regardless of who ultimately makes the final—a statement enhanced by the fact the eight-team field features local Division II school Chaminade.
Maui is one of those tournaments that keeps getting a lot of repeat participants, with schools like Arizona, Connecticut and Duke heading out there every few seasons. Arizona last played there in 2009, when it got sixth place after opening with a loss to Wisconsin before beating Colorado and then falling to Vanderbilt.
This year, the Wildcats look to be the decided favorites, but they'll have no gimmes as they open with Missouri and then face either Kansas State or Purdue. Get to the final and it will mean meeting a very familiar foe in San Diego State, the team Arizona eliminated in last year's Sweet 16 (as well as on the road during the regular season). A very strong rivalry has also developed between these two schools that are vying for West Coast hoops supremacy.
1. Battle 4 Atlantis: North Carolina vs. Wisconsin
Where: Nassau, Bahamas
When: Nov. 28, 4:30 p.m. ET
Once the NCAA made it so that teams could participate in an exempt event (the technical term for preseason tournaments) every year, the explosion of these events all over the country has made it so that pretty much every basketball arena has one.
Yet the site of the best possible preseason tournament game this season isn't a place where basketball is played at any point other than during the days that the Battle 4 Atlantis is held. For most of the year, this particular site at the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas is a giant ballroom. Since 2011, it gets briefly transformed into the "Imperial Arena" to play host to an eight-team tourney that's quickly become the biggest preseason event around.
Started in 2011 and featuring defending national champion Connecticut—which ended up finishing third after getting upset by UCF—the Battle 4 Atlantis this season features five teams that played in the NCAA tournament last year. Three of those made the Sweet 16 and two reached the Final Four.
Not too shabby, huh?
Had we not limited each tournament to one entry on this list, we could have populated almost half of it with potential matchups from Atlantis. Florida and Wisconsin could meet in the semifinals. And so should North Carolina and UCLA, unless the likes of Butler, Georgetown, Oklahoma or UAB gets frisky.
The ultimate dream final would be North Carolina against Wisconsin. It's the kind of game that usually only happens in November because both schools got paid a lot of money to face off. This time, it could happen because they each navigated their way through a postseason-level tournament for the chance to cut down a net on a basket that will get wheeled into a tropical storage unit the next day.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.