Ranking the Best Early-Season College Basketball Tournaments in 2015-16
Binge watching early-season tournaments is arguably the best way to dive headfirst into the 2015-16 men's college basketball season, but if you're trying to choose just one tournament to go watch from the stands, you're going to want to fly south for the winter to either Hawaii or Bahamas.
According to a study conducted by CheapAir.com in which the fluctuation in price per airline ticket for nearly five million flights in 2014 was monitored, the cheapest time to buy a ticket is 47 days before your flight. If you take nothing else away from this list, hopefully you'll remember that factoid when booking your next flight.
Well, the first early-season tournament tips off in less than 60 days, so it's high time you start thinking about which one of these events you want to attend.
Based on the projected strength of all the teams in each field, we've ranked the non-exempt tournaments in ascending order of how badly we want to watch every single game of it. Please note the emphasis on "non-exempt tournaments." The Champions Classic is an awesome event, but it's not a tournament. Don't be that guy who cries about Duke vs. Kentucky and Kansas vs. Michigan State not being mentioned.
Generally speaking, eight-team tournaments scored better than four-team tournaments. There are a few dreadful eight-team fields that finished nowhere near our top 10 and a couple of four-teamers that warranted consideration for the top five, but all other things being equal, more games means more entertainment, more potential for upsets and more bragging rights for whichever team goes 3-0.
Please keep in mind, all projected games were taken into consideration. For example, the Maui Invitational has projected semifinals pairings that could well be No. 1 vs. No. 4 and No. 2 vs. No. 3 in one of the regions of the NCAA tournament in March, but the other four teams in the field dragged the tournament down a little bit, as hardly anyone will be tuning in for that consolation bracket.
Then again, those consolation games will probably get better ratings than the championship games of the not-so-honorable mentions on the next slide.
The Not-So-Honorable Mentions
If you happen to be in town when these tournaments are being held, go ahead and soak up some D-I hoops action. Heaven knows if these tournaments were being played today, we'd watch every second of the action after more than five months without any games. But if you're looking for games that serve as a potential preview for the NCAA tournament, you'd be better off staying at home and watching something else on TV.
Great Alaska Shootout (Nov. 25-28 in Anchorage, Alaska)
San Jose State vs. Toledo
San Diego vs. Loyola-Chicago
Middle Tennessee vs. Alaska-Anchorage
Drexel vs. UNC-Asheville
From 1978-2003, this was one of the best tournaments in the country. Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville, Michigan State, NC State, Arizona, UCLA, Syracuse and several other prominent programs have all won Great Alaska Shootouts. But, with so many choices of tropical locations, apparently no one wants to go to Alaska in November anymore. Loyola-Chicago is probably the only team in this field with anything close to a realistic shot at an at-large bid, and even that's a stretch.
Corpus Christi Coastal Challenge (Nov. 27-28 in Corpus Christi, Texas)
Southern Illinois vs. UTEP
Colorado State vs. Portland
Three of these teams lost the majority of their important players from last season while the fourth (Southern Illinois) retains most of a roster that went 12-21 in 2014-15. Colorado State lost its top three scorers and rebounders and is probably still the overwhelming favorite here, which should tell you all you need to know about how much is expected of these teams this year.
Global Sports Classic (Dec. 21-22 in Las Vegas, Nevada)
Grand Canyon vs. Houston
Marshall vs. Wyoming
Houston could conceivably make a little bit of noise in the AAC and Grand Canyon might have a shot at winning the WAC (who wouldn't?), but even with Christmas in Vegas as a post-tournament option, there just isn't much to see in this one. Wyoming lost four starters and Marshall has been just plain bad for the past three years.
Men Who Speak Up Main Event (Nov. 23-25 in Las Vegas, Nevada)
Clemson vs. Massachusetts
Creighton vs. Rutgers
Though a worthy cause to raise awareness about prostate cancer, the games are hardly worthy of our time. Massachusetts lost three of its four leaders in minutes played, Clemson will be lucky to finish top 12 in the ACC and Rutgers will be lucky to win a single Big Ten game. Creighton might be able to turn things around and contend for a bid this season, but let's just say this tournament isn't going to help the Bluejays' NCAA tournament resume.
19. Las Vegas Classic
Dates and Location: Dec. 22-23 in Las Vegas, Nevada
Quarterfinals Pairings: N/A
Semifinals: Kent State vs. SMU; Colorado vs. Penn State
Likely Championship: SMU vs. Penn State
As a rule of thumb, four-team tournaments didn't fare nearly as well as their eight-team counterparts.
Part of that is because it's simply more impressive to win three games in three or four days than it is to pull off back-to-back wins, but it's also because many of the four-team fields look a lot like this one: a surefire NCAA tournament team and a trio of duds.
Kent State has a great power forward in Jimmy Hall, but he lost all of his primary sidekicks this offseason. This tournament doesn't take place until about six weeks into the season, so there's a chance the Golden Flashes will have figured something out by then. However, there's a much better chance that Markus Kennedy slows down Hall while Nic Moore, Shake Milton, Keith Frazier and Jordan Tolbert turn this first game into an absolute laugher.
The other side of the bracket features another excellent power forward in Colorado's Josh Scott, but he, too, could be a bit of a one-man show with Askia Booker graduated, Jaron Hopkins transferred and Xavier Johnson possibly out for the season with a torn Achilles. Penn State isn't in much better shape, though, with D.J. Newbill, Ross Travis and John Johnson all out of the picture.
Basically, this tournament is a field of land mines for SMU. The Mustangs will gain virtually nothing for winning a pair of games against teams with minimal chance of winning 20 games this season, but a slip-up could be catastrophic for their eventual tournament seed. But there isn't much else going on in the world of college basketball in the days leading up to Christmas, so it might be worth tuning in, if only to see how strong SMU is this year.
18. Barclays Center Classic
Dates and Location: Nov. 27-28 in Brooklyn, New York
Quarterfinals Pairings: N/A
Semifinals: Cincinnati vs. Nebraska; George Washington vs. Tennessee
Likely Championship: Cincinnati vs. George Washington
Here we have another battle between an AAC championship contender and three teams that probably aren't going anywhere this season.
Let's start with the ugly and work our way to the good.
Whatever you do, try not to watch the first game between Cincinnati and Nebraska. Two slow-paced teams who are significantly better at defense than offense, the Bearcats and Cornhuskers delivered a painfully unwatchable 56-55 double-overtime game last December. With the Cornhuskers losing Terran Petteway and Walter Pitchford this offseason, they could legitimately fail to score 40 in the rematch.
Game No. 2 should be much better. George Washington lost Kethan Savage and Tennessee has to move on without leading scorer, passer and defender Josh Richardson, but the Colonials and Volunteers are otherwise pretty well intact from last season. Neither made the tournament and neither is projected to do so this year, but this tournament is a chance to make some early noise.
Really, though, you're watching this one for Cincinnati. The Bearcats have been one of the best defensive teams in the country over the past several years, and that will certainly continue to be the case with all six of their primary guys in 2014-15 back for another year. They will be very much in the race for AAC supremacy with Connecticut and SMU, especially once sophomore Gary Clark emerges as a double-double machine.
17. Gulf Coast Showcase
Dates and Location: Nov. 23-25 in Fort Myers, Florida
Quarterfinals Pairings: Milwaukee vs. Murray State; Duquesne vs. Pepperdine; Drake vs. Western Kentucky; Weber State vs. Central Michigan
Likely Semifinals: Murray State vs. Pepperdine; Western Kentucky vs. Central Michigan
Likely Championship: Pepperdine vs. Central Michigan
If you're only interested in games between teams that might be ranked in the AP Top 25 this season, this certainly won't be your cup of tea. However, for the second straight year, the Gulf Coast Showcase has a solid number of teams that could sneak into the NCAA tournament and pull off an upset or two.
First and foremost on that list is Central Michigan. With Buffalo's offseason collapse, the Chippewas almost have to be considered the favorites to win the MAC. Led by excellent point guard Chris Fowler and three-point assassin John Simons, all eight players who averaged at least 10 minutes per game on last year's 23-9 team are back for another season. You can go ahead and pencil in Central Michigan as the No. 12 seed that absolutely nobody wants to draw on Selection Sunday.
Pepperdine is arguably the second-best team in the field, because with another year of Stacy Davis, the Waves at least have a shot at a third-place finish in the West Coast Conference and consideration for one of the final at-large bids.
As a result, not only could the Gulf Coast Showcase's championship game have the feel of a First Four play-in game, but the result of it could very well be a primary consideration in the NCAA tournament selection process.
Also, don't rule out the possibility of Murray State using this tournament as a notice to the college basketball world that the Racers are still in business. They lost five of their seven leading scorers and their head coach, but they added a ton of transfers to a team that hasn't posted a sub-.500 record since 1986-87.
16. CBE Hall of Fame Classic
Dates and Location: Nov. 23-24 in Kansas City, Missouri
Quarterfinals Pairings: N/A
Semifinals: Kansas State vs. Missouri; North Carolina vs. Northwestern
Likely Championship: Missouri vs. North Carolina
The championship game of the CBE Hall of Fame Classic might be the worst of any tournament.
Whether Kansas State or Missouri emerges victorious from the first game, we're talking about quite possibly the worst team in either the Big 12 or SEC facing off against quite possibly the best team in the ACC. Granted, it would practically be a home game for either underdog, but if the Tar Heels don't win that game by at least 25 points, it might not bode well for their NCAA championship hopes.
However, the game between North Carolina and Northwestern is pretty intriguing.
Northwestern is very much a team on the rise. One year removed from heartbreaking Big Ten loss after heartbreaking Big Ten loss, the Wildcats return all four of their leading scorers while adding two potential interior weapons in Virginia Tech transfer Joey van Zegeren and freshman Aaron Falzon.
They'll have more than a little difficulty trying to compete in an extremely deep Big Ten, but these aren't your granddaddy's Wildcats who routinely get routed by better teams. They should make some serious noise against top squads, starting with this early game against North Carolina.
Don't count on an upset, but expect a battle between two teams who want to play at wildly different paces. The Tar Heels ranked 15th in the nation in tempo last season while the Wildcats were 339th in the category.
15. Charleston Classic
Dates and Location: Nov. 19-22 in Charleston, South Carolina
Quarterfinals Pairings: Ole Miss vs. George Mason; Oklahoma State vs. Towson; Virginia vs. Bradley; Long Beach State vs. Seton Hall
Likely Semifinals: Ole Miss vs. Oklahoma State; Virginia vs. Seton Hall
Likely Championship: Oklahoma State vs. Virginia
Is this the Charleston Classic or the Cavaliers Cakewalk?
Virginia should be one of the 10 best teams in the country, but this field consists of the Wahoos and seven teams that probably have no business making travel plans for March Madness.
Fortunately, though, the second- and third-best teams are slated to face off in the semifinals. Unless George Mason or Towson manages to play spoiler, Ole Miss and Oklahoma State—both of which made it to the 2015 NCAA tournament—will square off with the winner picking up a somewhat respectable win before a massive opportunity against Virginia.
Both teams are shells of their former selves, though. Ole Miss lost four of its six leading scorers, and top (presumably) returning scorer Stefan Moody had a fairly tumultuous summer, receiving a DUI less than two months after undergoing surgery to repair a stress fracture in his leg. Meanwhile, Oklahoma State lost Le'Bryan Nash, Anthony Hickey and Michael Cobbins and will be relying pretty heavily on incoming freshmen and JUCO transfers.
If either of those teams is prepared to beat Virginia just 10 days into the season, it will be one of the biggest upsets of the entire year. But, hey, at least this tournament gives us an early chance to see what type of effect the new rule changes will have on Virginia's style of play. Our guess is that it will only make the Cavaliers stronger, but we shall see.
14. Diamond Head Classic
Dates and Location: Dec. 22-25 in Honolulu, Hawaii
Quarterfinals Pairings: Auburn vs. New Mexico; BYU vs. Harvard; Oklahoma vs. Washington State; Northern Iowa vs. Hawaii
Likely Semifinals: Auburn vs. BYU; Oklahoma vs. Hawaii
Likely Championship: BYU vs. Oklahoma
The projected championship game of the Diamond Head Classic packs much more of a wallop than that of the Charleston Classic. However, it might be the only game in this tournament worth watching, and it would be played on a day when pretty much no one is watching college basketball.
Let's take a step back, though, and note that there are teams other than BYU and Oklahoma that might be worth keeping an eye on.
It's year No. 2 for Bruce Pearl at Auburn, and he's really starting to pull together some pieces to play with. Horace Spencer and Danjel Purifoy are both talented freshmen. T.J. Dunans was one of the best JUCO transfers available this year. Marshall transfer Kareem Canty and Providence transfer Tyler Harris should both make huge splashes. And the Tigers still have one more year of big man Cinmeon Bowers. They weren't able to do much last season with all their grad-transfers, but there's at least a reasonable chance of 20 wins this year.
Harvard and Northern Iowa are the other two teams with some semblance of potential, though both were ravaged pretty hard by graduations. The Crimson still have Corbin Miller and the Panthers still have Wes Washpun and Paul Jesperson. Maybe those veteran backcourts will be enough to pull off a surprise or two in the Diamond Head Classic.
But all signs point to the Cougars and Sooners playing in a Christmas Day championship game that tips off at 9 p.m. on the East Coast. On most days, Kyle Collinsworth vs. Buddy Hield would be one of the most anticipated head-to-head battles of the entire season, but don't expect great ratings no matter who's fighting for a 3-0 record at the end of this one.
13. Emerald Coast Classic
Dates and Location: Nov. 27-28 in Niceville, Florida
Quarterfinals Pairings: N/A
Semifinals: Iowa State vs. Virginia Tech; Illinois vs. UAB
Likely Championship: Iowa State vs. UAB
Under normal circumstances, the Emerald Coast Classic would have barely made a blip on our radar.
Virginia Tech is improving, but probably still at least one year away from really amounting to anything. Illinois has had a rough summer, losing Tracy Abrams to injury for a second straight year before dismissing Darius Paul from the program for a second time. And UAB might be the best team in Conference USA, but that hasn't been much to brag about since Memphis left.
However, we could be getting a rematch of the game that broke at least 90 percent of brackets around the country this past March, as Iowa State seeks vengeance for a round of 64 game against UAB gone horribly awry.
As was the case the last time they met, Iowa State is a legitimate contender to win it all this season. Even without Fred Hoiberg, the Cyclones should be headed for at least one more season of great play with Georges Niang, Jameel McKay and Monte Morris all still in the fold.
Here's hoping they don't overlook the Blazers this time around, because this is almost exactly the same roster that sent Iowa State packing last year.
Even if UAB fails to beat Illinois, it would still be an intriguing championship game between the Cyclones and the Illini.
12. NIT Season Tip-off
Dates and Location: Nov. 26-27 in Brooklyn, New York
Quarterfinals Pairings: N/A
Semifinals: Arkansas vs. Georgia Tech; Stanford vs. Villanova
Likely Championship: Georgia Tech vs. Villanova
It took a little while, but we're finally getting into the tournaments that should have multiple games worth watching.
That's no thanks to Arkansas, though, as the Razorbacks could be in a world of hurt this year after losing four of their five leading scorers. Georgia Tech and Stanford, on the other hand, are intriguing mid-tier teams in their respective major conferences.
With incoming transfers James White (Arkansas-Little Rock), Adam Smith (Virginia Tech) and Nick Jacobs (Alabama), the Ramblin' Wreck could be a tournament contender out of the ACC. It's going to be extremely difficult to finish .500 or better in that conference, but the Yellow Jackets should be noticeably better than last season if Smith can help improve what was one of the worst three-point attacks in the country last year.
Like Arkansas, Stanford lost a lot of key pieces from last year's roster with the graduations of Chasson Randle, Anthony Brown and Stefan Nastic. Unlike Arkansas, the Cardinal could still be in pretty good shape due to a second consecutive strong recruiting class. They'll have a couple of important upperclassmen in Rosco Allen and Marcus Allen, but Stanford's 2015-16 fate will hinge heavily on the play of freshmen and sophomores.
Watching each of those teams go up against Villanova should be a good early barometer for how likely they are to actually contend this year. The Wildcats should win this tournament with relative ease, but Stanford and Georgia Tech could still make positive statements in the NIT Tip-Off.
11. Cancun Challenge
Dates and Location: Nov. 24-25 in Cancun, Mexico
Quarterfinals Pairings: N/A
Semifinals: Maryland vs. Illinois State; TCU vs. Rhode Island
Likely Championship: Maryland vs. Rhode Island
Replace TCU with virtually any other power-conference program and the Cancun Challenge has the potential to be the best four-team tournament.
As is, the Horned Frogs will probably be cannon fodder in this one. Carlos Mendez of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported last week that leading rebounder Kenrich Williams will miss the entire 2015-16 season after undergoing microfracture surgery. As a result, TCU will be without all four of the leading scorers from a team that went 1-14 against the RPI Top 50 last year.
It's possible that Illinois State won't be much better. Though there are projected brackets that have the Redbirds as an at-large bid after a 22-13 2014-15 season, they might struggle without leading scorer Daishon Knight, top three-point shooter Bobby Hunter and shot-blocking extraordinaire Reggie Lynch. Between the opener against San Diego State, this game against Maryland and a road game against Kentucky on Nov. 30, we'll find out within the first three weeks of the regular season whether Illinois State is actually a contender.
Rhode Island hasn't been much to watch in recent seasons, but the Rams should be one of the top challengers for the A-10 title this year. E.C. Matthews and Hassan Martin make up one of the most underappreciated duos in the country, and with the addition of Memphis transfer Kuran Iverson, this is a team that should destroy TCU before giving Maryland a run for its money in the championship game.
Regardless of the opponents, though, you're tuning in for an early look at one of the favorites to win the 2016 national championship. Running opposite the Champions Classic, chances are you won't watch the Terrapins take on Georgetown on November 17, so this might be the first time you get to see them in action. They're implementing a lot of new pieces (three new starters), so try not to overreact too much if they aren't firing on all cylinders just 12 days into the season.
10. Legends Classic
Dates and Location: Nov. 23-24 in Brooklyn, New York
Quarterfinals Pairings: N/A
Semifinals: LSU vs. Marquette; NC State vs. Arizona State
Likely Championship: LSU vs. NC State
The Legends Classic doesn't feature teams that figure to be particularly great in 2015-16. All four have a respectable shot at making the NCAA tournament—so this could be a pretty huge event for bubble discussions for the rest of the season—but it would be a pretty big surprise if Arizona State, LSU, Marquette or North Carolina State finishes in the top three of its respective major conference.
However, it's a top-10 tournament because it features quite possibly the best head-to-head freshman battle of the entire season, and it does so in New York City.
With undoubtedly a few scouts in attendance, LSU's Ben Simmons and Marquette's Henry Ellenson will go to war in the paint in the first game of this event. Both are considered strong candidates to jump to the NBA after just one season. And while it's unlikely that this specific game will dictate who gets drafted where, it's the type of early-season game that could instill a lot of confidence in advance of a remaining nonconference schedule that is pretty pathetic for both studs.
After the Legends Classic, Marquette plays home games against Jackson State, Grambling, Maine, San Jose State, Chicago State and Presbyterian with one road game against Wisconsin in the middle, so this game against LSU is one of the only chances before conference play to see Ellenson face a challenge. Likewise, LSU's remaining nonconference slate consists of Charleston, North Florida, Houston, Gardner-Webb, Oral Roberts, American and Wake Forest, so get ready for Simmons to enter SEC play averaging 17 points per game without even trying.
It's not nearly as interesting as the freshman party, but NC State is probably the best team in this field. With West Virginia transfer Terry Henderson and sophomore trio Abdul-Malik Abu, Caleb Martin and Cody Martin, the Wolfpack will be out to prove that they need to be taken seriously in the ACC this year.
(For what it's worth, since its inception in November 2007, each team that wins the Legend Classic has gone on to earn a No. 10 seed or better in the NCAA tournament.)
9. Hall of Fame Tip-off
Dates and Location: Nov. 21-22 in Uncasville, Connecticut
Quarterfinals Pairings: N/A
Semifinals: Old Dominion vs. Purdue; Saint Joseph's vs. Florida
Likely Championship: Purdue vs. Florida
Aside from outstanding freshmen going head-to-head, here's what it takes for a four-team tournament to really stand out as a good one: There isn't a single potential championship pairing that would be painfully unwatchable.
Given these options, clearly we're hoping for Purdue and Florida in the HOF Tip-Off championship game.
If Caleb Swanigan is anything close to as good as advertised and if Johnny Hill can be a serviceable, somewhat turnover-free point guard, Purdue could be a top-10 team. The Boilermakers have some excellent returning players in Raphael Davis, Kendall Stephens, Vince Edwards, A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas. They just need a little bit of glue to make it all come together.
Florida had a brutal 2014-15 season before losing its head coach, but the Gators should be in great shape to bounce back with new additions John Egbunu, Brandone Francis, KeVaughn Allen, Kevarrius Hayes, Keith Stone and Justin Leon all likely to make some sort of positive impact. Egbunu is the biggest key—both literally and figuratively—as the Gators struggled in the paint last season and desperately need a man of his size and caliber.
But a final involving Old Dominion and/or Saint Joseph's wouldn't be so bad either. The Monarchs have a stud in Trey Freeman and the Hawks have an even bigger one in DeAndre Bembry.
In many of these early-season tournaments, the favorite is just hoping to emerge unscathed, gaining little to no momentum in the process. In this one, any of the four teams could go 2-0, providing a real jolt of confidence early in the season.
8. Paradise Jam
Dates and Location: Nov. 20-23 in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands
Quarterfinals Pairings: Ohio vs. Tulsa; Indiana State vs. Norfolk State; Hofstra vs. Florida State; DePaul vs. South Carolina
Likely Semifinals: Tulsa vs. Indiana State; Florida State vs. South Carolina
Likely Championship: Tulsa vs. Florida State
Something of a Gulf Coast Showcase on steroids, the Paradise Jam features eight teams unlikely to open the season ranked in the AP Top 25 but quite a few that could eventually do some NCAA tournament damage.
Ohio could be a contender in the MAC with the additions of Houston transfer Jaaron Simmons and Michigan State transfer Kenny Kaminski. Norfolk State and Hofstra are the favorites to win their respective minor conferences. DePaul still has three of the four leading scorers from a roster that surprised a lot of people during the first half of the Big East season. And all four of those teams are unlikely to win in the quarterfinals, setting up a moderately entertaining consolation bracket.
On the winners' side of things, Tulsa, Florida State and South Carolina are the real threats this year.
Tulsa will probably boast the most experienced roster in the nation, with a primary seven-man rotation made up entirely of seniors. Florida State was a terrible three-point shooting team last season but addressed that problem in spades by adding four shooting guards this offseason. With Xavier Rathan-Mayes and a very deep and talented frontcourt, it's only a matter of time before the Seminoles break into the AP poll. And the Gamecocks just might be the best of the bunch, with tons of returnees from a defensive-minded roster and the addition of outstanding freshman Perry Dozier.
There might not be a dud in this entire field.
7. Las Vegas Invitational
Dates and Location: Nov. 26-27 in Las Vegas, Nevada
Quarterfinals Pairings: N/A
Semifinals: West Virginia vs. Richmond; California vs. San Diego State
Likely Championship: West Virginia vs. California
Like the forthcoming 2K Classic, the Las Vegas Invitational features one national title contender, two fringe top-25 teams and one Atlantic 10 team that probably won't be as good as it was last year. The reason the 2K Classic ranks higher on the list is because the schools involved (Duke, Wisconsin, Georgetown and VCU) are substantially more iconic than these four programs.
Make no mistake about it, though, this is one of the two best four-team tournaments taking place this season.
California is the clear favorite, but the Golden Bears will have a whale of a time trying to navigate the two extremes of elite defense they will face. San Diego State grinds out every defensive possession and contests every shot, ranking 351st (A.K.A. slowest) in the nation in average possession length on defense. For surviving that battle, they would likely draw West Virginia, who ranked first in average possession length and steal percentage.
Frankly, if the Golden Bears look comfortable in winning both of those games, they should enter the month of December as one of the two or three favorites to win the national championship. I wouldn't wish that two-game stretch on my least favorite team, let alone two weeks into the season with a roster that figures to start two freshmen.
By the way, if you're only really interested in college basketball for NBA draft scouting, major heads up on that California vs. San Diego State game. Cal frosh Ivan Rabb vs. SDSU sophomore Malik Pope is right up there with Ben Simmons vs. Henry Ellenson in terms of NBA lottery potential.
6. Puerto Rico Tip-Off
Dates and Location: Nov. 19-22 in San Juan, Puerto Rico
Quarterfinals Pairings: Temple vs. Minnesota; Butler vs. Missouri State; Miami vs. Mississippi State; Utah vs. Texas Tech
Likely Semifinals: Temple vs. Butler; Miami vs. Utah
Likely Championship: Butler vs. Miami
Though officially dubbed the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, this tournament should come to be known informally as the Assessment of the Hurricanes.
Back in late July, CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein alienated himself from the entire Duke fanbase by saying that Miami will be the third-best team in the ACC behind North Carolina and Virginia.
His argument was every bit as rational as it was bold. With the exception of Manu Lecomte and Deandre Burnett transferring, the 'Canes get all 10 of last year's leading scorers back, while also adding Oklahoma State transfer Kamari Murphy. With he and Tonye Jekiri patrolling the paint and Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan doing their thing in the backcourt, this could be an extremely good team.
But this is where we find out if Miami can turn preseason potential into actual success, as the Hurricanes would likely need to go through a rapidly rebuilding Mississippi State, and a pair of talented teams in Utah and Butler in a span of four days to win this tournament.
Of course, they started out fast last season, knocking off Florida before comfortably winning the Charleston Classic and climbing as high as No. 15 in the AP poll, only to completely fall apart and miss the tournament. We'll see if they can put it together and keep it together for a few months this time.
Elsewhere, Temple vs. Minnesota is an intriguing opener to this assessment of the Hurricanes, as the winner should get a shot at a second resume-building win in as many days against Butler in the semifinals. Neither the Owls nor the Golden Gophers are projected to finish in the top half of their conference standings, but those expectations could change in a hurry with a fast start in Puerto Rico.
5. The DirecTV Wooden Legacy
Dates and Location: Nov. 26-27 in Fullerton, California; Nov. 29 in Anaheim, California
Quarterfinals Pairings: UC Irvine vs. Boise State; Boston College vs. Michigan State; Evansville vs. Providence; Santa Clara vs. Arizona
Likely Semifinals: Boise State vs. Michigan State; Evansville vs. Arizona
Likely Championship: Michigan State vs. Arizona
Figuring out where to slot the Wooden Legacy was the biggest challenge in these rankings.
There is a ton of potential here. Two of the quarterfinals games (UC Irvine vs. Boise State and Evansville vs. Providence) feature battles between legitimate mid-major contenders and national Player of the Year candidates in Boise State's James Webb III and Providence's Kris Dunn. And a championship game between Michigan State and Arizona might be the best possible title game of any tournament.
However, the aforementioned quarterfinals games will only really be of intrigue to the CBB diehards. Casual fans probably know Dunn's name but couldn't care less about watching him go up against D.J. Balentine and Evansville; worse yet the awesome but pretty anonymous tussle between Webb and UC Irvine's Mamadou Ndiaye.
Furthermore, if the Spartans or Wildcats suffer an upset before the championship game, the Wooden Legacy loses all its luster. Arizona vs. Boston College or Boise State for the championship? Or Michigan State against Evansville or Providence? Thanks, but no thanks. We want to see the annual title contenders go toe-to-toe, and anything less would be a pretty big disappointment.
Chances are, though, they'll both get to the finals, and it will be a glorious showdown between Denzel Valentine and Arizona's plethora of new faces.
4. 2K Classic
Dates and Location: Nov. 20-22 in New York, New York
Quarterfinals Pairings: N/A
Semifinals: Wisconsin vs. Georgetown; Duke vs. VCU
Likely Championship: Wisconsin vs. Duke
If you still view Wisconsin as a Final Four team and/or VCU as one of the best mid-majors in the country, you're probably going to take issue with the 2K Classic "only" ranking No. 4 on our list.
If, instead, you accept that Wisconsin vs. Georgetown is a good battle between fringe top-25 teams and that VCU is inevitably going to take somewhat of a step backward without Treveon Graham, Briante Weber, Terry Larrier and Shaka Smart, then you're probably pretty comfortable with this being the best four-team tournament, but not the very best tournament overall.
The most highly anticipated tournaments are the ones in which there isn't an obvious favorite—because there are multiple Final Four contenders, not because there are no teams worthy of making the NCAA tournament. In this case, though, Duke is the clear favorite. Maybe it would be different if the Blue Devils had to go through both Wisconsin and Georgetown—a la California's projected quest through San Diego State and West Virginia in the Las Vegas Invitational—but they should easily handle VCU before presumably beating either the Badgers or Hoyas.
Still, the possibility of a rematch of last year's national championship game is a pretty enticing offer. Both teams are sporting almost entirely new rosters, but the uniforms, coaches and fanbases haven't changed. Duke vs. Wisconsin would still be viewed as one of the must-see games of the first two months of the season.
The Duke vs. Georgetown backup plan isn't too shabby, either, as both the Hoyas and Badgers are looking to prove with this event that they belong comfortably within the confines of the AP Top 25. If either team goes through Duke to win this title—especially if it's Georgetown on the heels of a great showing against Maryland on Nov. 17—that team would probably jump all the way into the top 10 in the Nov. 23 poll.
3. Advocare Invitational
Dates and Location: Nov. 26-29 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida
Quarterfinals Pairings: Alabama vs. Xavier; Wichita State vs. USC; Notre Dame vs. Monmouth; Iowa vs. Dayton
Likely Semifinals: Xavier vs. Wichita State; Notre Dame vs. Iowa
Likely Championship: Notre Dame vs. Wichita State
When trying to decide how good an eight-team tournament could or should be, sometimes it helps to simply rank the eight teams from best to worst to see how exciting it would be to have No. 1 vs. No. 2 as compared to how nauseating it would be to watch No. 7 vs. No. 8. For example, Michigan State vs. Arizona is a great potential championship in the Wooden Legacy, but Boston College vs. Santa Clara would be a very unattractive seventh-place game.
In the Advocare Invitational, we've got some fantastic potential pairings up top between Iowa, Notre Dame, Wichita State and Xavier, but even the consolation bracket should be better than several of the four-team tournament options.
Most would probably agree that Monmouth is the worst team in this field, but the Hawks might be the second-best team in the MAAC. Alabama isn't likely to make the tournament but is rapidly rebuilding with new head coach Avery Johnson. USC is a potential breakout team in the Pac-12 with virtually everyone back this season. And any tournament with Dayton as its fifth-best team is a pretty darn good one.
I wouldn't specifically make plans to watch a seventh-place game between Alabama and Monmouth, but sitting through that game would be a small price to pay to watch a possible Sweet 16 rematch between the Fighting Irish and the Shockers.
This field may be lacking in bona fide national title contenders—we would argue that Wichita State, Notre Dame and Xavier have a chance to win it all, but not a very good one—but, more importantly, it's lacking in complete duds. The Advocare Invitational is the fantasy sports equivalent of a lineup filled with solid producers who won't individually win the league for their owner, but whose collective strength all but guarantees a pretty successful season.
2. Maui Invitational
Dates and Location: Nov. 23-25 in Lahaina, Hawaii
Quarterfinals Pairings: St. John's vs. Vanderbilt; Wake Forest vs. Indiana; Kansas vs. Chaminade; UNLV vs. UCLA
Likely Semifinals: Vanderbilt vs. Indiana; Kansas vs. UCLA
Likely Championship: Indiana vs. Kansas
If we could just get rid of the background noise of the quarterfinals and jump straight to these projected semifinals, the Maui Invitational would pretty easily be the best early-season tournament.
Kansas will probably open the season ranked in the top five. Indiana should debut in the top 15. And if Vanderbilt doesn't make it into the preseason AP Top 25, the Commodores will certainly come close. That leaves UCLA as the weakest link of the four teams, and, come on, if UCLA is your weakest link, you've got an unbreakable chain.
However, there's the minor inconvenience of some possible upsets before we get to that point.
If, for instance, Wake Forest were to upset Indiana in the quarterfinals, it would make for a great story for Danny Manning and the Demon Deacons, but it would really suck some wind out of the sails of the semifinals and championship game. Vanderbilt vs. Wake Forest and Vanderbilt vs. Kansas don't pack nearly the punch of having the Hoosiers in those games.
Worse yet, what if Chaminade pulls off one of its once-in-a-blue-moon massive upsets and sends the Jayhawks to the losers' bracket? It's highly unlikely, but it's a mathematical possibility that kept us from putting the Maui Invitational at No. 1.
If we get those semifinals, though, before an Indiana vs. Kansas championship game, it will be about the best month-early Christmas gift a college hoops junkie can ask for.
1. Battle 4 Atlantis
Dates and Location: Nov. 25-27 in Paradise Islands, Bahamas
Quarterfinals Pairings: Gonzaga vs. Washington; Texas vs. Texas A&M; Syracuse vs. Charlotte; Michigan vs. Connecticut
Likely Semifinals: Gonzaga vs. Texas A&M; Syracuse vs. Connecticut
Likely Championship: Gonzaga vs. Connecticut
Pray tell, what is the worst possible outcome in this tournament?
Even if Gonzaga somehow loses to Washington, we'd still get to see the Bulldogs against either Texas or Texas A&M in the consolation bracket. Ditto for Syracuse against either Michigan or Connecticut. Such is the luxury of a tournament field with 75 percent of its participants either possibly or definitely making it to the NCAA tournament.
As a result, the Battle 4 Atlantis has two quarterfinals games that will be must-see TV. Texas vs. Texas A&M features one NCAA tournament staple with a deep roster and new head coach and one squad at or near the top of everyone's list of teams likely to go from 2015 NIT team to 2016 NCAA team. And while Michigan vs. Connecticut should be a great game between teams also near the top of that list, if you can't get excited about the Wolverines against the Huskies, we simply can't help you.
And how juicy is the possible semifinal pitting former Big East rivals Connecticut and Syracuse against one another? The 2014-15 season was not a very good one for either of those teams, but each one (particularly Connecticut) opens 2015-16 with plenty of reason to be optimistic about a big rebound.
If all that isn't enough, the Battle 4 Atlantis also features Gonzaga seeking to prove for the umpteenth year in a row that it actually is one of the best teams in the country, capable of hanging with the big boys. Unless they somehow run into Charlotte in the championship game, the Bulldogs' path to a title would go through three major conference programs in three days. It would be a great tuneup and confidence-builder before the big home games against Arizona and UCLA in early December.
Long story short, if you could only choose one tournament to watch and had to watch every game of it, this is the one you want. And did we mention it's in Bahamas? Great basketball and beautiful weather? Yes, please.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.