Ranking the Best In-Season College Basketball Tournaments in 2017-18
The North Carolina Tar Heels won the 2017 NCAA tournament, but how will they fare in the 2017 Phil Knight Invitational?
The PK80 is a one-time college basketball tournament honoring the 80th birthday of the Nike co-founder, and it will have two of the three best early-season tournaments in 2017-18—in case you needed any more evidence of how much pull the shoe companies have in this sport.
With 12 significant major-conference programs partaking in the event—14 if you count Connecticut and Gonzaga; major programs regardless of conference affiliation—there weren't a lot of quality teams left for the other tournaments to choose from.
There are 27 early-season tournaments in all, and most of them are entirely uninteresting. Truly, the top four are the only ones that are definitely worth your time, but we were able to come up with six more that could produce some intriguing pairings. These tournaments are ranked in ascending order of potential percentage of games that will be must-watch affairs.
And before you dismiss these November (or December, in some cases) events with a "Wake me in March when the games matter" retort, be sure to note that eight of the last nine national champions have won an early-season tournament, as have five of the last seven teams that lost in the NCAA tournament final. The only exceptions to the rule are Louisville losing to Duke in the 2012 Battle 4 Atlantis final, Kansas losing to Duke in the 2011 Maui Invitational final and Kentucky not playing in a non-exempt tournament during the 2013-14 season.
You might not care about these events right now, but you're going to want to at least look back at these tournaments when working on the latter rounds of your NCAA tournament bracket.
10. Wooden Legacy
Dates: Nov. 23-24, 26
Location: Fullerton, California
Quarterfinals: Saint Mary's vs. Harvard, Saint Joseph's vs. Washington State, Georgia vs. Cal State Fullerton, San Diego State vs. Sacramento State
Likely Semifinals: Saint Mary's vs. Saint Joseph's, Georgia vs. San Diego State
Dream Championship: Saint Mary's vs. Georgia
Normally, the Wooden Legacy is one of the best tournaments. It was No. 5 in our rankings two years ago and No. 4 last year thanks to strong blends of title contenders and large fanbases. We didn't even get the dream championship pairing in either year, and it still ended up being one of the better early-season events.
This year, it's invoking more of a suppressed yawn than a fevered anticipation.
Right off the bat, let's point out that Washington State might be the worst major-conference team in the country, and neither Cal State Fullerton nor Sacramento State is going to be any better. Harvard might finally be working its way back to relevance, but a team this young playing this early in the season against Saint Mary's is likely headed for a big loss. Not a single one of these quarterfinals figures to be worth watching.
Even the likely semifinal pairings are just kind of whatever. Saint Joseph's should be much better than last season, but that's not a team anyone is dying to see take on Saint Mary's. And perhaps the most noteworthy possible scenario for Georgia vs. San Diego State would be that we look back on it in four months as a de facto tiebreaker for one of the last spots in the NCAA tournament field.
That leads to a championship game between what should still be a strong Saint Mary's team and a bubble team—probably Georgia. And as much as I would love to watch Jock Landale and Yante Maten go to war with one another in the paint, that is an ugly best-case scenario from a tournament that could have given us Michigan State vs. Arizona two years ago.
9. Barclays Center Classic
Dates: Nov. 24-25
Semifinals: Minnesota vs. Massachusetts, Alabama vs. BYU
Dream Championship: Minnesota vs. Alabama
It's hard to buy stock in a four-team tournament when one of the four teams is going to be just plain awful, and that appears to be the direction in which Massachusetts is trending. The Minutemen did bring in a potentially great graduate transfer in Jaylen Brantley (Maryland), but they lost a whole lot more. Head coach Derek Kellogg was relieved of his duties, which led to seven of last year's 12 leading scorers (including three of the top five) transferring out of the program. This might be the worst team in the Atlantic 10.
The other three teams, however, are quite interesting, even though they each have some question marks in the frontcourt.
Alabama is of particular interest, as it brings back six of last year's seven leading scorers while adding stud freshman Collin Sexton and potential major-impact freshman John Petty to the mix. The Crimson Tide are also getting Ohio State transfer Daniel Giddens on the court after he sat out last season, and he could be the key to everything for this team. If he becomes the type of big man people were expecting him to be coming out of high school, Alabama could be the second-best team in the SEC.
In the Big Ten, Minnesota should be the second-best team. The Golden Gophers lost one key player as a graduate (Akeem Springs) and one key reserve to a season-ending injury (Eric Curry), but they should still be a little bit better than last season. Amir Coffey was overshadowed by Miles Bridges, but he had one heck of a freshman season and is ready to really shine as a sophomore. If Nate Mason can become a more efficient scorer as a senior, it's not crazy to mention "Minnesota" and "Final Four" in the same sentence.
And as long as BYU has TJ Haws and Nick Emery, that's a team that could score 100 points on any given night. The Cougars are clearly the third-best team in this field, but it wouldn't be the least bit surprising to see them win this thing as a precursor to making a little bit of noise in March.
8. Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic
Dates: Dec. 22-23, 25
Quarterfinals: Middle Tennessee vs. Princeton, Akron vs. USC, Davidson vs. New Mexico State, Miami vs. Hawaii
Likely Semifinals: Middle Tennessee vs. USC, Davidson vs. Miami
Dream Championship: USC vs. Miami
This would have been a sensational tournament last season.
This year? Not so much.
Middle Tennessee vs. Princeton looks like an interesting first-round battle between teams who were popular picks to pull off No. 12 seed over No. 5 seed upsets in the 2017 NCAA tournament. However, MTSU lost three of its five leading scorers, including its only two noteworthy frontcourt players, JaCorey Williams and Reggie Upshaw Jr. Meanwhile, Princeton lost four of its top seven scorers, all four of which were forwards.
In similar boats, Akron and New Mexico State won a combined 55 games last year before losing a combined 16 transfers this offseason. Factor in a few noteworthy departed seniors on each team, and they have both been gutted.
Davidson barely finished above .500 before losing Jack Gibbs, and it's likely going to be another year or two until Hawaii is relevant again.
If we get USC vs. Miami in the championship game, it's going to be a great Christmas-night matchup between teams that should open the season ranked in the top 15-20 of the Associated Press poll—provided their roles in the FBI investigation don't change that. If we don't get that championship game, though, the only potentially interesting thing about this tournament would be one of the other six teams upsetting both the Trojans and the Hurricanes to win the whole thing.
7. Advocare Invitational
Dates: Nov. 23-24, 26
Location: Lake Buena Vista, Florida
Quarterfinals: Missouri vs. Long Beach State, St. John's vs. Oregon State, UCF vs. Nebraska, West Virginia vs. Marist
Likely Semifinals: Missouri vs. St. John's, UCF vs. West Virginia
Dream Championship: Missouri vs. West Virginia
The inverse of the Diamond Head Classic, this would have been a horrendous tournament in 2016, but it is all sorts of compelling this year.
For starters, any chance to watch Michael Porter Jr. play three times in four days is a big win for college basketball fans. Missouri was an 8-24 disaster last year, but the Tigers are the top candidate for a huge turnaround thanks to the potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft.
Also strong candidates on that list are St. John's and Oregon State. The Johnnies get back their three leading scorers from last season and add a couple of quality transfers in Justin Simon (Arizona) and Marvin Clark II (Michigan State). Year No. 3 of the Chris Mullin experiment should be a fun one. And the Beavers get back virtually everyone from a team that hopelessly struggled through a year of injury and inexperience. They're a sleeper to watch in the Pac-12.
There's also UCF, which won 24 games last year, still has Tacko Fall and brings in a ton of potential impact transfers. Dayon Griffin (11.3 PPG at Louisiana Tech), Terrell Allen (9.8 PPG at Drexel) and Aubrey Dawkins (6.5 PPG at Michigan) all sat out this past season and are ready to help lead the Knights to their first NCAA tournament win in program history.
And then there's West Virginia—the sure-to-be-ranked team that each of these up-and-coming teams would love to make a statement against with a win.
In terms of national championship potential, there are much, much better tournaments to choose from. But if you like to use November to uncover breakout teams and find out if your sleepers are going to wake up, it doesn't get any better than the Advocare Invitational.
6. NIT Season Tip-off
Dates: Nov. 23-24
Semifinals: Virginia vs. Vanderbilt, Rhode Island vs. Seton Hall
Dream Championship: Virginia vs. Seton Hall
This is a pretty solid tournament that will be hard to convince the average college basketball fan to watch.
ESPN's Joe Lunardi projects all four of these teams to be a No. 10 seed or better, but not one of them is supposed to get anything better than a No. 6 seed. Thus, this is a mix of likely NCAA tournament teams that will open the season right on the fringe of the AP Top 25.
Moreover, these aren't blue-blood programs. It's easier to sell tickets to a tournament involving a borderline Top 25 team like UCLA or even a probably-won't-make-the-NCAA-tournament team like Indiana than it is to sell tickets to a tournament with a likely championship pairing of Virginia and Seton Hall.
In other words, these are compelling teams, but this isn't exactly a tournament worth scheduling your Thanksgiving weekend around.
You'll be missing a good one, though.
Seton Hall is the cream of the crop and should be a Final Four contender if it can establish a reliable point guard. Vanderbilt gets back a ton of key players and should be right in the middle of a loaded SEC pack. Rhode Island still has an excellent three-headed backcourt in E.C. Matthews, Jarvis Garrett and Jared Terrell. And despite losing three transfers, Virginia still has Tony Bennett as its head coach and will remain a problem for opposing teams.
Just about every possible outcome is on the table in this tournament, and it'd be hard to complain about any of them.
5. CBE Hall of Fame Classic
Dates: Nov. 20-21
Location: Kansas City
Semifinals: UCLA vs. Creighton, Wisconsin vs. Baylor
Dream Championship: UCLA vs. Baylor
Just like the NIT Season Tip-Off, the CBE Hall of Fame Classic features a quartet of good-not-great teams that should be entertaining no matter how it shakes out. And though this wasn't factored into the ranking process, there's a much better chance you'll be watching this tournament, because the only other thing going on for these two days is the first two rounds of the Maui Invitational.
It also doesn't hurt matters that this tournament has higher-profile teams.
UCLA almost certainly won't be as good as last season after losing all four of its leading scorers, but the Bruins do have several intriguing incoming freshmen and decades' worth of winning history. Likewise, Wisconsin lost the majority of its star players from 2016-17, but this is a program seeking its 20th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance and fourth straight trip to the Sweet 16. Baylor and Creighton carry more weight in basketball circles than Vanderbilt and Rhode Island, too.
What makes this tournament stand out most, though, is that there is no potential bad outcome as far as the matchups are concerned. Baylor vs. Creighton wouldn't necessarily be a jaw-dropping classic, but one could do a whole lot worse than getting to watch Manu Lecomte and Marcus Foster square off. Plus, we could watch UCLA vs. Wisconsin in the consolation game to find out which major fanbase will be losing its mind over two losses in 24 hours.
4. Maui Jim Maui Invitational
Dates: Nov. 20-22
Location: Lahaina, Hawaii
Quarterfinals: Marquette vs. VCU, Wichita State vs. California, Notre Dame vs. Chaminade, Michigan vs. LSU
Likely Semifinals: Wichita State vs. Marquette, Notre Dame vs. Michigan
Dream Championship: Wichita State vs. Notre Dame
Now we're finally getting somewhere.
Like the Wooden Legacy, the quarterfinal pairings here are nothing special. California and LSU are both going to be pretty bad this year, and the closest Chaminade has come to a win in this tournament in the past four years was a 100-93 loss to St. John's in the seventh-place game in 2015. Marquette vs. VCU could be interesting, but more from a "Which No. 10 seed that lost a ton of key players is going to be less awful?" perspective than anything.
Unlike the Wooden Legacy, though, these potential semifinal games are delicious.
Whether it's Marquette or VCU, this will be our first legitimate look at what Wichita State is bringing to the table to defend what should be its highest preseason AP poll position in at least 35 years. And Notre Dame vs. Michigan might be one of the most aesthetically pleasing games of the entire season, as these have been two of the most efficient offenses over the course of the past three years.
Following those games up with Wichita State against either the Fighting Irish or the Wolverines will be another perk. In each of the past three seasons, the Shockers blew their chances to make an early statement, cobbling together a combined record of 3-6 in early-season tournaments and spending each year uncomfortably on the bubble as a result. If they can go through a Pac-12, Big East and either ACC or Big Ten team to win the Maui Invitational, they might enter December ranked in the top three in the nation.
3. PK80 Motion Bracket
Dates: Nov. 23-24, 26
Location: Portland, Oregon
Quarterfinals: Duke vs. Portland State, Butler vs. Texas, Florida vs. Stanford, Gonzaga vs. Ohio State
Likely Semifinals: Duke vs. Texas, Florida vs. Gonzaga
Dream Championship: Duke vs. Florida
There are two parts to the Phil Knight Invitational: Motion Bracket and Victory Bracket. And they're both swell.
Really, the only uninteresting games in either bracket are the ones involving Portland or Portland State. But including a sacrificial host school never kept the Great Alaska Shootout or Maui Invitational from being fun. Besides, no one much cares about the consolation brackets, and the Portland schools more or less ensure the two marquee teams (Duke and North Carolina) at least reach the semifinals.
The reason the Motion Bracket comes in at No. 3 instead of the top two, though, is because there simply aren't any show-stopping numbers here.
Gonzaga and Florida won a combined eight games in the NCAA tournament last year, and then they each lost four of their top five scorers. Brand strength will likely be enough for Gonzaga to open the season in the AP Top 25, but the roster might not warrant it. And a lot of things will need to go right for Florida to live up to its billing as a preseason Top 15 team.
Either way, the team that comes out of the bottom half of the bracket is going to be a significant underdog against Duke—provided the Blue Devils get by either Butler or Texas.
It has been several years since Duke played in a marquee seven-game tournament, and this is probably why. Anything other than Duke winning this thing would be a rather large surprise and would result in another early narrative that it never deserved to be ranked No. 1 in the nation in the first place.
That said, six of the eight teams in this tournament should be in the running to either make or win the NCAA tournament. Usually, we're lucky if we get one or two tournaments to meet that description, but we've got three this year.
2. PK80 Victory Bracket
Dates: Nov. 23-24, 26
Location: Portland, Oregon
Quarterfinals: North Carolina vs. Portland, Arkansas vs. Oklahoma, Connecticut vs. Oregon, Michigan State vs. DePaul
Likely Semifinals: North Carolina vs. Arkansas, Oregon vs. Michigan State
Dream Championship: North Carolina vs. Michigan State
This half of the PK80 is a little more intriguing, if only because we could end up with the reigning national champs against one of the favorites to win it all this year. Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though. We can probably safely pencil North Carolina and Michigan State into the semifinals, but it'll be tough sledding once they get there.
On the Tar Heels' side of things, it's either a rematch of a 2017 NCAA tournament second-round game that the Razorbacks should have won or a showdown with an Oklahoma team desperate to show that last year's 11-20 record was a disappointing fluke rather than the new normal. Either way, it should be an entertaining affair in which neither team has a proven low-post presence.
And standing in the Spartans' path will either be an Oregon team that reloaded in a massive way this offseason or a Connecticut team looking to stay healthy and actually matter for the first time in a few years. The more compelling opponent would be the Ducks. Dana Altman has won at least 24 games in each of the last six seasons, and he's got the necessary talent to get there again. We're just curious to see how strong the chemistry is two weeks into the season.
(Also, Oregon put together a terrible nonconference schedule, and this looks like its only chance to beat anyone of value until mid-January. If the Ducks lose to Connecticut and draw DePaul and Oklahoma in the consolation bracket, their nonconference resume is going to be hideous.)
If all goes according to plan, we'll get North Carolina against Michigan State in the final, and we'll find out just how great a Spartans frontcourt consisting of Jaren Jackson, Nick Ward, Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter can be. At any rate, if they don't annihilate this depleted Tar Heels frontcourt on the glass, that would be our first signal that this team might not live up to the hype.
1. Bad Boy Mowers Battle 4 Atlantis
Dates: Nov. 22-24
Location: Paradise Island, Bahamas
Quarterfinals: Purdue vs. Tennessee, Villanova vs. Western Kentucky, North Carolina State vs. Arizona, SMU vs. Northern Iowa
Likely Semifinals: Villanova vs. Purdue, Arizona vs. SMU
Dream Championship: Villanova vs. Arizona
You're going to hear a lot of hubbub about the PK80 in the first two weeks of the regular season, but if you can only watch (or attend) one early-season tournament, the Battle 4 Atlantis is the one. The four projected semifinalists all ranked in the KenPom Top 20 at the end of last season, and the other four aren't chopped liver.
Two of Tennessee's top four scorers were freshmen, and they should build on last year's big win over Kentucky. North Carolina State lost Dennis Smith Jr., but there's still a ton of talent on that roster. Even without Mitchell Robinson, Western Kentucky could be interesting due to an influx of transfers. And when in the past 15 years have you ever known Northern Iowa to struggle in two consecutive seasons?
All four quarterfinals should be moderately entertaining, and business picks up in a hurry from there.
Villanova and Purdue played in one of the most captivating games of last November with Josh Hart edging out Caleb Swanigan for the win. Both teams are expected to be strong, but this will be an early glimpse into how they'll fare without their stars from last season. SMU vs. Arizona isn't nearly as enticing after the Mustangs lost Semi Ojeleye, Sterling Brown and Ben Moore, but they have averaged better than 27 wins over the last four years.
In the end, though, what pushed the Battle 4 Atlantis over the top is the potential championship game between Villanova and Arizona.
North Carolina vs. Michigan State would be a great pairing in the PK80 Victory Bracket, but the Tar Heels are generally seen as more of a top-20 team than a top-10 team. Though most analysts (excluding yours truly) aren't quite as high on Villanova as they have been in recent offseasons, the Wildcats are still all but unanimously regarded as one of the top 10 teams for this year. And the Arizona Wildcats are top five in just about everyone's book. That makes this possible matchup the most likely national championship preview in an early-season tournament.
Settling on the order for these top three tournaments was tough, but that's a deciding factor that could not be ignored.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.