Ranking the Best In-Season Men's College Basketball Tournaments in 2019-20

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystNovember 11, 2019

Ranking the Best In-Season Men's College Basketball Tournaments in 2019-20

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    Four months before winning the national championship, Tony Bennett and Virginia won the Battle 4 Atlantis
    Four months before winning the national championship, Tony Bennett and Virginia won the Battle 4 AtlantisMichael Conroy/Associated Press

    College basketball's Champions Classic is in the rear-view mirror, and conference play doesn't really get rolling until about two months from now, but there are a whole bunch of Maui Invitational and Battle 4 Atlantis types of tournaments coming up to help bridge that gap.

    There are 22 early-season tournaments in all, though most of them figure to be entirely uninteresting to the average college basketball fan. Truly, the top five are the only ones that are definitely worth your time, but there are several others that should at least produce intriguing championship-game pairings.

    These tournaments are ranked based on a variety of factors, including percentage of games featuring at least one projected NCAA tournament team. Games potentially pitting two likely dancers against one another get bonus consideration, and even more weight is given to possible matchups with one or two national championship contenders.

    Basically, the more potential Quadrant 1 games, the better.

    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 10 of the last 11 national champions had won an early-season tournament. The only exception to that rule was Louisville losing to Duke in the 2012 Battle 4 Atlantis final, and, well, as far as the NCAA is concerned, the Cardinals never won the subsequent natty anyway.

    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.

The Others

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    Butler's Kelan Martin
    Butler's Kelan MartinFrank Franklin II/Associated Press

    22. Boca Raton Beach Classic (Dec. 1-2)
    21. Island of the Bahamas Showcase (Nov. 22-24)
    20. Gulf Coast Showcase (Nov. 25-27)

    There's not even a bubble team to be found in this tier. Liberty (Bahamas Showcase) and Wright State (Gulf Coast Showcase) are at least projected to win their respective conferences, but neither one is going to pick up a quality win here.


    19. Cayman Islands Classic (Nov. 25-27)
    18. Fort Myers Tip-Off (Nov. 25-27)
    17. Cancun Challenge (Nov. 26-27)

    Best-case scenario from this tier is we get a rematch of the 2006 NCAA tournament's scoreboard classic: Brad Pitt. Bradley and Pittsburgh will either both need to win or lose their semifinal game of the Fort Myers Tip-Off to make it happen, but there's something to root for.

    Jokes aside, a potential New Mexico State vs. South Florida semifinal in the Cayman Islands Classic could have some NCAA tournament ramifications. NMSU should be one of the best minor-conference teams this season, and it might have an at-large case with help from three neutral-site victories in this event. USF has some bubble potential that would grow considerably with a key win in that game.


    16. MGM Resorts Main Event (Nov. 24-26)
    15. HOF Tip-Off (Nov. 23-24)

    Virginia (HOF Tip-Off) might win the ACC. Colorado (MGM Resorts) might win the Pac-12. Neither one should face much of a challenge during this final weekend before Thanksgiving.


    14. HOF Classic (Nov. 25-26)
    13. NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 27-29)

    If you're into way-too-early bracketology, these are the bubble bonanzas. Butler vs. Missouri and Oklahoma vs. Stanford in the HOF Classic; Ole Miss vs. Penn State and Oklahoma State vs. Syracuse in the NIT Season Tip-Off. Not one of those eight quite made the cut in the first Bracket Matrix, but seven of the eight (excluding Stanford) appeared in at least 13 percent of preseason projections.

    While there aren't any super wins or terrible losses to be had, we might be talking about eight Quadrant 2 games here. Intriguing to the diehard fans of college hoops, but not so much to the "Let's flip through the channels and see if there's anything on" crowd.

    It's just too bad we can't somehow merge this into an eight-team event. Would be mighty intriguing to see who comes away with the 3-0 and 0-3 records. Alas.


    12. Paradise Jam (Nov. 22-25)

    If we were just dealing with the bottom half of this tournament (Cincinnati vs. Illinois State; Bowling Green vs. Western Kentucky), it probably sneaks into the top 10. However, a less-than-mediocre top half (Grand Canyon vs. Valparaiso; Fordham vs. Nevada) leaves much to be desired.


    11. Diamond Head Classic (Dec. 22-25)

    A championship game of Houston vs. Washington would be a fun one. It has the potential to be a December version of an NCAA first-round battle between a No. 8 seed and a No. 9 seed. But nothing up until that point is particularly appealing, so the entire tournament could be a dud if either team gets upset in the first two rounds.

10. Legends Classic

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    Samir Doughty
    Samir DoughtyJeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Dates: Nov. 26-27

    Location: Brooklyn, New York

    Semifinals: Wisconsin vs. Richmond; Auburn vs. New Mexico

    Dream Championship: Wisconsin vs. Auburn

    Richmond has endured back-to-back 20-loss seasons and has not been to the NCAA tournament since 2011. New Mexico hasn't been in much better shape lately, missing the dance five straight times, including a rough 14-18 record last year. If those teams are headed for more of the same, it's really just the Auburn-Wisconsin championship game with any amount of intrigue here.

    However, each of those mid-major teams has some potential that could be actualized in Brooklyn. Getting Nick Sherod back (only six games last year) and adding Blake Francis (Wagner transfer) makes Richmond a team that can score in bunches. And New Mexico seems to be channeling its inner Nevada with a roster overflowing with former major-conference transfers.

    Maybe neither one pulls off the upset, but they have enough talent to make things interestingparticularly New Mexico against Auburn, which might be a race to 100 points.

    Auburn and Wisconsin have not faced each other since the third-place game of something called the South Padre Island Invitational in 2006. And these teams are much more equally yoked than they were back when the Badgers were a staple as a single-digit seed in the NCAA tournament while the Tigers were lucky if they finished .500 in a given year. Should be a fun mismatch of styles if we get it.

9. Wooden Legacy

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    Nico Mannion
    Nico MannionRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Dates: Nov. 28-Dec. 1

    Location: Anaheim, California

    Quarterfinals: Providence vs. Long Beach State; Wake Forest vs. College of Charleston; UCF vs. Penn; Arizona vs. Pepperdine

    Likely Semifinals: Providence vs. Wake Forest; Arizona vs. UCF

    Dream Championship: Arizona vs. Providence

    There's no question that Arizona is the favorite to win the Wooden Legacy. The Wildcats are an AP Top 25 team and a popular pick to rally from a rough 2018-19 season to win the Pac-12.

    The next-best team in the field is Providence, which wasn't even close to a unanimous preseason pick to reach the NCAA tournament. (Though the Friars should have been. They were my pick for sleeper team of the year.)

    But what the Wooden Legacy lacks in national championship potential, it makes up for with a minimal supply of cannon fodder.

    Long Beach State might be quite bad, but Wake Forest, UCF, Penn and Pepperdine all rank in the Nos. 80-120 range on KenPom.com. College of Charleston isn't far behind that bunch, either. That means the Wake-CofC and UCF-Penn games should be competitive, and the winners ought to put up a solid fight against Providence and Arizona, respectively.

    Even a dream championship of Arizona vs. Providence wouldn't register much of a vibration on the national Richter scaleit's arguably the 10th-best of the 22 optionsbut it's hard to argue with an event featuring multiple tournament-caliber teams and what figures to be a bunch of close contests.

8. Charleston Classic

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    Kerry Blackshear Jr.
    Kerry Blackshear Jr.Matt Stamey/Associated Press

    Dates: Nov. 21-24

    Location: Charleston, South Carolina

    Quarterfinals: Missouri State vs. Miami (FL); Florida vs. Saint Joseph's; Towson vs. Xavier; Buffalo vs. Connecticut

    Likely Semifinals: Miami (FL) vs. Florida; Xavier vs. Connecticut

    Dream Championship: Florida vs. Xavier

    Fun fact: Did you know Connecticut and Xavier have not faced each other since No. 11 seed Connecticut defeated No. 14 seed Xavier in the 1991 NCAA tournament?

    The former was in the Big East for more than three decades, and the latter is in its seventh season in the league, but there was no overlap and nary a nonconference showdown. There's a good chance they'll both be in the Big East as early as next season, though, and maybe this Charleston Classic semifinal will be the beginning of a new rivalry.

    There is considerably more history in the other projected semifinal, although it has been four years since the Gators and Hurricanes last squared off, when Florida bested Miami in the third-place game of the AdvoCare Invitational.

    In both of those projected matchups, it's a ranked Final Four contender against an opponent hoping to bounce back from a sub-.500 season. Neither Miami nor Connecticut is expected to vie for a conference title and looks like a bubble team, at best, but either one could drastically change that narrative by upsetting both Florida and Xavier.

    Most likely, though, it'll be the Gators and the Musketeers battling for the Charleston Classic crown, and Florida should get the W. Virginia Tech transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr. had 20 points and 10 rebounds in his debut in the blue and orange, and that should be the start of a season that ends with him in the mix for NPOY.

7. Empire Classic

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    Cassius Stanley
    Cassius StanleyAdam Hunger/Associated Press

    Dates: Nov. 22-23

    Location: New York, New York

    Semifinals: Georgetown vs. Texas; Duke vs. California

    Dream Championship: Duke vs. Texas

    There are three tournament fields this year comprised entirely of major-conference teams: HOF Classic, NIT Season Tip-Off and this one. While the other two might not have a single NCAA tournament team in the bunch, the Empire Classic has a serious national championship contender in the Duke Blue Devils, as well as two other teams that should be better than any team in the other two events.

    Whether this is actually an entertaining tournament, however, will depend on the quality of the winner of the Georgetown-Texas game.

    Both the Hoyas and the Longhorns are hoping to build on 2018-19 seasons that ended with a trip to the NIT, and one of the two is going to pick up a quality neutral-site victory followed by a marquee opportunity against Duke.

    Cal is the distant fourth-best team in this tournament, likely to get destroyed by Duke before probably losing the consolation game, as well. Thus, if the gap between Duke and Georgetown/Texas is as wide as it seems, this could be one decent game between bubble teams and a trio of blowouts.

    Look for the Longhorns to make things interesting, though, just like they did two years ago in taking the Blue Devils to overtime in the PK80 semifinals, or like they did last year in upsetting North Carolina in the Las Vegas Invitational.

6. Las Vegas Invitational

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    Davide Moretti
    Davide MorettiCharlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Dates: Nov. 28-29

    Location: Las Vegas, Nevada

    Semifinals: Texas Tech vs. Iowa; San Diego State vs. Creighton

    Dream Championship: Texas Tech vs. Creighton

    We'll discuss this again in a bit with the Emerald Coast Classic, but you have to like any event in which even the worst team has some NCAA tournament potential. It might be a bit of a stretch to put San Diego State in that mix out of the Mountain West Conference, but the Aztecs certainly won't be a pushover as the projected fourth-place finisher in the Las Vegas Invitational.

    Despite losing almost everyone from the national runners-up, Texas Tech is an obvious contender this year. Chris Beard has built a Tony Bennett-like defensive factory in Lubbock, and the Red Raiders reloaded in a big way with quality freshmen and graduate transfers. Forward T.J. Holyfield will be the key to everything as the primary big man, but the fifth-year senior from Stephen F. Austin should be up to the task.

    Creighton also has some question marks in the frontcourt with Martin Krampelj out of the picture. Sophomore Christian Bishop and Idaho State transfer Kelvin Jones are basically the only options with Jacob Epperson likely out for the season with a broken leg. But the Blue Jays have so many quality guards on the roster that they should be able to make it work and reach the NCAA tournament.

    That might open the door for Iowa to win this tournament, as 6'11" center Luka Garza should be able to do just about anything he wants in the paint. The Hawkeyes will need to be much better on defense than they have been in recent seasons. They allowed at least 82 points in a dozen games last year, and that type of defensive effort would be a fine way to get saddled with a two-game losing streak in Vegas.

5. Myrtle Beach Invitational

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    Jeremiah Robinson-Earl
    Jeremiah Robinson-EarlLaurence Kesterson/Associated Press

    Dates: Nov. 21-24

    Location: Conway, South Carolina

    Quarterfinals: Villanova vs. Middle Tennessee; Mississippi State vs. Tulane; Baylor vs. Ohio; Utah vs. Coastal Carolina

    Likely Semifinals: Villanova vs. Mississippi State; Baylor vs. Utah

    Dream Championship: Villanova vs. Baylor

    In just its second year of existence, the Myrtle Beach Invitational has already become one of the can't-miss events of November.

    Well, that's not entirely true. You can probably afford to miss the quarterfinals. All four major-conference teams should comfortably cruise to victory.

    The semifinals will be solid, though.

    Villanova is an AP Top 10 team that should win the Big East and bounce back from a "down" year as a No. 6 seed to its usual spot as a top-three seed in the NCAA tournament. Mississippi State and Baylor are also good enough to go dancing. And while not much was expected from Utah before the season began, the road win over Nevada and Friday night's 143-49 victory over Mississippi Valley State painted the picture of a team that could be a problem in the Pac-12.

    Villanova is the clear favorite, but Baylor and Mississippi State have the most to prove.

    Baylor already lost to Washington, and aside from the January trip to Florida as part of the SEC-B12 Challenge, the Bears don't have much on their nonconference schedule. If they were to lose to Utah in the semis and not even get a chance to face Villanova, it's going to turn their SOS into even more of a season-long point of discussion.

    Mississippi State's nonconference SOS is even more of a calamity waiting to happen. The Bulldogs play eight home games against minor-conference opponents, and this Myrtle Beach opener against Tulane isn't going to do anything to help matters. The semifinal against Villanova may well end up being their only nonconference game against an at-large candidate, so they might want to at least put up a fight.

4. Maui Jim Maui Invitational

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    Cassius Winston
    Cassius WinstonAdam Hunger/Associated Press

    Dates: Nov. 25-27

    Location: Maui, Hawaii

    Quarterfinals: Georgia vs. Dayton; Michigan State vs. Virginia Tech; Kansas vs. Chaminade; BYU vs. UCLA

    Likely Semifinals: Dayton vs. Michigan State; Kansas vs. UCLA

    Dream Championship: Michigan State vs. Kansas

    It might be controversial to put the Maui Invitational at No. 4, considering the potential championship game could be one of the five biggest games of the entire regular season.

    If we don't get No. 1 Michigan State vs. No. 3 Kansas (preseason rankings), though, what are we doing here?

    Georgia should be a fun team thanks to super frosh and potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NBA draft Anthony Edwards, but the Bulldogs aren't expected to be a particularly successful team. Only four of the 46 preseason brackets on Bracket Matrix had Georgia projected for the NCAA tournament, and they each listed the Dawgs as a No. 11 seed.

    Speaking of No. 11 seeds, that is the expectation for Dayton. However, aside from Michigan State and Kansas, the on-the-bubble Flyers are the only team in this octet projected to dance. BYU and UCLA each have a little postseason potential, but it's not supposed to be a banner year for either program. Despite the surprising season-opening road win over Clemson, no one is expecting Virginia Tech to sniff the bracket. And, of course, Chaminade is a D-II team that cannot qualify for the NCAA tournament.

    That means none of the quarterfinals is all that appealing, and even the semifinals are nothing special, unless you're excited about Kansas vs. UCLA solely because they are two of the winningest programs in NCAA history.

    Again, Michigan State vs. Kansas would be awesome, but all it would take is one upset to turn this tournament into a dud.

    The good news is this event almost always delivers, though. In each of the last six years, the highest-ranked team faced either the second-highest or third-highest-ranked team in the championship game, resulting in six straight matchups between AP Top 20 teams for the title. Let's hope that trend continues.

    If it does, it would mean No. 1 Michigan State faces No. 2 Kentucky (already happened), No. 3 Kansas and No. 4 Duke (Dec. 3 in ACC-B1G Challenge) all within the first 30 days of the regular season. Throw in the upcoming road game against Seton Hall (Nov. 14) and you'll have a hard time finding a more difficult nonconference schedule this season.

3. Emerald Coast Classic

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    Matt Haarms
    Matt HaarmsMichael Conroy/Associated Press

    Dates: Nov. 29-30

    Location: Niceville, Florida

    Semifinals: Florida State vs. Tennessee; Purdue vs. VCU

    Dream Championship: Tennessee vs. Purdue

    As far as dream championships go, this is probably the seventh-best option, as no member of this quartet is exactly pre-selling "2020 Final Four" memorabilia. Both Purdue (No. 23) and VCU (No. 25) barely cracked into the preseason AP poll, while Tennessee and Florida State just missed the cut at third and fifth, respectively, among others receiving votes.

    However, as far as worst-case scenarios go, the Emerald Coast Classic is the most nightmare-averse field of the year. Any combination would be more than fine, which means both semifinals, the championship and the consolation game will all be worth watching.

    Last year, both VCU and Florida State ranked in the top 10 in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com. On the offensive side of things, Tennessee ranked No. 3, while Purdue was No. 4. 

    Things have changed, of course. Purdue lost its phenom (Carsen Edwards) and his backcourt running mate (Ryan Cline). Both Florida State and Tennessee lost well over half of last year's scoring. And, well, VCU didn't lose much of anything from a 25-win team and really deserved more respect in the polls.

    But all four are firmly entrenched in that unofficial "I'm reserving judgment until I see them, but they might have Elite Eight potential" range of preseason projections. The winner of this event is going to soar in the subsequent polls and will be viewed as a legitimate threat unless/until it shows otherwise in December. Even the fourth-place finisher will still have plenty of NCAA tournament potential, as it's likely all four of these neutral-court games end up being Quadrant 1 opportunities.

2. Orlando Invitational

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    Markus Howard
    Markus HowardJulio Cortez/Associated Press

    Dates: Nov. 28-Dec. 1

    Location: Orlando, Florida

    Quarterfinals: Maryland vs. Temple; Harvard vs. Texas A&M; Fairfield vs. USC; Davidson vs. Marquette

    Likely Semifinals: Maryland vs. Harvard; USC vs. Marquette

    Dream Championship: Maryland vs. Marquette

    With the exception of Oregon vs. Seton Hall in the quarterfinal of the No. 1 event on this list, there is no guaranteed-to-happen matchup anywhere near as appealing as Davidson vs. Marquette.

    Both teams checked in just outside the preseason AP Top 25, and yet the Wildcats and the Golden Eagles have two of the best backcourts in the nation.

    Marquette's Markus Howard is the one everybody should know about, but he's not alone. There's also senior Sacar Anim and Utah State transfer Koby McEwen, each of whom is more than capable of scoring a lot of points if Howard isn't doing all of the shooting. And Davidson has a remarkable trio of its own in Kellan Grady, Jon Axel Gudmundsson and KiShawn Pritchett. Just do yourself a favor and record this game, because you're probably going to want to watch it again later.

    Beyond that, Maryland vs. Harvard should be an outstanding semifinal. The former has national championship potential with Anthony Cowan and Jalen Smith leading the way, while the latter seems to be everyone's preseason sleeper pick to win a couple of games in the NCAA tournament. The Crimson have sputtered for the past four years, but this early event should serve as a notice that they're back in business.

    Watch out for USC as a wild card too. The Trojans put together a banner recruiting class, and they picked up Daniel Utomi (Akron) and Quinton Adlesh (Columbia) as graduate transfers. Plus, two of last year's top three scorersNick Rakocevic and Jonah Mathewsare back as senior leaders. Point guard is a big question mark, but USC could win this tournament and emerge as the new early favorite in the Pac-12.

1. Battle 4 Atlantis

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    Cole Anthony
    Cole AnthonyGerry Broome/Associated Press

    Dates: Nov. 27-29

    Location: Paradise Island, Bahamas

    Quarterfinals: Iowa State vs. Michigan; Alabama vs. North Carolina; Gonzaga vs. Southern Miss; Oregon vs. Seton Hall

    Likely Semifinals: Michigan vs. North Carolina; Gonzaga vs. Seton Hall

    Dream Championship: North Carolina vs. Gonzaga

    The top spot on this list is usually a difficult decision between three or four deserving candidates, but this is the most cut-and-dry No. 1 option in a long time.

    While no other event features more than four likely NCAA tournament teams, seven of the eight from this tournament are projected to reach the Big Dance. Aside from Southern Miss—which will be the Battle 4 Atlantis version of what Chaminade usually is in the Maui Invitational—any member of the field reasonably could win this thing.

    Our one minor complaint is that this tourney would have been even better if they had swapped one of the teams in the first quarterfinal with one from the fourth quarterfinal. Iowa State and Michigan are both bubble teams, while Oregon and Seton Hall both debuted in the AP Top 15. It's a shame that either the Ducks or the Pirates will lose immediately and then (presumably) face Southern Miss in the consolation bracket.

    That said, Gonzaga against either Oregon or Seton Hall is going to be an incredible semifinal, and no one is going to complain about getting to relive the "Chris Webber Game" in a semifinal of Michigan vs. North Carolinaparticularly now that the head coach of Michigan (Juwan Howard) was a starter in that 1993 NCAA classic.

    If things play to form all the way to the end, how about a rematch of the 2017 national championship? UNC and Gonzaga met during the regular season last year, and they are going to square off again this coming December, but we'll gladly take as much Roy Williams vs. Mark Few action as we can possibly get.

    While North Carolina vs. Gonzaga isn't quite as juicy as the potential Maui Invitational final of Kansas vs. Michigan State, there's no comparing the overall appeal of the quarterfinals and semifinals. Even the fifth-place game in the consolation bracket should be a quality battle. Can't say that for any other event.


    Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.