Biggest Takeaways from Men's College Basketball's Early Season Tournaments

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystNovember 29, 2021

Biggest Takeaways from Men's College Basketball's Early Season Tournaments

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    Baylor's LJ Cryer
    Baylor's LJ CryerTony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    After a Thanksgiving week buffet of neutral-site college basketball tournaments, we could all use a recap of what we learned from the Battle 4 Atlantis, the Maui Invitational and the dozens of other Tip-Offs, Classics and Invitationals.

    Eleven of the past 12 men's NCAA tournament champions won a neutral-site tournament in November or December before going on to win it all in March and April. Considering none of Duke, Gonzaga, Kentucky, Texas and UCLA participated in a tournament this year while none of Kansas, Houston, Illinois, Michigan and Villanova won the tournaments in which they played, that trend likely won't continue into 2022.

    Then again, Purdue, Baylor and Arizona sure looked like title contenders in the process of winning their respective tournaments, so we can't rule it out. 

    But let's dial back the prognostication meter a smidge and focus on a few short-term takeaways from these many tournaments.

    Which teams appear to be in much better/worse shape heading into December? Which players broke out in a big way and who left us wanting more?

    We've got one big takeaway from each of the eight most noteworthy early-season tournaments, as well as a handful of other developments from the various other trips made to Las Vegas, New York City, Florida, Bahamas, etc.

    One important note before we dive in: We're only interested in the early-season tournaments. One-off gamessuch as Villanova at UCLA, Texas at Gonzaga, Gonzaga vs. UCLA and Gonzaga vs. Dukeor neutral-site events without a bracket (Champions Classic) are not included here. But even without those marquee Top 10 showdowns, with nearly 30 early-season tournaments played over the past 10 days, there was no shortage of intrigue.

    Tournaments are listed in no particular order, although we will start off with the biggest.

Hall of Fame Tip-Off: Purdue Is Spectacular; UNC Has a Lot of Work to Do

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    Purdue's Jaden Ivey
    Purdue's Jaden IveyMichael Conroy/Associated Press

    Though it was only a four-team event, there's no question the Hall of Fame Tip Off was the most star-studded of the early season tournaments.

    At the time of the tourney, it was AP No. 6 Purdue vs. No. 17 Tennessee and No. 5 Villanova vs. No. 18 North Carolina. No matter how things played out, we were likely to end up impressed with the champion and at least moderately concerned about the team that went 0-2.

    Purdue held up the first half of that bargain, looking unstoppable in both its 93-84 win over North Carolina and its 80-74 win over Villanova.

    Purdue's 7'4" center Zach Edey didn't even play well in the first game, finishing with nine points, three rebounds and no blocks. He did help get basically North Carolina's entire frontcourt into foul trouble, but Trevion Williams, Jaden Ivey and Sasha Stefanovic did most of the work in that one.

    Each member of that trio went for at least 20 points. Stefanovic added eight assists. Ivey had 10 boards and six dimes and took over midway through the second half with the game knotted at 65-65.

    In the latter game, Purdue scored 39 points in the final 11 minutes, turning a 10-point deficit into a win that we'll be talking about all season. All five starters scored in double figures, but Edey led the way with 21 points in just 20 minutes. 

    Purdue entered the tournament having scored at least 92 points in each game, so neither performance was surprise. But after those two games, it sure seems like there won't be many teams capable of slowing down this eight-man rotation.

    Conversely, we're starting to wonder whether North Carolina can defend against anyone.

    Not only did the Tar Heels allow 93 to Purdue, but also 89 to Tennesseethis after entering the tournament fresh off 94-87 and 94-83 games against Brown and Charleston, respectively. Even in UNC's 72-53 win over UNC-Asheville two days after this tournament, the Bulldogs got plenty of open looks. They're just a dreadful-shooting team.

    The Heels ranked among the top 50 in adjusted defensive efficiency in every season under Roy Williams except for one, with the exception being a 94th-place finish during that disastrous 14-19 campaign two years ago. They are currently 123rd in ADE, and they're also grabbing offensive rebounds at what is by far their worst rate since before Williams was hired.

    They are shooting better than usual, but the start of the Hubert Davis era hasn't been all that great.

Roman Main Event: Arizona Is Back

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    Arizona's Christian Koloko
    Arizona's Christian KolokoEthan Miller/Getty Images

    Things had not been going well for Arizona in recent years, and not just because of its involvement in the FBI investigation. It had been pretty much all downhill since the first-round loss to Buffalo in the 2018 NCAA tournament, and it finally resulted in the termination of head coach Sean Miller this past April.

    In steps longtime Mark Few assistant Tommy Lloyd and, voila, Arizona is back in business.

    After annihilating its first three opponents, Arizona played in the Roman Main Event in Las Vegas. Despite shooting 5-of-27 from three-point range, committing 22 turnovers and blowing a 16-point second-half lead, the Wildcats escaped with an overtime win over Wichita State to set up a championship game matchup with then AP No. 4 Michigan.

    And Arizona laid the smack down on the Wolverines for an 80-62 victory.

    Breakout big man Christian Koloko not only held his own in the paint against Hunter Dickinson, but he basically dominated that head-to-head matchup, finishing with 22 points, seven rebounds and four blocks while Michigan's preseason All-American candidate was held to 11 points. As a team, Arizona shot 29-of-45 (64.4 percent) from inside the arc against Michigan, which had one of the best two-point defenses in the nation while playing its way to a No. 1 seed in last year's NCAA tournament.

    There are serious questions now about whether Michigan is anywhere near as good as we thought it would be. The Wolverines had previously lost a home game to Seton Hall and struggled with Buffalo, and they subsequently beat Tarleton State only 65-54.

    But even if Michigan winds up being a bubble team, Arizona's 18-point win on a neutral court was impressive.

    Much like the previous game against Wichita State, the Wildcats couldn't buy a triple, shooting 4-of-21 from distance. And if they can win games like these while bricking everything from downtown, they're going to be a serious title contender once there's some regression to the mean.

Maui Jim Maui Invitational: Welcome to the Johnny Davis Show

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    Wisconsin's Johnny Davis
    Wisconsin's Johnny DavisRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Even though everyone could have come back for another year, Wisconsin lost four senior starters as well as eighth man Trevor Anderson from last season's team. Thus, with neither a highly touted transfer nor a top-100 recruit joining the roster, there were major questions about whether this could even be a middle-of-the-Big-Ten team in 2021-22.

    Fortunately for the Badgers, Johnny Davis has emerged as an unstoppable force of nature.

    Davis averaged 7.0 points per game last year as a freshman, but he was more of a defensive menace than a scoring threat. He led the Badgers with 34 steals and also had 18 blocks, but he had only one game with more than 12 points.

    He was a scoring machine in the Maui Invitational, though. Davis put up 21 in the opener against Texas A&M, exploded for 30 the following day against Houston and went for 20 in the championship game victory over Saint Mary's.

    In addition to the scoring, Davis averaged 6.7 rebounds and was a major contributor on defense with seven total steals, as well as several charges drawn in the championship game. He was also a perfect 15-of-15 from the free-throw line.

    The Houston game was easily his most impressive, if only because of how impenetrable that Cougars defense usually is. He had 18 points in the first half alone, and then he scored 10 of Wisconsin's final 12 points as the Badgers narrowly avoided blowing a 20-point halftime lead.

    They'll eventually need some other guys to take some off his plate, but it sure feels like Davis could be the type of do-it-all star for a defensive-minded team that Houston's Rob Gray Jr., San Diego State's Xavier Thames or Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick were in years past.

Hall of Fame Classic: The Illini Are Not Who We Thought They Were

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    Illinois' Andre Curbelo
    Illinois' Andre CurbeloAaron Gash/Associated Press

    When Illinois lost by one at Marquette as part of the Gavitt Games on Nov. 15, it didn't feel like that big of a deal. Star big man Kofi Cockburn was out for the third and final game of his three-game suspension, and the Illini coughed the ball up 26 times against the relentless Golden Eagles.

    With Cockburn back for the Hall of Fame Classic, the Illini appeared poised to reassert their preseason status as a title contender. Instead, they got drilled by Cincinnati and didn't look like anything special in the consolation game against Kansas State.

    Against the Bearcats, they were up 23-8 before slipping into an almost impossibly bad shooting funk. They went just 4-for-30 from the field during a stretch of more than 25 minutes in which Cincinnati went on a 53-15 run. Senior starters Trent Frazier and Jacob Grandison shot a combined 0-of-12 from the field in that 71-51 loss.

    In the subsequent game against Kansas State, Cockburn (23 points, 13 rebounds) was the only Illini starter to score more than six points. Worse yet, Frazier left that game with a knee injury, and it is unknown at this point how long he will be out.

    Andre Curbelo is shooting only 30.2 percent from the field and 16.7 percent from three-point range. Even before the injury, Frazier was struggling to make anything. And Da'Monte Williams has taken a gigantic step backward, opening the season 2-of-12 from three-point range after leading the nation at a 54.7 percent clip one year ago.

    Maybe they'll turn things around, because Cockburn has been great since his return to action and second-year big man Coleman Hawkins is enjoying a bit of a breakout year. But the Illini have a lot of work to do before we can take them seriously as so much as a Sweet 16 candidate again.

Battle 4 Atlantis: Baylor Ain't Going Anywhere; Connecticut Is a Lot of Fun

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    Baylor's James Akinjo
    Baylor's James AkinjoTony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    After winning last year's national championship, Baylor lost four of its five starters. Even though the Bears had a strong nine-man rotation during that title run and reloaded with the additions of veteran transfer James Akinjo, 5-star freshman Kendall Brown and 4-star freshman Jeremy Sochan, there were questions about whether they could remain one of the better teams in the country for a third consecutive season. 

    After a 7-0 start to the year that includes winning one of the biggest early-season tournaments, it seems safe to say that Baylor isn't going anywhere any time soon.

    Perhaps most impressive about the Bears mowing through Arizona State, VCU and Michigan State by a combined margin of 37 points to win the Battle 4 Atlantis is that it was a total team effort in each game.

    No Bear scored more than 15 points in a single game, nor did anyone have a double-double. However, each of the eight members of the primary rotation had at least two steals while in the Bahamas, and Sochan was the only one who didn't make at least one field goal in each of the three games. Akinjo was named the MVP, but it might as well have been an eight-way tie.

    And it's too bad we were unable to get a Baylor-Connecticut showdown, because the Huskies were easily the most entertaining team of the tournament.

    Their opener against Auburn went to two overtimes, their semifinal against Michigan State had some wild swings in the second half, and then they won their third-place/consolation game against VCU in another overtime thriller. R.J. Cole averaged 20.0 points, while Adama Sanogo went for 18.0 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks.

    We weren't quite sure what to make of UConn after early blowouts of Central Connecticut, Coppin State, Long Island and Binghamton, but it's looking like this will be a fun challenger to Villanova for the Big East crown.

NIT Season Tip-Off: Not Having a True Point Guard Limits Memphis' Potential

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    Memphis' Penny Hardway and Larry Brown
    Memphis' Penny Hardway and Larry BrownAdam Hunger/Associated Press

    Prior to heading to Brooklyn to partake in the NIT Season Tip-Off, Memphis started out 4-0 with convincing home wins over Tennessee Tech, North Carolina Central, Saint Louis and Western Kentucky. The Tigers overpowered those teams on defense while future NBA lottery picks Jalen Duren and Emoni Bates took turns carrying the offense.

    There was a colossal red flag during that 4-0 start, though: Turnovers.

    Memphis coughed up the ball 17 times in the season opener, and it only got sloppier from there. There were 19 giveaways in the second game, 24 in the third and 26 in the fourth.

    Basically, the Tigers have a ton of talent, but no true point guard. And that came to a head in the championship game against Iowa State in which they had eight assists against 22 turnovers in a 78-59 loss that was never even competitive.

    It isn't a problem with one particular player, either. Nine different Tigers are averaging at least one turnover per game, and four are above 2.5.

    Memphis was also sloppy in the fouls department, resulting in 33 free-throw attempts for the Cyclones. That, too, is nothing new for this team, as it entered the game averaging 21.0 personal fouls and 20.8 free-throw attempts ceded per game.

    Iowa State's 14 offensive rebounds? Also a normal issue thus far for Memphis. Heck, Saint Louis had 23 offensive rebounds against the Tigers two weeks ago.

    It's all just a lack of discipline, which is hard to believe with Larry Brown and Rasheed Wallace flanking Penny Hardaway on that Memphis coaching staff. But it almost seems like they're committed to playing at the fastest tempo in the country, regardless of how many mistakes they make and how much talent they waste along the way.

    If they don't learn how to dial it back a bit, they'll continue to have games where things snowball out of control and they get smoked by an inferior opponent. 

Bahamas Championship: Louisville Might Be the ACC's Top Challenger to Duke

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    Louisville's Malik Williams
    Louisville's Malik WilliamsTimothy D. Easley/Associated Press

    Louisville got out to a rough start to the season. The Cardinals weren't exactly dominant in their opening win over Southern, they subsequently lost at home to Furman and they were tied with Detroit Mercy in the final two minutes before escaping with that W.

    But after a 72-58 win over Mississippi State and a 63-55 win over Maryland in the Bahamas, Louisville seems to be just fine.

    Against the Bulldogs, the Cardinals jumped out to an early 29-12 lead and played great defense despite finishing the night with only five steals and no blocks. It was a 66-38 blowout in the final 10 minutes before the Cards took their foot off the gas.

    Against the Terrapins, Louisville owned the glass, finishing plus-26 in rebound margin to win a game in which the early tip time (10 a.m. ET) seemed to negatively impact both teams' ability to make a jump shot. Fifth-year senior center Malik Williams led the way with 13 points, 12 rebounds and four steals.

    Now they get head coach Chris Mack back after he was suspended for six games to open the season. Mike Pegues did a fine job in his stead to get the Cardinals ready to win the Bahamas Championship, but having the full-time guy back in the saddle should make a difference as they continue to figure out a 10-man rotation in which six of the guys transferred into the program this offseason.

    Could the Cardinals make the leap to No. 2 in the ACC? Sure, why not?

    Duke is clearly the top dog, but that second tier is anyone's guess. North Carolina, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Virginia Tech and Clemson each suffered multiple losses in their early-season tournaments, so it at least temporarily feels like Louisville, Florida State and Virginia are the teams vying for first runner-up to the Blue Devils.

ESPN Events Invitational: It's Going to Be One of Those Years

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    Iona's Elijah Joiner and Alabama's Keon Ellis
    Iona's Elijah Joiner and Alabama's Keon EllisIcon Sportswire/Getty Images

    Heading into the ESPN Events Invitational, it felt like the first two days were going to be a formality before a thrilling battle between No. 4 Kansas and No. 10 Alabama in the championship.

    So, naturally, neither Alabama nor Kansas even made it to the championship game.

    Alabama lost 72-68 to Iona in the first round in a game where the Crimson Tide could not get into their bread and butter. Alabama has attempted at least 20 three-pointers in all but two games since hiring Nate Oats before the 2019-20 season. The exceptions? 17 attempts against Iona on Thursday and 16 attempts against Iona in the first round of the 2021 NCAA tournament.

    Then on Friday, Dayton pulled off arguably the biggest upset of the year thus far, knocking off Kansas 74-73 on Mustapha Amzil's high-arcing bouncer at the buzzer.

    Like Alabama, Kansas shot itself in the foot at the free-throw line, shooting 9-of-20. (Alabama was 13-of-25.) But the Jayhawks also did themselves no favors by going into hibernation on defense early in the second half, allowing the Flyers to score 16 points in the span of seven possessions to flip the game on its head.

    Just like that, two massive Top 10 upsets in less than 24 hours, and we didn't even end up getting Kansas-Alabama in a consolation game. (Dayton beat Belmont in the championship game, by the way.)

    Last year, it was Gonzaga and Baylor at No. 1 and No. 2 in the AP poll for virtually the entire season, and then we ended up getting that game in the national championship. But the ESPN Events Invitational drove home the feeling that has permeated throughout the first few weeks of the regular season: No one is safe on any given night.

A Few Other Takeaways

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    Utah State's Justin Bean
    Utah State's Justin BeanMitchell Layton/Getty Images

    By my count, there were 27 bracketed tournaments in November, and there's simply not enough room to touch on all of them here. But in addition to the eight most noteworthy tournaments, here are a few other thoughts and observations from other events.

               

    Myrtle Beach Invitational: Utah State's Justin Bean might be the biggest mid-major star in the nation. The Aggies lost three of the five starters from last year's NCAA tournament team, most notably big man Neemias Queta. But that evidently just opened the door for Bean to blossom. In the three wins over Penn, New Mexico State and Oklahoma, Utah State's power forward averaged 24.7 points, 14.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.0 steals while shooting 69 percent from the field and 5-of-8 from distance.

    Paradise Jam: Hello, Colorado State. While Utah State got an at-large bid to last year's dance, MWC foe Colorado State just barely missed the cut. But the Rams are looking like an early tourney candidate after consecutive wins over Bradley, Creighton and Northeastern to win the Paradise Jam. David Roddy was sensational with 93 points in the tournament. He was particularly lethal in the 95-81 statement win over Creighton, hitting seven triples en route to 36 points.

    Roman Legends Classic: Virginia's Kadin Shedrick is a name to know. The big man barely played last year as a freshman, but with Jay Huff, Sam Hauser, Trey Murphy and Justin McKoy all out of the picture, Shedrick is now UVA's starting center. He's not much of a scoring threat, but he is a certifiable problem for opposing teams in the defensive paint. In the wins over Georgia and Providence in Newark, Shedrick had a combined total of nine blocks as the Cavaliers limited their competition to 47.5 points per game.

    Charleston Classic: The Bonnies are no joke. St. Bonaventure got out to an inauspicious start to the season, struggling in the first half of wins over Siena and Canisius. Those early woes continued in the form of halftime deficits against both Boise State and Clemson in Charleston. But the Bonnies rallied to win both of those games before just destroying Marquette in the championship. Pivotal big man Osun Osunniyi racked up 27 points, 29 rebounds, 10 blocks and six assists during the tournament. Of course, they turned around and lost at home to Northern Iowa over the weekend, so the jury's still out on whether this team has Sweet 16 potential.

    Fort Myers Tip Off: E.J. Liddell needs some help. Ohio State's 6'7" power forward has been absurdly good through the first six games, averaging 22.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.8 blocks per game. But in spite of Liddell's Herculean efforts, the Buckeyes lost to Xavier before heading to Fort Myers, barely beat Seton Hall and then lost to Florida. No teammate of Liddell's is currently averaging double figures, and Ohio State might finish in eighth place in the Big Ten if that doesn't change.

    Jacksonville Classic: Florida State is going to be just fine. The 71-55 loss to Florida back on the first Sunday of the regular season was a bit alarming, as was the subsequent close call at home against Tulane. But the 'Noles and their ridiculously deep rotation steamrolled Loyola Marymount and Missouri by a combined margin of 51 points.

    Las Vegas Invitational: San Francisco is 8-0 for the first time since 1976. The Dons entered this event with wins over Davidson and Nevada already to their credit, and they proceeded to defeat Towson and UAB in Vegas to keep the undefeated season going. Fifth-year senior leader Jamaree Bouyea had a rare off night against the Blazers while the Dons committed 23 turnovers, but they still managed to get the job done. What an incredible first few weeks of the season it has been for the top half of the West Coast Conference.

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