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Ranking 2018’s Five Best Early-Season Tournaments

In November, new-look squads Villanova and Duke can prove they’re just as good as ever.

The 2017 Battle 4 Atlantis perfectly summed up what early season tournaments mean for college basketball’s powerhouses and fringe teams. They can mean everything, and they can mean nothing.

Villanova handily won that battle, perhaps foreshadowing their dominance during the regular season and the NCAA tournament alike. Likewise, Arizona suffered a first-round loss to NC State, exposing potential weaknesses that would lead to a much more shocking first-round exit from the big dance at the hands of Buffalo. 

While the battle in the Bahamas served as a precursor for Nova’s and Zona’s seasons, it had seemingly no impact for others. Northern Iowa defeated SMU and NC State en route to the title game against Villanova, but failed to even play .500 basketball in the Missouri Valley Conference, finishing 7-11 and 16-16 over all. Similarly, UMBC was routed by Arizona in the early going, but later went on to defeat No. 1 overall seed Virginia in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. 

It’s pretty clear early-season tournaments don’t make or break seasons, but they do give important information about teams under pressure against top-tier talent. 2018’s invitationals are scheduled, and the matchups are infinitely intriguing. 

Based on last season’s performance, strength of schedule, and roster turnover, below are my top-ranked invitationals:

1. Maui Invitational - Nov. 19-21

If Maui isn’t beautiful enough on its own, it’ll be hosting college basketball’s most beautiful early-season tournament. The eight-team field includes Auburn, Xavier, Duke, San Diego State, Arizona, Iowa State, Gonzaga, and Illinois. 

Each team’s 2017 strength of schedule shows why this tournament is going to be exciting. These are experienced squads that for the most part are used to success.

AuburnXavierDukeSDSUArizonaIowa St.GonzagaIllinois
2017 SOS5023139659549875
2017 Quad I Wins65735251

While Xavier has lost its top three scorers from last season and Arizona will need to find five new starters, this is possibly the strongest invitational field I can remember. In the first round, Xavier meets Auburn and Duke meets SDSU in the top half of the bracket. Arizona battles Iowa St. and Gonzaga plays Illinois in the bottom half. 

Auburn / Xavier

Auburn is returning star All-SEC guards Bryce Brown and Jared Harper, who combined for nearly 30 points per game in 2017-18. The Tigers will also have the help of big man and full-time freak athlete Anfernee McLemore, who led the team in blocked shots last season. The Tigers’ up-tempo offense will be a challenge for Xavier’s average defense, especially without the help of big man Kerem Kanter and lockdown defender JP Macura. Auburn will have to do without Moustapha Heron, and Xavier will have a new look without Trevon Bluiett. Neither team had strong recruiting classes for 2018, so this will be a battle of experienced players.

Duke / SDSU

Duke, on the other hand, has itself the “best recruiting class in history” in R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, and Cameron Reddish, according to my colleague Nathan Hiatt. It’s not only logical but also inevitable to assume Duke will thrash SDSU in the first round in Maui, so I’ll leave it at that. At least the Aztecs get a trip to the tropics.

Arizona / Iowa State

Arizona has reloaded with promising top-15 guards in Brandon Williams and the dogmatic Devonaire Doutrive, who sports one of the best names in the biz. Two freshman guards probably won’t bring the Wildcats to a Pac-12 chip, and they will face an Iowa State team that will be hungry and restocked after a terrible 2017 campaign. Freshman point guard phenom Lindell Wigginton, tenacious rebounder Cameron Lard, and powerful finisher Solomon Young should all improve on last year’s performances. If all goes well for Iowa State, Arizona will have their hands full.

Gonzaga / Illinois

After another great season, Gonzaga somehow managed to return NBA prospects Rui Hachimura and Killian Tillie. With Tillie’s near-67% shooting percentage (including 48% from three) and Hachimura’s overall finshing and rebounding abilities, the Zags have a great base to play on. Illinois’ well-rounded recruiting class, including guards Andres Feliz and Ayo Dosunmu, will help them claw out of the basement of the Big 10, but I don’t expect much from them against Gonzaga.

Maui has seen at least one of its competitors go to the Elite Eight or farther for the last eight seasons. That pattern should continue with such a loaded 2018 field, and Duke seems to be that team. I call Blue Devils in college basketball’s best early tourney.

2. Charleston Classic - Nov. 15, 16, 18

In 2017, Temple shocked college hoops fans everywhere by defeating Auburn and Clemson to take the Charleston Classic. The field is a bit top-heavy with Purdue, Alabama, and Wichita State, but Davidson and Virginia Tech are strong competitors in this classic.

Ball St.VA TechAlabamaNortheastern PurdueApp. StateWichita St.Davidson
2017 SOS179893102312913781
2017 Quad I Wins14708    034

Wichita State could carry on the AAC victory chain this year, although it would be less of a surprise than Temple was. The tournament opens with Ball St. and Virginia Tech, then Alabama vs. Northeastern. The lower half pits Purdue against Appalachian St., and Wichita St. against Davidson. What makes this tournament special is its potential semifinal matchups: VA Tech/Bama and Purdue against Wichita St. or Davidson.

VA Tech / Ball St.

Virginia Tech’s opening game against Ball St. shouldn’t be much of a problem for the Hokies’ powerful offense. Point guard Justin Robinson tallied 14 points per game and 5.6 assists per game last year, and shooting guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker shot nearly 40% from deep and is now considered a top-15 NBA draft prospect for 2019. Ball St., on the other hand, failed to crack the top 100 in offensive and defensive efficiency last season, and fell in the first round of the MAC tournament. 

Alabama / Northeastern

This one is also a no-brainer. Big men Donta Hall and Herbert Jones should dominate Northeastern on the boards and around the rim. The two forwards complement each other and make up one of the country’s best frontcourts. Hall put up massive offensive and defensive rebounding rates in 2017 at 11% and 20%, respectively. He also posted an unfathomable 9.3% block rate and shot 72% from the field, establishing himself as one of the best all-around forwards in the game. Jones, though undeveloped, has all the potential in the world. His 3.4% steal rate ranks 62nd in college hoops, and his over-3% block rate is nothing to ignore. Aside from that, Jones needs a bit more rebounding effort and strength at the rim, and he’ll be an NBA prospect in no time. With the return of guards Dazon Ingram and John Petty and the addition of four-star point guard Jared Butler, Bama has all the pieces to demolish the smaller Northeastern and meet Virginia Tech in the semi-finals.

Purdue / Appalachian St.

Ah, yet another first-round no-brainer. Even without Isaac Haas, Vincent Edwards, and Dakota Matthias, the Boilermakers look like they’ll be in good shape in 2018. Carsen Edwards, now the second-best point guard in the nation behind Cassius Winston, is returning with his 18.5 PPG, 20% assist rate, and sweet three-point stroke. Seven-footer Haas will be replaced by Matt Haarms, a 7-foot-3 blocking machine with a little offensive work to do. The return of projected 2019 lottery pick Nojel Eastern and the addition of Darthmouth grad transfer Evan Boudreaux and four-star freshman Eric Hunter give Purdue little to worry about. If anyone’s worried, it should be Appalachian State, which played bad offense and even worse defense in a sub-.500 campaign in the Sun Belt Conference last season. Oh, and whoever plays the Boilermakers in the semifinals should be scared, too.

Wichita St. / Davidson

Finally, an exciting quarterfinal matchup! After Davidson’s narrow loss to Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and Wichita State’s major upset loss to Marshall in the same round, both teams will be looking to make it back to the dance without key pieces. The absence of Landry Shamet, Shaquille Morris, and Conner Frankamp and the transfer of Austin Reaves leaves the Shockers without many options besides senior Markis McDuffie. Davidson, however, will be returning three starters, most importantly including point guard Jon Axel Gudmonsson and the A10 ROY Kellan Grady. Wichita will try to counter Davidson’s experience with their new junior point guard, JUCO All-American transfer Ricky Torres, who put up 17 points and eight assists per game at Missouri State Western Plains. Ultimately, I think Davidson’s high-powered offense overcomes Wichita’s shoddy defense, but either way this should be an exciting grind-it-out game between two mid-majors looking to prove something. 

Ultimately, the second round of this tournament will be intriguing no matter what happens. I predict Virginia Tech shows the country they can ball, and shakes up the early ACC rankings with a couple wins over solid opponents.

3. Battle 4 Atlantis - Nov. 21-23

The fight for the mythical island of Atlantis will be an exciting one. The eight-team field boasts an accomplished lineup which has endless potential. On one end, there is the outright No. 1 seed from last year’s NCAA tournament, and on the other you have a solid Dayton team who couldn’t put it together. 

VirginiaFloridaWisconsinButlerOklahomaMid. Tennessee St.DaytonStanford
2017 SOS1527301929745742
2017 Quad I Wins129256312

Virginia / Florida

The Cavaliers were on the wrong side of history in the last game they played, losing in a blowout to the 16-seed UMBC Retrievers in the first round of the tourney. Returning stars Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, and DeAndre Hunter are working to make sure that won’t happen again. The trio combined for 34 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 6.5 assists per game in 2017-18. Between Hunter’s rebounding, Guy’s 40% three-point conversion rate, Jerome’s 26% assist rate and their collective ability to finish at the rim, this is the best guard corps in the country. Florida counters with guards Jalen Hudson and KeVaugh Allen, although they will sorely miss floor general Chris Chiozza and Egor Koulechov’s leadership and talents. Hudson brings to the table a beautiful jumpshot and a knack for avoiding turnovers. Allen brings with him superb court vision and one of the nation’s best free-throw shots, converting 90% on more than three fouls drawn per 40 minutes. I don’t think the Gators without Chiozza have what it takes to overcome the Cavaliers, but this will be a great defensive matchup between two equal-sized sets of guards.

Wisconsin / Butler

There’s one thing you need to know about the 2018 Wisconsin Badgers: Ethan Happ is back. Not far from averaging a 20-point double-double as a junior, Happ is the most well-rounded big man (and perhaps overall player) in the nation. While taking more than a third of his team’s shots, the Badger big man sports a 25% DReb rate, 33.3% assis rate, records a block or steal on more than six percent of defensive possessions, and draws nearly seven fouls per game. These numbers, they’re not…fair. With gritty point guard Brad Davidson and high-flying forward Khalil Iverson, the Badgers will exceed their 15-18 record from a year ago. Butler finds itself in the opposite position: do-it-all forward Kelan Martin (21.2 PPG, 6.3 RPG) is gone. Luckily, the Bulldogs will be returning the other four starters, including ferocious guard Kamar Baldwin (15.7 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 3.2 APG) and spot-up shooter Sean McDermott (43% 3-pt.). Considering Butler’s experience and strength of schedule in the Big East, I like them to beat Wisconsin somewhat easily. 

Oklahoma / Middle Tennessee St.

The Sooners are looking to improve on a 6-13 finish from last year and with their incoming talent it shouldn’t be too difficult. Trae Young, although exciting, led the Sooners  into sloppy plays, and his quick trigger landed the Sooners with the second-shortest average possession time in the nation last season. Now, they are heading in the opposite direction with experienced, mature transfer guards Aaron Calixte and Mike Reynolds, who will show incoming freshman point guard Jamal Bieniemy the ropes. Oklahoma made solid additions and is returning multiple starters, while Middle Tennessee graduated three starters. Since Middle Tennessee is losing their top three all-around producers, Oklahoma seems like the no-brainer pick here. 

Dayton / Stanford

The Dayton Flyers underperformed in a stacked A10 Conference last season, and it doesn’t look any better for this one. Despite signing four-star combo guard Dwayne Cohill, the Flyers most likely won’t make a dramatic jump in production, especially after losing Kostas Antetekuonmpo to the NBA. This team’s only upside is their age, having two freshman starters and one sophomore from last year. Still, Stanford has the edge here after an impressive freshman campaign from point guard Daejon Davis and the addition of incoming freshman combo guard Cormac Ryan. Reid Travis established himself as a premiere forward who rebounds relentlessly and draws loads of fouls, though unfortunately for the Cardinal he’s taken his talents to Kentucky. I still expect Stanford to win this matchup and give Oklahoma all it can handle in the semifinals.

This is all speculation, but Virginia and Butler’s semifinal matchup has the potential to be one of the better games all season, and Stanford vs. Oklahoma is an interesting Big-12/Pac-12 battle. I like this tournament for producing a few solid tournament teams. Virginia, Butler, and Oklahoma can prove they belong back in the tournament by kicking off the season the right way. In the end, I’m going with the upset: Butler wins this invitational, and as a side note Stanford proves they can play.

4. Las Vegas Invitational - Nov. 22-23

The adage “good things come in small packages” applies here. See for yourself how stacked this four-team field is:

UCLAMichigan StateNorth CarolinaTexas
2017 SOS5388121
2017 Quad I Wins33136

All four teams saw tournament action last year, and they should return this year.

UCLA / Michigan State

Both the UCLA Bruins and the Michigan State Spartans had disappointing exits from the NCAA tournament more than four months ago. They’ll have to do without key players this year, but they have more than enough talent to compensate. The Spartans, while losing Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr., retained NBA-caliber players power forward Nick Ward and point guard Cassius Winston. Winston is unrivaled. He shoots 70% from the field and 50% (yes, 50) from deep. He has a 44% assist rate, the second-highest mark of any player. Not to mention he shoots 90% from the charity stripe. He’s a dream come true. Ward complements Winston’s offense with the nation’s best offensive rebounding mark. The Spartans will have the advantage in this one since Bruins point guard Aaron Holiday turned pro and Thomas Welsh and Gygy Golomon graduated. The Spartans’ top-10 defense and returning talent will ultimately be too much for the Bruins’ returning players. Even though the Bruins have the nation’s sixth-best incoming recruiting class, the Spartans’ experience is too much. Spartans in this one, all day.

North Carolina / Texas

Losing Joel Berry and Theo Pinson definitely won’t help the Tar Heels’ case in this mini-tournament, but they certainly have other options. Luke Maye is back after averaging a double-double in 2017-2018. Kenny Williams is back. Big man Sterling Manley is back, as is Cameron Johnson. The Heels also signed 247Sports five-star players Nassir Little(SF) and Coby White (SG). These games will be  important for gauging how the new and old Tar Heels will gel this season, especially against top-notch competition. Texas is in the opposite situation, returning all but Mo Bamba. Dylan Osetkowski will again be the center of this top-15 defensive team and if cancer survivor Andrew Jones is healthy, this team has a shot at running the table in the Big 12. While I think North Carolina is a more poised team, I say Texas stirs up the early-season rankings by stealing this game in Vegas. I like the Texas defense over the North Carolina offense.

Michigan State is going to take Vegas. That’s all, thank you. But seriously, Michigan State seems to have the competitive edge over everyone, with the 17th-ranked recruiting class. They’ve added 6-foot-10 power forward Marcus Bingham Jr., who will be a key component to filling the massive hole left by JJJ. With Winston, Joshua Langford, and Matt McQuaid up top and Ward and Bingham Jr. down low, this should be another phenomenal year for the Spartans, and the Vegas Invitational is a first big step.

5. Advocare Invitational - Nov. 22, 23, 25

The Advocare Invitational has a reputation as one of the better November showcases. The last five champions are West Virginia, Gonzaga, Xavier, Kansas, and Memphis. This year, the field will include defending champion Villanova, Canisius, Oklahoma State, Memphis, The College of Charleston, LSU, UAB, and Florida State. Here’s how their 2017 numbers stack up:

VillanovaCanisiusOK StateMemphisCharlestonLSUUABFlorida St.
2017 SOS5258641262004818758
2017 Quad I Wins150521509

Villanova / Canisius

Okay, this isn’t the most exciting matchup, but it will be a good early look at the defending champs without Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman. While players like those are hard to come by, the Wildcats have held on to all-around forward Eric Paschall and solid guard Phil Booth. Collin Gillespie also made a few starts as a freshman, so the Cats are not without experienced players. They’ve also added Jahvon Quinerly, a five-star player with insane hangtime, handles, a sweet jumper and finishing ability. I hesitate to say he can be Brunson 2.0, but he can be Brunson 2.0. But wait — that’s not all. Four-star power forward Cole Swider is also in the mix now, and should be an important addition in the post-Spellman era. This young team is exciting, and they’ll have no problem manhandling a poor Canisius team under Coach Jay Wright. The Wildcats are the clear favorites to take this tournament.

Oklahoma State / Memphis

Oklahoma State very well could have been selected for the NCAA tournament ahead of in-state rival Oklahoma last year, but they weren’t. And now they may have missed their chance at something special. Starters Jeffery Carroll, Kendall Smith, and Mitchell Solomon, who provided much of the Cowboys’ production, have graduated. Guards Brandon Averette and Lindy Waters make a solid backcourt for the season, but besides Waters’ consistent jump shot they both lack serious offensive ability. The Cowboys added some three-star frontcourt depth, but I don’t expect this squad to exceed last season’s accomplishments. Memphis, however, is looking to build off an underwhelming 2017 campaign despite finishing 21-13. The Tigers only lost one starter, and return a load of talented juniors and freshman. The addition of Coach Penny Hardaway will also rejuvenate this squad, which was one of the best rebounding teams in the nation a year ago. I like the Tigers to make a statement here, and go on to make the tournament after a disappointing 2017.

College of Charleston / LSU

Coming off their first NCAA tournament berth in school history, the Charleston Cougars will be missing their conference tournament hero Joe Chealey. However, they will return the majority of their players. Guard Grant Riller will lead the team, which was very good at two things last season: being careful with the ball, and forcing turnovers. Unless they find more magic, though, the Cougars will fall to the Tigers and point guard Tremont Waters. LSU, despite struggling in a stronger SEC last season, have made absolute money moves. They’ve signed power forwards Nazreon Reid and Emmitt Williams, both top-50 players. The Tigers also got guards Ja’Vonte Smart, Marlon Taylor, and Danya Kingsby, who are all top-35 players, per 247Sports. This recruiting class, under the leadership of Waters, has the potential to dethrone Auburn, Tennessee and Kentucky atop the SEC. I’ll take the Tigers all day in this one, seeing as they have more talent than they know what to do with. Freshman will play critical roles for this Tigers squad, which might take some getting used to, but I have faith this will be a tournament team again.

UAB / Florida State

After reaching the Elite Eight last season, Florida State is returning the majority of its talent but did little in terms of 2018 commits. Still, their length and athleticism will make them a solid contender in the ACC again. CJ Walker and Terance Mann have all the talent, but they’ll have to find a way to produce and get forward Mfiondu Kabengele involved. More importantly though, the Seminoles’ leading scorer Phil Cofer is returning for a fifth year after receiving a medical redshirt season. A presence on both sides of the ball, Cofer will stabilize the Seminoles’ lineup with 13 points, five rebounds per game, and a 38% three-point clip. UAB is a fairly young team that can score, but Chris Cokley (KenPom’s 63rd-best offensive player) graduated, so there’s a void to fill. The Blazers signed guard Tavin Lovan, but he won’t be able to match Cokley’s production, and he certainly won’t be able to handle Florida State’s length or experience. Noles win this one, and lose to the young guns at LSU in the second round.

This tournament is about young and exciting players on powerhouse teams. Ultimately, the second round should have Villanova playing Memphis and LSU playing Florida State. A Villanova vs. LSU final would be exciting, and could set the tone for either team moving forward. Still, I’ll take the Wildcats to keep rolling like they’ve done for three seasons now.

Edited by Emily Berman.

When did LSU last make the NCAA tournament?
Created 8/1/18
  1. 1998
  2. 2003
  3. 2009
  4. 2015

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