The College Basketball season is officially underway. However, aside from the Champion’s Classic there has not been too much to get excited about. Day after day a Power Five school beats down on some poor Mid-Major (unless you’re Indiana), rarely giving us any semblance of a close game or upset.
As I watch blowout after blowout I find myself longing for conference play. Duke versus UNC, Arizona versus UCLA, and Kentucky versus Florida are just some of the marquee match-ups we see yearly. Unfortunately we still have to wait almost a month for those games to start, but luckily for us this week happens to be Thanksgiving; a time for family, food, football, and above all early-season basketball tournaments.
Every year some of the sport’s best teams get paired in tournaments as the first real test of what their squad has to offer. The Maui Invitational, Battle 4 Atlantis, and Hall of Fame Classic are just some of the brackets we look forward to seeing annually. 2017 is different though. This year is Phil Knight’s 80th birthday and so Nike is hosting a tournament featuring the best schools to ever be sponsored by the swoosh.
**Note: Knight’s birthday is actually in February 2018 but let’s ignore that**
This is the most stacked early season tournament to ever exist. Fourteen of the most prestigious programs (plus Portland and Portlant St.) will battle it out over the weekend. Nine of the teams involved have won the NCAA tournament before. Thirteen have made at least one Final Four, and nine of the last thirteen national champions are in the field. Five of the schools are currently in the AP Top 25 including numbers one and two: Duke and Michigan State.
It goes without saying but this bracket has the best resume of any early season tournament in existence. A tournament of this size and caliber has never been seen before and may never happen again.
Split into two separate brackets with eight teams each, the tournament will see two winners, one for each bracket. Unfortunately due to rules regarding conference foes facing each other, the winners of the brackets will not face off in a championship game. Instead the winners of each bracket (“Motion” and “Victory“) will both go home as champions.
This is especially disappointing considering there was a good chance we could see an exciting Champion’s Classic rematch. Duke is the favorite in the Motion bracket while Michigan State could claim the crown in Victory. Both are possible Final Four contenders so to see them play twice in two weeks would have been a treat. The other match-ups should more than compensate for the lack of a true champion though.
First Round Matchups
Arkansas and Oklahoma will face off in the opening round. Oklahoma is still recovering from their down season last year but freshman guard Trae Young could help carry them back to glory. Arkansas was a powerhouse in the 90’s but seems to have fallen off in recent years. They do appear to be on the upswing however, finishing third in the SEC and making the second weekend of the tournament last season. This will be a Big 12/SEC battle you won’t want to miss.
Speaking of historically successful teams in a slump, Oregon and UConn also play each other Thursday. The Oregon Ducks made their first Final Four since 1939 last year. The departure of four of their five starters hurt them this season but they are still a consensus top 30 team. Payton Pritchard is a promising point guard who will carry the team throughout most of his sophomore campaign.
UConn is an anomaly in itself. Coming off their first losing season since the 80’s, the Huskies have a large chip on their shoulder. They return two key players in Terry Larrier and Alterique Gilbert who missed last season due to injury. Junior guard Jalen Adams is also drawing comparisons to star UConn guards of the past like Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier. Despite barely being a top 60 Kenpom team, do not count this UConn squad out. They come at you hungry when you least expect it, shocking the world in the process (see 2011 and 2014). It will by all means be an interesting fight.
Moving over to the Motion bracket, the most evenly paired match-up seems to be Texas versus Butler. Texas is in their third season under Shaka Smart who has been underwhelming at best, but the addition of top ten center Mo Bamba will see that the Longhorns have a better paint presence than last season. Do not sleep on this Texas team.
Butler is much more questionable. The departure of coach Chris Holtmann to Ohio State leaves many wondering how the Bulldogs will compete. In their first few games Butler has won three of four with an impressive win over Princeton. The only loss of their season came at Maryland who is expected to finish in the top four of the B1G. Overall neither team seems like they are national title contenders, but it is still early and both haven’t faced much real competition. In my opinion this is basically a pick-em game with maybe a slight edge going to Texas.
Final Analysis: WATCH THIS TOURNAMENT!!!
There are many thrilling matchups coming over the next few days. If the favorites are not upset, we could see potential games like Michigan St./UNC and Gonzaga/Florida in the following rounds. PK80 tips at 11:30 AM PST on Thanksgiving day. If you’re looking forward to good basketball as much as I am, you know what tournament to watch.