Ranking the 10 Best Early-Season College Basketball Tournaments in 2014-15
With college basketball's nonconference schedules for the 2014-15 season being gradually released to the public, it felt like an appropriate time to figure out which early-season tournaments will be most worthy of watching.
Last year's early-season tournaments were chocked full of surprises.
Villanova upset both Kansas and Iowa in the Battle 4 Atlantis. San Diego State announced its candidacy as a powerhouse for the season by besting both Creighton and Marquette in The Wooden Legacy. And Charlotte somehow won a Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament that still doesn't make any sense eight months after the fact.
We have no idea what this year's tournaments have in store for us, but we do know which ones we'll be watching unfold with eyes glued to the TV.
Emerald Coast Classic (Nov. 28-29 in Niceville, Florida)
This one features two teams who were great last season but might be pretty awful this year (Cincinnati and Creighton), a team that was the definition of average last year but could be one of the four best teams in the SEC this year (Ole Miss) and an above-average mid-major squad that lost its four leading scorers this summer (Middle Tennessee State).
Regardless of who wins, it'll be a means of announcing that team is ready to compete this year.
CBE HOF Classic (Nov. 24-25 in Kansas City, Missouri)
It's lightly better than the Emerald Coast Classic but hardly appointment-viewing television. Iowa State is the alpha dog in a four-team field that also includes Alabama, Arizona State and Maryland—each of which could potentially find itself on the bubble at points throughout the year.
If we included the non-bracketed games in the ranking consideration, the CBE HOF Classic would crack into the top 10. Georgia State at Iowa State on Nov. 17 is arguably the most intriguing game to that point in the season.
Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 20-23 in Bayamon, Puerto Rico)
Though it would be nice to see the defending national champs in action, this eight-team field is pretty unappealing aside from Connecticut. Boston College, Texas A&M and West Virginia were all afflicted by the transfer market, and New Mexico lost all three of its best players from last season.
Dayton is the only legitimate challenger in the field, and the Flyers are without four of their six leading scorers from the run to the 2014 Elite Eight. The Huskies might be the only team in this tournament that makes it to the real tournament.
Barclays Center Classic (Nov. 28-29 in Brooklyn, New York)
This one is Virginia, a La Salle team that might be competitive in the Atlantic 10 and a pair of teams that could finish in last place in their respective major conferences (Rutgers and Vanderbilt).
I don't know if this one even belongs in the honorable mentions—because Virginia should win the games that it plays by at least 15 points each—but it needed to be pointed out that the Barclays Center Classic is actually the worst of the three tournaments being played at the Barclays Center.
10. Orlando Classic
Who: Kansas, Michigan State, Georgia Tech, Marquette, Tennessee, Rhode Island, Rider, Santa Clara
When: Nov. 27-30
Where: Lake Buena Vista, Florida
KUSports.com did a fantastic job of summing up the bulk of the field in this tournament, saying "KU to be joined by Michigan State, six other teams in Florida event."
A championship game between the Jayhawks and the Spartans would be one of the best end results that we could get from any of these 20-plus early-season tournaments.
But let's be brutally honest: If Kansas and Michigan State don't meet at some point in this tournament, it's a complete waste of time.
Tennessee had a nice little run toward the end of last season, but the Volunteers lost four of their five leading scorers and most of their top recruits when Cuonzo Martin bolted for California. Even if they manage to be respectable by the time SEC play rolls around, it's pretty hard to believe they'll be in peak form by the end of November.
Marquette is in the exact same boat as Tennessee, minus the part about actually being good at the end of last season.
Santa Clara may well be the third-best team in this field, and that's anything but a vote of confidence in the Broncos.
At least a weak field enhances the chances of Kansas and Michigan State getting to the finals, but it doesn't give us much of a reason to tune in before that championship game.
9. Gulf Coast Showcase
Who: Evansville, Florida Gulf Coast, Green Bay, East Carolina, Fresno State, San Francisco, Marist, one TBA
When: Nov. 24-26
Where: Fort Myers, Florida
I'll forgive you for not caring about this tournament in November, as it doesn't feature a single team expected to be ranked in the AP Top 25—unless that TBA team ends up being a big surprise like Harvard.
But I promise you will hear more about the results of this tournament in February and March than any other being played.
The top tournaments on this list may well have "Final Fours" that are made up entirely of teams that advance to the Sweet 16 this March, but it's not like the top teams in those fields are expected to be anywhere near the bubble.
Let's put it this way: If you hear about the Battle 4 Atlantis in late February, it'll be as part of the discussion for teams like Florida, North Carolina or Wisconsin to be a No. 1 seed. When you hear about the Gulf Coast Showcase, it'll be used as one of the primary arguments for Green Bay, Evansville or Florida Gulf Coast to steal an at-large bid should they falter in their respective conference tournaments.
For a team like Florida Gulf Coast, three wins in this tournament could end up being their best RPI victories of the season. With Mercer gone from the Atlantic Sun, there certainly won't be many marquee conference victories for the Eagles to grab.
There could also be a similar effect for East Carolina, Fresno State or San Francisco. Neither is expected to win its kind-of-major conference, but winning the Gulf Coast Showcase could be a nice early boost that puts them just a few key wins away from sneaking into the tournament discussion.
8. Diamond Head Classic
Who: Wichita State, Nebraska, Colorado, George Washington, DePaul, Hawaii, Loyola Marymount, Ohio
When: Dec. 22-25
Where: Honolulu, Hawaii
Negative points for the Diamond Head Classic for being played a month after all the other early-season tournaments, but bonus points for being virtually the only college basketball games played between Dec. 21-26.
Also, kudos to this tournament for seriously ramping up the competition after a very lackluster field last December. Iowa State was the only team to make the NCAA tournament, and Saint Mary's was the only one to play in the NIT—even though the Gaels went 0-3 in the DHC.
Wichita State is pretty much a guarantee to dance again this March, and there's little reason to doubt Nebraska's ability to get back there after losing very little from last year's team.
What really decides how good this tournament can be, though, is the strength of both Colorado and George Washington.
The Buffaloes lost Spencer Dinwiddie, but every other player of minor consequence is back for another season. They should absolutely finish in the top third of the Pac-12 standings, and this will be the final warm-up test before that gauntlet. Winning the Diamond Head Classic could be a springboard to a second-place finish behind Arizona.
The Colonials lose two important players from last year's team, but so does virtually every other team in the A-10. With Saint Louis, Saint Joseph's and Massachusetts each barely resembling the roster it sent to the 2014 NCAA tournament, it's pretty unlikely that the A-10 sends half a dozen teams dancing again this season.
This Diamond Head Classic may well be George Washington's best chance (conference or nonconference) to prove that it deserves to be one of the three or four A-10 teams in the NCAA tournament. A 3-0 finish wouldn't guarantee the Colonials a bid, but a 1-2 or 0-3 finish could be a death knell.
But here's hoping for a championship game between the Shockers and the Cornhuskers. Between Tim Miles raising Nebraska from the ashes and Gregg Marshall leading Wichita State to the first undefeated regular season in more than a decade, these were two of the easiest-to-root-for teams over the course of last season.
7. Las Vegas Invitational
Who: Baylor, Illinois, Memphis, Indiana State
When: Nov. 27-28
Where: Las Vegas, Nevada
Probably not a single team that will open the season ranked in the AP Top 25, but three of the four will certainly be in the running to eventually get there.
Despite five straight seasons with at least 13 losses, expectations for Illinois are the highest of the bunch. The Illini enter the season with six guards that could each legitimately start at 96 percent of schools in the country.
But will they be mentally tough enough to break the string of three straight seasons below .500 in the Big Ten? An 8-10 record with a pair of wins in the Las Vegas Invitational might be enough to get them into the tournament, but coming out flat in these neutral-court games could be a sign of troubling times ahead.
Memphis has been a staple in the NCAA tournament over the past nine seasons, failing to go dancing just once during that stretch, but head coach Josh Pastner lost his entire quartet of senior guards and could be headed for a rebuilding season.
The Tigers didn't make the tournament by much last season as a No. 8 seed, and now they're going from all of the senior leadership in the world to a starting backcourt likely made up of some combination of players who have never played a Division I game. Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols are solid forwards, but this tournament might be the start of a very trying year.
Last but not least, who knows what to expect from Baylor? The Bears lost Isaiah Austin, Brady Heslip and Cory Jefferson, leaving three spots in the starting rotation very much up for grabs. This tournament should be our first extended look at what head coach Scott Drew will have to work with this season.
6. Maui Invitational
Who: Arizona, Kansas State, San Diego State, Pittsburgh, BYU, Missouri, Purdue, Chaminade
When: Nov. 24-26
Where: Lahaina, Hawaii
The Maui Invitational is annually one of the best early-season tournaments, despite dedicating 12.5 percent of its field to a Division II host school.
But even though there will be a very legitimate national title contender making the trip to Hawaii in November, the field leaves something to be desired this year.
Arizona will be great. The Wildcats should win this tournament without much difficulty. And the other Wildcats (Kansas State) could conceivably be the team that finally knocks Kansas from its Big 12 throne.
However, those might be the only two teams that make the 2015 NCAA tournament.
San Diego State has a solid incoming recruiting class, but life without Xavier Thames and Josh Davis won't be easy. Pittsburgh could be in similarly dire straits without Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna.
BYU is Tyler Haws and not much else, Purdue lost its starting backcourt without getting much else in return and Missouri is a dumpster fire relying way too heavily on transfers and freshmen in the inaugural season of one of the most surprising hires of the summer.
The "bottom six" teams aren't quite as dreadful as in the Orlando Classic, but anything other than Arizona vs. Kansas State in the finals will be borderline unwatchable.
5. 2K Sports Classic
Who: Texas, Iowa, Syracuse, California
When: Nov. 20-21
Where: Madison Square Garden
Texas is pretty clearly the favorite in this four-team field, but it will be very interesting to see what these other three teams look like one week into the 2014-15 campaign.
The offseason has been one tough blow after another for California. Mike Montgomery retired shortly after the end of the season. Ricky Kreklow announced his intentions to transfer (landing at Creighton, in the end) in late April. And last week it was revealed that Kameron Rooks had surgery for a torn ACL and will very likely miss the entire season.
It's not like the Golden Bears started the summer in great shape, either, losing leading scorer Justin Cobbs and leading rebounder Richard Solomon to graduation. Head coach Cuonzo Martin will have his work cut out for him.
Syracuse is also dealing with a lot of turnover after losing C.J. Fair, Tyler Ennis and Jerami Grant—not to mention the eternal uncertainty of whether Dajuan Coleman will be healthy enough to play. The Orange's two (semi-home) games in this tournament will be a brief glimpse into whether they'll have what it takes to contend for a top-four spot in the ACC.
(Underrated subplot: Syracuse is 66-1 in November and December over the past five years. It sure would be something if Jim Boeheim suffered two losses just seven days into the season.)
And what is Iowa going to look like without Roy Devyn Marble around to attempt 22 percent of the team's field goals? Aaron White will need to step up in a big way if the Hawkeyes are going to even sniff the NCAA tournament again.
4. NIT Season Tip-Off
Who: Gonzaga, Minnesota, Georgia, St. John's
When: Nov. 26 and 28
Where: Madison Square Garden
With the arrival of Kyle Wiltjer and Byron Wesley, hopes for Gonzaga's 2014-15 season are sky high. Adding a pair of bona fide scorers to a rotation that already included Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and Przemek Karnowski should be a recipe for success.
The Zags might suffer fewer than four losses all season, but there's a decent chance that one of them occurs on this trip to the East Coast.
Building on a 2014 NIT title, Minnesota is the sleeper du jour. Between Andre Hollins, Deandre Mathieu, Maurice Walker and Elliott Eliason, the Golden Gophers just might have the best collection of seniors in the country.
Georgia didn't get a whole lot of respect for going 12-6 in the SEC last season—going 0-3 against Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee and losing by an average of 22.0 points per game didn't help its case—but the Bulldogs return each of their five leading scorers and really need to be considered a candidate to make the NCAA tournament this year.
And while we're on the subject of teams that ought to be better than last season, St. John's just might be able to win these games played on the Red Storm's home court. With D'Angelo Harrison, Rysheed Jordan and JUCO transfer Keith Thomas leading the way, Steve Lavin's team should finally get back to the Big Dance.
Gonzaga will be the favorite, but truly any of these four teams could win.
3. Coaches vs. Cancer Classic
Who: Duke, Stanford, Temple, UNLV
When: Nov. 21-22
Where: Brooklyn, New York
This field has a little bit of everything.
First, you've got Duke. The Blue Devils are reloading with one of the best recruiting classes in the country and are considered one of the three or four biggest favorites to win the national championship. Twitter rejoices any time Mike Krzyzewski loses a game, but should he fail to win this tournament, it'll cause quite the mid-November college basketball earthquake.
Duke's likely opponent in the championship game is Stanford and former Duke assistant coach Johnny Dawkins. Tough to gauge where the Cardinal belong in the national hierarchy of the top 40 teams, but Chasson Randle and Anthony Brown against Tyus Jones, Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon could be a boatload of fun.
Temple dropped off the face of the earth last season with a 9-22 record, but the Owls and Fran Dunphy will be looking to reignite another streak of six consecutive seasons with at least 20 wins. They don't need to beat Duke to prove they mean business this year in the AAC, but they might need to have a good showing in the game just to prove to themselves that they're not at bad as last season.
And then there's UNLV. The Rebels lost all five of their top scorers from last season, even though only one was a senior. Bryce Dejean-Jones and Deville Smith transferred, while Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith declared for the NBA draft.
Dave Rice has a great incoming recruiting class and a pair of returning players who were in the ESPN 100 last summer, but this is an incredibly young team that could either be a trainwreck in November or could use the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic as early proof that it's ready to dominate the Mountain West Conference.
2. Legends Classic
Who: Michigan, Oregon, VCU, Villanova
When: Nov. 24-25
Where: Brooklyn, New York
When these four schools were selected as the hosts back in March, the Legends Classic had a legitimate shot at being No. 1 on this list. But then Michigan and Oregon lost just about the entirety of their rosters for one reason or another.
Both the Ducks and the Wolverines should still be in good shape for a NCAA tournament berth, but this is no longer a battle between four of the 20 best teams in the country.
Still, it's pretty hard to argue with this star-studded field.
The four teams have combined to average 26.6 wins per season over the past two years, and that might be a low estimate for what to expect from Villanova and VCU this year.
The Wildcats lose James Bell, but Jay Wright will still have a very strong seven-man rotation before even accounting for any incoming freshmen. Similarly, the Rams will be without Juvonte Reddic but will still unquestionably be the team to beat in the A-10 with Treveon Graham and Briante Weber leading the charge.
Michigan will have one of the best backcourts in the nation, while Oregon may have the player who leads that same nation in scoring (Joe Young).
There will be no shortage of intrigue in this tournament—including before it even really begins.
Bucknell, Detroit, Florida Atlantic and Toledo will each play road games against two of the four host schools. They may well go a combined 0-8 in those affairs, but it certainly won't be eight blowouts.
Whichever teams draw Toledo (27-7 last year) will have their hands full. And Florida Atlantic may have been a 10-22 team last season, but the Owls add a nice recruit in former Tennessee commit C.J. Turman and could make a little noise against a team like Oregon or Michigan with big question marks in the paint.
1. Battle 4 Atlantis
Who: Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida, Oklahoma, UCLA, Georgetown, Butler, UAB
When: Nov. 26-28
Where: Paradise Island, Bahamas
Not only is the Battle 4 Atlantis the best early-season tournament, but I'll go so far as to say I would rather re-watch a recording of these 12 games than watch a live airing of any other tournament taking place.
We don't know what the bracket looks like yet, but let's just assume that the teams are loosely seeded based on preseason expectations in the descending order listed above.
Oklahoma vs. UCLA as an opening-round game is insane. I haven't taken the time yet to do an offseason projected bracket (soon, though), but both of those teams should be headed for single-digit seeds in the No. 5 to 8 vicinity. It's a borderline Sweet 16 pairing, and it's between the fourth- and fifth-best teams in this field.
Florida vs. North Carolina as a semifinal might be even more absurd. That's a battle between two teams looking like No. 2 seeds in March. And in the other semifinal, it should be Wisconsin against Oklahoma.
Save for maybe Kansas vs. Michigan State in the Orlando Classic, each projected semifinal of the Battle 4 Atlantis is better than any possible championship game pairing in any other tournament.
(The tragedy of the matter is that those outstanding semifinal games will be played on Thanksgiving Day. Either they're early enough in the day to have to compete with the NFL for viewers or late enough in the day that we've all already slipped into a coma from spending the entire day binge-eating turkey and stuffing.)
And then those great semifinals get capped off with what should be a slobberknocker of a championship game. Whoever emerges from this field 3-0 has to be considered one of the favorites to win the 2015 national championship.
Unless it's UAB. If the Blazers win this thing, just go ahead and brace yourself for another outrageously unpredictable season of college basketball.
We wouldn't want it any other way.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.