On Wednesday, Mizzou flies south to Florida in what’s become an annual pilgrimage for almost any high-major program: a neutral floor tournament.
Feast Week, an actually apt piece of ESPN marketing, is perhaps second only to Championship Week—or at least to those of us who care deeply about how autobids are portioned out.
We can also indulge without having to dip into Vacation time, and—based on pure carbohydrate consumption, sweatpants are encouraged attire.
In Orlando, Mizzou’s quarry is a quality win, ideally over West Virginia.
The rest of the Tigers’ non-conference schedule is scant on them, putting added pressure on the SEC docket for building an NCAA tournament profile.
In a perfect world, MU might draw a bubble team in St. John’s, currently 45th in KenPom, and a tilt against a Big 12 contender in the Mountaineers. Or they could go crashing into the loser’s bracket where they might meet a Big Ten also-ran in Nebraska.
Last week, we lamented the slow die-off of marquee home games in non-conference play. Well, the events that we love this week are the chief tool of their demise.
A decade or so ago, the killed the “four-in-two” rule, allowing teams to participate in “multi-team events” like the AdvoCare Invitational every year. With that change, the Maui Invitational and preseason NIT had company. We’ve seen the booming proliferation of tournaments from coast-to-coast, including those that involve campus sites, which keep expenses down and allow a Power Five program to brutalize a low-major.
They also spared associate ADs and DBOs the arduous task of tracking down high-majors for quality home-and-home series. Now, you negotiate—or elbow—your program into an event in search of SOS-boosting wins. These trips are also a warm climate simulator for a conference tournament or the Big Dance. A team like Missouri, with a young roster and veterans lacking postseason experience, can play three games on short turnarounds, forcing the roster to digest scant scouting reports and prep only in basic walkthroughs.
It’s also hard to argue fans are entirely gypped. Almost every game is on TV, meaning Mizzou fans can see every game live on their couch. Meanwhile, the NCAA selection committee has typically weighted these games the same as they would a typical road game.
Put another way, Cuonzo Martin’s club wouldn’t be penalized for avoiding a trip to Morgantown.
Moving forward, that won’t be the case. The NCAA announced this summer that it’s changing how it weights wins on team sheets used by the selection committee. Under these tweaked guidelines, true road wins will help an at-large team’s case more than racking up three wins at Carribean resort.
Who does this help? Mid-majors. As it stands, it’s almost impossible for (former) mid-majors not named Butler, Gonzaga, and Wichita State to get high-majors to pick up the phone. Exacerbating the problem is how hard it can be for those same programs to push their way into an event like the Maui Invitational or the Battle 4 Atlantis.
For example, Illinois State coach Dan Muller, whose team was left on the stoop last March despite a great run in the Missouri Valley, went on a Twitter rant this summer about a vicious feedback loop.
ACC BIG 10 BIG 12 SEC PAC 12 BIG EAST. It's me again. Looking 4 home & home next year. Pls call me 4 chance 4 QUALITY road win, top 33 RPI pic.twitter.com/zYAZpR3kJn— Dan Muller (@DanMuller) March 13, 2017
All of which leaves The Watch feeling conflicted.
Good hoops should never be shunned, yet I’ll also continue to proselytize on behalf of mid- and low-majors in this space each week.
There are really good players who deserve your attention, and you can see into the future by scouting the next crop of It coaches. The NCAA’s tweak won’t erase the inequality and iniquity between high-majors and their modest peers, but it’s an honest effort to restore balance.
Now, I’ll climb off the soapbox and tell you the trio of events that are worth your time this week. After Thursday, we really don’t know what matchups we’ll have on our plates. These events, however, are your best bet to find good ones. No, the Advocare Invitational is not among them, but The Watch figures that it will occupy a prominent place in your viewing rotation.
- Dates: Thursday, Friday and Sunday
- Location: Portland, Ore.
- The Field: Arkansas, Connecticut, DePaul, Michigan State, North Carolina, Oregon, Portland, Butler, Duke, Florida, Gonzaga, Ohio State, Portland State, Stanford, Texas
- The Bracket
Phil Knight, the impresario and founder of Nike, is giving us a present to celebrate his 80th birthday with this 16-team field. It’s not just the presence of four teams ranked in the AP top-10. Over half the field is currently situated in the top 40 of KenPom’s ratings. And 12 schools have reached the Final Four at some juncture in their program’s history.
There’s quality, quantity, and depth.
Some events scratch and claw to put together a single eight-team field. The PK80, by contrast, will be running two of them simultaneously by breaking its participants into the Victory and Motion brackets. The field is so deep that the fifth-place game, for example, in the motion bracket could yield a such as Butler vs. Stanford in a neutral floor game that could help each squad’s resume come March.
Battle 4 Atlantis
- Dates: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday
- Location: Paradise Islands, Bahamas
- The Field: Arizona, North Carolina State, Northern Iowa, Purdue, SMU, Tennessee, Villanova, Western Kentucky
- The Bracket
On paper, Arizona and Villanova should be penciled in for a clash between top-10 teams the final. We wouldn’t bet against it, either. You know Arizona is loaded. Villanova lost a decorated senior trio, but it has veterans like Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges to pair with redshirt freshman Omari Spellman.
Keep an eye out, though, for Purdue. Yes, Caleb Swanigan is gone. But Purdue brings back four starters, led by Vincent Edwards and a lockdown defender in Dakota Mathias. Isaac Haas, all 7-foot-3 of him, once again anchors the block. And point guard Carsen Edwards is seasoned. Coming off a Sweet 16 trip, enough pieces are back in West Lafayette for another deep run this coming March.
And the rest of the field? Well, it’s defined by programs in flux. Only three players, led by Shake Milton, return to the fold for SMU, which went 30-5 last yeast. North Carolina State made a smart hire in Kevin Keatts, but it’s a rebuilding year in Raleigh.
Tennessee has Grant Williams, but Rick Barnes needs some depth. Northern Iowa has been uncharacteristically volatile the past couple of years. Meanwhile, Western Kentucky is improved, but the drama surrounding center Mitchell Robinson, a McDonald’s All-American, and his preseason departure dominated the headlines.
- Dates: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday
- Location: Lahaina, Hawaii
- The Field: California, LSU, Michigan, Notre Dame, Marquette, VCU, Wichita State, Chaminade
- The Bracket
The Dean of Non-Exempt Tournaments has been hurt a tad by the PK80. Listen, we love Wichita State. (The fact that Landry Shamet isn’t in CoMO induces nausea.) The Shockers have a new league and are a legit contender for a national title.
Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson defies his stature and frame to be one of the most diverse offensive threats in the college game. In Milwaukee, Steve Wojciechowski and Marquette broke through to the NCAA tournament and return the inside-out duo of Markus Howard and Sam Hauser.
Similar to Battle for Atlantis, though, the rest of the bracket is defined by transition. Nine members of Michigan’s roster didn’t play big minutes a year ago, but we’d never bet against coach John Beilein. Finally, Cal, LSU, and VCU all underwent coaching changes, which could create some intrigue for Will Wade—who decamped from Richmond to Baton Rouge—but not necessarily a surprising run over three days.
THE CAN’T MISS
We get it: You may not have the time (or inclination) to load up your schedule with games to watch. That’s why we single out the game you should carve out to time to see each week.
No. 25 Alabama vs. No. 14 Minnesota | 5 p.m. CT Saturday, Stadium
On the cusp. It’s how Alabama has been described all offseason. Coach Avery Johnson loaded up with elite recruits, and, despite some early drama, has Collin Sexton in the fold. He’s also got a veteran nucleus of Braxton Key, Dazon Ingram, Donta Hall and Riley Norris to legitimately contend in the SEC.
Nationally, though, folks are hedging bets. The Tide are only on the periphery of the top-25, and their early slate hasn’t offered up a game that can state their case for inclusion. A quality win could do the trick, especially during a week where other top-25 teams may take losses on the aforementioned neutral floor events.
Enter the Golden Gophers, who looked awesome in mowing through Providence last week. Richard Pitino’s crew has the ingredients to contend in the Big Ten Conference, and this meeting in Barclay’s Center Classic is a chance for us to figure out whether Minnesota can challenge Purdue or Michigan State.
There’s a great matchup at each spot on the floor, too. Nate Mason, a 6-2, 190-pound senior, pilots and steadies Minnesota at lead guard, and he’ll likely be tasked with trying to check Sexton. Amir Coffey is a 6-8 slasher on the wing and has the size and length to pose a challenge to Alabama’s top-40 freshman John Petty. Up front, keep an eye on Jordan Murphy, who can not only play on the block for Pitino but is deadly in the pinch post as a face-up threat and a distributor. Finally, Gophers big man Reggie Lynch, who swatted 114 shots and won Defensive Player of the Year, protects the rim.
Avery Johnson’s tenure has been rooted in defense, evidenced by finishing 10th in the country last year in adjusted defensive efficiency. But Minnesota has the talent, depth, and pace to cause problems, particularly on the perimeter.
Alabama also faces a tough series of games heading into the weekend, hosting Sun Belt favorite Texas-Arlington on Monday and seeing BYU in Brooklyn on Friday night. Sweeping the week would leave Alabama at 6-0 and with three wins over KenPom top-100 teams. That’s the kind of early-season resume that might start to confirm suspicions that Grant and the Crimson Tide are an SEC threat.
THE CONFERENCE CALL
The SEC is trying to be better at basketball. Schools are assembling tougher schedules, hiring better coaches and recruiting at a higher level. We want to spotlight one matchup, and not always the one that first comes to mind, that’s interesting, could influence national perception or have major implications for the league race.
No. 16 Texas A&M at No. 10 Southern Cal | 9 p.m. CT Sunday, Pac-12 Network
Why plop the Aggies and Trojans here? Well, we’ve already seen both. After it’s youngins struggled with West Virginia’s press in the season opener, coach Billy Kennedy wisened up and inserted reliable veterans in Admon Gilder and D.J. Hogg. From there, A&M stomped all over the Mountaineers. It was as sound a beating as you’ll see, and the Aggies jumped nine spots in the polls last week.
Meanwhile, Southern Cal got all it could handle Sunday night in Nashville, trailing Vanderbilt by as many as 13 in the first half, rallying again in the second half, and, finally, clamping down in overtime. It was a quality road win on a night where guard Matthew Fisher-Davis was dialed in.
Across the floor, the Trojans and Aggies personnel matches up equally. And it’s hard to say whether A&M’s deliberate pace will overwhelm an opponent who struggled at times to speed up Vandy. USC, though, showed an ability to settle in and execute in the half court. Eyeballs will be on the front court, where the Aggies tandem of Robert Williams and Tyler Davis matchup with Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu. Yet the game may be decided in the backcourt, where USC wings Elijah Stewart and Jordan McLaughlin are steadying presences.
A win here by Andy Enfield’s crew would be further proof that the Trojans’ stock was appropriately valued to the start the year. As for A&M, it would have two top-25 wins in the season’s first month—both of which came outside College Station. And that’s before Texas A&M confronts a top-five team in Arizona during early December.
Stepping back, this week can do a lot to stratify the SEC hierarchy. Florida goes to the PK80 event, where it’s ideal path would include Stanford, Gonzaga and Duke. We already touched on Alabama’s schedule. Texas A&M could have two of the better wins in the conference. Meanwhile, Kentucky lost its only marquee game against Kansas, and we won’t see the Wildcats in a game of consequence for another month.
Even teams in the middle of the table like Arkansas have looked competitive. The Hogs hammered three solid mid-majors in Samford, Bucknell and Fresno State by 20-plus points. Vanderbilt has looked feisty early on. We’re also keeping an eye on Ole Miss, which gets Utah this week in Las Vegas.
With that in mind, a good week for the Aggies would, at least to me, mint them as the conference’s best squad in an early-season stretch where SEC members have tried to beef up schedules.
THE DEEP CUT
We at Rock M Nation believe in equality. There are quality hoops played in mid-major and low-major conferences, and those are the wells of rising coaching talent and potential Cinderella teams. As a true hoops connoisseur, you should see the players, coaches, and teams long before the spotlight finds them in March. So, we will bring you one game that might otherwise be considered off the grid.
Vermont at Yale | 1 p.m. CT Saturday, ESPN3
The Catamounts are in the midst of a generational run atop the America East, winning 20 games over nine consecutive seasons. Last season, they went undefeated in league play, racked up 29 wins and scared Purdue in a 10-point first-round loss during the NCAA tournament.
Now, you’re forgiven for not knowing any of those tidy facts, either. While Vermont has dominated the regular season, it frequently comes up short in its conference tournament. This season, Coach John Becker has tried, within his capacity, to beef up the slate. Vermont pestered Kentucky, and it knocked off Horizon League favorite Northern Kentucky in the Bahamas Classic. You should also mark your calendars for Dec. 2, when UVM tangles with Patriot League favorite Bucknell.
Yale also fits the bill. The Bulldogs are remembered for their upset of Baylor in the NCAA tournament a couple years back, but they could contend in the Ivy League with Princeton and Harvard. (As a side note, you really should make a point to catch Harvard facing Saint Mary’s this week.)
Narrowing the aperture further, this matchup features a meeting between two of the best point guards from one-bid leagues. Yale’s Makai Mason is back from a broken foot and will face off against the speedy Trae Bell-Haynes, who averaged 11.2 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 3.9 assists per game last season.
Neither team will vie for an at-large bid come March, but it’s a chance to see two of the country’s most experienced and talented low-majors.
Other games that should have your attention or eyeballs this week. They’re top-25 matchups, solid high-major meetings, interesting SEC games and others that have implications for low- and mid-major conferences.
- No. 23 UCLA vs. Creighton, 6 p.m. CT, ESPNU
- No. 16 Texas A&M vs. Oklahoma State, 6 p.m. CT, ESPN2
- Oakland at Syracuse, 6 p.m. CT, ESPN3
- No. 22 Baylor vs. Wisconsin, 8:30 p.m. CT, ESPN2
- No. 9 North Carolina at Stanford, 10:30 p.m. CT, ESPN2
- Michigan vs. LSU, 10:30 p.m. CT, ESPNU
- Texas-Arlington at Alabama, 6 p.m. CT, SEC Network
- Tennessee vs. No. 18 Purdue, 11 a.m. CT, ESPN2
- No. 2 Arizona at N.C. State, 6 p.m. CT, ESPN3
- St. John’s vs. Oregon State, 1 p.m. CT, ESPNU
- No. 21 Saint Mary’s vs. Harvard, 3 p.m., ESPNews
- Virginia vs. Vanderbilt, 3 p.m. CT, ESPNU
- Arkansas vs. Oklahoma, 4 p.m. CT, ESPN2
- Rhode Island vs. No. 20 Seton Hall, 5:30 p.m. CT, ESPNU
- Butler vs. Texas, 6 p.m. CT, ESPN2
- No. 7 Florida vs. Stanford, 9 p.m. CT, ESPN2
- Best of PK80, Battle 4 Atlantis and Maui Invitational
- A day of rest
- Best of PK80, Battle 4 Atlantis and Maui Invitational
- (Potentially) Missouri vs. No. 23 West Virginia, 8:30 p.m. CT Sunday, ESPN2
Catch up on prior editions of The Watch and look back three months from now to see how foolish all of these ideas actually are!