Pre-Season Tourney Predictions
Breaking down the Orlando and Maui invitationals.
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
In case anyone missed it, the fields, brackets and match-ups for nearly every major pre-season tournament were released late last week. I, like most college basketball nerds (in case you’re curious, if you enjoy watching ESPN’s “Feast Week” or “Championship Week” as much as March Madness you qualify as a college basketball nerd) sub-consciously gravitate toward the EA Sports Maui Invitational pairings when they were first announced.
The Maui Invitational boasts more recognizable name schools than any of the competing tournaments around the country, year after year. Those names (Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, UCLA, Indiana and Cinderella-turned-super power Gonzaga seem to be in the Maui rotation) certainly pop off the page and draw the most attention, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into the most competitive tournament.
So while I’ve already heard chatter about the quality of this year’s Maui Invitational, the deepest, most wide-open, and perhaps most exciting pre-season tournament field won’t be making the trek to the 50th state. Maui will be fun as always (if for no other reason, it’s worth it watching Jay Bilas become increasingly more annoyed with Hawaiian-vacation mode Bill Raftery), but Thanksgiving weekend’s Old Spice Classic in Orlando will prove to be the most talked about tournament in November. Let’s take a look at the entrants in both tournaments…
EA Sports Maui Invitational: Wichita State, Connecticut, Michigan State, Chaminade, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Washington, Virginia
Wichita State: The Shockers should actually be one of the better teams in this tournament. Greg Marshall’s talented squad will come into the season as MVC favorites, but who knows how an untested group will perform on this stage against big names like UConn and, potentially, Michigan State.
Connecticut: After last season’s unbelievably disappointing season, this is one of those team’s that will fool people with name and prestige alone. Maybe last season’s inconsistency is behind the Huskies and was simply due to a combination of poor team chemistry and Jim Calhoun’s frequent health issues, but unless a couple highly touted freshman produce and Ater Majok gained 75 pounds in the offseason, this team will still be struggling to find its rhythm this early in the season.
Michigan State: Alright, I’ll give you this one. Spartans are a bona fide contender to make a third-straight Final Four. BUT…will Kalin Lucas be fully recovered from his Achilles injury this early in the season? Doubtful.
Chaminade: You know, I really considered not even writing a blurb on poor Chaminade. But, you never know (Virginia is in this year’s tournament).
Oklahoma: Maybe last season’s second biggest underachiever (behind UConn of course), the Sooners no longer have to deal with the headaches caused by “Tiny” (hahaha) Gallon and Willie Warren, but there’s not much left talent-wise right away for Jeff Capel.
Kentucky: You can’t argue with Calipari’s ability to get highly touted freshmen to come together quickly (or at least to pretend to do so) and have successful seasons. You also can’t argue with a team that was able to beat Cornell in the Sweet 16 (had to toss that in there). So despite losing five players from that team to the first round of the NBA Draft, this team should be able to reload with another blue chip recruiting class, led by point guard Brandon Knight and forward Terrence Jones. The team you see in Maui won’t be near the finished product though (even Calipari can’t work that fast) and they will be vulnerable to Washington in the semifinals.
Virginia: One of the only overachievers from last season in the Maui field, Tony Bennett’s scrappy team will be in every game, but will lose many of them. Sylven Landesberg is gone, and offense will be hard to come by. If Virginia is going to win this tournament, they will score a combined 110 points in their three games.
Washington: Everyone’s ready to hop on the UDub bandwagon after they made a trip to the Sweet 16 last year and have almost everyone back. What people are forgetting is they underachieved all year until their tournament run, and they lost their only player who performed well all season long in Quincy Pondexter. Clearly Washington is a talented team, and like everyone else, I am excited to see potential semi with them and Kentucky (especially with the Terrence Jones subplot), but I’m not ready to crown them Pac-10 (or 12?) champs yet.
So in summary, in the Maui field, we have two potential Final Four Teams (Michigan State, Kentucky) and one other NCAA Tournament team (Washington). Not bad, obviously, but the quality really drops off from there.
Old Spice Classic, Orlando: Boston College, Texas A&M, Wisconsin, Manhattan, Georgia, Notre Dame, Temple, California
Boston College: OK, so I’m excited to watch the Old Spice Classic because my nearly entire Cornell coaching staff has moved to Chestnut Hill. But it’s also because I know what these coaches are capable of. This year might be a rough transition with coaches getting used to players and vice versa, but Coach Donahue’s offense is spectator- and player-friendly (though it takes a while to master).
Texas A&M: The Aggies won’t have the star power coming back they’ve had in recent years (especially with the loss of Donald Sloan), but Mark Turgeon always has a rugged, athletic and competitive squad. They’ll be tough out in Orlando, and I’m figuring they’re going to eventually find their way into the NCAA Tournament again (probably against BYU in a 8 vs. 9 match-up).
Wisconsin: Way different style than Texas A&M, but similar program M.O.: underrated, always seem to produce quality seasons regardless of talent on roster. It’s not going to be pretty, but Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor will score enough points to make the Badgers a handful. They’re not a national contender, but it’s about as safe a bet as any to pencil Bo Ryan’s Badgers into the NCAA Tournament field.
Manhattan: This looks like the only glaring hole in my argument. Through a contractual agreement, one MAAC team is guaranteed to be in the Old Spice Classic field each season. And this year it’s the Jaspers turn. They are coming off an 11-20 season and are losing leading scorer Rico Pickett, who left school a year early to play overseas.
Georgia: The Bulldogs are a trendy pick to crack the top 25 at some point this season and finally contend in the SEC. Mark Fox has built up the program with a couple solid recruiting classes. This field is wide open, and a tournament championship in Orlando is realistic, even for a young squad like Georgia.
Notre Dame: No more ‘Gody. No more Tory Jackson. But Tim Abromaitis returns (if his off the court issues are resolved), and if Purdue transfer Scott Martin is as good as he was supposed to be last year for the Irish before tearing his ACL, then Notre Dame is still dangerous. Mike Brey always seems to have Notre Dame peaking in the middle of conference play and on the NCAA Tournament bubble (even with less talented rosters).
Temple: Is it possible that I like the Orlando field so much because each team Cornell beat in the Tournament last March are participating? Even if they didn’t look like it in March, Temple is a solid team that could be the favorite in the Old Spice Classic. Fran Dunphy might finally be starting to get the credit he deserved for years at Penn, and with Lavoy Allen and Rudy Fernandez returning, Temple could repeat as A-10 champs.
California: Cal is probably due for a down year. Last year, they were one of only two Pac-10 teams to advance to the NCAA Tournament thanks to the senior trio of Jerome Randle, Patrick Christopher and Theo Robertson. This year, they may be one of the weaker teams in a weak conference, with seven incoming freshmen that will be asked to contribute immediately.
Summing up the Old Spice Classic field, while there are no Final Four contenders (as compared to the two playing in Maui), there could be as many as five NCAA Tournament teams (Texas A&M, Wisconsin, Georgia, Notre Dame, Temple) in Orlando.
I’m not going to argue against those that say the potential of a Michigan State-Kentucky, Izzo-Calipari final makes Maui a more marquee event, but it’s pretty clear that from top to bottom, the field in Orlando is deeper, much more unpredictable, and therefore a more exciting tournament overall. You can only realistically predict two (maybe three) potential winners in Maui, but with as many as five or six teams that have a shot in Orlando, there are quite a few coaches who could be feeling fresh by the Old Spice Classic’s end.
Jon Jaques is a former starter for the Cornell Big Red and current forward for Israel’s Ironi Ashkelon club.