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A Full Preview of All The Thanksgiving College Basketball Tournaments

I’m just going to throw it out there: I really do believe that “Feast Week” – the week leading up and through Thanksgiving – really is one of the best weeks on the entire college basketball calendar. I know everyone loves the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament (because who doesn’t love betting on obscure schools you’ve never heard of) but “Feast Week” really is basically just as good, without half the hype.

Seriously, think about it. What’s better than wall-to-wall basketball, from noon until well after midnight, Monday-Friday? Nothing. Well, except maybe for wall-to-wall basketball, from noon until well after midnight, Monday-Friday… after half-assing your work week Monday-Wednesday, then taking off the back end of the week to gorge on too much food and adult beverages for four straight days. Forget Fourth of July. I never feel more American than I do during Thanksgiving week. And I’m sure you feel the same.

So with the games underway, what do you need to know heading into the most underrated week of the college basketball calendar? From Maui to New York, Atlantis to Orlando, here is your guide to everything you need to watch for this weekend.

Maui Invitational (Monday-Wednesday)

Teams to Watch: Umm, all of them, but mostly Duke, Gonzaga, Auburn, Arizona, Xavier

As you know this tournament already tipped off Monday – but that’s OK. This is always one of the pre-eminent tournaments of Feast Week so even though we’re entering Day 2, it’s only appropriate to start here. Especially since an already incredible tournament got more incredible-er this year. That’s because, as you’ve probably heard by now, Chaminade isn’t playing in the Maui Invitational this year.

And while that’s disappointing to people who love tradition, the reality is that it’s made Maui a better tournament overall. For starters, while we love the nostalgia of Chaminade, the reality is that they haven’t been all that good in this event. They’re just 8-92 overall since its inception and haven’t won an opening round game since 2012.

So while we lose to the chance to see a major upset, the reality is that it probably wasn’t going to happen anyway. And without Chaminade, it also gives us more good games featuring more good teams – and honestly, who are we to complain about getting more good teams? That’d be like complaining about your grandma serving you too much pecan pie for dessert on Thursday night. What kind of monster would do such a thing?

Therefore forgive me for stepping all over the little guy in favor of a field that will now go down as the most loaded in the history of the Maui Invitational. By now you know the field features three Top 10 teams (Duke, Auburn and Gonzaga), another perennial power (Arizona), and a loser’s bracket that starting today features a bunch of clubs that might just be good enough to make the NCAA Tournament. When the “worst” teams in the field are Iowa State, Xavier, Illinois and San Diego State, you know you’ve got yourself a heck of a field.

Looking ahead the one storyline here worth watching is whether anyone can beat Duke. With the way that both Auburn and Gonzaga played on Monday (which would best be described as “sloppy”) it’s not looking good.

Instead just stick around to watch good basketball, even if we probably know what the end result will be. Also stick around to watch Zion Williamson and see if he breaks a backboard before the end of this tournament. And because Bill Walton is calling these games and honestly, you never know what you’re going to get from that dude.

No, seriously.

NIT Tip-Off (Wednesday and Friday)

Teams to Watch: Kansas, Tennessee, Louisville and Marquette

While Maui has the deepest field, the two-day, four-team NIT Tip-Off is the only one where every team playing will probably end up in the NCAA Tournament. The “worst” team here might be Marquette – which was picked to finish second in the Big East. Louisville, which is “down” as they’ve been in a while is still probably a tourney team with a new coach. So yeah, there will be plenty of intrigue too.

So again, there is plenty to watch here.

In terms of storylines, there are two things that interest me the most, and ironically, neither of them involves Kansas. At this point, we know who the Jayhawks are: A deep, loaded, talented team who – regardless of how they may, umm, “recruit” their players – is still a national title contender and Final Four threat. I’m not sure we’ll learn all that much about the Jayhawks that we don’t already know.

Instead, what I want to see at the Barclays Center on Wednesday and Friday is two-fold. First, I just want to see what Louisville looks like under Chris Mack. I’m a believer in Mack and truly think this squad can surprise some folks in the ACC. Still, it won’t be easy opening with a loaded Tennessee team that is currently ranked in the Top 10 nationally.

Speaking of Tennessee, that’s the other thing I’m interested in here: How good are the Vols this year? We know they were phenomenal a season ago, but as I’ve said all off-season, on a roster full of veterans with limited upside, is it possible this team has already peaked? Unlike a young squad like Duke, Kentucky, Villanova, Arizona or whoever that you know will get better, haven’t we already kind of seen the “best” that Tennessee is going to get?

We’ll find out, but I’ll add this: Even if the Vols have peaked they’re still a darn good team. And I wouldn’t complain if we got a Tennessee-Kansas final on Friday night at Barclays Center, a game that could have an Elite Eight feel to it.

Las Vegas Invitational (Thursday and Friday)

Marquee teams: North Carolina, Michigan State, UCLA, Texas and… Nevada… sort of

So I can’t lie, I never really remember the Las Vegas Invitational being a “thing” before this year, but I’m glad that it is. Because it’s bringing together arguably the second-best collection of overall talent during all of Feast Week.

There is, one weird catch however: The event has a weird set-up. There are two separate brackets of games going on, so some teams won’t face each other. For example, Nevada – which incredibly, is the highest-ranked team in this field – plays in the lower half of the bracket, where it will face Tulsa on Thursday before facing either Southern Illinois or UMass on Friday.

They won’t however face anyone on the top half of the bracket, which is a real shame because… MY GOODNESS is that side of the bracket loaded. How do you like this for a field of four: North Carolina, Michigan State, UCLA and Texas? I’ve seen Final Fours with less intrigue than this side of the bracket.

In terms of those four teams, the obvious intrigue here centers around North Carolina and Michigan State, but like Kansas above, I’m just not sure how much we’ll learn about both. Each is probably a Top 15-ish type team, but I’m not sure either is a title contender.

That’s why to me, I am interested to see UCLA this week. The Bruins could potentially fit that same profile of “Top 15-ish type team and fringe Final Four contender.” But the question is, will they? We really haven’t seen UCLA play anyone early so it’s still up for debate, but one name to watch here is freshman Moses Brown. Serious question: Did you know that the 7’1 center originally from New York enters this event averaging 17 points, 12 rebounds and 4 blocks per game?

Heck, did you know anything about Moses Brown at all before reading that sentence?

Add in the fact the obvious storylines surrounding Michigan State and North Carolina with the fact that man does Shaka Smart need to pick up a quality win or two (did you know that he is 54-50 overall since he arrived at Texas – woof!!!) and there will be no shortage of good basketball and intrigue.

Stay up late Thursday night (tip-off is at 7:30 and 10 ET) and get up early on Friday – in this event, it will be worth it.

AdvoCare Invitational (Thursday, Friday, Sunday)

Marquee Teams: Villanova, LSU, Florida State, Memphis

This tournament is always sneaky fun (although I can’t lie, as a guy in my early 30’s with no kids, I can’t imagine that the “scene” after the games at Disney World as nearly as exciting as Vegas or Maui) and this year is no exception. And the most interesting team here is the one who is struggling the most.

Ironically, that team is Villanova.

Had you asked most people three weeks ago, everyone would have assumed this event might as well be called the “Villanova Invitational” only now the Wildcats have lost two games in a row, and for the first time in a long time just kind of look like a “meh” sort of college basketball team. Nova will get better. But after five straight years of winning at least 29 games, this feels like a team that’ll probably end up something like 22-10 and a nine-seed in the tournament before losing in the first round of the Big Dance.

And if they’re not careful they could leave this event with at least one and maybe two losses. The Wildcats should cruise in their opener against something called Canisius, but looking ahead they could face a challenge as early as the second day when they face Penny Hardaway’s Memphis Tigers. Say what you want about Penny, but his team looked impressive even in a loss last week against LSU, which might be one of the most talented teams in all of college basketball. Speaking of LSU, the Tigers headline the other side of the bracket, thanks to Tremont Waters and their loaded freshman class. Forward Naz Reid has been impressive early averaging 15 points and five rebounds per contest.

Finally, don’t sleep on Florida State – no seriously, don’t fall asleep. The Seminoles are kind of boring to watch, but man do they win big. And a year after advancing to the Elite Eight they look like one of the better teams no one is talking about after crushing Florida early this season.

Say what you want about the Seminoles style of play. But they might be the favorite to win this whole event.

Battle 4 Atlantis (Wednesday-Friday)

Marquee Teams: Virginia, Wisconsin, Butler, Florida, Stanford

Speaking of “don’t fall asleep while watching this team” – who the heck decided to put Virginia, Wisconsin, Butler and Florida in the same field? I’m not saying those four teams are boring me just thinking about them… but I am saying that if I was actually at this event I’d probably spend more time hanging out at the Atlantis pool than at the arena.

On second thought, I’d probably be spending more time at the Atlantis pool than in the arena regardless of who was playing.

But I digress.

Anyway, while the action might not exactly be “exhilarating” or “fast-paced” or “interesting” there are a couple storylines worth watching. The first is Wisconsin. A year after missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in two decades, the Badgers look really good. They crushed Xavier on the road last week in the Gavitt Games and might be one of the two or three best teams in the Big Ten.

Looking across the rest of the event, we know what the narrative with Virginia is – great defense, boring offense, can they mentally recover from the UMBC loss. Blah, blah, blah. You know the drill. Florida is still figuring out its pieces, so I really have no idea what to expect and Stanford has a stud in KZ Okpala who is averaging nearly 23 points a game.

And then there’s Butler, a team which enters this event at 3-0. In an awful Big East, where Villanova, Xavier, Providence College and Marquette have all suffered embarrassing losses this year, could the Bulldogs emerge as a real threat to win the conference?

Wooden Legacy (Thursday, Friday, Sunday)

Marquee Teams: Miami, Utah, Seton Hall, Grand Canyon

Can’t lie, I seem to remember this being one of the better Feast Week events as recently as two or three years ago, but this year the field is ahem, a little bit lacking. I guess when schools have the option of spending Thanksgiving in Maui, the Bahamas, Vegas, the Cayman Islands, whatever, the idea of going to an industrial town in Southern California isn’t all too appealing.

Hard to blame them.

Ironically, the team that might have the best chance at making this year’s NCAA Tournament isn’t one of the Power 5 schools in the event, but instead, Grand Canyon, which returns a bunch of key pieces off last year’s WAC runners up. DII transfer Trey Dreschel leads this team in scoring, but the Lopes also have firepower from wing Oscar Frayer and big Alessandro Lever, both of whom are good enough to play at major programs.

The rest of the field is littered with below average Power 6 teams that aren’t really all that appealing, including Miami (where have you gone, Lonnie Walker?), Seton Hall (the Pirates lost five senior starters off last year’s team… so yeah, don’t expect much) and Utah, which, no lie, I honestly can’t name more than one or two players on this roster. And I’m someone who is paid to cover college basketball for a living.

But hey, with games tipping off as late as 11:30 p.m. ET on Thanksgiving night and Friday, you’ll have college hoops on your TV’s until close to 2 a.m. ET each day.

And on top of time with family and good food, what’s better than that?

The answer: Nothing. Enjoy Feast Week everyone.

Article written by Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres is covering football and basketball for KSR this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres, Facebook or e-mail at [email protected] He is also the author of the only book written on the Calipari era, “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats.”

1 Comment for A Full Preview of All The Thanksgiving College Basketball Tournaments

    10:54 am November 20, 2018 Permalink

    Aaron – please get Zions jock out of your mouth.