Friday, September 6, 2013

Friday Roundtable: Best Early-Season College Basketball Tournament

Is this year's Maui Invitational the best early-season tournament? (

BDD's Friday Roundtable is a weekly discussion among a group of our writers on a trending NBA or college basketball topic.

This week's question: What is this year's best early-season college basketball tournament?

Every tournament seems to have roughly four interest-worthy teams and an equal or greater number of programs that warrant a shoulder shrug followed by a muttered, "Meh." Though it's not nearly as high-profile as some of the other early-season gatherings, the Wooden Legacy should be on every college hoops fan's radar for the following reasons:

1. High parity. Mixing the nation's best college basketball teams with mid-major is a standard expectation for such tournaments, but the Wooden Classic features a surprisingly even battlefield. The tourney's heavy-hitters are Miami, Marquette, Creighton and San Diego State. The Hurricanes seem like an early favorite until one remembers about the departure of Shane Larkin, the team's 2012 spark plug, for the NBA. Enter: Kansas State transfer Angel Rodriguez, a sometimes frustrating point guard with a knack for big moments who will still be learning head coach Jim Larranaga's system. Creighton, the new-look Big East's representative, features one of the nation's best players in senior small forward Doug McDermott, who may be the NCAA's single most talented scorer. Buzz Williams' Marquette squads are never pushovers and Steve Fisher always has the Aztecs ready for anything, as seen during the program's increased national exposure over the past 14 years. They're not blue-bloods, but opposing coaches would be foolish to overlook any of these programs now or in March.

The (relatively) minor players of the Wooden Legacy are Arizona State, Cal-State Fullerton, College of Charleston and George Washington. Cal-State and CoC are capable of capturing Big West and Colonial Athletic titles, respectively, whereas George Washington is a routine member of Kansas State's non-conference schedule, usually playing the Wildcats close until the end. This means the Colonials will have some level of familiarity with the Hurricanes' showrunner when they face Rodriguez and Miami in the first-round.

Any mix of Creighton/Miami/San Diego State (and possibly Marquette) match-ups will be great early-season theater for fans, but that doesn't mean the field's mid-majors won't knock off any of the higher regarded teams. And, yeah, this explanation ended up being only one point — but look at the potential semifinal games and find a game that won't be close. You likely won't.

I don't know if the Champion's Classic counts here because it's not a typical early-season tournament, but more of a three-year, round-robin event with the site location changing each year, and the teams involved go on to play in another tournament a few weeks later. Some of you may be taking the wording of this question extremely seriously, and because of this, I will select a new answer. It's probably best, because I don't think any tournament can compare to having Kentucky, Kansas, Duke and Michigan State make up your field in any year, but especially this one. All four are top 10 teams. People are starting the "Kentucky might not lose a game" talk again, while Kansas has the No. 1 recruit in Andrew Wiggins and Duke has the No. 2 recruit in Jabari Parker. Wiggins and Parker will square off in one game, with Kentucky and Izzo's Spartans in the other. What are you doing Nov. 12? Watching that all night is the correct answer.

The Hall of Fame Tip-Off has a good field, which includes defending national champion Louisville and North Carolina, as well as a couple of strong mid-major programs in Richmond and Belmont. The NIT Preseason Tip-Off is also strong, with Duke and Arizona, who could be a preseason top-five team with freshman Aaron Gordon, headline the field, along with Alabama and Rutgers as regional hosts. The reason to watch this is for the potential Arizona vs. Duke showdown in the finals.

But my pick will have to be the Maui Invitational. Maui is always a star-studded event, and one that major programs love to participate in. Who could blame them? They get to spend a week in Hawaii and winning this tournament is great for the résumé. Although this year's lineup has teams that can potentially be great, but have question marks. Syracuse, Baylor and Gonzaga headline the field, followed by Arkansas, Cal and Minnesota, and while people seem to have a good barometer on Syracuse, Baylor is a team that is expected to be good, but was also expected to be great last year and underperformed. The Bears have no Pierre Jackson, but Isaiah Austin should be improved. Gonzaga has to bounce back from losing several key players, including Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris, but still has one of the best point guards in the country in Kevin Pangos.

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