Ranking the best early season tournaments

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer
The Maui Invitational remains a premier November college basketball event. You gotta love it. (US Presswire)

I wrote this last year, and if it's OK with you, I'd like to use it again.

It's not there yet, but college basketball is getting closer and closer each year to having the best start and best finish in American sports. We already know why the end is so great. And while the beginning of any sport -- outside professional golf and NASCAR -- can't, and shouldn't, meet and match the drama of the apex that comes with the climax, isn't it great to start with a bang?

That feeling continues in 2012, with the unprecedented international game -- the one in Germany between UConn and Michigan State -- the three scheduled games on aircraft carriers and the Champions Classic, a contracted round-robin spectacle that pitted Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State and Kansas against each other. (That again lived up to the hype.)

But outside of those specialized, singular, made-for-TV matchups, we have all of those exempt tournaments that pepper college basketball's November calendar -- and now even into December. It feels like there are too many to count/follow now, so I did the counting and charting for you. Not only that, but I've prioritized which tourneys are best. There's a lot of unknowns with the start of every season. But thanks to these bite-size brackets that whet our appetite for March, we get to see what teams are really working with, thanks to the big schools being forced to play each other -- and being forced to play quality mids on a neutral floor, something so few behemoths would otherwise agree to in this era.

Here are your 12 best early-season tournaments, with the leftovers listed below that. I think last year's assortment was better top to bottom, but it's hard to argue against the top five tournaments this year being the best that college basketball has ever seen.

1. Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 22-24): Had the ninth-best tournament field last year, according to yours truly, and now look at it. Yes, let's just list off the field and then succumb to nodding with fervid approval. Duke, Memphis, Missouri, Louisville, Minnesota, VCU, Stanford and Northern Iowa. Every one of those teams has a realistic shot at the NCAA tournament, something no other tournament on this list can boast. The Bahamas-based bracket has quickly ascended in three years, to rival the former king of November, the Maui Invitational. This is what will make Thanksgiving weekend good, beyond the obvious football and food comas to come.

2. Maui Invitational (Nov. 19-21)
: And this is what will truly make Thanksgiving weekend feel like Thanksgiving weekend. Maui's always reliable and giving us glimpses of teams' seasons. We've seen Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina all play in this and walk away with a better idea of who they were in that given seasonal. This year, North Carolina is back, joined by: new-look Butler; new-coached Illinois; a re-tooled-but-solid Marquette team; underrated Texas; really underrated USC; long-way-to-go Mississippi State; and, of course, D-II host, Chaminade. The annoying facet to Maui is the lower-48 portion of the bracket, the satellite teams (Colgate, Coppin State, Elon and Florida Atlantic) that are really a waste of time. The coaches don't much like them, and they're essentially play-in games without the ability to actually play in to the Maui trip. But on the island? Great stuff, as usual.

3. Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 15-16, 18): Good for Puerto Rico, which is now annually getting good pull. The chic NC State Wolfpack will be here, as will tournament-ready Tennessee, flashy-but-raw Oklahoma State and dangerous UMass. Penn State, Providence, Akron and Southern Miss fill out the field, essentially comprising the best "mid-level" group of teams out there. That kind of filler is what makes it a better overall field. Some of these tourneys are top heavy, which is nice, but how many can really give us more than five teams that are watchable and capable of winning close to or more than 20 games this year? We'll know if NC State is ready for the pressure based off how it plays here and, really, if it can win it. Because it should.

4. Legends Classic (Nov. 11-15, 19-20): The group's exempted final four, which will play in Brooklyn at the brand-new Barclays Center, is sweet. Georgetown, Indiana, UCLA and Georgia. We don't know if UCLA will have Kyle Anderson (wrist) and/or Shabazz Muhammad (the world), so that tempers things a bit. The nearly meaningless bracket play leading up to that includes a bunch of schools who won't sniff conference championships of their own in Duquesne, North Dakota State, James Madison, Liberty, UC Irvine and Sam Houston State. But the Barclays should be nice. I'm most interested in Georgia, if you can believe it, because I wanna see if they can steal an upset and be much improved from 15-17 last season.

Barclays Center's wasted no time in being as synonymous with the Nets as with college games and Jay-Z gigs. (US Presswire)


5. NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 12-13, 21, 23)
: Am putting the NIT this high in part because I love how it refuses to exempt teams into its final four. If you win, you take the trip to New York City. Michigan, Pittsburgh, Kansas State -- this year's headliners -- were not guaranteed a berth and automatic TV time, like what happens with the Legends Classic and most others. So the fourth team is Borzello's Delaware Blue Hens. Nice! Others in this year's field are/were: Virginia, Robert Morris, North Texas, Fordham, Bowling Green, Fairfield, Cleveland State and Lamar. A nice collection.

6. 2K Sports Classic (Nov. 9-12, 15-16): You'd think this one should be a notch below something like the CBE because its best team, Alabama, isn't as good as Kansas (which the CBE has). But the satellite games include Hofstra, Niagara, Bucknell and South Dakota State, which is much better than what the CBE is offering. Bama is joined at Madison Square Garden by Purdue, Villanova and Oregon State. Solid field; nothing too fancy.

7. Old Spice Classic (Nov. 22-23, 25): Best preconference-play tournament you probably don't know about, and the Old Spice has been really good for nearly a decade. Gonzaga's the best of the group, but the next level of teams -- Davidson, West Virginia, Vanderbilt -- is really good, and even Clemson, UTEP and Oklahoma are on the upswing. Marist is the only dicey one of the group. Davidson can definitely win this, as De'Mon Brooks and Jake Cohen could have some monster years ahead. I'll take West Virginia, though, mainly because Bob Huggins is already smarting from being picked sixth in the Eers' inaugural Big 12 year.

8. Coaches vs. Cancer (Nov. 16-17): A simple four-team field, but a really nice one. Florida State, Notre Dame, BYU and St. Joe's are involved, which means we've got four potential NCAA tournament teams. St. Joe's was picked to win the Atlantic 10, Notre Dame could have the Big East Player of the Year in big man Jack Cooley, BYU could very well turn into the West Coast Conference's next-best thing to Gonzaga -- and Florida State is never to be taken lightly. I'm actually already regretting listing the Noles last, because Leonard Hamilton exacts revenge on every man who has slighted him.

Vegas is more and more ubiquitous when it comes to hosting college basketball tournaments. (Getty Images)

9. Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational (Nov. 23-24): Ah, the first of many college basketball tournaments in Sin City. This one's held at Orleans Arena and includes Arkansas Arizona State, Creighton, Wisconsin, Cornell, Florida A&M, FAMU, Longwood and Presbyterian, those final two recent D-I converts. I hate that it's called the "Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational," because now we're essentially bowl'ing up these names and it's got that generic college football feel to it. Arkansas, Creighton or Wisconsin is winning this. Give me Creighton.

10. CBE Classic (Nov. 19-20): Solid four-team field that Kansas will probably romp through at the Sprint Center. Saint Louis, Texas A&M and Washington State get the invite to Kansas City after each of those four host a slew of afterthoughts (and apologies to Southeast Missouri State, Chattanooga, Louisiana Tech, Troy, USC Upstate, Santa Clara, Eastern Washington and Utah Valley, but schools like this are basically treated like krill when coordinated four-team semifinals are exempted in).

11. DirecTV Classic (Nov. 22-23, 25): This used to be the Anaheim Classic, or the 76 Classic, and this year gets California, Saint Mary's, Xavier, Drexel, Drake, Rice, Georgia Tech and Pacific. That's not so bad, considering Drexel has the talent to match anyone in this field. I think this one's up for grabs and could be taken by any of the first four teams you see above. It's often that you'll see one of these good-not-great tournaments be witness to some insane, triple-OT game or ridiculous buzzer-beating shot, too.

12. Global Sports Classic (Nov. 23-24): A new Vegas tournament with another bad name. (So you're seeing how Vegas is taking over college basketball in this regard, and you'll see plenty of posts/columns about the NCAA's internal awkwardness with this arrangement over the next year or so.) This one includes UNLV, Iowa State, Cincinnati and Oregon. The leftovers: Jacksonville State, Northern Arizona, Campbell and NC A&T. Not a solid field, but UNLV and Cinci are preseason Top 25 teams, plus Oregon could be sporting a new look this year -- and I don't mean that literally re: their uniforms (we know that's a given).

Others, alphabetically:

-- Cancun Challenge (Nov. 20-21; best teams: Iowa, Wichita State)
-- Charleston Classic (Nov. 15-16, 18; best teams: Baylor, Colorado, Murray State)
-- Diamond Head Classic (Dec. 22-23, 25; best teams: Arizona, San Diego State)
-- Great Alaska Shootout (Nov. 21-24; best teams: Belmont, Oral Roberts)
-- Hall of Fame Tip-Off (Nov. 16-18; best teams: Ohio State, Seton Hall, Washington)
-- Las Vegas Classic (Dec. 22-23; best teams: Virginia Tech, Colorado State)
-- Paradise Jam (Nov. 16-19; best teams: UConn, New Mexico)
-- South Padre Invitational (Nov. 23-24; best teams: Northwestern, Illinois State)

Happy hoops holidays, everyone.

 
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