Early-season tourney rankings: Maui wows, great matchups abound

by | CBSSports.com College Basketball Blogger

You can count West Virginia's Bob Huggins in for a trip to Vegas. And a good one, too. (Getty Images)  
You can count West Virginia's Bob Huggins in for a trip to Vegas. And a good one, too. (Getty Images)  

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?

While opening night in college hoops is almost never noteworthy, the sport has managed to cultivate an exciting opening few weeks thanks to the best of the best playing each other.

Outside of regularly scheduled matchups between bluebloods like Kentucky, North Carolina, Michigan State and Kansas, the early-season tournaments provide a boatload of great out-of-conference games.

November and early December have a beautiful batch of early-season events that prop the sport up. Add in the NBA lockout and the threat of an entire missed season, and college basketball's early season is as attractive as ever.

Here's a look at the 13 best hoops tournaments in the coming weeks.

But before we start, I'd like to note the heartbreaking omission of the Great Alaska Shootout, and didn't even sniff this list. It's that good.

Once the hallmark November event -- even more than Maui -- is now reduced to third-tier. For a complete list of all the early-season events and tournaments, click here.

1. Maui Invitational (Nov. 21-23): Of course it's first. Maui has to be atop this list. In that A Christmas Story, eating-Chinese-food-on-Christmas kind of way, watching D-I talent play in a tiny, reverb-heavy gym in Hawaii while Bill Raftery reacquaints himself with a nation has become synonymous with Thanksgiving's aura. If you're a college hoops fan, you know the feeling. We've got Michigan vs. Memphis, Tennessee vs. Duke, Georgetown vs. Kansas to start it off. And UCLA's tossed in there, too. From there, the matchup possibilities unfold beautifully. Love when the Maui tournament's on TV, because the world has clicked back to normalcy.

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2. Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 17-20): A lot of these tournaments have gone to off-site, early-round formats, then shift to a final four set of teams playing in one location over two nights. But Puerto Rico stays true to the tournament format, as Alabama, Colorado, Iona, Maryland, Purdue, Temple, Western Michigan and Wichita State are partaking. I can see six of those teams in the NCAA tournament this year. Really, really nice field, even without an elite team.

3. Diamond Head Classic (Dec. 22-23, 25): Christmas Day falls on a Sunday this year, which means the NFL will dominate. But the final of the Diamond Head Classic is scheduled, too, so it makes for great alternative programming if you happen to be a well-rounded sports fan (if you're reading, then you qualify). K-State, Long Beach State and Xavier will battle to be in the championship game. (Long Beach State has the toughest schedule in the country this year.) Clemson or UTEP could stumble into the final, too. This is a fun one.

4. Las Vegas Classic (Dec. 22-23): Kind of worried this will come and go with little notice. Hope not, and that's why it deserves this spot. The relatively new Las Vegas classic gets Baylor, West Virginia, Missouri State and Saint Mary's. The two-day event runs parallel to the first two days of the Diamond Head Classic. Missouri State can win the Valley, Saint Mary's can win the WCC -- and, oh yeah, Baylor can win the Big 12. Plus, Bob Huggins in Vegas? Hello!

5. CBE Classic (Nov. 13-17, 21-22): The CBE has, pretty quickly, become one of the sport's best November brackets. You see that Cal, Missouri, Notre Dame and Georgia are auto-berthed into the semis, and that's pretty much become the norm for these things. The early rounds also include improving teams like Detroit, South Dakota State and George Washington. If Notre Dame and Cal meet in the final, the CBE will have gotten the most out of its 2011 tournament.

6. 2K Sports Classic (Nov. 7-9, 17-18): Also known as Coaches vs. Cancer. Previous champs include Pitt, Syracuse, Memphis, Florida, Duke, Kansas and Arizona. This event's legit. This year it's a bit down, though. Now, the fix is also in, as four teams (Arizona, Mississippi State, St. John's and Texas A&M) are auto-berthed to the Garden for the semis. But it's the best way to sell tickets and to keep interest high. I've got no problem with it, since these other small fries will get their chances, even if they don't get a flight to New York. Other decent mid-majors, like Valpo and William & Mary, are involved.

7. NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 14-16, 23, 25): Here's to hoping that the early-season NIT isn't like the postseason NIT, meaning its purpose and influence is headed the way of the dodo. This year the big draws are Syracuse, Virginia Tech, Stanford and Oklahoma State. All teams with tournament aspirations (but I don't think all will make it there). The mid-major competition is very inferior, though. It still gets to play in MSG, though, and the pizzazz that comes with it still means something.

8. Legends Classic (Nov. 13-17, 19, 21): The Legends did the right thing in moving the game away from Atlantic City and into New York City. But there's not a lot of balance to this tournament. North Carolina State and Oregon State will be mediocre this year, yet they're in the semis. The other two teams, Texas and Vandy, certainly are NCAA tournament teams. This will be an early litmus test for Vandy, which intrigues me the most. The lower-level squads include Bucknell, a Kenneth Faried-less Morehead State, Princeton and Rhode Island, among others. A lot of molasses in what amounts to a down year for the Legends.

Jeremy Lamb and UConn will be in Atlantis for the holiday. (Getty Images)  
Jeremy Lamb and UConn will be in Atlantis for the holiday. (Getty Images)  
9. Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 23-27): It chose "4" instead of "four," so you know it's on. Defending champs UConn ditched out on Maui to play in this (because of prize money, perhaps? Lack of elite teams?), and the Huskies will be in the same bracket as Florida State (have to see these two play each other -- so much defense), Harvard (UConn could play Harvard twice this year), Central Florida, Utah, UMass, College of Charleston and UNC-Asheville. It's a decent bracket, but from what I gather, this will become more and more of an elite event in the coming years. UConn got in on the ground floor.

10. Las Vegas Invitational (Nov. 25-26): Yep, another Vegas event. This one has North Carolina, UNLV, South Carolina, USC. There are some sacrificial lambs before we get to the final four here, and I'm most intrigued by USC. Tar Heels should plow through this, though.

11. 76 Classic (Nov. 24-25, 27): It was only a few years ago when the 76 Classic could've finished in the top four in this kind of column. This year -- it's rough. Villanova and New Mexico could be the only 2012 tournament teams, and even that's not a guarantee. Others include Boston College, Oklahoma, Saint Louis, Santa Clara, UC Riverside and Washington State.

12. Old Spice Classic (Nov. 24-25, 27): And if you think the 76 Classic has taken a hit this year, what about the Old Spice? This was the second- or third-best early-season tournament for the better part of the past five years. Now it gets Arizona State, Dayton, DePaul, Fairfield, Indiana State, Minnesota, Texas Tech and Wake Forest. It's one big mediocre, soggy pie. Honestly -- is Fairfield the best team in the bracket? Great for the Stags, awful for the Old Spice.

13. Hall of Fame Tip-off (Nov. 19-20): You've got some low-major bullies in Long Island and Vermont. The BCS brethren includes Penn State (new coach Pat Chambers there) and South Florida. But this only makes the list because of star power and freak-and-awe factor. Because I'm asking, right now, what's the average win total Kentucky's going to have in its two games? It plays Penn State, then the winner of South Florida/Old Dominion. I'm putting the over/under at 23.5.

Outside of those 12, let's address the Champions Classic (Nov. 15). I wonder if any event outside of the Maui Invitational -- and even that won't have the press presence that this will -- can bring as much entertainment and eyeballs to college basketball in November as the Champions. What is the blandly, nobly named Champions Classic? It's the foursome of Kentucky, Duke, Michigan State and Kansas playing in Madison Square Garden to really kick-start the season.

Critics have long asked for a big opening event to unveil college hoops to the sports-watching nation. This isn't truly at the start of the year, but it's close. And it involves four programs with 16 national titles. This year, Duke plays Michigan State, Kentucky gets Kansas. The next two years, the event moves to Atlanta and Chicago, with teams rotating in a round-robin format.

It'll be an incredible night in New York City. With this, and the Carrier Classic, and the tournaments listed above, college basketball is getting crafting November into a similar feel as its perfect March.

2011-12 Season Preview
Oct. 13Preseason Top 25 (and one) Nov. 1Top freshmen
 Projected NCAA tournament field Nov. 2Top transfers
 Goodman and Parrish bracket picks Nov. 3Under the radar players
Oct. 14Team profiles: 'Cuse | UConn | UK | UNC Nov. 4Breakout players
Oct. 17Preseason All-Americans Nov. 5Best shooters
Oct. 18Top 100 players Nov. 6Best defensive players
Oct. 19Positional rankings: Point guards Nov. 768 things ...
Oct. 20Positional rankings: Wing men Nov. 8Ranking the preseason tourneys
Oct. 21Positional rankings: Big men Nov. 950 can't miss games
   Nov. 10Coaches on the Hot Seat

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