Ranking the best early season tournaments

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 Blue Devils , Kentucky Wildcats , Michigan State Spartans and Kansas Jayhawks 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 Blue Devils , Memphis Tigers , Missouri Tigers , Louisville Cardinals , Minnesota Golden Gophers , VCU Rams , Stanford Cardinal and Northern Iowa Panthers . 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 Tar Heels 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 Bulldogs ; new-coached Illinois Fighting Illini ; a re-tooled-but-solid Marquette Golden Eagles team; underrated Texas Longhorns ; really underrated Southern California Trojans ; long-way-to-go Mississippi State Bulldogs ; and, of course, D-II host, Chaminade. The annoying facet to Maui is the lower-48 portion of the bracket, the satellite teams ( Colgate Raiders , Coppin State Eagles , Elon Phoenix and  Florida Atlantic Owls ) 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 Volunteers , flashy-but-raw Oklahoma State Cowboys and dangerous Massachusetts Minutemen   Penn State Nittany Lions , Providence Friars   Akron Zips and Southern Miss Golden Eagles 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 Hoyas , Indiana Hoosiers , UCLA Bruins and Georgia Bulldogs . 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 Dukes , North Dakota State Bison , James Madison Dukes , Liberty Flames , UC Irvine Anteaters and Sam Houston<span style= State" data-canon="Sam Houston State Bearkats" data-type="SPORTS_OBJECT_TEAM" id="shortcode0">. 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 Wolverines , Pittsburgh Panthers , Kansas State Wildcats -- 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 Fightin' Blue Hens Blue Hens. Nice! Others in this year's field are/were: Virginia Cavaliers , Robert Morris Colonials , North Texas Mean Green , Fordham Rams , Bowling Green Falcons , Delaware Fightin' Blue Hens , Cleveland State Vikings and Lamar Cardinals . 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 Crimson Tide , isn't as good as Kansas (which the CBE has). But the satellite games include Hofstra Pride , Niagara Purple Eagles , Bucknell Bison and South Dakota State Jackrabbits , which is much better than what the CBE is offering. Bama is joined at Madison Square Garden by Purdue Boilermakers , Villanova Wildcats and Oregon State Beavers . 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 Bulldogs s the best of the group, but the next level of teams -- Davidson Wildcats , West Virginia Mountaineers , Vanderbilt Commodores -- is really good, and even Clemson Tigers , Texas-El Paso Miners and Oklahoma Sooners are on the upswing. Marist Red Foxes 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 Seminoles , Notre Dame Fighting Irish , Brigham Young Cougars and Saint Joseph's Hawks 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 Razorbacks   Arizona State Sun Devils , Creighton Bluejays , Wisconsin Badgers , Cornell Big Red , Florida A&M Rattlers , Florida A&M Rattlers , Longwood Lancers and Presbyterian Blue Hose , 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 Billikens , Texas A&M Aggies and Washington State Cougars get the invite to Kansas City after each of those four host a slew of afterthoughts (and apologies to Southeast Missouri State Redhawks , Chattanooga Mocs , Louisiana Tech Bulldogs , Troy Trojans , South Carolina Upstate Spartans , Santa Clara Broncos , Eastern Washington Eagles and Utah Valley Wolverines , 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 Golden Bears , St. Mary's Gaels , Xavier Musketeers , Drexel Dragons , Drake Bulldogs , Rice Owls , Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and Pacific Tigers . 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 Rebels , Iowa State Cyclones , Cincinnati Bearcats and Oregon Ducks . The leftovers: Jacksonville State Gamecocks , Northern Arizona Lumberjacks , Campbell Fighting Camels  and North Carolina A&T Aggies . 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 Hawkeyes , Wichita State Shockers )
-- Charleston Classic (Nov. 15-16, 18; best teams: Baylor Bears , Colorado Buffaloes , Murray State Racers )
-- Diamond Head Classic (Dec. 22-23, 25; best teams: Arizona, San Diego State)
-- Great Alaska Shootout (Nov. 21-24; best teams: Belmont Bruins , Oral Roberts Golden Eagles )
-- Hall of Fame Tip-Off (Nov. 16-18; best teams: Ohio State Buckeyes Seton Hall Pirates , Washington)
-- Las Vegas Classic (Dec. 22-23; best teams: Virginia Tech Hokies , Colorado State Rams )
-- Paradise Jam (Nov. 16-19; best teams: UConn, New Mexico Lobos )
-- South Padre Invitational (Nov. 23-24; best teams: Northwestern Wildcats , Illinois State Redbirds )

Happy hoops holidays, everyone. 

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his seventh season covering college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics and... Full Bio

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