A 'Too Full to Get Up' College Hoops Thanksgiving Viewing Guide
With many Americans prepared to spend time eating, sitting around, and avoiding awkward family conversations over Thanksgiving weekend, the next few days provide an excellent opportunity to check out some of college hoops' best teams taking part in pivotal non-conference matchups and early-season tournaments. Here's a viewers' guide for those who may have a little trouble getting off the couch after all the turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie.
Top-10 Showdown in Maui Finale
The weekend's most appetizing matchup comes Wednesday night, with 4th-ranked North Carolina and 16th-ranked Wisconsin squaring off in the Maui Jim Maui Invitational final (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2). North Carolina posted 107 points in their Maui semifinal win over Oklahoma State. Joel Berry II led six scorers who reached double figures, and is on his way to a breakout campaign in his junior season. Berry has been stuffing the stat sheet, with averages of 16.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2.0 steals, and 45 percent shooting from three-point range.
Wisconsin, led by sophomore big man Ethan Happ's 19 points and 15 boards, knocked off Georgetown by 16 in its Maui semifinal. Happ is off to a stellar start, and could be the key in helping seniors Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes make another deep NCAA Tournament run in their senior seasons. The center is averaging a near double-double (11.9 points, 9.4 rebounds) while shooting 71 percent from the field.
According to KenPom's early-season rankings, these are two of the top 10 teams in the country, with neither ranking lower than 12th in offensive or defensive efficiency. UNC is unblemished thus far, while Wisconsin's sole loss came to Creighton, who's up to 12th in the latest Associated Press rankings. With a signature win up for grabs between two teams who should be strong candidates for a 1 or 2 seed come Selection Sunday, this should be one of the season's best non-conference contests.
Maui's Wednesday undercard also features three struggling, big-name teams who will look to right the ship before their long flights home. Three-loss Connecticut, favored by many to win the AAC this year, has a resume already haunted by two bad home losses to Wagner and Northeastern. They'll take on Oregon, who has dropped contests to Baylor and Georgetown, and needed overtime to escape Tennessee on Tuesday. The Ducks are simply trying to tread water while NCAA preseason All-American Dillon Brooks, who has started to see some minutes in Maui, works his way back from a foot injury.
And while Georgetown did come away from its Oregon matchup with a key win, the Hoyas have already suffered two of the worst losses of the season by any team -- a home loss to Arkansas State (ranked 213th on KenPom) and a last-minute implosion at home against Maryland. They'll play Oklahoma State on Wednesday, who's looking to climb the ranks in the Big 12 under new coach Brad Underwood.
Five NCAA Qualifiers Highlight the Battle 4 Atlantis
Maui's Atlantic Ocean counterpart, the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, features a field loaded with top programs who should be big factors in this year's NCAA bracket.
Things tip off Wednesday in a matchup between two perennial March Madness combatants, VCU and Baylor. Baylor has already notched a win over Oregon this season, and could emerge as Kansas' chief Big 12 competition with a big run in the Bahamas. Michigan State, led by freshman Miles Bridges, would face the Baylor-VCU winner with a win over St. John's. But nothing has come easy for Tom Izzo's young squad, as the Spartans have already lost to Arizona and Kentucky, and escaped at home with a one-point win over Florida Gulf Coast that featured a now-infamous last-second game clock error.
Wichita State will look to turn the page without graduated collegiate stars Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker against LSU. With a win, they'll take on the winner of Louisville-Old Dominion. Non-conference wins can prove critical for a team like Wichita State, whose conference doesn't always help to bolster its tournament resume. A 2013 Final Four rematch against Rick Pitino's Louisville squad would be an intriguing Thursday semifinal, as the Cardinals are a top-10 KenPom team in their first season following their NCAA Tournament ban.
Potential Friday finals matchups include a defensive slugfest between Louisville and VCU, or Michigan State-Wichita State, two teams used to March success looking to establish themselves with new-look rosters in 2016-17.
UCLA Could Prove It's Back in a Big Way
After missing the NCAA Tournament last year, UCLA, loaded with young talent, has emerged as one of the season's early bright spots. The Bruins are off to a 4-0 start and have already topped 100 points in three of those wins. Seniors Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton are each averaging over 17 points a game, but it's super-freshmen T.J. Leaf and Lonzo Ball that are stealing the early headlines. Leaf, a 6'10" power forward, is averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds a game. Ball, 6'6", has already been heralded as one of the nation's best and most versatile point guards, and his per-game averages would bear that out -- 16 points, nine assists, and six boards.
UCLA headlines the field at the Southern California-based DirecTV Wooden Legacy, named for the Bruins' legendary head coach. After Thursday's quarterfinals, UCLA could meet A-10 stalwart Dayton in Friday's semifinals. Sunday's championship game could feature one of those two teams facing off with either Texas A&M, a 3 seed in last year's NCAA Tournament, or Buzz Williams' improving Virginia Tech squad, a top-50 KenPom team who's looking to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007.
Even More Hoops, for Those With Room Left
The Advocare Invitational at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando features a solid Thanksgiving Day quarterfinal matchup between Seton Hall and Florida. The winner of that game could go on to play 11th-ranked Gonzaga in a Friday semifinal, and possibly 21st-ranked Iowa State or Jim Larranaga's Miami Hurricanes in the Sunday final.
No. 8 Arizona maintains top-10 standing despite being without star Allonzo Trier, and are the favorites to win the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational. Lauri Markannen, the Wildcats' star freshman big man from Finland, is averaging 19.5 points in his first four collegiate games. With a win over Santa Clara on Thursday, Arizona would take on the winner of Butler and Vanderbilt.
Seventh-ranked Virginia faces a Friday test as it hits the road to take on Iowa. Last week, Virginia dismissed star transfer Austin Nichols from its basketball program. Nichols, who averaged 13 points per game in his last season at Memphis, was supposed to pick up a big chunk of the 32 points per game left behind by graduating seniors Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill.
SMU travels to Los Angeles to take on USC on Friday, in a matchup between two expected NCAA Tournament contenders who currently sit outside the AP's Top 25. The winner will likely boast this victory near the top of its 2017 tournament resume.
Xavier, ranked ninth in the country, will play host to Northern Iowa on Saturday. Both squads were within an eyelash of the Sweet 16 last year before losing in devastating fashion within minutes of each other on the Sunday night of last year's Round of 32.