College basketball holiday tournaments viewer’s guide: What we’re watching

With the World Cup underway, college football’s regular season nearing its climax and the NFL in full swing, this week is a cornucopia of sports goodness.

But that’s not all — college basketball also presents a feast of fun on the hardwood, with a host of holiday tournaments featuring some of the top programs in the nation.

With so much to consider, it’s hard to keep track of it all. So to help, we’ve laid out a Thanksgiving week hoops-watching guide.

Maui Invitational 
Days: Monday through Wednesday
Teams: Texas Tech, Creighton, Louisville, Arkansas, Ohio State, San Diego State, Cincinnati, Arizona

Katz: There are a number of storylines to watch, notably from potential conference champions Creighton (Big East), San Diego State (Mountain West), Arkansas (SEC) and Arizona (Pac-12). 

The Bluejays can score at will, and this is their chance to prove they were worthy of their status as Big East preseason favorite. The Aztecs can defend as usual, but this team can score in a variety of ways. This will be a real shot to prove to the country that they are top-15 worthy. 

Arkansas hasn’t been at full strength, but still has the goods to win this event and build momentum for the SEC. Arizona’s Kerr Kriisa is off to a sensational start. He will become a household name. Texas Tech isn’t fully healthy, as Fardaws Aimaq remains out, so a Maui title would be a huge win. Ohio State is one of the most intriguing teams in the field. Justice Sueing is healthy while Brice Sensabaugh is turning heads in the Big Ten with his production. Stay tuned.

Fanta: Looking forward to seeing No. 10 Creighton and No. 14 Arizona Square Off for the Maui Invitational Title on Wednesday at 5 p.m. ET. 

While we knew a top-10 matchup between Creighton and Arkansas on Tuesday evening would likely produce a good contest, nobody could have planned for the Bluejays and Razorbacks playing the best college basketball game of the season thus far. It was a heavyweight battle that had the intensity of an Elite Eight contest, with the Jays winning, 90-87.

There were 10 ties and as many lead changes, and both Creighton and Arkansas showed the college basketball world that they have what it takes to be in Houston come April. It was impressive that the Razorbacks played this well without top recruit Nick Smith 

In the end, the Bluejays had enough with Ryan Nembhard (25), Ryan Kalkbrenner (21) and Baylor Scheierman (20) showcasing the many tools Greg McDermott has to work with. It marked the first time three Creighton players scored at least 20 points in a game since March of 2011. A big note for CU: Nembhard has 34 assists to just six turnovers on the season, and Trey Alexander poured in six assists to just two turnovers as well in Tuesday’s win. The Jays share the ball so well, and Scheierman has such a terrific feel for the game. This team is incredibly dangerous, and they’re willing to defend, a trend that started last season. Creighton can beat anyone in the country.

On the flip side of the bracket, Arizona pulled away from San Diego State in the second half to beat the Aztecs 87-70. On a night when the Wildcats were meeting a very capable defensive team in SDSU, Tommy Lloyd got great guard play from Courtney Ramey, who went for 21 points and shot a perfect 5-for-5 from beyond the arc. Kerr Kriisa also scored 21 in the win. Arizona held the Aztecs to 12-for-32 from the field in the second half and 3-for-19 overall from beyond the arc. Holding SDSU star Matt Bradley to just one made field goal was huge as the Cats were disruptive defensively throughout the night. 

So, that leads us to Creighton and Arizona in a top-15 showdown for the title. This is the beauty of Thanksgiving Week: the two programs haven’t met since 1969! I’ll be curious to see how Arizona’s twin towers Azuolas Tubelis and Oumar Ballo match up with the Bluejays’ duo of Kalkbrenner and Arthur Kaluma, who will need to improve on an uncharacteristic performance on Tuesday. The showdown between Nembhard and Ramey in the backcourt? Grab your popcorn. This is a high-level matchup, and it’s yet another case of Maui delivering the goods on Thanksgiving Eve.

Wooden Legacy
Days: Wednesday-Thursday
Teams: Fresno State, Washington, Saint Mary’s, Vanderbilt

Fanta: This is Saint Mary’s tournament to lose. And while we have a moment, let’s put some respect on Randy Bennett’s name. He gets overshadowed by Mark Few in the WCC, but the Gaels’ leader has been a consistent winner. Take out the COVID year of 2020-21, and Bennett has gone 167-45 over the last seven seasons. 

The Gaels will draw Jerry Stackhouse’s Vanderbilt squad on Wednesday night, a team that is 2-2 with losses to Memphis and Southern Miss. Can Vanderbilt find success against the Gaels’ defense? Vanderbilt forward Myles Stute, who is 12-of-25 from downtown thus far this season, will be an important piece for them to generate offense. As for the Gaels, they have good offensive balance with four in double figures. The trio of Alex Ducas, Mitchell Saxen and Logan Johnson have taken a collective leap. Washington and Fresno State are on the other side of the bracket. Mike Hopkins really needs a win in that game, but make no mistake about it: Saint Mary’s should win this multi-team event. 

Katz: Saint Mary’s is the class of the event with Washington, Fresno State and Vanderbilt. It’s not close right now. The Gaels are the goods and I fully expect Saint Mary’s to win this event handily. 

Battle 4 Atlantis
Days: Wednesday through Friday
Teams: Kansas, NC State, Dayton, Wisconsin, USC, BYU, Tennessee, Butler 

Katz: The Dayton-Wisconsin first-round game could be the best of the event. USC and Tennessee have the talent to win as well. The Vols should be the best of the bunch but the loss to Colorado in Nashville was a bit of a stunner after the Vols beat Gonzaga in an exhibition in late October. The two teams playing for the title will have much-needed momentum heading into another busy stretch of games to close out November and early December. 

Fanta: I’m interested to see Dayton square off with Wisconsin in the first-round game on Wednesday afternoon. In my opinion, these are two teams that should find a way to the NCAA Tournament. The Flyers were pegged as the Atlantic 10 front-runners but stumbled last week to UNLV. I’m intrigued to see Dayton’s leading scorer Daron Holmes II meet Wisconsin star Tyler Wahl. The 6-foot-9 senior is averaging 14.7 points and 8.0 rebounds per game, charging the Badgers. The bigger key for Wisconsin is Chucky Hepburn’s continued progress as a sophomore leader in the backcourt. Make no mistake about it: the Badgers hinge on how they defend, but if Hepburn can continue to drive the bus among the guards, Wisconsin could surprise people. This team is difficult to score on, though, and I’ll be curious to see if Kobe Elvis and Malachi Smith can find ways to produce offense. 

Staying on that side of the bracket, 4-0 NC State meets Kansas on Wednesday. While the Jayhawks will obviously be favored, opportunity knocks for Kevin Keatts’ crew. Wolfpack sophomore guard Terquavion Smith is the player to watch for NC State, averaging 19 points per game. 

My dream matchup: Kansas and Tennessee in the title game.

Phil Knight Invitational
Days: Thursday-Sunday
Teams: North Carolina, Portland, Iowa State, Villanova, UConn, Oregon, Alabama, Michigan State

Fanta: What a way to celebrate Phil Knight’s 85th birthday! The highlight of the openers in this tournament is No. 12 Michigan State continuing its hardest nonconference schedule of the Tom Izzo era when the Spartans meet No. 18 Alabama on Thanksgiving. I’ll be very intrigued to see how Crimson Tide star freshman Brandon Miller impacts this game. The five-star recruit has come into Nate Oats’ program and averaged more than 20 points per game. How will he fare against the Spartans front line of Mady Sissoko, Joey Hauser and Malik Hall? Miller could be the best rookie in the SEC, which is certainly saying something when considering what Kentucky, Arkansas and others have. He is a must-watch player in college basketball, and I’m really looking forward to seeing him go up against Izzo’s defense.

The other dimension to the Spartans and Tide meeting is Ohio transfer Mark Sears squaring off with the red-hot A.J. Hoggard. Can the Spartans keep their recent hot streak going? 

I’m also looking forward to seeing North Carolina and UConn get tested for the first time this season. Are the Tar Heels in fact the best team in the land? Are the Huskies top-20 good? We find out this week.

Katz: Michigan State-Alabama is the best game of the opening day. This should be a slug-fest and the winner has a legit shot to win the event. North Carolina should be in the final playing either the Spartans or Bama, unless UConn can upset the bunch. 

Phil Knight Legacy
Days: Thursday-Sunday
Teams: Duke, Oregon State, Florida, Xavier, Purdue, West Virginia, Portland State, Gonzaga

Katz: Love the bigs in this bracket with Drew Timme (Gonzaga), Colin Castleton (Florida), Zach Edey (Purdue) and Dereck Lively (Duke). This will be the best of the two brackets and is wide open. Surviving these three games will be quite a run for whoever can win this event. 

Fanta: Xavier and Florida on Thanksgiving Day? That sounds like a lot of fun. It’s two first-year head coaches at their respective programs in the Gators’ Todd Golden and the Musketeers’ Sean Miller. This is going to be a big-time battle in the frontcourt between the Gators’ Castleton, who’s averaging more than 25 PPG, and the Musketeers’ duo of Jack Nunge and Zach Freemantle. This is also the type of matchup where Golden can show why he brought in St. Bonaventure transfer Kyle Lofton, who was one of the splash additions of the offseason. How will UTEP transfer Souley Boum fare on the other side for Xavier? This is a major early résumé game for both programs, and I look at Xavier’s Colby Jones playing a massive role in how this game plays out.

I’ll also be intrigued to see Purdue face West Virginia as two of the best coaches in the country, Matt Painter and Bob Huggins, will meet. This will be a test for the Boilers’ new-look backcourt with the Mountaineers applying pressure with Joe Toussaint and Erik Stevenson. That being said, how does Huggy Bear plan to defend the one and only Edey? I’ll be intrigued to see that play out!

ESPN Events Invitational
Days: Thursday-Sunday
Teams: Florida State, Siena, Ole Miss, Stanford, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Memphis, Seton Hall

Fanta: Hardaway. Holloway. That sounds like a heavyweight boxing match. It’s a little odd that the two best teams in this event will meet in the first round in Orlando on Thursday night, but we’ll get a great matchup for Thanksgiving dessert when the Pirates and Tigers meet at 7:30 p.m. ET. How does Seton Hall’s high-pressure defense fare against SMU transfer Kendric Davis, who leads the Tigers with 20 PPG? I’m expecting a highly physical battle between these two teams, a game that you can expect Saint Peter’s transfer KC Ndefo to impact. The big key for Seton Hall is guard play. Can Al-Amir Dawes build off a 19-point performance against Wagner on Sunday? 

The other storyline? Ole Miss. Look out for the 4-0 Rebels and check out junior guard Matthew Murrell, who’s averaging 18 PPG. I like Kermit Davis’ team to beat Stanford, then Florida State to advance to Sunday’s final.

Katz: No one has gotten out of the gate blazing among the eight schools. Florida State needs something positive. So, does Memphis. Ole Miss is an unknown. Stanford can’t find consistency. My two picks to be standing tall would be Seton Hall and Oklahoma. 

And there’s more!

Mississippi State, Utah collide in Fort Myers Tip-Off Classic Championship Game on Wednesday

Chris Jans, formerly of New Mexico State, was one of six coaching hires made in the SEC in the offseason, and he has brought defense to Starkville. The Bulldogs rank eighth in KenPom adjusted defensive efficiency and showed it in a 58-55 victory over Marquette that was a nip-and-tuck, defensive war. On the other side of this matchup, Utah could be a factor in the Pac-12 with loads of returning talent. Seven-footer Branden Carlson leads the way for the Utes with 17 PPG.

Tip-off between the Bulldogs and Utes comes at 8:30 p.m. ET on FS1, following Georgia Tech and Marquette in the consolation game at 6 p.m. ET. An added bonus? Brandon Gaudin will be joined by The Governor, Bill Raftery, for the Thanksgiving eve broadcasts.

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Andy Katz is a longtime college basketball writer, analyst and host. He can be seen on the Big Ten Network, as well as March Madness and NCAA.com, and he hosts the podcast “March Madness 365.” Katz worked at ESPN for nearly two decades and, prior to that, in newspapers for nine years.

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.


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