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Joe Boozell | | November 20, 2017

College basketball Thanksgiving tournament previews

  Notre Dame forward Bonzie Colson has a chance to lead the Irish to a title in Maui.

Here’s what you need to know about one of the most underrated weeks of the college basketball season.

Hall of Fame Classic

Location: Sprint Center, Kansas City, Mo.

Dates: Nov. 20-21

Breakdown: All of these teams could win an NCAA tournament game this season. So while the field is small, this is an event worth watching.

Creighton notched a huge win at Northwestern on Tuesday and looks like its run-and-gun outfit from early last season. People who watch Khyri Thomas closely always come away impressed; he was a role player for the Bluejays last season, but he’s got a starring gig this year, and he's thriving. Thomas went for 24 points, 11 rebounds and five assists against Northwestern.

When Mo Watson went down last year, Creighton turned to an inexperienced group of backup point guards. But its best replacement was right in front of its nose – simply put, good things happen when the ball is in Thomas’ hands. With ultra-fun gunner Marcus Foster as his running mate, this team could go for 90 on any night.

We don’t know exactly what UCLA is yet, but the Bruins have intriguing pieces. Freshman Kris Wilkes is smooth. Thomas Welsh is a basketball purist’s dream; he drains 15-footers like he’s unguarded in a layup line. Freshman point guard Jaylen Hands is interesting, and that’s all before we’ve even mentioned the Bruins’ best player, Aaron Holiday.

This is a true coin flip. The same can be said about Baylor vs. Wisconsin. Ethan Happ remains a delight for the Badgers – down the stretch vs. Xavier, Happ touched the ball on just about every possession, either scoring or whipping Aaron Rodgers-esque darts to open shooters. Wisconsin’s problem? Its perimeter guys are unproven, and even if Happ is an exquisite passer, defenses might be best served doubling him despite his wizardry and making the rest of the Badgers beat them.

Jo-Lual Acuil could draw the Happ assignment, and if he does, that will be loads of fun. Happ is stronger than Acuil, but Acuil is longer, more athletic, and crafty. He’s one of the best rim protectors in the country; he averaged 2.5 blocks last season. If there’s an argument not to double Happ, Acuil embodies it. This will be an interesting case study in the strength vs. length argument.

Winner prediction: Baylor

Maui Invitational

Location: Lahaina Civic Center, Maui, Hawaii

Dates: Nov. 20-22

Breakdown: Wichita State destroyed Charleston in its second game, which may not seem like much. But the Cougars were picked to win their league this season, and the Shockers were without Markus McDuffie. There are a few teams who have a higher ceiling than Wichita State when looking ahead to March and April. But if the NCAA tournament was played in November, and McDuffie was healthy? Based on the Shockers’ blend of talent, coaching, experience, and most importantly, continuity, it would be hard to pick against them if the NCAA tournament started tomorrow.

First Round: Shockers shock Flyers

Of course, it doesn’t, but that’s a way of saying… you don’t want to face these guys in November. The Shockers go about 10 deep, have top-10 units on both sides of the court, and know exactly who they are – a defensive behemoth who’s efficient in the half court. Wichita State has an effective field goal percentage of 63.1 through two games.

RELATED: Complete guide to more early-season tournaments

Its biggest competition in Maui figures to be Notre Dame and Bonzie Colson, a Naismith candidate who’s the most accomplished player in this tournament. And watch out for Temple Gibbs, who could be the next great Notre Dame point guard; he’s topped 20 points in two of his three outings. The Fighting Irish desperately needed someone outside of Colson or Matt Farrell to step up. Gibbs looks like the guy, and that bodes well for ND this year and beyond.

If Michigan gets past LSU, the Wolverines vs. the Fighting Irish would be a fun second round matchup. John Beilein remains one of the best offensive coaches in America, and these teams are generally point-scoring machines. That said, Michigan has struggled early offensively – it ranks 32nd and hasn’t played a top-200 KenPom team. See this matchup on paper, and you’d think the score would be in the 90s.  But the Wolverines have some soul-searching to do.

In the end, neutral fans should root for a Wichita State vs. Notre Dame title game. Defense vs. offense; new AAC school vs. established ACC power.

Winner prediction: Wichita State

Battle 4 Atlantis

Location: Paradise Island, Bahamas

Dates: Nov. 22-24

Breakdown: There are two legitimate national title contenders here in Villanova and Arizona, while Purdue sits a tier below that duo.  

Villanova may have to go through both in order to win the title, which is the furthest thing from a cakewalk. The Wildcats have the personnel to play big or small this year, thanks to the addition of redshirt freshman Omari Spellman.

Villanova may have to go through both in order to win the title, which is the furthest thing from a cakewalk. The Wildcats have the personnel to play big or small this year, thanks to the addition of redshirt freshman Omari Spellman.

But playing small is in Villanova’s DNA, and it could face a massive human in Purdue center Isaac Haas. Haas, who’s pushing 300 pounds, scored more than a point per minute against Marquette last week (22 points, 20 minutes). He’s an efficiency monster, and Purdue’s roster construction is a healthy environment in which Haas can dominate. The Boilermakers have four plus shooters flanking him, and besides Spellman, nobody on Villanova has a chance against Haas one-on-one.

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Jay Wright knows this, and he’s a fantastic teacher of denying post entry passes. If Haas catches the ball in deep position, it’s over. But tip or steal a few careless feeds, and Purdue might get in its own head. If it can’t play through Haas, Villanova has a big advantage.

Arizona has an easier path to the final, but Villanova and Purdue would both present challenges for the Wildcats. If the Boilermakers can pull off a second round upset, Haas vs. DeAndre Ayton would be a fascinating matchup. Haas is a rugged, ultra-efficient senior. Ayton looks like he was created in a basketball lab. He’s built, and is a significantly better athlete than Haas. Allonzo Trier is the best isolation scorer in the field, and Dakota Mathias is one of the best perimeter defenders in the field. The title for “best” would be a battle between Mathias and Villanova’s Mikal Bridges, who would also check Trier. All of these matchups are fascinating.

Purdue vs. Villanova or Arizona feels like a Sweet 16 preview. Villanova vs. Arizona feels like a Final 4 preview.

Winner prediction: Villanova  

Phil Knight Invitational

Location: Portland, Ore.

Dates: Nov. 23-26

Breakdown: Some serious heavy-hitters will be in Oregon during Thanksgiving. North Carolina, Duke, Michigan State, Gonzaga and Florida will all play in the inaugural event.

The Tar Heels weren’t sure if they’d have Joel Berry for this tournament, but they will, and North Carolina is a legitimate contender here. An interesting subplot: how will Luke Maye fare against better competition? In the first two games, he’s looked like a college basketball version of Kevin Love: Maye is averaging 23 points and 9.5 rebounds. He’s 5-for-7 from 3-point range, but that was against Bucknell and Northern Iowa. Can he have the same success against Oklahoma, Oregon and Michigan State? If he does, we may have to rethink the whole “UNC is going to take a step back” thing.

Michigan State looks like the most likely team to emerge from the lower half of its bracket, which could mean a date with North Carolina in the title game. The Spartans still have some stuff to figure out – how can they get Miles Bridges more minutes at his natural position, power forward, without limiting Nick Ward and Jaren Jackson? If Bridges does play the four, do they have enough good perimeter players to make it worthwhile? When will the shooters start consistently… you know, hitting shots?

But give Tom Izzo such a talented group (especially on the heels of a tough loss to Duke) and you have to like the Spartans’ chances here – even against North Carolina, which has excelled in tournaments lately.

MORE: After 0-3 start, Wake Forest has talent to turn season around

In the other bracket, if Duke wins its first two games, it could play either Florida or Gonzaga. The Gators look awesome; they’re averaging 112 points per game, and transfer Egor Koulechov is balling. Small sample size, but Florida scores 157.2 (!!) points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor. He brings a high skill level to a team loaded with tenacious athletes. The Gators could give Duke issues, but it's still tough to pick against the Blue Devils.

Winner predictions: Duke, Michigan State

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