As we dive into one of the most fun weeks on the college basketball calendar, a fair question arises: does winning a Thanksgiving tournament really matter?
Of course, there are prime opportunities to pick up the kind of nonconference wins that can boost an NCAA tournament resume. But with so much time between now and March, these may feel like noise. Conference tournaments played in early March would seem to be more indicative of NCAA tournament success than tournaments played in November.
But recent history suggests that we can learn plenty from these Thanksgiving events, even if the real madness if months away.
A quick disclaimer: not all tournament championships are created equal. For example, it’s going to be harder to win this year’s PK-80 Phil Invitational (eight teams in each bracket) than it will be to win the Hall of Fame Classic (four teams).
With that said, the last 14 national champions have generally dominated Thanksgiving week. Check it out:
|2016-17||North Carolina||Maui Invitational||Won|
|2015-16||Villanova||NIT Season Tip-Off||Won|
|2014-15||Duke||Coaches vs. Cancer Classic||Won|
|2013-14||Connecticut||2k Sports Classic||Won|
|2012-13||Louisville||Battle 4 Atlantis||Lost in final|
|2011-12||Kentucky||Did Not Participate||N/A|
|2009-10||Duke||NIT Season Tip-Off||Won|
|2008-09||North Carolina||Maui Invitational||Won|
|2007-08||Kansas||Did Not Participate||N/A|
|2006-07||Florida||Las Vegas Invitational||Lost in final|
|2005-06||Florida||2k Sports Classic||Won|
|2004-05||North Carolina||Maui Invitational||Won|
|2003-04||Connecticut||Preseason NIT||Lost in first round|
- Seven of the past eight national champions who've played in a Thanksgiving tournament have won it.
- Kentucky and Kansas are the only schools on the list in the past 14 years that haven’t participated in a Thanksgiving tournament. Nine of the last 11 national champions who have played in a Thanksgiving tournament have won it.
- North Carolina has won three national championships since the turn of the century. It won the Maui Invitational in all three of those seasons. The Tar Heels, however, will play in the PK80 in 2017.
- Since 2004, every national champion that’s played in a Thanksgiving tournament has at least made it to the final game.
Winning the NCAA tournament isn’t the only way to be “successful” in March Madness – for most schools, anyway. Success is relative. For some programs, making the NCAA tournament can be deemed a success, regardless of what happens when they’re there. For others, making it to the second weekend is a huge accomplishment. And for some, of course, it really is national title or bust.
With that in mind, we researched the winners of the Battle 4 Atlantis and the Maui Invitational in recent years and noted what they did in the NCAA tournament. We chose those two tournaments because they each have eight teams in the field instead of four, and lately, they’ve had the most talent from top to bottom (note: this is the first year of the PK80, but it has the best crop in 2017).
Anyway, here’s how the Atlantis winners have fared:
|Year||Team||NCAA tournament results|
|2016||Baylor||Lost in Sweet 16|
|2015||Syracuse||Lost in Final Four|
|2014||Wisconsin||Lost in national championship|
|2013||Villanova||Lost in Round of 32|
|2012||Duke||Lost in Elite Eight|
|2011||Harvard||Lost in Round of 64|
Of course, winning these tournaments doesn’t guarantee anything. But if nothing else, you’re a near lock to make it to the NCAA tournament, and you’ll usually win at least a couple of games while there.
For instance – that Syracuse run in 2016 seemingly came out of nowhere. But the Orange started out well that year, winning the Battle 4 Atlantis. Harvard is the only school on this list not to win an NCAA tournament game in the same year.
Now, a look at Maui:
|Year||Team||NCAA tournament result|
|2016||North Carolina||Won national championship|
|2015||Kansas||Lost in Elite Eight|
|2014||Arizona||Lost in Elite Eight|
|2013||Syracuse||Lost in Round of 32|
|2012||Illinois||Lost in Round of 32|
|2011||Duke||Lost in Round of 64|
|2010||Connecticut||Won national championship|
|2009||Gonzaga||Lost in Round of 32|
|2008||North Carolina||Won national championship|
|2007||Duke||Lost in Round of 32|
|2006||UCLA||Lost in Final Four|
|2005||Connecticut||Lost in Elite Eight|
|2004||North Carolina||Won national championship|
|2003||Dayton||Lost in Round of 64|
- Every team to win the Battle 4 Atlantis or Maui Invitational since 2003 has gone on to make the NCAA tournament.
- Four of the last 13 Maui winners have gone on to win the national championship.
- Duke and Dayton are the only schools since 2003 to win the Maui Invitational and not win an NCAA tournament game.
- Eight of the last 14 Maui winners have reached the Elite Eight.
Dominating a tournament in November doesn’t mean you’ll do the same in March. But, these Thanksgiving events allow us to see what these teams look like in a tournament atmosphere.
Maybe these schools win in November and March because they’re just good. Or, it’s a combination of the two. These are really good teams that elevate themselves a notch in a win-or-go-home environment.
One thing we can all agree on: this is going to be such a fun week.