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Joe Boozell | NCAA.com | November 21, 2017

Battle 4 Atlantis preview: Will Nova, Arizona meet?

  Villanova will try to vault itself in the rankings with a nice showing over Thanksgiving.

The Battle 4 Atlantis has solidified its place as a Thanksgiving tournament to watch in recent years.

Here are the key storylines to watch in the Bahamas this week, and a look at the full bracket.

*Isaac Haas vs. Villanova (maybe?), which loves to play small

Haas is averaging 28.8 points and 12.8 rebounds per 40 minutes. Small sample size? Sure, but those aren’t far off his career marks – Haas is averaging 25 points and 10.6 boards per 40 as a Boilermaker.

The starting center role is finally his, and he’s thriving – Marquette, a team built like a poor man’s Villanova – had no answer for Haas, who scored 22 points in 20 minutes against the Golden Eagles. If Purdue beats Tennessee and Villanova beats Western Kentucky, Haas will go up against the Wildcats.

Jay Wright loves to play small and switch on defense. Last year, 6-7 Eric Paschall spent a bunch of time at center. Haas is a mountain of a human; if he catches the ball deep, Paschall won’t be able to handle him.

That’s where redshirt freshman Omari Spellman comes in for the Wildcats. At 6-9, 275 pounds, Spellman has the girth to withstand punishment. But Villanova’s strategy will be to deny Haas those touches entirely – there might not be a better team in the country at disrupting post feeds.

It’s not sexy, but the way Carsen Edwards and P.J. Thompson navigate Villanova’s maze of limbs will be crucial. Throw a few errant passes Haas’ way, and Purdue may abandon the post entirely – like a football team that has a few negative runs and airs it out the rest of the afternoon. That plays right into Villanova’s hands. If Haas can establish position, and his guards can find him, the Wildcats might not have an answer.

*If Arizona faces SMU, it will be facing a defensive juggernaut

SMU has only allowed 72 points in its past two games. The Mustangs will need to get past Northern Iowa in order to potentially face Arizona, which will have to go through N.C. State. If that happens, Arizona-SMU will be loads of fun.

SMU plays at a snail’s pace – it ranked 333rd in adjusted tempo last year, and regularly played games in the 60s. That’s a low-variance strategy that lends itself to upsetting a behemoth like Arizona. Simply put: lower the possessions, and it gives the less-talented team a better chance.

Of course, Arizona is stacked. Allonzo Trier is averaging 30 points and lives at the free-throw line. DeAndre Ayton looks like a baby Dwight Howard. Parker Jackson-Cartwright makes everything run smoothly. The Wildcats are the No. 2 team for a reason.

But SMU could present issues. Shake Milton, the Mustangs’ best player, will be a tough cover for Arizona, which is missing its top perimeter defender in Rawle Alkins. Alkins would draw the Milton assignment if healthy, so Sean Miller has a tough choice: stick Trier on him, which would cause his best scorer to expend a lot of energy; put Jackson-Cartwright on him, who gives up a ton of size to Milton; or try Emmanuel Akot on him, who’s an untested freshman.

The last option is the most likely one. Akot’s performance could decide this game.

*DeAndre Ayton could stake his claim as the best freshman in America

This guy is something else. With the unfortunate news that Missouri freshman Michael Porter, Jr. will have season-ending surgery, Ayton might be the best rookie in the country. He may have already been – but now, it’s either him or Marvin Bagley until further notice.

Ayton has gotten off to a brilliant start – it’s hard to identify what the best part of his game is, because he does so many things well. At 7-1, 250, he’s built like a 25-year-old. He’s versatile defensively – Ayton is averaging almost two blocks, and he can corral speedy guards on the perimeter. He’s the rare big who can defend the rim and defend in space.

Ayton rebounds – he’s yet to have a game of less than 10 boards. He’s shown feathery mid-range touch on offense, and he’s skilled and athletic near the hoop – Ayton is averaging 18.7 points.

The word on Ayton coming into Arizona was that his motor would come and go. We haven’t seen evidence of that yet, but it’s been three games, and Ayton is about to face his toughest competition.

But if Ayton comes out of this tournament averaging 18 and 12, like he is now, and Arizona wins, we could be talking about him like we did Joel Embiid a few years ago. He’s a notch below Embiid on the “once-in-a-generation-talent” scale, but he’s not that far off. Considering Embiid might be the best big man prospect we’ve seen since the turn of the century, that’s high praise.

Get to know this guy. He’s the kind of player who can swing a program, and a season.  

*Jalen Brunson can launch his Naismith campaign

Trier and his 30 points per game already have a leg up on Brunson here, but of course, it’s far too early to draw grand conclusions. Arizona could face Villanova in the tournament final. If Nova wins, and Brunson outplays Trier, it could be the kind of thing people reference when they cast their ballots later on.

Villanova hasn’t played anyone noteworthy yet, but to his credit, Brunson has been brilliant. He’s shooting 66 percent from the field and making half of his 3s. He’s averaging a miniscule 1.3 turnovers. Brunson has been incredibly efficient his entire career, and somehow, he manages to improve in that department as he ages.  

With Josh Hart gone, we’ll see if that trend continues once legitimate defenses key in on him. Brunson, one of the best post-up guards in the country, would likely abuse Jackson-Cartwright on the block in a potential Villanova-Arizona matchup. Is it possible Sean Miller would slot Trier on him during crunch time? If so, it would be super fun, and would provide valuable data as it pertains to the Naismith race.

Expect Brunson to go nuts in the Bahamas.

*Tennessee could help prove that the SEC was underrated coming into the year

The Porter news hurts the state of the SEC, but Alabama, Texas A&M, Florida and Arkansas have all exceeded preseason expectations, and Kentucky should improve once its freshmen gain experience.

Tennessee has a great opportunity to join that list if it shows out in the Bahamas.

The Volunteers haven’t played a Power Five opponent yet, but they haven’t allowed more than 53 points in a game to date. That’s a good start for a team that ranked 55th on defense last year. Tennessee has a tough opening draw – Purdue – a darkhorse candidate to win the Big Ten if Michigan State fails to live up to the hype. We discussed Haas earlier, and the Boilermakers surround him with four shooters and rangy wing defenders. That’s a recipe for success.

But the Volunteers have some players. Admiral Schofield looks great early – Tennessee scores a whopping 138.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. Grant Williams is the kind of inside-out threat that can give any defense problems.

If Tennessee can beat Purdue – and if we’re getting really crazy, Villanova – expect the Vols (and the SEC) to get plenty of well-deserved praise.