Here come all the late November tournaments, from Maui to Myrtle Beach to a ballroom in the Bahamas. This is when we begin to find out if the early-season numbers are real or mirages.
Did you know, for example, that as of Thursday, there are still 59 unbeaten teams? But not any of the top three teams in the preseason Associated Press poll — Michigan State, Kentucky or Kansas?
That Louisville is ranked No. 2, and the last time the Cardinals were that high, in 2013, they won the (since vacated) national championship?
That Central Michigan is averaging nearly 109 points a game, and Delaware was the nation’s first team to get to 6-0, with its best start in 20 years?
That William & Mary, one of the four original Division I programs never to play in the NCAA Tournament, started a season 3-0 with every win on the road for the first time since 1935?
That the best one-man fireworks show in the country at the moment plays guard for Northeastern? Jordan Roland started the season by scoring 39 points against Boston University and 42 against Harvard, and hasn’t slowed down all that much. After five games, his average is at 30.4, with a 62.8 shooting percent, and 55.3 in 3-pointers.
That the ability to make free throws is not always a reliable indicator of success, since Western Illinois currently leads the nation in percentage from the line, but is 0-4?
The coming flurry of invitationals and classics will start providing more answers about how much some of these numbers really mean — especially for the traditional powers. Small sample size, or genuine omens? So here’s a preview of coming attractions, in chronological order. Make that possible coming attractions. Some of these games might never happen.
1. LSU vs. Utah State in Jamaica Friday
Utah State topped 80 points in each of its first five wins for the first time in 33 years, its 5-0 record by an average margin of 32.6. The No. 15 ranking in Associated Press is the Aggies’ highest in 49 seasons. How they fare against the 3-1 Tigers will give us a hint if the polls can expect more Utah State climbing.
HOLIDAY TOURNAMENTS: Ranking the best non-conference tournaments for 2019-20 season
2. Villanova vs. Utah for the Myrtle Beach title on Sunday
How’s Jay Wright’s restocking going? The blowout loss at Ohio State was a stark reminder of how much work he has to do for Villanova to be Villanova. Utah would be worthy test, having already made history this season with a box score to keep in the trophy case. The Utes piled up the largest winning margin ever between Division I teams in the 143-49 rout of Mississippi Valley State. Utah had nine players in double figures and two get triple doubles.
3. Virginia vs. Arizona State in the Hall of Fame Naismith bracket final, Sunday
Virginia held its first two opponents to 34 points, and its first three under 50 for the first time since 1948. The Cavaliers are leading the nation in defensive field goal percentage — a clanging 28.2 percent — without fouling much. After four games, Virginia’s opponents have shot only 22 free throws. Ah, but Arizona State is averaging 84 points a game, so this would be interesting.
4. Florida vs. Xavier in the Charleston Classic final on Sunday
Florida started out ranked No. 6 but in eight days, lost at home by 12 to Florida State, struggled to beat Towson, then lost to UConn. By that point, the Gators were shooting 38.4 percent, 316th in the nation. “We’ll figure it out,” coach Michael White said. We’re about to see. Xavier is last among the remaining unbeatens — alphabetically.
5. Vermont vs. Columbia for the Hall of Fame Springfield bracket final Sunday
Why? Anthony Lamb deserves any notice he can get, and Vermont is worth keeping an eye upon. He beat St. John’s on a 17-footer with two seconds left — giving the Catamounts a 4-0 start for the first time in 42 years, and their first win over any of the current Big East members since 1924. Then he faced Virginia. Vermont lost 61-55, but he torched the Cavaliers renowned defense for 30 points. Virginia came in allowing only 36.7 points a game to entire teams. If Vermont would happen to beat Columbia, that’d be a 29-1 record against schools from the state of New York since the start of the 2016-17 season.
6. Auburn vs. Wisconsin for the Roman Legends Classic final Nov. 26
Auburn is 5-0 for the first time in 15 years, and has won 17 of 18. You might recall the loss — that last-second stake through the heart at the Final Four against Virginia. All five wins have come against teams picked to finish third or higher in their conferences, including a 91-62 smashing of Patriot League favorite Colgate. Wisconsin wasn’t picked that high in the Big Ten, but would be a major test.
7. Kansas vs. Michigan State in the Maui final, Nov. 27
Kansas is 232nd in the nation in turnovers. That started with 28 in the opener against Duke. Michigan State is 260th in the nation from the 3-point line. So both teams have areas to address, but own the weapons to do it. If this match happens, then when Michigan State plays Duke Dec. 3, the Spartans will have faced every other team from the Champions Classic — and the other three teams in the preseason top-four — in the first 29 days of the season.
8. The Battle 4 Atlantis, Nov. 27-29
Nearly the entire tournament is a coming attraction. Seton Hall faces Oregon in the first round, so the Ducks — sixth in the nation in defending the 3-pointer — will get a close look at what the Myles Powell fuss is about. He’s the one who put up 37 points against Michigan State on one good ankle.
That winner will probably see Gonzaga in the second round. The Zags has resumed normal operations, winning their first five games by an average of 29.6 points, with six players averaging at least 12 points a game. But this will start an acid test stretch. If they get to the finals in the Bahamas they could face North Carolina. And over an 11-day span in December, they go to Washington and Arizona and host North Carolina — the Tar Heels’ first visit ever to Spokane. Gonzaga might play five ranked opponents in six games.
A North Carolina-Gonzaga final in the Bahamas? Or North Carolina-Oregon? Or North Carolina-Seton Hall? Well, the Tar Heels might have to get past Michigan first. The last time Wolverines coach Juwan Howard was on the Michigan side facing North Carolina, it was the 1993 national championship game. Lots of big names battling for Atlantis. It will tell us more about the curiously offensively-challenged Tar Heels. They’re 227th in field-goal percentage, 297th in free-throw percentage and have not broken 80 in any of their first four games — unprecedented in the Roy Williams era. Then again, Cole Anthony is the first Tar Heel freshman in history to top 20 points in each of his first three games.
9. UAB at Kentucky in the last game of the BBN Showcase Nov. 29
This was supposed to be a pleasure cruise of four home games against outmatched opposition, but nothing has come easy lately. The Wildcats are a multi-talented enigma. They could beat the No. 1 team in the nation — Michigan State — but not Evansville at home, and nearly not Utah Valley. The Wildcats are 347th in the nation in 3-point shooting, out of 350 schools, and have been outscored by 60 points from the 3-point line. They’ve gotten away with it — except when Evansville was in town, that is — partly because they’ve made 97 free throws, and their opponents have only shot 60. By this UAB date, if they’re not looking more Kentucky-ish with a line of dominating-type shellackings, it’ll be a restless Big Blue Nation.
The Thanksgiving week events used to be something of a ceremonial start to the season. Now they cap off the first month. Time to start finding some answers.