Sam’s Section: Previewing the best early-season college basketball tournaments 

Kentucky forward Tre Mitchell, right, blocks a shot from Kansas center Hunter Dickinson during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023, in Chicago. Photo by Erin Hooley/AP Photo

Thanksgiving is right around the corner, which means the early-season college basketball tournaments, most notably the Maui Invitational and the Battle 4 Atlantis, will begin. 

While college basketball just started, these early-season college basketball tournaments are more important than you may think. 16 of the last 25 national champions have won its early-season tournament. From 2014 to 2021, every season that included an NCAA Tournament’s national champion won an early-season tournament. Last year, UConn won the Phil Knight Invitational and later the national championship with an undefeated record against non-conference opponents. 

In this edition of Sam’s Section, we will look at the best tournament fields as “Feast Week,” coined by ESPN, approaches. 

Allstate Maui Invitational (Nov. 20-22, ESPN/ESPN2/ESPNU) 

With a field including No. 1 Kansas, No. 2 Purdue, No. 4 Marquette, No. 7 Tennessee, No. 11 Gonzaga, UCLA, Syracuse and Chaminade, there is no question that the Maui Invitational, set in Honolulu this season because of the ongoing repairs due to wildfires in Lahaina, is the best early-season tournament in college basketball this year. Headlined by four top-10 teams, the field will battle for the tournament’s championship. Even the quarterfinal round is full of blockbuster matchups, including Purdue against Gonzaga (Monday, 5 p.m., ESPN2). In the past 25 years, four champions from this tournament have gone on to win the national championship (2004-05 North Carolina, 2008-09 North Carolina, 2010-11 UConn, 2016-17 North Carolina).

Bad Boy Mowers Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 22-24, ESPN/ESPN2/ESPNU/ESPN+) 

This year’s Battle 4 Atlantis field may not include four top-10 teams as the Maui Invitational does. However, its field is still impressive: No. 14 Arkansas, No. 20 North Carolina, No. 21 Villanova, Michigan, Memphis, Texas Tech, Stanford and Northern Iowa. The best quarterfinal matchup may be the second game on Wednesday between Villanova and Texas Tech (2:30 p.m., ESPN or ESPN2). There is potential for marquee matchups later in the tournament. We could see North Carolina against Villanova, with the winner of that possibly facing Arkansas. Villanova has won this tournament before in its dominant 2017-18 season, where they eventually won its second national championship in three years. The year after, Virginia won the Battle 4 Atlantis and the national championship to complete an incredible turnaround.

UConn guard Cam Spencer (12) shoots over Mississippi Valley State forward Walter Hamilton in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023, in Hartford, Conn. Photo by Jessica Hill/AP Photo

Saatva Empire Classic (Nov. 19-20, ESPN/ESPNU) 

In the World’s Most Famous Arena, four historic programs will be competing in a two-day tournament. No. 5 UConn, the defending national champions, will look for a second championship in this event. The last time they won was in 2013 when they went on to win the program’s fourth national championship. They will be up against fellow blue-blood Indiana, who was in 2013’s championship game against the Huskies. On the other side of the bracket, No. 19 Texas will battle Louisville. The Longhorns are also searching for a second title in the Empire Classic, winning in 2014. Louisville is making its first appearance in this tournament. Despite the lack of success in recent years, the Cardinals have a chance to turn things around at Madison Square Garden this weekend.

ESPN Events Invitational (Nov. 23-24, 26, ESPN/2/U/ESPN+) 

Unlike the other three tournaments, the ESPN Events Invitational does not include big-name programs. However, the field includes two teams in the AP Poll: No. 10 Florida Atlantic and No. 13 Texas A&M. It will also be interesting to see the state of Penn State basketball now that head coach Micah Shrewsberry has gone off to be the coach at Notre Dame. Butler will represent the Big East, led by St. John’s transfer Posh Alexander. The well-coached Iowa State Cyclones will face VCU in the quarterfinal round. Boise State and Virginia Tech could also provide excitement in Orlando. There has not been a lot of history in terms of NCAA Tournament success in the history of the ESPN Events Invitational. Kansas participated in this event during its 2022 national championship season. This field will have a new champion added to the list, as none of the teams have won in the past. 

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