Any sane human in the year 2018 knows that the Maui Invitational is essential at-work viewing for Monday and Tuesday afternoon during Thanksgiving Week. Listening to Bill Walton tout the marvel of innovation that is Maui Jim Sunglasses is a sacred tradition that has spanned generations (or for as long as games have been streamed via the Internet).
Maui isn’t going anywhere, thank God. But there’s more to November and December than just the eight-team field in Hawaii and another tournament played in a ball room for some reason. Here are the five tournaments that all mid-major fans should keep an eye on in the first two months of 2018-19:
Field: Oregon State vs. Old Dominion, Kennesaw State vs. Missouri, Northern Iowa vs. Penn, Eastern Kentucky vs. Kansas State
After Kansas State, Old Dominion is the best team in this field, and people are going to take notice when they beat Oregon State and Missouri en route to a likely championship loss to Kansas State. The Monarchs went 25-7 last year and return leading scorers B.J. Stith and Ahmad Caver, who combine to form one of the deadliest three-point duos in the country. On the other side, Northern Iowa and Penn should play a defensive battle with the slight upper hand going to a Quakers team that was hideously under-seeded in the NCAA Tournament.
Caymen Islands Classic
Field: Akron vs. Clemson, Georgia vs. Illinois State, St. Bonaventure vs. Georgia State, Boise State vs. Creighton
Led by reigning conference newcomer of the year Milik Yarbrough, Illinois State should be stacked next season. The Redbirds will be early favorites to win the Missouri Valley and could make a huge statement with a win over Georgia...and maybe another against a high-major in this tournament. Rising juniors Keyshawn Evans and Phil Fayne give the Redbirds experience that tends to catch power conference schools off-guard early in the season. Elsewhere in the bracket, St. Bonaventure and Boise State will both take steps back next year, and that’s what makes their games interesting. Georgia State, which returns a ton, could upset the Bonnies, and the Broncos will be thrown into the fire against Creighton.
Field: Boston College vs. Wyoming, Loyola University Chicago vs. Richmond
Richmond had a tough time last year, especially to start. But the Spiders got better as the year went on and scratched out a 9-9 record in the Atlantic 10. They lost a few players to transfer, including De’Monte Buckingham and Khwan Fore, but their top two scorers are back and were underclassmen. They’ll be big underdogs against 2018 Final Four team Loyola, who returns Clayton Custer, Marques Townes, and Cameron Krutwig. That would set up a potential championship game between the Ramblers and Boston College — a team that could challenge for an NCAA Tournament birth in 2019. Meanwhile Richmond could face Wyoming, which was competitive in the Mountain West but loses a lot from last year.
Nov. 29-Dec. 1
Field: San Francisco vs. Stephen F. Austin, Milwaukee vs. Buffalo | Marist vs. Dartmouth, LIU Brooklyn vs. Albany
Taking a bunch of mid-majors and sending them to Ireland for a few days is cool enough on its own. Like, to the point that maybe I should start begging one of these teams to take me (hmu LIU I go to a lot of your games). Add to it that these teams are, for the most part, really interesting, and you have a pair of mini-tournaments that I can’t wait to see. Start with San Francisco — a solid team overshadowed by the titans of the West Coast Conference. The Dons impressed friend of the site Jon Rothstein when he visited practice last month and you’ll want to scroll back in his timelines a bit for a few things he saw. 5’11 Frankie Ferrari seems to be the guy to watch there, and this blog loves the literal little guys, so we’re on board. The Dons will face Stephen F. Austin, which has found its footing in the Kyle Keller era and is again the class of the Southland. That won’t change with Shannon Bogues and TJ Holyfield headed into their senior years.
Milwaukee lost everyone and their mother (presumably) to transfer, so they shouldn’t be much of a match for Buffalo, a team that could flirt with the Top 25 this year. That’s OK — the Bulls should get a solid challenge against either the Dons or the Lumberjacks in the final. The other bracket doesn’t look nearly as exciting, but keep an eye on the New York matchup between LIU Brooklyn and Albany. The reigning NEC champs and the America East second place team will both look drastically different next year and this will be a fun opportunity to see what each can bring to the table.
Las Vegas Classic
Field (Hosts): Drake, New Mexico State, San Diego, Washington State
[me, drunk]: “Uh...gimme three kinda OK mid-majors, a Power 5 bottom feeder, send them to Vegas and let them get silly.”
I’m not entirely sure what’s going on with this field, and that’s why I like it. Drake is on its third different coach in three years, San Diego was really good for like two weeks last year, and New Mexico State is coming off an extraordinary year, but will have to move forward without Zach Lofton and Jemerrio Jones. I like the idea of letting them all fight it out and I have no idea how it’s going to go. One under-the-radar player to watch: UAB transfer Nick Norton, who will suit up for Drake as a grad student. He averaged 7.5 points and 4.9 assists last year in CUSA.