Welcome to March Madness in November.
Aside from the return of college basketball, holiday tournaments are the best part of non-conference play.
Battles between future NCAA Tournament teams give a taste of postseason basketball. Mid-majors are presented with opportunities to score a resume win and receive national attention. And, on the third day, one team is crowned champion, a feat they hope to accomplish twice more before the season’s conclusion.
1. Lake Buena Vista, Xavier’s second home
Unless a team is hosting, no team plays in the same in-season tournament back-to-back years. Though, this is what essentially happened to the Musketeers.
Thanks to the Zika virus forcing the Tire Pros Invitational from Puerto Rico, Xavier played their second straight tournament at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports.
Head coach Chris Mack may want to ask the selection committee to play the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament in the Orlando area.
Over the last 12 months, Xavier is 6-0 in Orange County with two championships. The average margin of victory is a little over 12 points per game.
The Orlando success aside, the Musketeers impressed me more this time around. The first trip to HP Field House, they sliced through the bracket and defeated Dayton by 29 points in the championship game. During this tournament, adversity had to be overcome.
On Thursday, Missouri, a team of predominantly underclassmen, led for the majority and was one made field goal away from sending Xavier to the losers’ bracket. Stud sophomore Edmond Sumner was awful from the free throw line and almost cost his team the game by going 5-for-12.
But, Sumner and the Musketeers persevered. They refused to allow one poor performance to alter their main objective. They refused to let their #11 national rank slide lower. They refused to lose.
Xavier has some skills to tune-up before reaching the Final Four and winning a National Championship. But, who am I do say they cannot make the necessary adjustments and make school history?
Because the truth is, this team is talented enough to cut the nets down in March.
2. Northern Iowa, turning heads again
I’ll be honest, the last two years I have overlooked Northern Iowa since they lost seniors that were instrumental in the team’s success (i.e. Seth Tuttle, Nate Buss, Wes Washpun, Paul Jesperson).
This season, they are proving their worth in November, rather than waiting until March.
The Panthers, traveling to Orlando and downing Arizona State and Oklahoma in just over 24 hours, already appear to be in mid-season form.
Jeremy Morgan and Klint Carlson are continuing what they started from last season and playing like All-MVC first teamers. Also, Bennett Koch has proven to be a force in the paint while Jordan Ashton is becoming a three-point assassin off the bench.
The most valuable skill in the Panthers’ repertoire is defense. Last year, whenever UNI held opponents under 63 points, they were 15-3. This November, Ben Jacobson’s team is already 2-0 when limiting opponents to the same amount. Thus, the defense is their best offense.
But, let’s be fair, they have legitimate weapons on offense. Morgan has continued to improve and is now one of the most complete players in “The Valley” and Carlson has an offensive clutch gene that shows up in the biggest moments.
Thanks to scheduling, Northern Iowa will play Xavier again on Saturday. The rematch is set for the Cintas Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. Outside of this matchup, two games, Iowa at a neutral site and #4 North Carolina on the road can make more believers in the Panthers.
Or, are you already riding with UNI?
3. Oklahoma will go as far as Jordan Woodard can take them
6:26 remained in the second semi-final when Oklahoma star Jordan Woodard stepped to the free throw line. He made both attempts, increasing the Sooners lead to 13 over Northern Iowa.
11 minutes and 26 seconds (of game time) later, it was the Panthers who were celebrating a big victory. Woodard, a senior who has been a constant in the starting line-up since arriving on campus in 2013, was just 1-for-7 from the field and had three turnovers down the stretch of the contest. Thus, the two stats propose the question: How far can Woodard take Lon Kruger’s team?
Last year, as everyone knows, Oklahoma was one of the nation’s best teams and made the Final Four. But, that was with Isaiah Cousins, Ryan Spangler, and current New Orleans Pelicans’ guard Buddy Hield.
THIS Sooners’ squad is starting three underclassmen — two sophomores and a freshman — and junior Khadeem Lattin around Woodard.
In two victories, Woodard averaged 21.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 8 assists per game in Lake Buena Vista. With him running the point, the offense runs around the 6’0″ guard. Though, the Sooners have a certain dependency on him, only replicated by a mid-major with one star player.
The opportunities are present, both in non-conference and conference play, for Woodard to score, pass, and rebound the Sooners to victories over marquee opponents. But, how many wins will ultimately be produced is yet to be seen.
4. Davidson has framework for at-large bid
Last season, the best non-conference win Davidson had was UCF at home. This fact alone sent the Wildcats to the NIT rather than the NCAA Tournament.
10 days into this new season, Davidson, not only has one resume win, but a pair.
By Bob McKillop’s team flexing their defensive muscles, the Wildcats closed out their time at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports with wins over Missouri and Arizona State. In both games, opposing offenses were held under 37 percent shooting while their leading scorer (Missouri’s Frankie Hughes and Arizona State’s Torian Graham) totaled just 5 points on a combined 2-for-23 shooting.
Davidson star senior Jack Gibbs made his season debut in the tournament and tied the record for points in the three-day event with 71. Junior Peyton Aldridge continued to be the formidable second in command and averaged 18.3 points (55 total points) and 8.7 rebounds per game in Lake Buena Vista.
Now with the defense clicking on all cylinders, the only concern for the Wildcats is where scoring will come from outside the two. On Friday, Jon Axel Gudmundsson and Jordan Watkins complemented the charge by contributing 15 total points. On Sunday, juniors Rusty Reigel and Will Magarity took the baton by producing a combined 19 points and 13 rebounds.
As long as there is secondary scoring for Gibbs and Aldridge, Davidson should have good showings at #4 North Carolina or in Kansas City versus #5 Kansas.
One win would be the signature victory that Davidson needs to start garnering serious at-large bid attention.
G – Jack Gibbs (Davidson)
G – Jordan Woodard (Oklahoma)
G – Trevon Bluiett (Xavier)
***Most Outstanding Player
F – Klint Carlson (Northern Iowa)
F – J.P. Macura (Xavier)