PORTLAND, OR. — Thanksgiving Week in the United States always provides fans with some of the best college basketball of the season. With early season events taking place across the country, there are ample opportunities for teams to bolster their tournament resumes early on.
This season, fans are treated to the PK80 Invitational, an event that will honour Nike founder Phil Knight. Technically, it’s one event, but there are two brackets with eight teams apiece, and each bracket will produce a tournament winner. So, it’s two brackets, with two winners, but only one event.
Regardless, some of the nation’s top teams will ascend on Portland, Oregon over Thanksgiving Weekend to partake in some of the best college basketball action we will see all season long, outside of March Madness.
In the Victory Bracket, teams like the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Michigan State Spartans headline each half of the bracket. There are teams with some question marks heading into the event, while there are others who are looking to pull off the biggest win in program history (Portland Pilots).
Below, we have broken down the Michigan State half of the bracket, which features a Final Four team from last season, a team on the rise in the Big East, and the 2014 National Champion.
DePaul Blue Demons (1-2)
The Blue Demons were a late addition to the Victory Bracket of the PK80 Invitational, as the Georgetown Hoyas backed out of the event leading up to the season. Coming into the event, DePaul is the only team with a losing record this season across both brackets, and they have the honour of taking on one of the top teams in the country in their opener: the Michigan State Spartans.
Both of their losses have come against power conference schools this season, including a season-opening loss to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in their first game inside the newly constructed Wintrust Arena.
Despite a 1-2 record, the Blue Demons have a pair of stars on their roster who are capable of going off at any given moment. Division II transfer Max Strus is the team’s leading scorer, averaging 13.7 points to go along with 5.0 rebounds per contest. He forms a formidable duo with Eli Cain, who averages 11.7 points and a team-high 5.3 rebounds per contest. In total, seven players are averaging at least 6.3 points per contest through three games, and balance is a good thing to have moving forwards.
Their downfall this season has been their three point shooting. The Blue Demons are shooting just 26.7% from beyond the arc as a team, and only three players have connected on a three point jumper this season. If they want to have any chance of beating the Spartans in the opener, they will need to knock down their open three pointers, which will then open things up inside.
Connecticut Huskies (3-0)
Even though it was only back in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, it feels like a lot longer since the Connecticut Huskies won their last National Championship. Since then, Connecticut has only made one NCAA Tournament appearance, and they didn’t make it past the first weekend in 2016.
This season, Kevin Ollie and company will look to get back to the Big Dance for the first time in two seasons, and they have the talent on the roster to make a run at the American Athletic Conference title and turn a few heads in March. The trio of Jalen Adams, Alterique Gilbert, and Terry Larrier are all on the court together this season, and that has created a ton of positive buzz around the Huskies.
Larrier, a transfer from the VCU Rams, is averaging a team-high 16.7 points to go along with 5.3 rebounds per game this season, his second with the Huskies. Adams is second on the team, averaging 15.5 points per contest. This off-season, they added additional experience on the transfer market, by way of graduate transfers David Onuorah and Antwoine Anderson. Both players add depth to the roster, and veteran leadership to help the Huskies through some of the tougher times in the year.
Onuorah is currently the team’s leading rebounder, averaging 6.0 rebounds per game in just under 14 minutes of action per night.
The one thing that could hinder the Huskies during the PK80 Invitational is their lack of familiarity with one another. Last season, Larrier was limited to just four games last season before suffering a season-ending injury at the Maui Invitational against the Oklahoma State Cowboys. As the Huskies get familiar with one another, they will become a team to watch. They put together an impressive outing against the Boston Univ. Terriers in their last outing, so they’re trending in the right direction. The PK80 Invitational will be their first real test this season.
Oregon Ducks (4-0)
The common theme across the Victory Bracket of the PK80 Invitational is depth, and the Oregon Ducks have showcased their depth through four games this season, all of which have been wins.
Last season, the Ducks advanced to the Final Four. Gone from that team are four starters, with the lone returnee being second-year guard Payton Pritchard. There are six freshmen on the roster, headlined by forward Troy Brown, who also leads the team in scoring with an average of 13.0 points. Brown also leads the team in rebounding, with 6.3 rebounds per game.
Oregon has ten players on their roster who are averaging double-digit minutes per game this season, and all ten are averaging at least 4.8 points and 2.3 rebounds per game. The Ducks have taken part in four double-digit wins this season, which has given head coach Dana Altman the opportunity to get all of his players some significant minutes early in the season.
The one red flag for the Ducks this season is the fact that they have yet to be challenged. They have confidence, by way of a 4-0 record, but they haven’t played anyone to the caliber of the field at the PK80 Invitational. They face a Connecticut team in the quarter-finals that has a wealth of experience, and will be the first big test for a young Oregon team.
#4 Michigan State Spartans (2-1)
Despite their loss to the Duke Blue Devils at the 2017 Champions Classic, the Spartans look like a true national title contender this season. They enter the PK80 Invitational with a few injury concerns, but are still the team to beat in the Victory Bracket.
Against the Stony Brook Seawolves in their last outing, Miles Bridges left the game after rolling his right ankle on a drive to the basket. It was later diagnosed as a sprained ankle, and his status is up in the air for the Spartans’ opener against DePaul on Thursday in Portland. Head coach Tom Izzo said that there’s a ‘30% chance’ that Bridges will play against the Blue Demons. With Kenny Goins also on the shelf for a couple more weeks, the front court rotation for the Spartans will be a tad thinner than usual.
Even if Bridges isn’t able to go on Thursday, the Spartans have a plethora of options on the offensive end. As a team, they are shooting 55.3% from the floor, and with the exception of Matt McQuaid, every player who has seen action in all three games is shooting 50% or better from the floor. Nick Ward is having himself a stellar start to his freshman season, averaging 19.0 points and 6.0 rebounds per game, while shooting 75.9% from the field. Add in Jaren Jackson, Jr., and a healthy Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter to the front court rotation, and the Spartans are loaded up front.
Cassius Winston has turned into one of the nation’s top point guards, averaging 8.3 assists per contest as a sophomore, while also chipping in 9.3 points. They’ve got a lead scoring guard in Josh Langford, and a true leader in Lourawls ‘Tum Tum’ Nairn coming off the bench. No matter where you look, the Spartans have options.
– T. Bennett