LAS VEGAS, Nev. — It’s only fitting that four of the biggest programs in all of college basketball ascend on Sin City for a two-day event.
During the 2018-19 season, that’s exactly what will happen at the 18th annual Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational. The event will take place over Thanksgiving on November 22nd and 23rd at the Orleans Arena. The ‘city that never sleeps’ will give its residents and visitors alike another attraction to enjoy for two days.
On Thursday, the field for the 2018 edition of the event was released, and it will be a star-studded affair to say the least. Four of the nation’s biggest programs will bring their talents to Las Vegas for the event.
The Michigan State Spartans, Texas Longhorns, UCLA Bruins, and North Carolina Tar Heels will all vie for the tournament title when the time rolls around. They will also be looking to bolster their tournament resumes with some quality wins early on in the season.
Here’s an early look at all four teams in the event heading into next season.
For the Spartans, the biggest question is how they will cope with a new front court rotation in 2018-19. Gone are Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr., who both left early for the 2018 NBA Draft. Add in the graduation of both Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter, and the Spartans’ front court will be without several familiar faces from last year’s team that won 30 games.
Nick Ward declared early for the 2018 NBA Draft, as well, but did not hire an agent. He is expected to return to East Lansing for his junior season, and that would be a big boost for Tom Izzo and the Spartans. Ward averaged 12.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, and shot 64.8% from the floor in just over 18 minutes per contest. If he can play bigger minutes in 2018-19 and still maintain his production, he’ll be one of the nation’s top big men.
Freshmen Marcus Bingham, Thomas Kithier, and Gabe Brown will see their fair share of minutes out of the gates up front.
Where the Spartans will excel in 2018-19 is in the back court. The return of Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford, and Matt McQuaid give the Spartans one of the more talented guard trios in the Big Ten Conference, and will give Michigan State different offensive options on each possession.
For the Tar Heels, they will have to replace the production of their own graduating stars. Both Theo Pinson and Joel Berry II have graduated and won’t be back in a North Carolina jersey next season, leaving holes in both the front court and back court rotations next year for Roy Williams.
Forward Luke Maye and guard Kenny Williams have yet to make any draft decisions since the season came to an end, so it’s unclear as to whether or not one, or both, will be back next season. If both elect to return, that will give the Tar Heels a nice inside-out punch that will be among the ACC’s best.
Guard Cameron Johnson is returning to Chapel Hill for one more season with North Carolina, and that’s exciting news for fans of the Tar Heels. Johnson averaged 12.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game in 26 contests for the Tar Heels last season after transferring from the Pittsburgh Panthers.
If either Maye or Williams opt to return next season alongside Johnson, their experience will give the Tar Heels a big boost and help their talented freshmen get acclimated to the NCAA game. Best case scenario is that all three return, and North Carolina fans will be crossing their fingers for that to happen. Add in a recruiting class that features five-star prospects Nassir Little and Coby White, and the Tar Heels could have six or seven players that have the talents to put up a bunch of points on any given night.
The Texas Longhorns will see some familiar faces leave, but will also welcome in a talented scoring guard who will look to have an immediate impact after sitting out last season due to the NCAA’s transfer regulations.
Forward Mo Bamba declared for the 2018 NBA Draft after just one season, to nobody’s surprise. Bamba is considered one of the top prospects in this year’s draft class, and his length and athleticism will make him an intriguing pickup for any team in the league. Joining him in the draft is junior Eric Davis Jr., who averaged 8.8 points per game a year ago.
Returning to Austin next season will be big man Dylan Osetkowski and Matt Coleman. Osetkowski posted 13.4 points and 7.2 rebounds per game last season, his first with the Longhorns after transferring from the Tulane Green Wave. He gives the Longhorns a weapon up front, but he can also stretch the floor with his shooting ability. Coleman had himself a strong freshman campaign, averaging 10.2 points and 4.1 assists per game.
Guard Kerwin Roach Jr. declared for the draft early, but has not signed with an agent, meaning the athletic guard could very well return to Texas for his senior season.
The biggest addition for the Longhorns will be transfer Elijah Long, who comes to Texas after two seasons with the Mount St. Mary’s Mountaineers. The native of Mississauga, ON averaged 15.0 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game with the Mountaineers during the 2016-17 season. After sitting out last season due to transfer regulations, Long will look to give the Longhorns another offensive weapon on the back end.
Texas could get Andrew Jones back as well. After just 10 games this past season, Jones was diagnosed with leukemia. Despite being in the hospital, Jones managed to stay positive, getting shots up while being connected to an IV. Videos circulated of his positive demeanor and work ethic while enduring treatment, and he recently tweeted out that he is starting to regain his strength. In his 10 games, Jones averaged a team-best 13.5 points. A return from Jones would be much more than a talent boost, but a morale boost for the entire team, as they would have their fearless leader back on the court with them.
Arguably the most intriguing team in the four-team field is UCLA. The Bruins will lose their fair share of talent, and could lose even more if a pair of freshmen opt to stay in the 2018 NBA Draft as opposed to returning to school.
Off the top, the Bruins lose forwards Thomas Welsh and Gyorgy Goloman to graduation. Welsh averaged 12.6 points and a team-high 10.8 rebounds per game last season, while Goloman averaged 7.1 points and 4.2 rebounds per game in a reserve role. Guard Aaron Holiday has signed with an agent and is off to the NBA Draft after two seasons at UCLA. While Holiday’s decisions comes as no surprise, the loss of a team’s leading scorer is never easy.
Then, when you add in the fact that freshmen Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes have declared for the draft without an agent, the Bruins could very well be without their top four scorers from last season, and five of their top six overall. If all goes well for Hands and/or Wilkes during the pre-draft workouts, they could very well sign with an agent and forego their remaining years of eligibility. Wilkes (13.7 ppg) ranked second on the team in scoring, while Hands (9.9 ppg) ranked fourth.
That leaves Prince Ali as the top returning scorer as of now for the Bruins. He averaged 9.1 points and 3.1 rebounds per game as a sophomore last season. His numbers won’t blow you away, which is why UCLA fans are hoping for either Hands or Wilkes to return.
Fortunately for fans of the Bruins, they have a talented freshmen contingent coming in that will help immediately. UCLA brings in five players who are ranked inside the ESPN Top 100 rankings, and could start a lineup of all freshmen, as all five players play a different position.
Here’s the five freshmen for the Bruins:
PG: Tyger Campbell
SG: David Singleton III
SF: Jules Bernard
PF: Shareef O’Neal
C: Moses Brown
It’s a talented crew that the Bruins are bringing in, with the focal points being Brown and O’Neal up front. The pair will step in and contribute right away, anchoring the front court and giving the team a pair of weapons up front. Add in their size, and they will be among the best in the Pac-12 all season long.
If the freshmen for the Bruins are able to step up and contribute from the outset of the season, then UCLA will be fine. The Las Vegas Invitational will be a big test for the young Bruins, but they have the talent to come away with at least a win.
– T. Bennett