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BUBBLE TEAMS HAVE MOST TO GAIN IN EARLY EVENTS
December 1, 2010

SCS.com Like most College Basketball fans, I enjoy watching the pre-season tournaments around the holidays. Whether it be the Maui Invitational, the Pre-Season NIT, the Old Spice Classic or even the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, we get a lot of match-ups that we don’t normally get to see until the NCAA Tournament. Not only are there contests between teams from different parts of the country, but we often see powerhouses match up against one another.

Last week in the O’Reilly Auto Parts CBE Classic, two top five teams played when Duke, the defending National Champion, met fourth-ranked Kansas State in Kansas City. Kentucky and Michigan State both had the opportunity to play Washington in Maui and Pitt and Texas played quite the nail-biter in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden. It was a great week to sit in front of the tube and watch quality programs compete against one another. What basketball fan wouldn’t love it? The harsh reality however, is that these marquee match-ups have little effect on the season for the long-term.

Although teams ranked in the top five or ten spots in the polls often square off on neutral courts in pre-season tournaments, the games for the most part only effect seeding when March Madness rolls around. Duke’s impressive victory over Kansas State could be the difference in whether the Blue Devils are the overall #1 seed when Selection Sunday arrives or just a #1 or 2 seed. The loss does very little to hurt Kansas State in the long-term either. The big-time match-ups between teams likely to go deep into the NCAA Tournament are in reality some of the most meaningless games that we will see all year.

With that said, these tournaments overall are far from meaningless. The biggest beneficiaries are the schools that finish the regular season and conference tournaments squarely on the bubble. For teams like Minnesota, who seem to finish on the bubble every season, these early tournaments could be the resume’ enhancers needed to make the field of 65 when March rolls around. Minnesota’s wins against North Carolina and West Virginia in Puerto Rico could be enough to propel the Gophers to the NCAA Tournament over teams who may have done better in conference.

The University of Connecticut, a perennial Big East and national power, was surprisingly absent from the field of 65 last March. This year, UCONN knocked off both Michigan State and Kentucky to win the Maui Invitational. Should the Huskies struggle in Big East play, their two solid wins in the Hawaiian Islands will look far better to the selection committee than say a team that finished with a better overall record, but with victories that are less impressive.

The early-season tournaments are also an opportunity for lesser-known players to make names for themselves. Few knew of Florida’s Taurean Green before Green scored 23 points against both Wake Forest and Syracuse to lead the Gators to the Coaches vs. Cancer Championship in 2005. Green went on to lead the Gators to their first National Championship that same year. This year’s Taurean Green could very well be Connecticut’s Kemba Walker. Walker, an unheralded junior guard, scored 30 points against second-ranked Michigan State and another 29 points against Kentucky to lead UCONN to a championship in the Maui Invitational. Having a legitimate star that is nationally recognized doesn’t hurt a team’s resume’ when the selection committee has to pick the best 34 at-large teams either. Kemba Walker could be just the guy Connecticut needs to lead the Huskies back to national prominence.

There are few people who enjoy NCAA basketball’s pre-season tournaments more than me. There probably isn’t a better way to get fans into the swing of college basketball season than having the best teams in America compete against one another on neutral courts. The top teams however, have less to lose as well as less to gain from competing in these tournaments than do the schools on the cusp of reaching the NCAA Tournament. Playing well and sometimes winning these tournaments is a great way to get the teams and players that might not receive the praise from the national media recognized. Having great teams meet early in the year doesn’t do all that much to affect the landscape of the season, but as a fan, it sure is fun to watch.

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