Who Got Hurt (And Helped) By The Thanksgiving Tourneys

Since 2006, when the NCAA relaxed the rules on programs participating in so-called “exempt” early-season tournaments, there’s been a proliferation of made-for-TV preseason events. This year, it seems there’s been a supernova of them: large and small, exotic locales and more familiar ones. Organizers try to pack as many as a dozen games into a few days to maximize competition and, more importantly in their eyes, occupancy at the resorts and venues that host.

Travel tournaments date back to the 1960s, but they really gained prominence in the ’80s when big-name programs began using the events to boost name recognition and to spend some quality time bonding. Of course, the latter can backfire, as was the case last season when Mississippi State players watching a game from the stands in the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii got into a nationally televised intra-team fistfight.

The most well known of the Thanksgiving tournaments are probably the Maui Invitational, which this season attracted a lot of big names, and the Great Alaska Shootout, a once-proud destination event that has fallen on hard times as moneyed promoters have lured away the top-tier programs to sunnier, more attractive locations.

The biggest tournament is the NIT Season Tip-off, née the Preseason NIT. The NCAA acquired the rights to the preseason and postseason NITs a few years ago when both were struggling to break even. The championship is always held in Madison Square Garden on national television, and emerging victorious can be a ticket to season-long attention from the basketball media.

But this season, a newcomer made waves. NCAA rules stipulate that any country that wants to host NCAA programs in any event must have so-called “exempt status” from the NCAA to keep from penalizing participating schools. Last spring, the NCAA granted exempt status to the Bahamas, the third country, after Canada and Mexico, to be thus anointed. The big winner here was the Battle 4 Atlantis, a mega-tourney with a massive payday held at colossal Bahamas resort Atlantis Paradise Island. After securing “exempt” status, the tourney locked up defending NCAA champ UCONN and then filled in the rest of the field. The games were played in a modified ballroom with a giant chandelier that was previously the site of the 2009 Miss Universe Pageant. The schools each received $2 million, not a bad payday for traveling to the Bahamas in November to play some basketball. Next season’s lineup has already been announced, and it includes Duke, Louisville, Missouri and Memphis, among others.

Promotional events like the Battle 4 Atlantis have all but killed the Great Alaska Shootout, which once played host to the Kentuckys, Dukes and UCONNs of the hoops universe. These days, Great Alaska provides a chilly holiday trip for your Murray States, UC-Irvines and Southern Mississippis.

For college basketball aficionados, these tourneys come with lots of benefits. Beyond the chance to watch teams from practically any conference face each other, always a hoops nerd’s delight, they help illuminate strengths and weaknesses.

Here are a few programs and coaches that helped or hurt their causes performing in classics, invitationals and other manufactured tournaments over the holiday.


There wasn’t really a question of whether Missouri would have good players, it was more about whether Frank Haith was the guy to coach them. Mizzou fans were shocked (to put it mildly) when, after courting Purdue’s Matt Painter to replace departing coach Mike Anderson, Missouri signed Haith away from Miami (FL). After an unremarkable record at Miami, Haith wasn’t on many people’s radar.

But so far, so good for Haith. After winning the Progressive CBE Classic in Kansas City, many folks are quickly reassessing Haith and the Tigers. Missouri put a beat down on a rebuilding Notre Dame in the semifinals. But it was the Tigers’ 39-point rout of California that got everyone chattering.

Haith inherited a good team. Point guard Flip Pressey is a star in the making and returnees Ricardo Ratliffe, Marcus Denmon and Kim English have all been top notch for Missouri so far. The Tigers played with elite quickness and skill against Cal, embarrassing them for two halves. Certainly it’s early still, but the hot start couldn’t have been better for Haith, who very much needed to prove to Mizzou fans that he was worthy of his hire.

It’s been a strange journey for Harvard coach Tommy Amaker. A Mike Krzyzewski protégé, Amaker was supposed to be competing for Final Fours at some major program by now. But after middling performance at Seton Hall and Michigan, Amaker ended up in the Ivy League. His experience running a BCS-conference program has helped, and he’s recruited well.

Still, while the Crimson were expected to win the Ivy this season, not many expected them to be the last team standing at the inaugural Battle 4 Atlantis. Harvard topped top-20 ranked Florida State in the semis with a stifling defense. Harvard also caught a break when UCONN was upset by Central Florida in the other semifinal, meaning the Crimson wouldn’t have to face the top-five-ranked Huskies in the championship. Instead, Harvard dominated UCF for the title.

Senior forward Keith Wright was named the tournament MVP, and he and junior Kyle Casey are the primary offensive weapons at Amaker’s disposal. Unbeaten, well paid and feeling confident, Harvard will now likely be favored to win every game it plays the rest of the season save one: a December 8 trip to Storrs, Conn., to face UCONN.

St. Louis
Rick Majerus had an awful year last year. His mother, for whom he resigned his dream job at USC in 2004 five days after accepting it, passed away, and he suffered a nasty infection in his leg after two of his St. Louis players collided with him and sent him into a scorer’s table. His Billikens, supposed to compete for the Atlantic 10 title last year, underwhelmed after losing their top two players to suspension.

Majerus, who nearly won a national title at Utah in 1998, is one of the most adored figures in college basketball. And now we remember why. Healthy again, the loquacious Majerus and his Billikens are 6–0 for the first time since 1997, topped Oklahoma easily in the 76 Classic championship game in Anaheim, Calif., and may be set up for an NCAA-tournament campaign. St. Louis beat previously unbeaten Villanova team and Boston College, too, in the 76 Classic.

Majerus’ team has talent, plays with the same zeal his Utah teams did and boasts experience across the roster. They even have a center named Rob Loe. Plus, they have a focused Majerus coaching them, which could be the difference in breaking an 11-year NCAA drought for the program. He’d certainly have lots of positive support when he got there.


South Carolina
Not many fans outside the SEC could even tell you who coaches South Carolina’s basketball team. One reason is that the “other USC” is principally a football school — and that football team is coached by Steve Spurrier. Anyone who does know his name, though, can tell you that Darrin Horn is in trouble. The fourth-year head coach had a good first year, ending in an NIT first-round loss, but the two seasons since have brought losing campaigns, and things are looking bleak so far in 2011.

A loss in the Las Vegas Invitational to Southern Cal in a rare battle of USCs put South Carolina at 2–4 already this season. A loss to UNC a night earlier wasn’t surprising, nor anything to be terribly embarrassed by, but earlier losses to mighty Elon and Tennessee State are.

Horn came to South Carolina with a fairly decent, if shallow, pedigree: NCAA Sweet Sixteen at Western Kentucky, assistant to Tom Crean at Marquette, 70% career coaching win percentage. But his player retention rate, and his record, have gotten steadily worse.

It’s unlikely this year’s Gamecocks are going to rebound. The SEC is tough, and there are no game-changing players ready to join at midseason. More likely, Horn plays out the string and is relieved of duties at season’s end. Then the public search begins for his replacement. Of course, that assumes anyone notices.

As bad as things are for Horn at South Carolina, he’s losing at a place basketball forgot. UCLA coach Ben Howland is leading a program that defined college basketball success, and it’s a program in turmoil right now.

The Bruins are 1–4, with losses to not-your-older-brother’s Loyola-Marymount, Middle Tennessee by 20 points and a lone win, over Division II Chaminade, the host school of the Maui Invitational, at which UCLA finished 1–2.

For some, it seems laughable that a coach that took his program to three straight Final Fours just a few years ago would be considered on the hot seat, but that’s how bad things have gotten in Westwood. UCLA is 64–44 in the last three years plus, losing in the second round of the NCAA tournament twice, and not looking very good in doing so. It’s not just a lack of winning that is roiling things in LA. It’s a lack of team character and the absence of effort this season’s team displays. UCLA has effectively played one good half in five games. That’s unacceptable at such a program.

Junior forward Reeves Nelson has been a real headache, and a head case, sulking and being a distraction, even missing the team flight to Maui. Center Joshua Smith is overweight, whining on Twitter and, worst of all, not playing well. Howland’s biggest problem has been the flood of players leaving his program, most to the professional ranks, but too many to transfers.

The good news for Howland is that despite the personnel losses, he has talent at his disposal, so things can get better. He’s also a winning coach with a history of success. The bad news is he doesn’t have forever to get it done. UCLA has winnable games on the schedule, and Howland should pray his team wins a bunch of them. Losing in made-for-TV tournaments is bad, but at UCLA, not winning in the real thing come March is much, much worse.

Originally from Kentucky, Joshua Lars Weill now writes from Washington, DC. His take on things can be found at Agonica and on Twitter.

Photo by JMR_Photography, via Flickr.