Back in November, it was announced that the Villanova Wildcats would be spending Thanksgiving in Orlando in 2018. The ‘Cats will be the centerpiece of this year’s Advocare Invitational, one of the many early season tournaments around the country. Villanova has won five consecutive early season tournaments, and they haven’t lost a game in November since 2012. Suffice it to say, Nova was, is, and will be the favorite to win in Orlando.
But outside of a sixth consecutive Thanksgiving tournament title, there wasn’t a lot to get excited about. Honestly, I was more pumped about the prospect of a photo with two of my favorite people: Jay Wright and Mickey Mouse. But since then, the field has become significantly more story driven and competitive. So let’s take a minute to re-examine who the ‘Cats could be facing down in Florida.
And the mystery team is...
When the field was first announced, it only had seven teams with an eighth to be named later. Because the field lacked a PAC-12 team, rumors swirled that maybe it could be Oregon or another shot at facing Arizona. But this March those rumors fell flat as the final team in the tournament was announced as Canisius.
While they’re not from a Power Conference, the good news is the Golden Griffins shouldn’t be a complete resume killer if they end up in Nova’s path. This school from the MAAC took out Baker Dunleavy’s Quinnipiac Bobcats twice in the regular season before falling to them in the conference tournament (ataboy Baker!). After finishing 131st in KenPom for the season, Canisius returns five of their top six scorers and all but one of their starting lineup. While I don’t imagine they’d give Villanova much of a problem, they wouldn’t be dead weight on the schedule.
The Honorable Mentions
Two more teams that probably won’t factor into the tournament finals are Oklahoma State and UAB. The Cowboys were considered one of the biggest snubs of the NCAA Tournament last season, and their window to return has likely closed. All three of their leading scorers from last season have graduated and there doesn’t seem to be any instant impact players in their 2018 class.
While UAB has graduated two of their top three scorers from last year, they’ll be loaded with experience. The Blazers will have six seniors on this squad, but none of them scored in double digits last season. The two players that should carry this team are the young backcourt of Zack Bryant and Nate Darling. Still, they won’t have the talent to match up with Villanova next season, and likely would be a first round opponent if they played at all.
Who could be this year’s Tennessee?
Last season, Villanova was set up for two big time early season tests at the Battle 4 Atlantis. Unfortunately, that never happened because Tennessee and NC State took out Purdue and Arizona in the first rounds. NC State ended up floundering in the ACC, but Tennessee was a Co-SEC Champ and a #3 Seed in the NCAA Tournament. Villanova’s tough fought victory over them aged well and surely was a big help with the NCAA Selection Committee, especially with the new Quad system.
The College of Charleston won’t be able to carry that same kind of weight this year, but they could be an under the radar quality win if they faced the Wildcats next season. Two of their best players are returning from an NCAA Tournament team that won 26 games last season. They lost by just 4 points to #4 Seed Auburn in the first round, and will be one of the favorites to win the Colonial again in 2019. This is the kind of team that Villanova should beat, but could pull the upset if the Wildcats don’t show up prepared.
Penny for your thoughts?
Last November when the field was announced, Tubby Smith and Memphis were off to a less than impressive start after dropping the season opener. What a difference six months can make. Alum, NBA Star, and local hero Penny Hardaway is now the head coach and will start his first season among the college ranks this fall. While his coaching ability has yet to be tested at the next level, he’s already making waves with his recruiting.
Since being named head coach, Penny has already brought in some high level recruits for the Class of 2018. Antwann Jones and Tyler Harris are four star prospects that should be able to immediately help the Tigers’ backcourt. Hardaway was also considered a frontrunner for 5-star guard Anfernee Simons before he declared for the NBA Draft instead of college through a loop hole.
The ESPN hype machine may do everything it can to position these two teams to face off in the tournament. A coaching matchup of the defending national champion vs the new hotness... how can they pass that up? The on the court production for Memphis may still be another year away as Penny continues to land big time recruits, but the lead-up to this game would still be a lot of fun. In the end though, the Wildcats should come out on top.
The local team will be a tough out
Florida State is just a few hours across the Florida panhandle, and will likely be able to bring out the local supporters. While many of the teams involved travel well and Orlando is an ideal destination to bring in fans for a week, the Seminoles will still likely be the fan favorites. That is, if they play the full 40 minutes.
Florida State was a #9 seed in last year’s NCAA tournament before an odd ending to their loss against Michigan in the Elite Eight created some National buzz. The team didn’t try to foul and extend the game, even though they were down just two baskets with time left on the clock. When questioned about the strategy afterwards, head coach Leonard Hamilton said “The game was over”, which needless to say confused and frustrated a lot of fans.
But Florida State should be poised to make another strong showing with the return of Terrance Mann to lead this team. They do lose some key players through graduation and transfer, but this should still be a Top 25 team when the ball tips in Orlando. Villanova would likely face the ‘Noles in the second or final rounds of the tournament.
Here come the young guns
The most likely opponent for Villanova in the finals (if the tournament officials know what they’re doing) will be the LSU Tigers. First, this team led by one of the best rising sophomores in the country in point guard Tremont Waters. Waters was a beast last year, but didn’t have the pieces around him to make too much of an impact nationally.
Expect that to change this season as LSU brings in the 4th best recruiting class in the country. The class is highlighted by a pair of 5-Star forwards in Nazreon Reid and Emmitt Williams. Throw in two more four star recruits and a 6’11” transfer from Oregon, and the Tigers could have the best young front court in the country.
While the talent is undeniable and LSU could be a Top 20 team to start the season, they’re still going to be lacking in experience. Given the timing of this tournament, they’re not going to have a whole lot of time to get games in before having to potentially face the defending champs. While this could sure make for an exciting game, especially if Villanova is without Omari Spellman next season, the Wildcats should still be the favorites.
The Champs are here
While a number of the story lines have changed and the level of talent in the tournament has increased significantly, the expected outcome is still in place. Villanova was brought into this tournament to be its centerpiece and will be expected to win a sixth consecutive early season tournament. How close those games are depends on the roster.
Villanova is still waiting on the decisions of Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman as they consider remaining in the NBA Draft. While losing them would be a blow, Jay Wright and his staff are already preparing for all possibilities. If DiVincenzo decides to go, Nova seems to have a few options in terms of grad transfers that could step in next year. But if Spellman departs, the Wildcats will likely rely on a combination of Eric Paschall, Dylan Painter, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, and Cole Swider to fill his very big, very versatile shoes.
But either way, I would expect the Cats to continue their winning ways. Not only that, I anticipate a strong showing from Nova Nation to cheer them on! If you’re interested in heading down, early bird tickets went on sale a little over a month ago.