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A look at the star-studded Thanksgiving tournament
This much is certain: The team returning to the mainland as the Battle 4 Atlantis champion will have earned it.
The best early season tournament includes eight teams that reached the postseason a year ago. Five of the eight teams in the Battle 4 Atlantis field reached the NCAA Tournament, including Louisville to the Final Four. Two of the three teams that played in the NIT met in the final at Madison Square Garden.
Beyond last season's results, four teams here (the Cardinals, Duke, Missouri and Memphis) were ranked among the Athlon preseason top 20.
In short, even a consolation game here could be a chance to pick up a quality win for a postseason resume.
The field includes three preseason All-Americans (Peyton Siva, Phil Pressey, Trevor Mbakwe), three national championship coaches (Mike Krzyzewski, Rick Pitino, Tubby Smith) and three of the brightest young coaches in the business (Shaka Smart, Josh Pastner, Ben Jacobsen)
Even on a holiday weekend stuffed with football, this tournament is appointment viewing.
Overriding question: Will Louisville justify its top-three ranking or is it up for the taking?
Louisville has done nothing to cast doubt that it’s a Final Four contender again, but the Cardinals’ have faced overmatched competition thus far. A strong showing against this field could further cement Louisville’s status among the top teams. That said, Duke, which already beat defending national champion Kentucky this season, and Missouri, a potential SEC contender, also could be in position to make statements. A key to watch for Louisville will be Russ Smith. The junior guard remains a high-volume shooter (47 attempts from the field, 27 from 3-point range in three games). The Cards may need someone else to step up, particularly George Mason transfer Luke Hancock, who has been hobbled by shoulder injury and a 5 of 29 start from the floor.
Another big question: What will we see from Mason Plumlee?
Plumlee played well in the offensive end agains Kentucky earlier this season, going 7 of 8 from the field with 18 points in a matchup against top freshman Nerlens Noel. But Plumlee also played with foul trouble. He’ll be on the spot early against Minnesota’s Trevor Mbakwe and then potentially another talented frontcourt against Memphis. Plumlee has played well under the basket all season, shooting 77.4 percent from the floor.
Best potential matchup: Louisville vs. Duke in the final
Two top-10 teams and two Hall of Fame coaches would highlight this matchup. On the floor Plumlee vs. Gorgui Dieng would be a key matchup to watch, also the potential contest on the perimeter with Peyton Siva and Russ Smith facing Seth Curry and freshman Rasheed Suliamon.
Player to watch: Trevor Mbakwe, Minnesota
Mbakwe has been easing into the lineup this season after returning from knee surgery last season. The senior forward has yet to start a game, but his minutes increased from the 10-14 in the first three to 27 in Sunday’s win over Richmond. Mbakwe’s 12 rebounds against the Spiders was an encouraging sign for coach Tubby Smith. If he’s healthy this season, Minnesota could challenge for an NCAA Tournament berth. If he’s healthy in this Battle 4 Atlantis, the Gophers could be a spoiler.
BATTLE 4 ATLANTIS
Individual matchup to watch: Louisville’s Peyton Siva vs. Missouri’s Phil Pressey in the semifinal
Two of the nation’s best point guards could meet in the semifinal provided Louisville defeats Northern Iowa and Missouri defeats Stanford (granted, both could meet in the losers’ bracket as well). The most compelling part of the matchup may be which comes up on top in steals. Siva and Pressey have been among their conference’s leaders in thefts.
Related: Preseason Q&A wtih Pressey
Coaching matchup to watch: Anyone vs. Mike Krzyzewski
Just about anyone facing Krzyzewski will be intriguing. He’ll start out against Tubby Smith and then could face VCU’s Shaka Smart or Memphis’ Josh Pastner, who weren’t even born when Krzyzewski took his first coaching job at Army. And if Duke reaches the final, Krzyzewski could face Rick Pitino, a former player and assistant in Stanford’s Johnny Dawkins, or a fellow coach who was upset as a No. 2 seed in the first round last season in Missouri’s Frank Haith.
Most interesting first-round game: Memphis vs. VCU
Memphis has a ton of talent in Joe Jackson, Tarik Black and Adonis Thomas, but VCU has a well-established track record of exceeding the sum of its parts. VCU has hopes to contend for the Atlantic 10 in its first year in the league, so this could be a good barometer of the Rams potential. Forward Juvonte Reddic, who can pick up double-digit rebounds and shoot from outside, will be worth watching against Memphis’ front line.
Sleeper team to watch: Minnesota
The Gophers improved as the season went along before falling to Stanford in the NIT final last season. With Mbakwe to the established core of point guard Andre Hollins and forward Rodney Williams, the Gophers could be a threat in the deep Big Ten.