2023 Tipoff: Five Top Early Season College Hoops Tournaments

For many teams, these early season tournaments are the first true tests they'll face.

November 7, 2023

The NCAA men’s basketball season tipped off on Monday, but for many teams, early season tournaments are both their first true tests and initial data points to suggest how their seasons will progress. Let’s take a look at five of the most prominent events early on this season, and who will be seeing hitting the hardwood. For more on the season as a whole, check out our “Sweet 16” season preview.

Maui Invitational (Nov. 20-22)

The Maui Invitational is one of the better known early season tournaments due to its location, its continuity, and the quality of teams that typically participate. This year is the 40th edition of the Invitational, and it features an incredibly strong field that includes five of the top 15 teams in the AP Preseason poll including No. 1 Kansas, No. 3 Purdue, No. 5 Marquette, No. 9 Tennessee, and No. 11 Gonzaga.

Two of the other participants are traditional powers Syracuse and UCLA, as well as Hawaii-based Chaminade, which is a consistent participant in the tournament. With eight teams in the field, the bracket is a single-elimination format and consists of three rounds. The quality of the field makes it difficult to predict a winner, so the matchups will go a long way in determining the semifinal matchups as well as the finalists.

The first game will feature Chaminade and Kansas in the biggest mismatch of the tournament. We don’t need to drag this one out, Kansas can be written in ink to reach the semifinals.

While not quite as straightforward, it’s relatively easy to predict the outcome of UCLA vs. Marquette. The Bruins feature eight new players on their roster, with seven being freshman. It should come as no surprise that their starting lineup features four underclassman (two freshman and two sophomores). Meanwhile, Marquette has an experienced star in Tyler Kolek, and particularly early in the season, the team’s experience will serve them well.

Next, we have an experienced Tennessee squad that features capable scorers up and down the roster against Syracuse. The Orange are a traditional powerhouse but struggled in the final years of Jim Boeheim’s tenure by failing to reach the NCAA tournament in three of the last four seasons. They should be a bubble team this year, but Tennessee has the advantage.

The highlight of the opening round is Gonzaga against Purdue. The Boilermakers will likely be favorites, but there’s little difference on paper.

The highlight of the opening round is Gonzaga against Purdue. The Boilermakers will likely be favorites, but there’s little difference on paper. If everything goes to chalk, there will be a heck of a final two rounds. Without data points, going chalk and picking Kansas to win the whole things makes plenty of sense, but that could change with a few games under these team’s belts.

NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 22-24)

We’ll move to New York City next, for a tournament that features a lot of brand name teams, albeit with a high amount of turnover and inexperience on their rosters. The Barclays Center in Brooklyn will host Baylor, Oregon State, Florida and Pittsburgh from November 22-24. The semifinals feature matchups between Baylor and Oregon State and Florida against Pitt.

Baylor is the only team ranked inside the top 25 of the AP poll and should be the favorite. On the other hand, the Bears lost their entire backcourt this offseason, which included All-American Adam Flagler, All-Conference selection LJ Cryer and NBA first-round pick Keyonte George. They will likely stick in the top 25 for most of the season and reach the NCAA Tournament, but they could stumble early.

Pitt similarly lost upperclassman that brought experience and grit to the lineup. After finally returning to their typical status as a solid program after several down years, they’ll be relying on the culture built through that turnaround along with a new wave of players in significant roles. Luckily for them, they’ll square off against a team in a similar situation. We’ll learn essentially nothing about Pitt before this game as they face what are likely to be non-competitive teams in the earliest portions of the season. If they’re challenged in any of those games, it’s a bad sign for their chances in this matchup. To the contrary, Florida will take on Virginia and Florida State, which will both be important data points to consider.

For now, Baylor looks to be a heavy favorite, with the team having the best chance to take them down being Florida.

Empire Classic (Nov. 19-20)

Madison Square Garden will host a small but mighty field in this year’s Empire Classic. Defending champion Connecticut will take on Indiana in the first round, leaving Louisville to square off against Texas. We don’t need to spend a ton of time on this field, as it would be a shock if the Longhorns aren’t meeting the Huskies in the final. It’s possible that Connecticut enters the game as a favorite, but Texas has the look of a possible powerhouse and will take this tournament.

Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 22-24)

Paradise Island in the Bahamas will host the Battle 4 Atlantis once again this season, and it hosts eight men’s and women’s teams in separate tournaments. There are plenty of big name squads on the men’s side this year as Arkansas, Michigan, Memphis, North Carolina, Northern Iowa, Stanford, Texas Tech, and Villanova make up the field.

Six of the eight Atlantis teams are in the Pomeroy Ratings top 50 to start the season…

Six of the eight Atlantis teams are in the Pomeroy Ratings top 50 to start the season, with Stanford and Northern Iowa relative underdogs found lower in the top 100. So this tournament could go a number of ways, but we’re backing the Arkansas Razorbacks, which come into the year with high hopes and maybe even Final Four ambitions.

ESPN Events Invitational (Nov. 23-26)

Our final preview features an eight team group that has intrigue associated with at least half of the participating teams. Florida Atlantic is the class of the group, as it returns nearly its entire roster after going 35-4 with a Final Four appearance last season. They are matched up against the Butler Bulldogs, a team that went 14-18 last in its first season under Thad Matta, and in direct contrast to the Owls, has completely overhauled its roster. This isn’t the spot for an upset.

Though they’ve had their moments as a mid-major darling, VCU is in rough shape and will be out-classed by Iowa State. That leaves us with Penn State and Texas A&M as well as Boise State and Virginia Tech as the remaining first round matchups. The Hokies and Broncos are evenly matched, as both return a lot of experience. The tiebreaker is the Virginia Tech’s experience at point guard with MJ Collins, who should take a leap in his second season. In contrast, a floor general is exactly what the Broncos are missing.

…the Aggies are the favorite here. But if there’s a spot for an upset, this is it.

The most intriguing set matchup is Texas A&M and Penn State, who met in the first round of the 2022 NCAA Tournament. Despite Penn State coming out on top, the Aggies are the favorite here. But if there’s a spot for an upset, this is it.

If things go as expected, the second round will feature a showdown between Texas A&M and Florida Atlantic. This will be the Owls best chance to prove last year was no fluke, but the Aggies return an experienced roster that will put up a fight. We’ll back Florida Atlantic, but Texas A&M could change the outlook if they impress against Ohio State and SMU.


Dale Weber
Dale began working at RotoWire in 2017 writing MLB game wraps. He now covers primarily MLB, NFL and racing, but also has experience writing in a wide range of sports, including MMA, golf and soccer.