College Basketball

Feast Week viewer’s guide: Ranking the games that will help identify the national champion

Feast Week is upon us. Maybe the best non-March week on the college basketball calendar.

What’s not to love? Daytime hoops, late-night hoops, games while you’re eating turkey, games while you’re in a food coma.

And lest you think these are just November nonconference games that are irrelevant in the long run, Feast Week matters. The informative @HeatcheckCBB Twitter account did the research. Of the past 12 national champions, 11 played in a tournament-style multiteam event, with the majority coming in late November. All 11 of those teams reached the championship game of their MTE, with 10 of the 11 winning the title. That’s a combined 28-1 record.

So if you’re looking for early national championship contenders, pay close attention to which teams come out on top over the next week. (But try not to forget Purdue, which just won the Hall of Fame Tipoff Classic and looks every bit the part of a team that can cut down the nets in early April.)

To get you prepared, here’s a Viewer’s Guide to the best, most impactful games on the Feast Week docket:

1. Gonzaga vs. UCLA (Empire Classic)
When: Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN
Where: Las Vegas

It doesn’t get much better than this. Maybe the two best teams in the country, No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the AP poll — and a rematch of last season’s Final Four classic that ended on Jalen Suggs’ 3 at the buzzer. Some of the players have changed since a year ago, but both teams are very much threats to make return trips to the national semifinals. Intriguing matchups in this one include Tyger Campbell and Andrew Nembhard going head-to-head at the point guard spot, and UCLA hoping Rutgers graduate transfer Myles Johnson can help slow down Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren down low. On the flip side, how Gonzaga guards Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez Jr. will be interesting to watch.

2. Duke vs. Gonzaga (Continental Tire Challenge)
When: Friday, 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Where: Las Vegas

There won’t be many high-level NBA evaluators who don’t have an eye on this game on Friday night, as the projected top two picks in the 2022 NBA draft will be on the floor in Paolo Banchero and Holmgren. They’re unlikely to guard each other, with Banchero and Timme — arguably the two Wooden Award favorites — and Mark Williams and Holmgren the likelier battles. Duke made a statement against Kentucky that it was a legitimate title contender in Mike Krzyzewski’s final season; a win over Gonzaga would take that to another level. Meanwhile, how much will the Zags have in the tank 72 hours after facing UCLA?

3. ESPN Events Invitational Final
When: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN
Where: Kissimmee, Florida

Best possible matchup: Kansas vs. Alabama

The bottom half of the ESPN Events Invitational is awfully intriguing, with Alabama the clear favorite to emerge and advance to the final — but Iona, Belmont and Drake are all mid-majors with a good chance to play in the NCAA tournament. Kansas is the headliner up top, and a game between the Jayhawks and Crimson Tide for the title would feature some of the best guard play we’ll see this season. The difference could be whether Charles Bediako is able to handle David McCormack.

4. Battle 4 Atlantis Final
When: Friday, 11 a.m. ET, ESPN
Where: Bahamas

Best possible matchup: Auburn or UConn vs. Baylor

More on that Auburn-UConn quarterfinal matchup in a minute, but there are essentially no bad title game possibilities in this bracket. The winner of Auburn-UConn will face the winner of Michigan State-Loyola Chicago, both likely NCAA tournament teams in their own right. Baylor is the heavy favorite in the bottom half of the bracket, but the new-look Bears will be tested if they want to come away with a trophy. It’s also an early chance for five-star freshman Kendall Brown to play on the national stage.

5. Auburn vs. UConn (Battle 4 Atlantis)
When: Wednesday, 2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Where: Bahamas

This one should be fun. Both teams are just outside my latest Power Rankings, although both were ranked in my preseason top 25. The best individual matchup is likely to be UConn’s Adama Sanogo going against projected top-10 pick Jabari Smith of Auburn. They’re very different players; Sanogo is a high-motor player who competes on the glass and around the rim, while Smith is more skilled and can make plays inside and out. Can Bruce Pearl get consistent point guard play?

6. Maui Invitational Final
When: Wednesday, 5 p.m. ET, ESPN
Where: Las Vegas

Best possible matchup: Houston vs. Oregon

Some of the steam of a potential title-game showdown between Houston and Oregon was removed when the Ducks were blown out by BYU last week, but it would still be a fascinating battle between two of the best coaches in America. Kelvin Sampson and Houston have an easier path to the title game, as Dana Altman and Oregon will have to get past Saint Mary’s in the semifinal; the Gaels just beat Notre Dame on Monday night and are off to a 5-0 start this season.

7. Memphis vs. Virginia Tech (NIT Season Tip-Off)
When: Wednesday, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Where: Brooklyn

The first true test of the Emoni Bates Era will come this week in Brooklyn — but the more intriguing individual matchup will be fellow freshman Jalen Duren going against veteran Virginia Tech big man Keve Aluma. Duren is off to a roaring start to his college career, and his motor and physicality will be tested by Aluma, one of the best big men in the ACC. Whichever team wins this one could have another top-25-caliber matchup on Friday …

8. NIT Season Tip-Off Final
When: Friday, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Where: Brooklyn

Best possible matchup: Xavier vs. Memphis or Virginia Tech

…. If Xavier gets by Iowa State in the other semifinal. The Musketeers are off to a 4-0 start this season, including a win over Ohio State last week. Most impressively, they’re doing it without star big man Zach Freemantle, who has missed the early part of the season with a left foot injury. Travis Steele has a versatile, balanced unit with plenty of experience. Either Memphis or Virginia Tech would be a fun matchup.

9. Battle 4 Atlantis Semifinals
When: Thursday, 12 p.m. and 2:30 pm. ET, ESPN/ESPN2
Where: Bahamas

As mentioned, the Battle 4 Atlantis is littered with intriguing teams up and down the bracket. The top half of the bracket will feature a pair of intriguing second-day games, with the winners of Michigan State-Loyola Chicago and Auburn-UConn facing off — as well as the losers. On the other side, Baylor facing the shooting of Syracuse would be an intriguing test, although the Orange need to get by VCU after giving up 100 points and losing to Colgate over the weekend.

10. Ohio State vs. Florida (Fort Myers Tip-Off Final)
When: Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. ET, FS1
Where: Fort Myers, Florida

This event is flying a little bit under the radar this week, but Ohio State started out the season in the top 25 and Florida played its way into the rankings after a strong start. The Buckeyes lost to Xavier last week before bouncing back with a win over Seton Hall on Monday night. Freshman guard Meechie Johnson Jr. hit a game-winning 3 in the final seconds to send the Buckeyes to the title game. They’ll face Florida, which has had a lot of success in the transfer portal and is playing defense at a high level. The Gators’ defensive performance against Florida State earlier this season was impressive. Wednesday will feature two top-tier frontcourt players in E.J. Liddell and Colin Castleton.

11. Wooden Legacy Final
When: Friday, 11:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Where: Anaheim, California

Best possible matchup: USC vs. San Diego State

Two of the best teams on the West Coast could feature in the Wooden Legacy final, provided USC gets by Saint Joseph’s and San Diego State takes care of business against Georgetown. If both happen, the championship game will be worth staying up late for. USC lost Evan Mobley and some other pieces off last year’s team, but the arrival of Boogie Ellis from Memphis has added scoring punch on the perimeter. Meanwhile, San Diego State isn’t the clear-cut Mountain West favorite anymore, but Cal transfer Matt Bradley was one of the best scorers in the Pac-12 last season and will test the Trojans.

12. Bahamas Championship Final
When: Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, CBSSN
Where: Bahamas

Best possible matchup: Maryland vs. Louisville or Mississippi State

All three of these teams were projected to make the NCAA tournament entering the season, but they have had some ups and downs thus far. Maryland lost at home to George Mason while also struggling against George Washington, Vermont and Hofstra. Louisville lost to Furman and is still without suspended head coach Chris Mack, while Mississippi State is in the best shape, off to a 4-0 start and just now getting Michigan State transfer Rocket Watts added to the equation. Don’t count out Richmond, either. The Spiders have several résumé-boosting opportunities over the next few weeks, and it starts against Maryland this week.

13. Louisville vs. Mississippi State (Bahamas Championship)
When: Thursday, 9:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network
Where: Bahamas

We just mentioned both teams, but the winner will get some early momentum entering the rest of the nonconference season. There will be plenty of talented transfers on the floor, as Louisville’s lone player averaging double figures is former Florida guard Noah Locke, although three other transfers play key roles. Three of Mississippi State’s top four scorers spent last season on a different school’s roster, while Watts is expected to slot into the lineup when fully healthy.

14. Arkansas vs. Cincinnati (Hall of Fame Classic Final)
When: Tuesday, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Where: Kansas City, Missouri

Had this game been Illinois vs. Arkansas, it would have been one of the three or four most-anticipated matchups of the week. But maybe it shouldn’t drop too far, given the way Cincinnati handled the Fighting Illini. New head coach Wes Miller has the Bearcats at 5-0 and dialed in on the defensive end of the floor. Junior Jeremiah Davenport looks to be a real factor this season, too. It will be interesting to see how Cincinnati deals with Arkansas’ perimeter trio of Devo Davis, JD Notae and Chris Lykes. Lykes buying in as the team’s sixth man has been a positive development for the Razorbacks.

15. Belmont vs. Drake (ESPN Events Invitational)
When: Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPNU
Where: Kissimmee, Florida

Two of the best mid-major teams in the country have a matchup reminiscent of the old mid-February Bracket Busters event. Belmont fell apart down the stretch last season and missed the NCAA tournament despite starting the season 24-1, while Drake started 18-0 and snuck into the NCAA tournament before being knocked out by USC. Both teams can really shoot, and the backcourt matchup between Grayson Murphy and Roman Penn will be fun.

16. Emerald Coast Classic Final
When: Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network
Where: Niceville, Florida

Best possible matchup: LSU vs. Wake Forest

LSU should feel like the favorite entering the event, with Penn State and Oregon State slipping up early and Wake Forest yet to be truly tested. But the Tigers facing the Demon Deacons in the title game would be one to watch. LSU is getting a breakout senior season from Darius Days, but the preseason injury to Adam Miller hurts the Tigers’ offense. Wake Forest is a dark horse to be relevant in the ACC. The Demon Deacons have winnable nonconference games the rest of the way and could be in the bubble picture if they take down Oregon State and LSU.

17. Michigan State vs. Loyola Chicago (Battle 4 Atlantis)
When: Wednesday, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN
Where: Bahamas

One more shout for the Battle 4 Atlantis. Just watch all three days — there will be at least two or three intriguing matchups each day. Even the one game we haven’t mentioned so far — Baylor vs. Arizona State in the quarterfinals — should be fast-paced and feature plenty of scoring and talented guards.

18. Alabama vs. Iona (ESPN Events Invitational)
When: Thursday, 5 p.m., ESPN/ESPN2
Where: Kissimmee, Florida

A rematch of last season’s first-round NCAA tournament matchup, when Iona stayed competitive for 30-plus minutes before a late 11-0 run by Alabama put the game out of reach. The Gaels have improved since then, while Alabama is still talented but perhaps not quite as connected just yet. In that NCAA tournament game, Iona forced Alabama into 5-for-16 shooting from 3 and forced turnovers on more than 20% of the Crimson Tide’s possessions. Can they again throw a scare into Nate Oats’ team?

Others worth monitoring: Naples Invitational Final (Wednesday, 8 p.m.); Southern Utah vs. Yale (Tuesday, 12 p.m.); Legends Classic Final (Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.); Las Vegas Invitational Final (Friday, 9 p.m. or 11:30 p.m.); George Mason vs. South Dakota State (Wednesday, 9:30 p.m.); Oklahoma State at Oral Roberts (Friday, 4 p.m.); BYU at Utah (Saturday, 9:30 p.m.); Oklahoma at UCF (Saturday, 2 p.m.)

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