It’s the most wonderful time of the year - Feast Week! The (newly-minted) top-ten Alabama Crimson Tide (4-0) is in Orlando for the 2021 ESPN Events Invitational (because Disney isn’t even bothering to hide its take-over of college sports anymore). While we trust that you, our loyal RBR readers, are in the process of either cooking, eating, or digesting a delicious Turkey Day meal as you read this, know that our boys in Crimson and White will be opening up the start of a massive opportunity to really add to the ole NCAA Tournament ledger.
Nate Oats has made a point to beef up Alabama’s non-conference strength of schedule, and one of the ways he has done so is by making the Tide a staple on Thanksgiving week in one of the many illustrious non-conference tournaments that are played annually. Hopefully, this year’s venture will yield much better results than Alabama’s first two forays under Oats into Feast Week. In the 2019 Battle 4 Atlantis, the Crimson Tide lost to North Carolina and got ran off the court by Iowa State before beating Southern Miss in the seventh-place game. Last season, the 2020 Maui Invitational (in Asheville, NC - thanks COVID) saw Alabama get clubbed by Stanford before rebounding to finish fifth with back-to-back wins over UNLV and Providence.
This year’s ESPN Events Invitational won’t be any easier - the field includes five tournament teams from last season, four of which won games when they got there (the only one who didn’t, Iona, of course lost to the Tide). If chalk holds, Alabama will play #4 Kansas in the championship game in what should be a massive non-conference showdown. See below for the full field and a quick breakdown of each squad:
Record: 1-3 Kenpom: 132 T-Rank: 177
Old friend Anthony Grant has had a rough start to the 2021-22 campaign. Just two seasons removed from the Flyers’ best season in program history, where they went 29-2 and were well on their way to a top seed in the 2020 NCAA Tournament before it got cancelled due to the pandemic, Dayton has seemingly fallen-off hard. Grant’s squad has lost three straight games coming into this weeks event, with losses to the likes of Lipscomb, Austin Peay, and Massachusetts-Lowell. Yikes. To be fair, this is an extremely young team - nobody from the historic 2020 unit is still around. But still, when a former Georgia player, Toumani Camara (11.0 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 2.0 APG), is the best player on the team, it doesn’t bode well for the Flyers’ prospects in this loaded field.
Our Prediction: If Dayton can’t beat UMass-Lowell, how can they be expected to beat anyone in Orlando? 8th Place
Record: 3-1 Kenpom: 84 T-Rank: 74
After four NCAA Tournament appearances and a pair of Sweet Sixteens in his first seven years in Coral Gables, Jim Larranaga is currently riding a streak of three straight losing seasons. It’s been such a disappointing stretch, that even people in Miami are starting to get antsy, and they don’t care at all about Hurricanes basketball. So, this has the feel of a make-or-break type of year for Larranaga’s tenure with the Canes.
Luckily for the head man, Miami has an experienced and talented squad under his direction this season, led by sixth-year senior, Kameron McGusty (19.0 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 2.3 APG). The ‘Canes have real talent on the offensive side of the court, and are currently second in the country in both Free Throw Attempts and Free Throws Made this season. This is a very capable team, and they should be interesting to monitor both this week and as the year unfolds.
Our Prediction: Miami has the talent/experience combo to make some noise in Orlando this week, and, paired with Dayton’s plethora of struggles this year, should certainly be on the winners’ side of the bracket. 3rd Place
North Texas Mean Green
Record: 2-1 Kenpom: 115 T-Rank: 96
One of the many double-digit seeds that pulled off a classic March Madness upset this past season (78-69 over Purdue), Grant McCasland’s Mean Green is looking to win a Conference USA title for the third straight year after finishing first in the 2020 regular season and winning the 2021 C-USA conference tournament. North Texas returns two starters from last year’s group - guard Mardrez McBride (11.3 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 1.3 APG) and wing Thomas Bell (15.0 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 2.0 APG) - but it’s been JUCO point guard, Tylor Perry, that has been really driving the bus for the Mean Green this season (17.3 PPG, 2.3 APG, 2.0 RPG).
Our Prediction: This is a dangerous mid-major squad, certainly one that would fit in well with Alabama’s non-conference slate. They have been lock-down on the defensive end of the court, and have multiple guys who can get hot and really put the pressure on. Still, playing Kansas in the first game will likely relegate the Mean Green to the loser’s bracket. 6th Place.
Record: 3-0 Kenpom: 2 T-Rank: 6
The 4th-ranked Kansas Jayhawks may be Bill Self’s best team in a few years. The combination of experience and talent on this team is arguably the best in college basketball. Senior guards Ochai Agbaji (26.3 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 1.7 APG) and Remy Martin (9.7 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 2.3 APG), the transfer from Arizona State who earned First Team All-Pac 12 honors two years running, may be the best back-court duo in college basketball. Senior big man, David McCormick (9.3 PPG, 6.0 RPG) is a double-double threat on any night, and it feels like he’s been playing in Lawrence since Mario Chalmers hit the game-winning shot in the 2008 NCAA Tournament Championship Game. To add to all of that, Jalen Wilson (11.8 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 2.0 APG last season) will be making his 2021-22 debut after sitting out the first three games of the year due to a team suspension.
Our Prediction: These guys are the favorite for a reason. Kansas is on the short-list of National Championship contenders. First Place.
Record: 5-0 Kenpom: 142 T-Rank: 110
Alabama’s opening game foes, Rick Pitino’s Iona Gaels, are one of four teams, along with the Tide, Jayhawks, and Drake Bulldogs, still undefeated coming into the tournament. In other words, the Gaels have not lost a basketball game since the Tide knocked them out of the NCAA Tournament last March. If you remember, the Hall of Fame coach gave Nate Oats and the Tide everything it could handle before Alabama pulled away for a 68-55 victory.
Our Prediction: This team can play ball, and Pitino is one of the best to ever do it. While the Tide should survive yet again, the Gaels aren’t leaving Orlando without a win. 7th Place
Record: 3-2 Kenpom: 75 T-Rank: 71
A consistently successful mid-major program, the Bruins of Belmont have had a bit of an up-and-down start to the year, most recently getting shellacked by the LSU Tigers 83-53. However, this is a very strong program that is well coached by head man, Casey Alexander. Big man Nick Muszynski (15.0 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 3.0 APG) is a beast in the paint, and the Bruins boast a lot of experience in their rotation. After consecutive 26-win seasons that resulted in upsets in the OVC conference tournament, and thus, no invites to the Big Dance, Belmont is ready to get back to the NCAA Tournament this year, and they’ve got the talent to do just that.
Our Prediction: This program is a consistent winner. For that reason, I think the Bruins win a toss-up with Drake and get to the winners’ side of the bracket. 4th Place
Record: 3-0 Kenpom: 51 T-Rank: 47
After making their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 13 years, the Drake Bulldogs are looking to do more than just win a First Four match-up this year. A pair of seniors lead the way in 6’6 wing Tremell Murphy (15.0 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 1.3 APG) and 6’0 guard Roman Penn (12.0 PPG, 3.7 APG, 2.3 RPG). Post Darnell Brodie (7.0 PPG, 5.3 RPG) is a force to be reckoned with in the paint, but the Bulldogs calling card is their 45.3% 3P% this season. Granted, it is still a very small sample size, but that rate is good enough for 4th-best in the country.
Our Prediction: Drake is going to make some noise in Orlando, and could even finish as high as 3rd place. However, I’m leaning Belmont in the first game. 5th Place.
This should be an extremely fun, yet challenging, tournament for the Tide. Dayton and Miami open up the action at 11:00 PM CST. Alabama will take the court against Iona at 4:00 PM CST. The game will be televised on either ESPN or ESPN2.