Ranking the top 15 early-season college basketball tournaments and multi-team events in 2021



maui-invitational.jpg USATSI

College basketball season is just around the corner, and with it comes a plethora of multi-team events and early-season tournaments that will provide some of the season’s more unique nonconference matchups. A year after the COVID-19 pandemic altered the sport’s schedule and forced tweaks or outright cancelations to these events, it’s great to see so many neutral site showcases back on the schedule.

While it may be difficult to get casual sports fans invested in early-season college basketball, the truth is that stakes are high from the jump for programs with NCAA Tournament aspirations. A couple of losses during a tournament in November or December can fill up your “bad loss” quota faster than desired. On the flip side, a strong neutral-court showing early in the season can give an early boost to your Quad 1 or Quad 2 victory ledger.

But which of these multi-team events — commonly referred to in the college hoops world as MTE’s — are the best? Here’s a ranking of the top-15 to keep an eye on this November and December as college basketball accelerates to full speed.

All rankings are from the CBS Sports Top 25 And 1 preseason rankings.

1. Air Force Reserve Hall of Fame Tip-Off

  • Date: Nov. 20-21
  • Location: Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut
  • Matchups: No. 5 Villanova vs. No. 20 Tennessee, No. 15 North Carolina vs. No. 11 Purdue (bracket play)
  • Comments: We are guaranteed four games between big-time teams in this bracket-style tournament that includes four teams featured in the CBS Sports preseason Top 25 And 1. After three low-key games to begin the 2021-22 season, this will be North Carolina’s first big game with Hubert Davis as coach. 

2. CBS Sports Classic

  • Date: Dec. 18
  • Location: T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas
  • Matchups: No. 2 UCLA vs. No. 15 UNC, No. 14 Kentucky vs. No. 18 Ohio State
  • Comments: This will be some high stakes basketball in Las Vegas as this group of four teams gets together for the eighth season in a row. UCLA owns just a 2-5 all-time record in the CBS Sports Classic, but the Bruins figure to be favored against a North Carolina team that is 5-2 in this event.

3. State Farm Champions Classic

  • Date: Nov. 9
  • Location: Madison Square Garden in New York
  • Matchups: No. 14 Kentucky vs. No. 8 Duke, No. 4 Kansas vs. No. 24 Michigan State
  • Comments: Like the CBS Sports Classic, this isn’t a tournament-style event. It’s just these two games, but they are two great ones. There will be oodles of freshmen talent on the court and plenty at stake as the participants seek an early marquee victory on opening night. Duke lost to Michigan State and Kentucky lost to Kansas in this event last season. In retrospect, the night was a harbinger of things to come. Perhaps this year’s Champions Classic will provide similar forecasts for the teams involved.

4. Good Sam Empire Classic

  • Date: Nov. 22-23
  • Location: T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas
  • Matchups: No. 1 Gonzaga. vs. Central Michigan, No. 2 UCLA vs. Bellarmine, Central Michigan vs. Bellarmine, No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 2 UCLA 
  • Comments: It’s nice of Bellarmine and Central Michigan to show up. But the game we’re all waiting for is the second-day showdown between Gonzaga and UCLA. This isn’t an elimination-style tournament, so we’re guaranteed to get it. There’s a real chance the Bulldogs and Bruins could be No. 1 and No. 2. Plus, it’s a rematch of last season’s legendary 93-90 Gonzaga overtime victory in the Final Four.

5. Bad Boy Mowers Battle 4 Atlantis

  • Date: Nov. 24-26
  • Location: Paradise island, Bahamas
  • Matchups: No. 24 Michigan State vs. Loyola Chicago, No. 22 Auburn vs. No. 23 UConn, Syracuse vs. VCU, Baylor vs. Arizona State (bracket play)
  • Comments: All eight of these teams are featured in the top-85 of Matt Norlander’s 1-358 rankings, and several of them have re-tooled rosters that will be put to the test in a three-day marathon. How will Auburn’s front court look with potential stars Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler? What about Baylor, as the defending national champions replace three star guards? We’ll have a much better idea of who these teams are once this event is over.

6. ESPN Events Invitational

  • Date: Nov. 25-26, 28
  • Location: ESPN Wide World of Sports in Lake Buena Vista, Florida
  • Matchups: Dayton vs. Miami, North Texas vs. No. 4 Kansas, No. 12 Alabama vs. Iona, Belmont vs. Drake (bracket play)
  • Comments: At first glance, this one looks a bit top heavy with Alabama and Kansas. But a closer look shows this is sneaky strong field. Drake, Iona and North Texas made the NCAA Tournament last season, Dayton and Belmont are perennially strong and Miami could be in line for a bounce-back year after an injury-riddled 2020-21 season. So while the Crimson Tide or Kansas will be expected to win it, there could be some drama here.

7. Maui Jim Maui Invitational

  • Date: Nov. 25-28
  • Location: Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas
  • Matchups: Texas A&M vs. Wisconsin, Butler vs. No. 13 Houston, No. 16 Oregon vs. Chaminade, St. Mary’s vs. Notre Dame (bracket play)
  • Comments: Yes, you read that correctly. The Maui Invitational Invitational is moving to Las Vegas this season because of travel restrictions in Hawaii. The revamped rosters of Houston and Oregon may attract attention here. But Butler and Notre Dame are veteran-laden squads who could use strong showings to give an early boost to their NCAA Tournament hopes.

8. Jerry Colangelo Classic

  • Date: Dec. 17-18
  • Location: Footprint Center in Phoenix
  • Matchups: San Diego State vs. Saint Mary’s, No. 1 Gonzaga vs. Texas Tech, Georgia Tech vs. USC, Grand Canyon vs. San Francisco, Northern Arizona vs. San Diego
  • Comments: Gonzaga taking on Texas Tech is the obvious headliner, but this event brings a couple other intriguing games. San Diego State plays Saint Mary’s in a battle of really strong programs. Georgia Tech vs. USC will be an interesting matchup of two 2021 NCAA Tournament teams who are replacing star big men from last year’s squads.

9. Hall of Fame Classic Powered by ShotTracker

  • Date: Nov. 22-23
  • Location: T-Mobile Center in Kansas City, Missouri
  • Matchups: Cincinnati vs. No. 17 Illinois, No. 10 Arkansas vs. Kansas State (bracket play)
  • Comments: This will be our first look at Arkansas against power conference opposition. A potential championship game showdown between the Razorbacks and Illinois would be great.

10. Jimmy V Classic

  • Date: Dec. 7
  • Location: Madison Square Garden in New York
  • Matchups: Texas Tech vs. No. 20 Tennessee, No. 5 Villanova vs. Syracuse
  • Comments: Villanova vs. Syracuse will be a fun old Big East battle. A game against Tennessee presents first-year Texas Tech coach Mark Adams with an early opportunity for a marquee win.

11. Roman Main Event

  • Date: Nov. 19, 21
  • Location: T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas
  • Matchups: Arizona vs. Wichita State, No. 6 Michigan vs. UNLV (bracket play)
  • Comments: An Arizona vs. Michigan championship game? Yes, please. But Wichita State will have something to say about that in a compelling semifinal game as the Shockers try and knock off the Wildcats, who will be facing their toughest test to date under first-year coach Tommy Lloyd. This event figures to be ranked higher next season when the field reportedly will consist of UCLA, Virginia, Illinois and Baylor.

12. Baha Mar Bahamas Championship

  • Date: Nov. 25, 27
  • Location: Baha Mar Convention Center in Nassau, Bahamas
  • Matchups: Louisville vs. Mississippi State, Maryland vs. Richmond (bracket play)
  • Comments: Four teams with something to prove comprise this field. Mississippi State has loaded up on transfers to try and gain traction under Ben Howland and will take on a Louisville team that narrowly missed the 2021 NCAA Tournament. Maryland has added a true point guard and a true center — it had neither last season — in Fatts Russell and Qudus Wahab. The new-look Terrapins will take on a Richmond squad that has a chance to win the Atlantic 10 after a disappointing 2020-21 season.

13. Rocket Mortgage by Quicken Loans Fort Myers Tip-Off

  • Date: Nov. 22, 24
  • Location: Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers, Florida
  • Matchups: No. 18 Ohio State vs. Seton Hall, California vs. Florida (bracket play)
  • Comments: A rematch of the 2007 national title game between Florida and Ohio State is in store if the Buckeyes and Gators get through their semifinal games. A couple of wins in this tournament will be a nice springboard for the Buckeyes as they seek redemption following last season’s first-round exit from the NCAA Tournament at the hands of No. 15 seed Oral Roberts.

14. NIT Season Tip-Off

  • Date: Nov. 24, 26
  • Location: Barclays Center in New York
  • Matchups: Iowa State vs. No. 7 Memphis, Virginia Tech vs. Xavier (bracket play)
  • Comments: If Memphis and Virginia Tech win their openers, former Hokies star and current Memphis guard Landers Nolley will take on his old squad.

15. Holiday Hoopsgiving

  • Date: Dec. 11
  • Location: State Farm Arena in Atlanta
  • Matchups: Nebraska vs. No. 22 Auburn, Drake vs. Clemson, LSU vs. Georgia Tech, Western Kentucky vs. Ole Miss
  • Comments: There aren’t many games that jump off the page as dripping with intrigue for the casual fan. But don’t be surprised to see some of these results show up in “quality win” category for the victors come NCAA Tournament selection time.