This Thanksgiving weekend, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish take part in the Advocare Invitational in Orlando, Florida. The Irish won this tournament back in 2010 when it was called the Orlando Classic and will look to do it again with an impressive 8-team field that could feature as many as 4 or 5 NCAA Tournament teams by season's end.
You can find the bracket here, as the first round of the tournament starts on Thursday, continues Friday, and concludes on Sunday, with the championship game at 4:30pm EST on ESPN2.
Wichita State's pod (Alabama, USC, Xavier, Wichita State)
Alabama Crimson Tide: The Tide are the likely second-worst team in the field, having already been crushed by Dayton by 32 last week. It's hard to see Alabama making too much noise in this tournament, as they have a serious talent deficit in Avery Johnson's first year as head coach and have to face off against the team in the field that is off to the best start in Xavier. An 0-3 trip to Orlando wouldn't surprise me.
USC Trojans: The Trojans are off to a nice 4-0 start, especially sophomores Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart, who pace the USC offense with 20 and 15 points per game, respectively, so far in the early going. It's time for Andy Enfield to show some progress here in his third season as Trojan head coach, as he was seemingly-impulsively hired from Florida Gulf Coast following their incredible Sweet 16 run and has since finished in last place in the Pac-12 in each of his two seasons in Los Angeles.
Xavier Musketeers: The perennially tournament-bound Musketeers are off to a fast start following yet another Sweet 16 run last season. Xavier snagged one of the more impressive wins of the season when they went to Ann Arbor and beat a ranked Michigan team by double-digits. Xavier wasn't given much of a chance to compete for the Big East title by the coaches or media, but the Musketeers can really make everyone sit up and pay attention with a nice showing in Orlando.
Wichita State Shockers: It was likely no accident that the tournament organizers set up a potential championship game rematch of the Sweet 16 game that saw Notre Dame knock out the Shockers in last year's NCAA Tournament. However, what they could not foresee was an injury to star point guard Fred VanVleet (not to mention an early loss to Tulsa) that may threaten Wichita State's ability to reach the finals in Orlando. Still, doubt Gregg Marshall and Ron Baker at your own peril in a tournament setting.
Notre Dame's pod (Dayton, Iowa, Monmouth, Notre Dame)
Dayton Flyers: One of last year's genuine surprises, the Flyers, who notably made the NCAA Tournament despite being without a player taller than 6'6", was able to retain coach Archie Miller this past offseason, which means they have a chance for great things yet again. Still, they are without their leading returning scorer in Dyshawn Pierre, possibly for good following an ugly suspension. One of the A-10's preseason favorites, Dayton will be tested right away with a tough matchup against Iowa.
Iowa Hawkeyes: The Hawkeyes are getting absolutely no love or attention from the media despite sitting one spot above Notre Dame in KenPom's rankings, a surprising 19th. Iowa has already embarrassed Marquette in Milwaukee and look like they haven't missed a beat following the graduation of standout Aaron White. Fran McCaffery's squad could surprise in a loaded B1G in which they were predicted to finish as low as 9th.
Monmouth Hawks: Monmouth was pegged to be a legitimate contender to Iona for the MAAC title this season, and a 2-1 start (all road games) including a win at UCLA has done nothing to change anyone's mind on that. Despite looking like the "worst" team in the field, the Hawks should give Notre Dame a tough first round game. Junior guard Justin Robinson (24 ppg) should be a fun matchup for Demetrius Jackson.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish: More on them next
Implications for Notre Dame
These early season neutral site tournaments are crucial to every team's non-conference schedule and eventual NCAA Tournament resume. The thing is, they can be such wild cards, as well.
Lose one game unexpectedly? Now instead of playing a ranked team in the next round, you are facing another losing team without nearly the same cache. A big upset on the other side of the bracket? Maybe that means the underdog is going to have a great season, or maybe they go on to be who we all thought they were.
With Indiana and Illinois looking early on like they might disappoint this season, there is a lot at stake for Notre Dame this weekend to salvage a strong non-conference resume. Ideally, the Irish will get to run through Monmouth (138th in KenPom's rankings so far), Iowa (19th), and Xavier (26th) en route to a championship.
But what if they lose to Monmouth? Now, it might be a Friday matchup against Dayton (45th) en route to a fifth place game against, say, Alabama (94th). That would not be good look come selection Sunday. Lose to Iowa in round two? That could give the Irish a more palatable third place matchup against Wichita State (24th but without VanVleet), but all it takes is one upset to meet USC (44th) instead.
So who knows how it plays out? All Notre Dame can do for now is take care of business against the Hawks on Thursday and hope for the best in their ensuing matchups. Either way, it should be a fun but very winnable tournament for the Irish in which only one (Alabama) of the eight teams has, in my mind, a slim-to-none chance of being NCAA Tournament teams by season's end.
Notre Dame's game against Monmouth is on Thanksgiving day at 6:30pm EST on ESPNU.
alstein: USC over Wichita State
Wichita State has already showed some shakiness this season with a loss to a decent Tulsa team with a healthy Fred VanVleet. Now without him (and possibly his backup), the Shockers will have to take on a USC team that has taken care of business so far, including nice wins over New Mexico and Monmouth, and has plenty of star power of their own at point guard with sophomore Jordan McLaughlin.
ndroyalsfan: Iowa winning it all
Despite their 3-0 start which includes a win at Marquette, the Hawkeyes haven't gotten much love in the two major polls. That said, they're one spot ahead of the Irish at 19 in KenPom's rankings, and their offensive and defensive efficiency are both in the top-35. I expect the both the Irish and Iowa to win their openers, and the winner of their semi to take the title.
PadRah: Wichita State making it to the finals
I know, Wichita State is technically the highest ranked team on their side of the bracket. However, losing Fred VanVleet will probably cause Xavier to be favored in their anticipated second-round matchup. Xavier had a very bipolar season last year, suffering some bad losses en route to a 14-loss season, but still reaching the Sweet Sixteen. Wichita State is an experienced squad that is very capable of weathering the loss of VanVleet and knocking off the Musketeers en route to the finals.
alstein: Trevon Bluiett - Xavier
The Indianapolis product is off to a nice start in his sophomore season, averaging 14 and 10 during the Musketeers' 4-0 start. The former top 50 recruit flashed tons of potential last season and is primed to take over Xavier's offense this year. I think Orlando will be a nice showcase for him and his well-rounded offensive game. I'd also look out for USC's McLaughlin (obviously), Notre Dame's Zach Auguste (not a lot of good big men in this field - he could dominate), and Iowa's Jarrod Uthoff.
ndroyalsfan: Demetrius Jackson - Notre Dame
If the Irish win, DJ will be the reason why. He's put up big numbers in all the Irish games so far, and has no problem calling his own number when the team needs a bucket. Also keep an eye on the Wichita State's Ron Baker (he'll have to do even more of the lifting with Van Fleet injured), Jarod Uthoff from Iowa, and Xavier's Trevon Bluiett.
PadRah: Demetrius Jackson - Notre Dame
DJ has gotten off to an unbelievably torrid start to the year, shooting 60% from the field and going through stretches where he scores at will. We'll get our first look at Jackson as the Irish's first option against quality opponents, and he might open some eyes nationally this week. I'd also look out for Xavier's Jalen Reynolds, a load in the post who could carry Xavier far in this tournament.
Advocare Invitational Champion
alstein: Xavier over Iowa
ndroyalsfan: Notre Dame over Xavier
PadRah: Notre Dame over Xavier