Phil Knight Invitational Preview: Teams to Watch Out For

The Phil Knight Invitational starts today at 1 PM EST and the slate of teams is absolutely loaded. With six of the eight teams being ranked at some point during the season already, it’s no clear contest which team will be able to walk away victorious. We’ll go over each team and look at a reason why they’ll win the tournament, and one reason they might not.

North Carolina Tar Heels

The number one team in the country checks into Portland after surviving a couple of scares in the first week. They managed to pull away late from College of Charleston to survive what would easily be the biggest upset of the year so far, and have stayed atop the polls while turmoil happens lower in the rankings. Being the top dog is great reasoning to why the Tar Heels will win the tournament but something more concrete?

Why They’ll Win: They’ve got PLAYERS everywhere.

In UNC’s four games this season, three different players have led for the Tar Heels in scoring. RJ Davis and Caleb Love led with 17 against Wilmington, ACC Preseason Player of the Year Armando Bacot went off for 28 against Charleston, Caleb Love had 20 against Gardner-Webb, and RJ Davis’ 21 led the Heels against James Madison. It’s no surprise as to why the Tar Heels were picked as the best team in the country, they can score from anywhere.

Why They Won’t: There’s not a lot coming from the bench.

UNC’s starters are the cream of the crop, no doubt, but very few kids can play a full forty minutes of basketball (or more, if you happen to enjoy making the next game wait. Looking at you, Kentucky and MSU). North Carolina is getting just 14.5 points from their bench per game, and bench players for the Heels take up about 35 minutes on the court. It’s incredibly rare that anyone besides the starting five will contribute in a big way, and if that continues to be the case, UNC will struggle with other, deeper teams in this tournament.

Portland Pilots

The hosts of this tournament have really been thrown into the lions’ den here. And not the Detroit Lions, who haven’t really been all too scary. The closest team to Portland’s level here is probably Iowa State, and even then Iowa State has been a decent squad in recent years. It would take miracles probably close to the level of Chaminade winning a game at Maui for Portland to come close to winning this tournament, but this is college basketball. Every team has their shot, and for Portland?

Why They’ll Win: Tyler Robertson is actually kinda good.

He’s not going to jump off the page any night. He probably won’t get his name called in the draft. But Portland’s 4-2 start to the season is built around Robertson’s performance. He has yet to fail to reach double-digits in points, including a monster 32 point game against rival Portland State, and he’s also great at getting boards and finding teammates for assists. He’s a great centerpiece to a Pilots squad that has usually been not much better than a dumpster fire over their time as a program. Consistency from him can help the Pilots try to fight their way out of the WCC basement.

Why They Won’t: The rest of the team is incredibly inconsistent.

Portland is by no means an utterly horrible team, but their inconsistency and poor ball control will lead to more losses than they should have. Kent State was able to put this team under lock and key as the lead got up to 19 at times. Portland was shooting well, but 27 turnovers lead to a pretty crushing defeat. That won’t fly against the caliber of teams coming to town this weekend, and it will most likely be the reason Portland leaves with a losing record.

Iowa State Cyclones

Credit the Cyclones, they’re undefeated to this point, even if they’ve only played three games. They did what they were supposed to and beat up on teams that weren’t close to their pay grade. The Milwaukee game may have been a bit close for comfort, but against IUPUI and NC A&T, the Cyclones did their part and gave a whooping to their buy opponent in a season where those may not be guarantees anymore.

Why They’ll Win: The defense is playing tops in the country.

To this point in the season, no team has forced more turnovers per game than Iowa State has. Their opponents give the ball away 25 times per game, and it’s shown when the Cyclones are holding their opponents to 45 points per game. This staunch defense will be tested against better-equipped teams, but if it stays up to snuff, Iowa State is a team to watch out for.

Why They Won’t: The transition game needs work.

Iowa State is in the lower echelons for fast-breaks, and while their team doesn’t really play high tempo, it’s hard to pass up the opportunities when they arise. Iowa State only gets about 6 break points per game, slotting them in at a tie for 312th in the nation. If their opponent speeds up the game to get the Cyclones out of their comfort zone, it could be falling apart at the seams in Ames.

Villanova Wildcats

The Cats are in their first season without Jay Wright, and it hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing. A loss to Temple as well as getting severely outplayed by Michigan State for almost 25 minutes in the Gavitt Games before a late comeback made it close make for a quick drop out of the top 25, somewhere the Wildcats have grown accustomed to. They’ll settle back into their groove, and this invitational might just be the best place to do it.

Why They’ll Win: When they’re hot, they’re HOT.

Michigan State looked like they were in complete control of Nova, up 19 and cruising with the Breslin Center rocking. But in Villanova’s timeout, something seemed to click. They began to pick apart a Michigan State defense that had given loads of trouble to Gonzaga and Kentucky in their prior games, and kept finding open shots on the perimeter which fell one after the other. Tyson Walker was a hero enough to keep the Wildcats from stealing the game away, but it showed flashes of the potential that’s there for this team. Kyle Neptune knows the program and once it’s fully set in, Villanova is a dangerous team to look out for.

Why They Won’t: They need more out of their guards.

Caleb Daniels and Jordan Longino have been serviceable to start the season. They both were playing well against La Salle and Temple, but both fell flatter in games against Delaware State and Michigan State. The real standout here is Chris Arcidiacono. In 117 minutes of play this season, Arcidiacono has only recorded 13 points, 15 rebounds, and 6 assists. He’s got skill, and it showed late against the Spartans when he started to feel himself and hit two three pointers in a row. But for 95% of the season, it’s like the Wildcats are playing 4-on-5 when Arcidiacono’s on the court. The severity of the issue reared it’s head against Delaware State, ranked 362nd on KenPom out of 363 teams, and Arcidiacono didn’t record a single point, rebound, or assist in 22 minutes of play. He went 0-4 from the field (all from range) and only recorded a steal and two fouls. The Cats were down by 10 at one point there but managed to salvage a win. That will not continue unless the guards step it up.

UConn Huskies

A 5-0 start to the season for UConn has them cracking the AP Top 25 as well as our own ballots, and the Huskies haven’t really ever been threatened. A 20-point victory over Buffalo marks their closest game of the season, so we’ll see whether that continues against higher-caliber opponents in Portland this weekend.

Why They’ll Win: Early season UConn offense is unmatched.

UConn always starts off the season hot from the floor. Right now the Huskies are tied for 18th in the country, scoring 87.2 points per game and are eighth in the country, outscoring their five opponents by an average of thirty points. Adama Sanogo is the engine to the scoring machine, and feeding the beast has been working. An eleven-point outing against Buffalo was the only time Sanogo went under 15 points, and it’s a big reason why UConn has been dominating their opponents.

Why They Won’t: Being untested can lead to coasting.

It’s a tale we’ve seen from UConn before: They get off to a hot start and when they hit better opponents, they struggle. Last season was a better time, as they breezed through their openers before a double-OT squeaker win against Auburn in the Bahamas only to lose to Michigan State in the next round. History could repeat itself this year as Michigan State sits on the other side of their half of the bracket, but first UConn has to focus on Oregon. As long as their concentration doesn’t lapse, I like the Huskies chances to go far and possibly win the tournament.

Oregon Ducks

The season hasn’t exactly been what Ducks fans were hoping for so far, but the team is still very talented. They showed glimpses of their prowess against Montana State and Florida A&M, and outrebounded a top-2 Houston team. They just have yet to put the pieces together, but the ability is not missing from a team which can and should compete for a Pac-12 title this year.

Why They’ll Win: Domination on the boards is a great way to jumpstart a run.

The Ducks have out-rebounded every single team they’ve played this year, especially on the offensive side. Oregon has grabbed 55 offensive boards this year, compared to only 32 for their opponents. Once they capitalize on those extra chances, Oregon will be able to win the games they’re losing at this point in the season. It will start against a UConn team that averages just over 11.5 offensive rebounds per game, and if they can win that matchup they’ll be in a good position to make a run.

Why They Won’t: Pickpocketing has never been so easy.

If rebounds were the only statistic, Oregon might go undefeated. However, the extra chances they’re getting off the glass go to waste when they get the ball stolen so often. They’ve lost it 27 times in that manner, and Houston’s 13 show that a good team can and will exploit the lack of ball management to this point in the season. They need to keep possession of the ball to give themselves the best shot in this field.

Alabama Crimson Tide

Football season may not be over yet, but basketball is quickly becoming a favorite second sport for many in Tuscaloosa as Alabama is frequenting the basketball rankings now too. The Tide are 4-0 on the season including a 10-point victory on the road over in-state Sun Belt foe South Alabama, in which the lead was 20+ at times. The Crimson Tide are making the case to have the best tandem of sports programs, and a win in the PKI will certainly do a lot to cement that idea.

Why They’ll Win: They’ve got talent deep in the roster.

Alabama has nine different guys who are averaging more than ten minutes per game right now, and all of them contribute on the court. While there isn’t one player you could name as a superstar, face-of-the-roster-esque player, each player on the court is working great in tandem with their teammates. It’s a promising sign for Alabama as they look to return to the top of the SEC as in 2021.

Why They Won’t: They rely heavily on the triples.

Alabama currently shoots the fourth-most threes per game, at just under 33 attempts each time out on the court. They’re shooting at a respectable 33% clip right now, but if they have an off day, especially in a tournament with good perimeter defenses, it’ll be hard for Alabama to match the offensive production they’re looking for. Brandon Miller is their clear-cut number one on the inside, but he doesn’t have the skills of the highest echelon of big men like Drew Timme or Oscar Tshiebwe. Watch for teams to try to shut down the ranged attack of the Crimson Tide this weekend.

Michigan State Spartans

Tom Izzo’s gauntlet isn’t quite over yet, and after going 2-1 against a slate of Gonzaga, Kentucky, and Villanova, he’s facing what is quite possibly three more top-25 teams, with the potential for top-ranked UNC at the end of it. As it is right now, Michigan State will need to keep playing high-level basketball if they want to justify their jump to #12 in the AP polls.

Why They’ll Win: They can get a hot night from anyone, and they can get the ball there.

Tyson Walker saved them against Villanova, Joey Hauser lit up the Wildcats from range, and Mady Sissoko held his own against Drew Timme on the aircraft carrier. Izzo’s veteran squad is talented on the entire floor, and with the team averaging 17.2 assists per game, they can get the ball to their hot hand. Any player on this team has the potential to pop off in a night, and that’s a big danger for opposing defenses and a nightmare to gameplan against. Izzo is great at finding that rhythm for his team and exploiting it against the defenses.

Why They Won’t: Their big men leave a lot to be desired.

Mady Sissoko has been stellar, no doubt, but beyond him there isn’t much to hold down the 5 position. He was the only one able to guard Drew Timme, and it showed in how much the team looked lost after he fouled out. He was able to stay in through two overtime periods against Kentucky when Oscar Tshiebwe wasn’t, and that’s why the Spartans won. But beyond Sissoko, the 5 is a question mark for MSU. Joey Hauser is not great on defense, especially against well-seasoned big men, and their freshmen Jaxon Kohler and Carson Cooper still have a ways to go before they fully adjust to the college level. If Sissoko gets into foul trouble, the team has a bad potential to become one-dimensional, which will make winning games against top squads immensely more difficult.

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