From Holiday to Celebrate

Last week, college basketball's holiday tournaments wrapped for the season. I noted before that this is one of my favorite parts of the sport's calendar. Heck, I've even done some previews of those events. But, do they really have any effect on what teams truly strive for? In the trek for conference titles and, ultimately, NCAA bids, the holiday tourneys are a way to kind of preview the nature of late February and March. Getting away from campus and testing your stamina over consecutive days of play could be beneficial. But, again, how much?

According to the folk's at SB Nation's Blogging the Bracket, there were 23 events featuring a bracketed tournament at a pre-designated neutral site. Some were four teams deep, other had eight teams. Each seem to have at least a minor effect on not only who wins the whole ball of wax in early April, but who gets to be invited in the first place. For the teams that ultimately won in these smaller fields, they not only got to take home a trophy. They also captured some attention, whether they had hype entering the season or not.

I took a two-pronged approach to this. First, I went back over the last 15 years of holiday tournaments, picking out 10 that have become very synonymous with the time period from Thanksgiving Week to Christmas Day.

* NIT Season Tip-Off
* Maui Invitational
* Great Alaska Shootout
* Paradise Jam (since 2001)
* Advocare Invitational (since 2006)
* Puerto Rico Tip-Off (since 2007)
* Wooden Legacy (since 2007)
* Charleston Classic (since 2008)
* Diamond Head Classic (since 2009)
* Battle 4 Atlantis (since 2011)

It was interesting to see how the past champions of these events were seeded in the corresponding NCAA tournaments, if invited at all. Of the 101 title-winning teams over this 15-year stretch, 78 (77.2%) eventually saw their names on Selection Sunday. Of the four longer-running events, the Great Alaska Shootout may have taken the biggest hit to its reputation. Only eight of the 15 previous champions have been able to use that experience as a momentum swing long enough to carry them into the NCAAs. It really speaks to the fact that this once-respected tournament for the "big" schools has now turned into a mid-major showcase.

When it comes to the younger events (2006 and later), only the Charleston Classic has had truly spotty success. Four out of the seven previous winners (57%) have eventually headed on to the Field of 65-plus. That's still a good trend, but not the same as Diamond Head (4 of 6), Puerto Rico (6 of 8), the Advocare (7 of 9), the Wooden (7 of 8), or Atlantis (4 of 4). These are all small sample sizes, but one factor appears to be consistent. Winning these early tournaments means that, barring injuries, your team should be strong enough to endure the rigors of the remaining two-plus months of season ahead of them.

(Just a note. Hope that your team does well in the NIT, Maui, or Atlantis. Only two champions have missed the NCAAs since 2000, and none since 2002.)

The second way I approached this whole holiday factor was to review the actual national champions over the same time period (2000-2014 holiday seasons --> 2001-2015 NCAA tournaments). Of the last 15 teams to hoist the vaunted trophy, 11 took part in some type of tournament during the holidays (mainly around Thanksgiving).


As you can see, the majority of the participating teams won their respective competitions. Now, you can clearly note that entering a holiday event won't guarantee any future success. But it can't really hurt a team to bond away from campus and figure out how to grind out consecutive days of playing time on the college level.

So, we've taken a look at the numbers of Holiday Hoops Past. What could that mean for this year's crop of winners?

Looking closely at the 21 eligible champions from this year's list of events (Las Vegas Classic winner SMU is banned from postseason play and Global Sports Classic champion Grand Canyon is still transitioning from Division II), the only teams I see having a difficult time making the NCAAs are Weber State (Gulf Coast Showcase), Middle Tennessee (Great Alaska Shootout), UTEP (Corpus Christi Coastal Challenge), and, possibly, Creighton (Men Who Speak Up Main Event).

The other winners ... well, let's just say this season sported a bumper crop. Of the 17 remaining champions, the top prospects of the major conferences are well represented. The ACC (Virginia, Miami, Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse), Big XII (Kansas, Iowa State, Oklahoma, West Virginia), Big Ten (Michigan State, Maryland, Purdue), and Big East (Villanova, Xavier, Marquette, Creighton) all had their best efforts showing up in their best teams. Several of these squads will be in the conversation for top seeds as the middle of March draws closer. I could easily see half of them playing host to a pod during the first weekend of the NCAAs. After that, it's a crapshoot, but placing yourself in a favorable position is the majority of the battle.

Like bowl games, the number of events scheduled for this time of the year has expanded pretty dramatically. Over the last 20 years, a time that put a spotlight on Maui, Anchorage, and New York has been flooded with florescence from several vacation destinations (Orlando, Charleston, San Juan, Las Vegas, the Bahamas, and more). I understand that this particular dilution means more teams can appreciate the late-season structure to win a title. But I think that also means that more teams can envision a path to lifting the one trophy everyone wants to hold in early April. The Holiday tournaments do mean something. It's up to the victorious participants to turn them into something more.

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