Alabama will complete the November portion of the schedule by spending Thanksgiving in Orlando for the AdvoCare Invitational. When reviewing the college basketball season in April, this event may be considered among the top three of the early season tournaments behind only the Battle 4 Atlantis and the Maui Invitational. The event may only feature one preseason top 25 team (Wichita State), but there are several teams that could be hovering outside the top 25 such as Xavier, Notre Dame, Dayton and Iowa. It will also feature a USC team that is expected to be improved, and a potential rising mid-major in Monmouth. Alabama will be challenged all three days of the event, and their performance could set the tone for the remainder of the season. I have left Dayton out of this preview due to their scheduled game with Alabama on November 17th. You can find their preview in my previous schedule preview post.
November 26, 2015 - Xavier - Alabama will open the event against what has become a familiar foe in recent years. Xavier and Alabama have faced off the last two seasons with Xavier getting the better of Alabama both times. Once thought of as a mid-major, Xavier has become one of the most consistent basketball programs in the country thanks to a revolving door of great coaches, great players and a supportive fanbase that creates one of the best home court environments in the country. In the last 25 years, the program has reached the NCAA Tournament 19 times with two trips to the Elite Eight and seven trips to the Sweet Sixteen. There are plenty of power conference teams who didn't have to work their way up the basketball food chain that would love to have accomplished what Xavier has done during that time frame. The 15-16 Xavier basketball program will be expected to continue that run of success as they return 6 of their top 8 scorers from a season ago, while welcoming in a recruiting class that reflects the profile boost that the program has gained by joining the Big East. Xavier was an incredibly balanced team last year (7 players averaged at least 5 points, and no player averaged more than 12), and is expected to be a similar team. The strength will lie in an experienced backcourt headlined by Trevon Bluiett (11.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg), Myles Davis (10.6 ppg, 2.1 apg) and Remy Abell (8.4 ppg). Jalen Reynolds (6'10, 232 lbs, 9.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 1.0 bpg) and James Farr (6'10, 247 lbs, 4.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg) are the muscle in the post.
November 27, 2015 - Wichita State/USC - The second game of the event will pit Alabama against another familiar foe in Wichita State or Southern California from the Pac-12. While Wichita State may not have escaped fully from the title of "mid-major", the hiring of Gregg Marshall in 2007 has certainly put them on the path to leaving that designation behind in the near future. In eight seasons at Wichita, Marshall has won an NIT championship, and participated in four NCAA Tournaments, including a run to the Final Four in 2013. The Shockers are expected to be a preseason Top 25 team when the season tips off, and have a team capable of making yet another run in the NCAA Tournament in March. There's a reason Alabama threw the kitchen sink at Marshall when it was conducting a coaching search. He's one of the top 10 coaches in the game right now. While his ambitions may ultimately carry him away from Wichita, he will remain one of the best in the college game for many years to come. The strength of this Wichita State roster begins with Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, one of the best 1-2 punches at the guard position in the country. Along with those two, Wichita returns 5 of their top 8 scorers, and welcomes in two potential high impact transfers with Anton Grady (Cleveland State) and Connor Frankamp (Kansas).
USC basketball has been a wasteland in recent years, but there is hope in the City of Angels as recent recruiting success is expected to begin paying dividends, perhaps this season. Andy Enfield (formerly the coach at Florida Gulf Coast) enters his third season. His first two seasons were struggles as the program only won 23 games total. This season could be different. The team returns all 8 of their top scorers from a season ago, and welcomes in a couple of 4 star big men. There is experience and talent on hand for Enfield. At the very least, the NIT is a possibility for this team. There isn't necessarily one guy that jumps off the page for USC, but they have talent at the guard spots (Katin Reinhardt -12.5 ppg, 1.0 spg, 38% 3pt; Jordan McLaughlin - 12.1 ppg, 4.5 apg, 1.5 spg; Julian Jacobs - 8.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.5 apg, 1.1 spg) and a lot of size on the roster (Nikola Jovanovic - 6'11, 230 lbs, 12.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg). Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu are both four star big men who should have a chance to compete for minutes.
November 29, 2015 - Notre Dame/Monmouth/Iowa/Dayton - One of these four teams will be Alabama's final opponent in this event. Notre Dame had a stellar 14-15 season. 32 wins, an ACC Tournament title, and an Elite Eight appearance where they narrowly lost to Kentucky. It was arguably one of the best seasons in the history of the program. For an encore, they will have to replace the two leaders from last year's team in Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton. But it's not all doom and gloom as the Irish will return 6 of their top 8 scorers, including Zach Auguste (12.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and Demetrius Jackson (12.4 ppg, 3.1 apg, 1.6 spg), who are poised to assume the leadership duties. Notre Dame may experience a bit of step back compared to last season, but this is still a team capable of returning to the NCAA Tournament.
Monmouth will be the team under the radar in this event, but that could be dangerous for one or more teams that choose to overlook a rapidly ascending program in the MAAC (Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference). The MAAC has long been a two-program battle at the top between Iona and Manhattan. Those two still figure to play a part in the conference race, but Monmouth may be ready to crash the party. Head Coach King Rice enters his fifth season at Monmouth. Only 46 and currently at his only head coaching gig, it's been an uphill battle rebuilding this program, but the program has made some progress with win totals of 12, 10, 11 and 18 last season. The optimism for this season centers around 5 of the top 8 scorers return from a team that won 13 games in conference last season, plus they welcome a potential impact transfer in Je'lon Hornbeak from Oklahoma. The MAAC is an underrated conference, and Iona seems firmly rooted at the top, so it won't be easy for Monmouth to break through, but they are definitely a team on rise at the mid-major level. Alabama, or any other team in this field, would be wise to not overlook them.
Fran McCaffery enters his sixth season at Iowa where it appears, after some bumps in the early part of his tenure, that the program is now on solid footing. Iowa has been a part of the last two NCAA Tournaments, winning a game last season. While replacing their leading scorer from last season (Aaron White) will be a challenge, Iowa returns 5 of their top 8 scorers, including Jarrod Uthoff (12.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.1 spg, 1.6 bpg) who could be primed for a big season. Another tough Big Ten slate will test this team, but there's enough talent on hand for Iowa to make it three consecutive NCAA Tournaments.