It's never too early to start looking ahead on the college basketball schedule, and the November tournaments are as good a place as any. Among those is the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off that includes the defending national champion Louisville Cardinals among its featured teams.
The HOF Tip-Off begins during the first full week of the 2013-14 slate before concluding with the real meat of the tourney at Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut the weekend prior to Thanksgiving. That's when Louisville is joined by the North Carolina Tar Heels, Richmond Spiders and Fairfield Stags for a quick bracket.
Four more schools will participate on the undercard, and serve as warm-up opponents for the other quartet, led by the Belmont Bruins of the Ohio Valley Conference. The Hartford Hawks, Hofstra Pride and Holy Cross Crusaders round out the lineup.
Pitino & Cards Begin Title Defense In New League
Two straight Big East titles is how Louisville made its exit from the conference that went through a major overhaul since the end of last season. The result was the Cardinals heading to the newly-formed American Athletic Conference along with former Big East members Connecticut, South Florida, Cincinnati and Rutgers.
Rick Pitino's team is the obvious choice to take home the first AAC crown, but not as big a favorite as you might think. The Cardinals are 5/4 picks according to the latest college basketball futures odds, just ahead of Memphis at 3/2. UConn is third with a 7/2 price.
Louisville lost two huge members of last year's squad in point guard Peyton Siva and center Gorgui Dieng. But Pitino does have top scorer Russ Smith (18.7 ppg) returning, along with forwards Chane Behanan and Luke Hancock, who was a beast in the NCAA Tournament. Two newcomers, guards Anton Gill and Terry Rozier, should get plenty of opportunities early on.
The Cardinals open against College of Charleston before eventually taking on Hofstra and Hartford as lead-ins to the Hall of Fame Tip-Off. Their tourney opener vs. Fairfield will be the Cards' first game away from the KFC Yum! Center.
For full coverage of all early season tournaments head over to our NCAA Basketball Picks page.
Tourney Sets Up For Cards, Tar Heels To Collide
Louisville's second game away from home should come against Roy Williams and the North Carolina Tar Heels, barring the Stags upsetting the Cardinals or UNC falling to Richmond. Aside from Pitino and Williams going at it, the potential matchup pits a pair of teams that are each 8/1 to win it all.
The Tar Heels have their top two scorers back in PJ Hairston (14.6 ppg) and James Michael McAdoo (14.4 ppg), plus Marcus Paige back to play the point or 2-guard. How often Paige plays the 2 will depend how well freshman Nate Britt and junior Luke Davis handle the point. Williams will also be bringing along a couple more 1st-year players in Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks, both standouts at North Carolina high schools.
North Carolina opens the campaign vs. Oakland before the two preliminary games for the HOF Tip-Off against Holy Cross and Belmont.
Can Spiders Or Stags Spoil UNC-Louisville Showdown?
We certainly don't expect either Fairfield or Richmond to pull off an outright upset to keep the Cardinals and Tar Heels from meeting, but stranger things have happened. Both UNC and Louisville have too much experience returning to keep them from getting embarrassed early on, as might be the case for some of the top 20 teams breaking in several new starters.
Fairfield's Sydney Johnson will be breaking in several new faces himself, especially in the backcourt after the Stags lost top scorer Derek Needham and point Desmond Wade. Maurice Barrow, a preseason All-MAAC selection, and Marcus Gilbert are talented forwards returning, but they should be no match for Louisville.
Like Fairfield in the MAAC, Richmond is picked to finish sixth in the Atlantic-10, and with head coach Chris Mooney's knack for exceeding expectations, the Spiders could at least put a scare into North Carolina. Rochmond does have an experienced guard-forward tandem back in Cedrick Lindsay and Derrick Williams, and Mooney has some experience to plug into vacancies after rotation 10-11 players in his Princeton-style offense last year. A key player to watch early will be freshman guard Josh Jones, but again, especially if he's matched with Nate Britt in the game vs. UNC.As much as I love upsets, I'm pulling for chalk in this one and hoping to see a UNC-'Ville battle in the end. The Tar Heels in what should be close to a pick in that game is my initial lean.