The start of the college basketball season is here, and with it comes a plethora of early-season tournaments. These tournaments have become a staple of the college basketball schedule and have been great for the game. Fans get to see exciting matchups and these tournaments give us a chance to watch games between teams who don’t normally play each other. For the teams, they are afforded the opportunity to travel to new destinations, get a chance for resume-building wins, and get to compete for some extra hardware. It all adds up to an early treat for fans and an incredible opportunity for the teams that compete. But sometimes, the impact of these tournaments can carry on long past the moment and even beyond the following March.
To illustrate this point, we’ll look at the experience of two different sets of “Wildcats,” Villanova and Arizona, and the very different results that flowed like the free online slots in Canada I played last month as we break down their experiences at separate Battle 4 Atlantis tournaments.
Villanova head coach Jay Wright has made these early-season showcases a staple of his program’s schedule. This year, participation at the Myrtle Beach Invitational will mark the seventh-straight year the Wildcats have played in one of these events, and they have won the previous six. But it’s the first one, the 2013 Battle 4 Atlantis, that really stands out.
At that tournament, unranked Villanova defeated second-ranked Kansas in the semifinals and No. 23 Iowa in the final to take home the championship. Those victories helped propel the Wildcats to an 11-0 start and a 29-5 season. Since that trip to the Bahamas, Villanova has lost just 31 regular-season games, has claimed two national titles, and has cemented its place among the elite programs in the country.
Now, does Villanova owe all that success to a three-game stretch in the Caribbean six years ago? Of course not. But you can’t ignore the connection. For a program that had fallen hard after a run to the Final Four in 2009, that win over Kansas as well as avoiding a letdown against Iowa sent a message to the team: We can compete with the elite and we can win tournaments. Four players on that team would go on to be key cogs on the 2016 team that delivered Villanova its first national championship in 30 years.
Wright’s recruiting philosophy was a key ingredient in allowing that special trip to the Bahamas to have such an outsized impact on his program. Partly out of necessity, partly out of principle, he has largely eschewed the one-and-done craze that dominates recruiting at most elite college basketball programs. In doing so, the lessons of 2013 were allowed to both cultivate in young players like Ryan Arcidiacono, Daniel Ochefu, Josh Hart, and Kris Jenkins and also be passed on to the successive cores of the program (Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth, Eric Paschall, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo) who later delivered yet another national title. Again, it would disingenuous to attribute all that success a three-game stretch six years ago. But looking at where Villanova was before it, and where it has gone since, it is impossible to ignore the impact that the tournament had on the program.
At the other end of the spectrum, we find another group of Wildcats, this one from Arizona. This group’s disastrous run at the 2017 Battle 4 Atlantis had the opposite effect.
The 2017-18 Arizona Wildcats were coming off a 2016-17 campaign in which they went 29-5 and reached the Sweet 16. They won both the Pac-12 regular-season and tournament championships. In 2017-18, they returned Rawle Alkins and Allonzo Trier while adding stud freshman DeAndre Ayton. This all set the stage for a season of high expectations, as the Wildcats entered the season ranked No. 3 and had risen to No. 2 by the time they reached the Bahamas, where they were considered co-favorites, with Villanova, ironically, to win the Battle 4 Atlantis title.
And then the wheels completely fell off. Arizona was shocked by N.C. State in the opening round of the tournament. Seemingly stunned to find themselves in the consolation bracket, the Wildcats laid another dud in a concerning loss to SMU. Shell-shocked, Arizona proceeded to get embarrassed by Purdue in the 7th-place game 89-64. In an eight-team field that included Northern Iowa and Western Kentucky in addition to N.C. State and SMU, Arizona finished dead last.
The carnage sent Arizona tumbling from the rankings, falling completely out of the following week’s poll from its lofty perch at No. 2. To their credit, the Wildcats were able to get back on track, eventually cracking the top 10 again and repeating as Pac-12 champs. But a thorough beating at the hands of Buffalo to open the NCAA Tournament, combined with the Battle 4 Atlantis disaster, served as striking bookends to a disappointing season.
Last year the struggles continued, as Arizona stumbled to a 17-15 record, spending the entire season unranked and missing the NCAA Tournament. Now, we must note that the correlation with Arizona isn’t as strong as it is with Villanova. This is partly due to the roster turnover faced by ‘Zona with key pieces like Ayton, Trier and Alkins not present for last year’s campaign, and partly due to the smaller sample size. It’s possible that Arizona, led by an impressive recruiting class highlighted by Nico Mannion and Josh Green, returns the desert Wildcats back to their winning ways. Still, it’s hard to ignore the way the 2017 Battle 4 Atlantis portended a disappointing season for Arizona or the fact that the program hasn’t proven a return to prominence since.
So, as you’re enjoying this season’s early tournaments, it may be worthwhile to make a mental note of any results you find surprising and to keep an eye on the program(s) involved in the future for any signs of lingering impact. The journeys of Villanova, and to a lesser extent Arizona, tell us there might just be something there.
Josh Naso aka The Silver Fox has a love for all things sports that borders on disorder. Here, he aims to share his thoughts on and passion for those sports with you.