Thanksgiving week college basketball tournaments generally follow turkey day protocol: an appetizer before a memorable main course.
That should be the case for Gonzaga at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas with Wednesday’s opener against Southern Miss, which is 0-3 against Division I competition and 2-0 against foes outside Division I.
The eighth-ranked Bulldogs (6-0) will be heavy favorites to reach the semifinals. The Golden Eagles were picked 14th (last) in the Conference USA preseason poll and lost by 28 to Iowa State, which is on the other side of the Atlantis bracket.
Southern Miss hasn’t defeated a ranked opponent since a 2004 victory over Marquette. The Golden Eagles have 11 newcomers, tied for fifth most nationally, and returned just 37.5% of their scoring from last season.
One of the first entries in coach and player handbooks is to take it one game at a time and never overlook an opponent. We weren’t issued those handbooks, allowing us to glance at potential marquee matchups Thursday and Friday.
So, how does Gonzaga-Oregon, Gonzaga-Seton Hall, Gonzaga-North Carolina sound? At least one of those matchups is guaranteed.
No matter what happens Wednesday, the Zags will face No. 11 Oregon or No. 13 Seton Hall on Thursday. Gonzaga and Oregon are Northwest and national powers, but they haven’t matched up since the Ducks’ 70-64 win at the 1999 Rainbow Classic in Honolulu in GU coach Mark Few’s first season. They nearly collided in the 2017 national championship, but North Carolina outlasted Oregon 77-76 in the semifinal.
Seton Hall guard Myles Powell is a player of the year candidate. He scored 37 points in a near upset against Michigan State. He’s averaging 22.6 points, a tad lower than his 23.1 last season, and connecting on 42% of his 3-pointers.
The opposite side of the bracket features No. 6 North Carolina and freshman point guard Cole Anthony, a projected top-five draft pick. UNC edged Gonzaga in the 2017 title game and handled the Zags 103-90 last year in Chapel Hill. The return game is Dec. 18 at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
“On paper, it looks like it’s certainly the best one of all the tournaments this year, almost like Maui was last year,” Few said of the Battle 4 Atlantis field. “That’s going to make it a really tough three nights, but that’s why we want to be involved in it.”
The tournament should give the Zags, who have blasted five of six opponents by at least 28 points, a feel for where they stand nationally. Gonzaga’s eight-man rotation will be tested by the caliber of opponents and the format of three games in three days.
“When the lights are the brightest and the going gets tough, we’re going to figure out what we have,” junior wing Corey Kispert said. “I’m really confident in the group we have. The beauty of this team is no one tries to do too much.
“That’s the one fear you have when you play those big-time teams is someone is going to try to do what they don’t normally do. We trust each other and we trust in our games enough to know how to use each other the best.”