After an offseason where the world got a peak at the hidden influence and role of shoe companies in amateur basketball, initiating a new level of public skepticism over a sport where public skepticism has never been in short quantity, the college hoops world prepares for the season's premier holiday basketball tournament honoring a shoe company founder.
Happy birthday, Phil Knight.
Let's set aside the broader issues surrounding the sport of college basketball; this should be one hell of a tournament. Or actually, two hells of a tournament; the Portland-based PK80 is made up of two separate eight-team tournaments, with each tournament containing a mix of top Nike-affiliated D-I universities. The Texas Longhorns will be participating in one of these tournaments — the so-called "Motion Bracket," because branding — and will have a chance to measure itself against a number of other top college teams.
The tournament will take place over Thanksgiving weekend, with the first two rounds to run on Thursday and Friday, an off-day on Saturday, and the final round on Sunday. Shaka Smart's team starts off against Butler (6 PM CST Thursday, ESPN2), and then on Friday will match-up with either Portland State or Duke. The final game will come against Florida, Ohio State, Stanford, or Gonzaga.
It is a pretty good field. Of course, the quality of opposition that the Longhorns will face in this event improves dramatically so long as Texas wins its first game; the victor of Butler-Texas is more than likely going to face the AP No. 1 ranked Duke Blue Devils on Friday.
Let's first consider Butler.
The Bulldogs enter the PK80 with a 3-1 record, taking a road loss at Maryland last week. After coach Chris Holtmann left last spring to lead Ohio State, Butler yet again is breaking in a new head coach in LaVall Jordan. It is worth pointing out that Butler's hiring track record over the last two decades is pretty strong and the Butler program has trucked along through the many changes without much in the way of problems. Like all of his predecessors, Jordan has time spent as a Butler assistant on his resume, working under Todd Lickliter before eventually following him to Iowa. The last 18 years of Butler basketball serve as a pretty good argument for hiring who you know over using a search firm to conduct a national coaching search.
This particular iteration of the Butler Bulldogs features a strong and experienced front court led by 6'7 senior Kelan Martin. The Preseason All-Big East forward is an absolute handful that creates serious match-up problems for everyone. Martin plays as a face up scorer who can shoot and handle the ball. The Bulldogs like to set ball screens for Martin, which puts defenses in the unusual situation of having to guard a 6'7 scorer in a pick and roll. He doubles as one of the best rebounders in the Big East.
Coach Jordan rotates a pair of traditional big men — 6'8 senior Tyler Wideman and 6'10 junior Nate Fowler — as well as 6'6 sophomore shooting wing Sean McDermott through the front court. Wideman is the biggest scoring threat of the group. It’s a strong front court that will provide the toughest challenge that the Longhorn big men have faced since a preseason exhibition against Texas A&M.
In the back court, the Bulldogs rotate 6'2 freshman Aaron Thompson (a player who has not yet attempted a three point shot in his short college career), 6'1 sophomore Kamar Baldwin, and 6'2 George Washington transfer Paul Jorgensen. Baldwin has emerged in this early season as Butler's second-leading offensive option after Martin.
Through the first part of the season, the Bulldogs have been pretty good about not beating themselves with turnovers, but they did struggle to score around the basket against Maryland's long front court; the Texas Longhorns have the potential to cause similar issues for Butler.
Win or lose against the Bulldogs, Shaka Smart's team will have a game the following day. The Blue Devils — one potential opponent — have a roster that blends senior All-American candidate Grayson Allen with a number of exceptionally talented freshmen. After a disappointing junior campaign, Allen has started off the season on a tear, scoring from all over the floor. It certainly helps that Allen can move back to his more natural wing position thanks to the arrival of freshman point guard Trevon Duval, who has been steady with the ball so far this season. 6'6 freshman wing Gary Trent will likely be overshadowed by a few of his teammates over the course of the year, but he can knock down shots from outside and is a threat to go off in any given game.
On the inside Mike Krzyzewski has a pair of talented freshmen big men in Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter. Bagley stands a decent chance of being the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NBA draft, and Bagley and Carter have been murdering opponents on the offensive glass to start the season.
There is no guarantee that Texas will get Duke in the second game. The other possible opponent is Portland State, out of the Big Sky Conference. The Vikings were 15-16 last season, but are undefeated coming into the PK80 — a record that is unlikely to hold for much longer. Coach Barrett Peery's team is led by 6'4 senior Bryce Canda, who is probably most dangerous from the perimeter.
For Texas fans, the PK80 represents the first chance to see the Longhorns against high level competition. Game one tips at 6 PM CST Thursday in Portland, and airs on ESPN2.