Thanksgiving weekend will have a March feel to it in Nassau thanks to the third annual Battle 4 Atlantis, the three-day, eight-team college basketball tournament played at the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island, November 26-28. Florida and Wisconsin, coming off Final Four seasons, headline the field that also includes traditional powers North Carolina, UCLA and Georgetown along with Oklahoma, UAB and Butler. This is the strongest field top to bottom of any of the pre-March tournaments. The winner will have to take three consecutive games against a lineup of teams that includes four that are ranked in CBSSports.com’s preseason top 20 -- #4 Wisconsin; #6 Florida; #7 North Carolina and #16 Oklahoma. Of the eight teams in the tournament, five (Florida, Wisconsin, North Carolina, UCLA and Oklahoma) played in the NCAA Tournament back in March.
This is a tournament that has star power in Marcus Paige (North Carolina), Frank Kaminsky (Wisconsin), Michael Frazier (Florida) and D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera (Georgetown) along with four future Hall of Fame coaches in Billy Donovan (Florida), Bo Ryan (Wisconsin), Roy Williams (North Carolina) and Lon Kruger (Oklahoma).
When you add this tournament into a pre-SEC schedule that includes road trips to Kansas and North Carolina, a neutral site game with Wake Forest and a home game against NCAA champ UConn, it is the most challenging schedule for Florida in the Billy Donovan era.
The first day schedule at Paradise Island:
1. Butler vs. North Carolina, 12 noon
2. UCLA vs. Oklahoma, 2:30 p.m.
3. UAB vs. Wisconsin, 7 p.m.
4. Georgetown vs. Florida, 9:30 p.m.
If the Gators get past Georgetown, they will face the UAB-Wisconsin winner at 3:30 in the semifinals on day two.
Florida (36-3, lost in NCAA semifinals to UCONN): The Gators won 30 straight games and ran the table in the SEC before giving out of gas at the Final Four to eventual national champ UConn. Four senior starters graduated from that team, leaving Michael Frazier (6-4, 205; 12.4 points per game; 46.1% from the 3-point line) as the only returning starter. He should be joined in the starting lineup by Dorian Finney-Smith (6-8, 220; 8.7 points, 6.7 rebounds), who likely moves to a starting role at power forward and sophomores Chris Walker (6-10, 220) and Kasey Hill (6-1, 185; 5.5 points, 3.1 assists). The fifth spot in the starting rotation could be a toss-up between redshirt senior Eli Carter (6-2, 200), who averaged 15 points per game in two years at Rutgers, freshman Devin Robinson (6-9, 190) or Michigan transfer Jon Horford (6-10, 250), a fifth-year senior eligible immediately. Florida has won 20 or more games 16 consecutive years and has made it to the Elite Eight round of the NCAA tournament four consecutive seasons. Donovan is 486-189 in his coaching career, 451-169 at Florida with two national championships and six SEC titles.
Georgetown (18-15, lost in second round of NIT to Florida State): Last season was a disappointment for the Hoyas, who have made it to the Sweet 16 only once since making the Final Four in 2007. The Hoyas will have their typical tall, physical team but the roster is thin at guard, particularly at the point. Georgetown returns four starters including leading scorer D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera (17.6 points per game), center Josh Smith (6-9, 300; 11.5 points, 3.4 rebounds); wing Jabril Trawick (6-5, 210; 9.1 points, 3.1 rebounds) and power forward Mikael Hopkins (6-9, 233; 6.0 points, 4.9 rebounds). The already deep front court will be boosted by freshmen Jesse Govan (6-10, 265) and Trey Mourning (6-10, 235), but the Hoyas don’t have a pure point guard with experience on the roster. John Thompson III is 295-146 in his coaching career, 227-104 at Georgetown, where he’s taken the Hoyas to seven NCAA tournaments and to the NIT three times.
Wisconsin (30-8, lost in NCAA semifinals to Kentucky): With four returning starters from a team that was within a buzzer beater of playing UConn for the national championship, Wisconsin is expected to challenge for the NCAA title. The Badgers, who have made it to 13 straight NCAA Tournaments under Bo Ryan, will go with a more traditional two-guard lineup now that Ben Brust has graduated. Traveon Jackson (6-2, 208; 10.7 points, 4.0 assists) returns at the point and will be joined in the backcourt by Josh Gasser (6-3, 190; 8.8 points, 4.0 rebounds). Up front, Wisconsin got a boost when Frank Kaminsky (7-0, 234; 13.9 points, 6.3 rebounds) and Sam Dekker (6-7, 220; 12.4 points, 6.1 rebounds) elected to return to school rather than bolt for the NBA. They will likely to be joined in the front court by last year’s sixth man, Nigel Hayes (6-7, 250; 7.7 points, 2.8 rebounds). Bo Ryan is 704-224 in his coaching career with four NCAA Division III national champions at Wisconsin-Platteville. He is 321-121 at Wisconsin.
UAB (18-13, Conference USA): UAB’s hopes of challenging for the Conference USA title in 2014-15 suffered a severe blow when last year’s leading scorer Chad Frazier (17.7 points) was released from his scholarship after an arrest on a domestic violence charge. Coach Jerod Haase has only one returning starter – C.J. Washington (6-8, 220; 13.0 points; 6.9 rebounds) – from last year’s team. Denzell Watts (6.2, 207; 3.5 points) will take over at the point. The other three spots in the lineup are likely to be filled by freshmen from an outstanding recruiting class. Pencil William Lee (6-9, 210), Alabama’s Mr. Basketball, in at center. The other two spots are up for grabs. Haase is 34-30 in two seasons as a head coach, both at UAB.
North Carolina (24-10, lost in NCAA second round to Iowa State): Second team All-American Marcus Paige (6-1, 175; 17.5 points, 4.2 assists) is the most important returnee on a team that now has the athleticism to go with a huge front line. Brice Johnson (6-9, 210; 10.3 points, 6.1 rebounds); J.P. Tokoto (9.3 points, 5.8 rebounds) and Kennedy Meeks (6-9, 275; 7.6 points, 6.1 rebounds) are key returnees but freshmen Joel Berry (6-0, 188), Justin Jackson (6-8, 190) and Theo Pinson (6-6, 190) add athleticism but none of them are knockdown jump shooters. If there is a weakness to this team it is the lack of shooters other than Paige. Williams is 724-190 overall as a head coach, 306-89 with two NCAA titles at North Carolina.
Butler (14-17): After years as an NCAA Cinderella that made it all the way to two consecutive national championship games under head coach Brad Stevens, the Bulldogs took a giant leap backward last year. Stevens left to coach the Boston Celtics, leaving the program in the hands of Brandon Miller, who had to go through his first season at the helm without best player Roosevelt Jones (6-4, 227) who had to take a medical redshirt after tearing ligaments in his wrist during the team’s exhibition trip to Australia in the summer. Last year’s leading scorer, Kellen Dunham (6-6, 185; 16.4 points, 4.0 rebounds), returns along with center Kameron Woods (6-9, 200; 7.5 points, 4.9 rebounds) and point guard Alex Barlow (5-11, 188; 6.6 points, 3.5 assists). Freshman Tyler Wideman (6-8, 245) is expected to play immediately. He gives the Bulldogs a low post presence who can rebound.
UCLA (28-9; lost to Florida in NCAA Sweet 16): It’s a rebuilding year for the Bruins, who lost three starters from last year’s Sweet 16 team. The only returning starters for Coach Steve Alford are Norman Powell (6-4, 215; 11.4 points, 2.8 rebounds per game) and point Bryce Alford (6-3, 180; 8.0 points, 2.8 assists). Tony Parker (6-9, 255; 6.9 points, 4.4 rebounds) will get the first nod at center. Stud freshmen Kevon Looney (6-8, 200) and Australian Jonah Bolden (6-8, 205) will have a chance to play early and often. There is talent, but it’s mostly young and it will take awhile before the Bruins figure out how to play together. Alford is 489-242 as a head coach, 28-9 at UCLA. Prior to UCLA he took Southwest Missouri State, Iowa and New Mexico to the NCAA Tournament.
Oklahoma (23-10; lost in NCAA first round to North Dakota State): Three double-figures scorers return from an Oklahoma team that had no problems putting points on the board last year. Leading scorer Buddy Hield (6-4, 209; 16.5 points, 4.4 rebounds) along with Isaiah Cousins (6-4, 187; 11.0 points, 4.2 rebounds) and Jordan Woodard (6-0, 185; 10.3 points, 4.6 assists). Dependable Ryan Spangler (6-8, 231; 9.6 points, 9.3 rebounds) returns at center. If Houston transfer TaShawn Thomas (6-8, 240; 15.4 points, 8.1 rebounds) wins his appeal and gets a waiver from the NCAA that will allow him to play this year, Oklahoma could be in for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Head coach Lon Kruger, who coached Florida to the 1993 Final Four, is 537-342 as a head coach, 58-38 at Oklahoma. Kruger has taken Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV and Oklahoma to the NCAA Tournament.