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Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Battle 4 Atlantis primer

By Jason King

Rick Pitino
Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals are part of a loaded field in the Battle 4 Atlantis event.
Thanksgiving weekend temperatures in the Bahamas are expected to hover in the low 80s -- perfect for an afternoon of snorkeling, sunbathing or sculpting sand near the ocean.

But really, who needs the beach?

Basketball will be the main attraction at the Atlantis Resort in Nassau, where eight of the country’s top teams will play in the Battle 4 Atlantis. In just its second year, the tournament boasts one of the most impressive fields of any early-season event in recent memory.

Or at least that’s how things appear.

No. 2 Louisville is a favorite to reach the Final Four for the second straight year. Fifth-ranked Duke is high on momentum after last week’s victory against Kentucky. Missouri, which is ranked 13th, is one of the deepest squads in America, and No. 19 Memphis has its best team yet under Josh Pastner.

That’s four teams ranked in this week’s Top 20 -- not to mention Minnesota, which received more votes than any team not in the poll. Stanford, last season’s NIT champion, is also in the field along with mid-major powers VCU and Northern Iowa.

Whoever wins this tournament will deserve a spot in the national championship discussion -- if it's not already -- and maybe an extra day or two to enjoy the resort. Goodness knows it won’t have much time to relax before Sunday.

The basics: Nov. 22-24 at the Atlantis Resort in Nassau, Bahamas

Thursday's set matchups: Missouri vs. Stanford, 1 p.m. ET; Duke vs. Minnesota, 3:30 p.m. ET; Memphis vs. VCU, 7 p.m. ET; Louisville vs. Northern Iowa, 9:30 p.m. ET

THE FAVORITE

Louisville: No team in the field touts a résumé quite like the Cardinals, who are led by a Hall of Fame-caliber coach, Rick Pitino, and a point guard, Peyton Siva, who was named Big East Preseason Player of the Year. Louisville returns virtually every key piece of last season’s Final Four squad, and potential stars such as Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear have a chance to blossom into stars after showing flashes of brilliance as freshmen. Louisville -- in particular, forward Gorgui Dieng -- plays with a toughness that makes it one of the top defensive teams in America.

FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH

Mason Plumlee, Duke: Not many big men in the country have opened the season as strong as Plumlee, who averages 21.7 points and 8.7 rebounds for the 3-0 Blue Devils. The future first-round NBA draft pick had 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting against Kentucky and heralded freshman Nerlens Noel.

Phil Pressey, Missouri: Pressey, whose quickness helps him blow by defenders on the perimeter and create for others, is having to become more of a vocal leader after the departures of Kim English and Marcus Denmon. The Bob Cousy Award candidate averages a team-high 15.3 points and 4.7 assists.

Adonis Thomas, Memphis: Thomas might have left school for the NBA draft if not for an ankle injury that cut his freshman season short. The 6-foot-6 small forward is a highly skilled offensive player who can shoot the 3, pull up from midrange or drive to the basket. He’s averaging 12 points on a well-balanced team.

Gorgui Dieng, Louisville: Dieng’s numbers thus far (10.0 points, 8.7 rebounds) look somewhat pedestrian until you realize he’s playing only 21 minutes a game. His court time -- and his production -- will increase this week against tougher competition. Dieng, who's 6-11, averaged 3.2 blocks last season.

Trevor Mbakwe, Minnesota: The Gophers standout came off the bench and played limited minutes in Minnesota’s first three games following reconstructive knee surgery that ended his 2011-12 season after seven contests. Mbakwe, though, saw 27 minutes of action Sunday, a sign that he’s building stamina. Mbakwe is one of the country’s top forwards when healthy.

FIVE BIG QUESTIONS

Who drew the toughest first-round game? The folks who made the bracket didn’t do Duke any favors by pitting it against Minnesota in the opening round. Mike Krzyzewski’s squad will be favored, and rightfully so. But Minnesota is a dangerous, athletic team with Austin and Andre Hollins, Rodney Williams Jr. and Joe Coleman. And if Mbakwe is close to 100 percent, a Gophers victory would be considered only a mild upset.

Will Michael Dixon Jr. play for Missouri? No announcement has been been made, but the Tigers will be on a different level once coach Frank Haith lifts the suspension on Dixon, who has yet to play because of disciplinary reasons. Dixon is a tough-nosed guard who plays his best in close games. He and Pressey developed a chemistry in the backcourt last season that was a key reason for the Tigers’ success. Missouri can’t win this tournament without him.

Who is the sleeper in this field? Memphis has enough talent to beat any team in the bracket. The Tigers boast experience, too, with veterans such as Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Tarik Black and Antonio Barton. To win games in this loaded field, though, Josh Pastner’s squad must get significant contributions from Thomas, who is still adapting to the college game despite being a sophomore, and highly touted freshman Shaq Goodwin, who is averaging just 5.0 points in his first two contests.

What’s the best potential individual matchup? The dream matchup is obviously a title game pitting Duke against Louisville -- and not just because it’d be Coach K vs. Rick Pitino. The battle in the paint between Plumlee and Dieng would feature two of college basketball’s premier big men going head-to-head. Plumlee is more skilled, while Dieng is tougher physically. It would certainly be exciting to watch.

Will the Battle 4 Atlantis replace the Maui Invitational as the nation’s premier nonconference tournament? That’s definitely the case this season, although the Maui Invitational has a long tradition of putting on one of the best early-season tournaments in America. But hey, what’s wrong with having two marquee events? Nothing has been announced officially, but next year’s Battle 4 Atlantis will include Kansas, USC, Tennessee, Xavier, UTEP, Villanova, Wake Forest and a Big Ten school that likely will be Michigan State.

THE PICKS

Quarterfinals: Missouri over Stanford; Louisville over Northern Iowa; Duke over Minnesota; Memphis over VCU

Semifinals: Louisville over Missouri; Duke over Memphis

Championship: Louisville over Duke