20191112 MBB v. North Dakota - LKaneshige 001

Drew Timme hoists up a shot against North Dakota.

Gonzaga men’s basketball and Thanksgiving tournaments are a holiday tradition that go way back, from Adam Morrison and Rui Hachimura’s heroics in their respective Maui Invitationals to the Zags dominating 2016’s AdvoCare Invitational. 

The early season tournaments have often provided a way not only for the Zags to pack their schedule with more high-profile matchups but also to solidify their place among the nation’s best. 

Those matchups are as close as college basketball fans get to the thrills of March — especially for a GU program forced to frontload its schedule with stronger matchups for a better tournament resume.

This year, the Zags are heading south for the Bad Boy Mowers Battle 4 Atlantis at Atlantis Paradise Island in Nassau, Bahamas.

The last time the Zags appeared in the Bahamas was in 2015, but the results didn’t exactly correlate with expectations. 

Led by the “three-headed monster” of talented big men Przemek Karnowski, Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis, GU was the No. 10 team in the country coming into the tourney. A loss to Texas A&M in the second round and an injury to Karnowski in a win over University of Connecticut marred a third-place finish for the Zags, who spent much of the rest of the season looking for answers before heating up during the tournament.

This year, expectations are even higher for the Zags — coming off five straight Sweet 16s and a No. 8 ranking will do that for a program. But so is the level of competition. The Zags could potentially face three ranked teams, and are guaranteed to face at least one in the second round if they can get past Southern Mississippi. 

Southern Miss is 1-2 in its first year under new coach Jay Ladner, with those losses against low-to-mid-major teams in South Alabama and North Florida. But the Golden Eagles have five players averaging double digits.

Potentially awaiting the Zags is the winner between No. 11 Oregon and No. 13 Seton Hall, two teams that have already faced elite competition early in the season.

Head coach Dana Altman’s Ducks boast a deep and diverse roster, led by graduate transfers Shakur Juiston and Anthony Mathis alongside senior guard Payton Pritchard, who averages 20.2 points per game. They bulldozed solid Boise State and Fresno State teams to start the season and then outclassed a then-No.13 Memphis squad with heralded freshman James Wiseman on the floor. Altman has plenty of experience at the apex of college basketball, and he has a roster with potential to bring that to fruition once again.

Seton Hall has shown it can hang with top-ranked teams as well. Myles Powell’s 37-point performance against then-No. 3 Michigan State was almost enough for an upset win, and he followed it up with 26 in a win over St. Louis. Powell’s dynamic playmaking and shooting could cause fits for a GU backcourt that’s already a bit thin. But if the Pirates want to knock off the Zags, they will need more production from the rest of the roster.

On the other side of the bracket are two other blue bloods in No. 5 University of North Carolina and Michigan. The Zags wouldn’t play either until the championship game if they make it through the first two rounds, but both teams could give GU problems later on. UNC faces Alabama in the first round and the Wolverines face Iowa State.

A Zags against Tar Heels championship game would be a preview of their matchup in Spokane slated for Dec. 18; the two top-10 teams could play each other out of conference twice in the span of three weeks. UNC has potentially the best freshman in the country in point guard Cole Anthony (27.3 points per game) and Roy Williams’ program’s competitiveness year-in and year-out is almost always a guarantee.

But they have to defeat Alabama first. The Tide are 1-2 under first-year head coach Nate Oats, with losses against University of Pennsylvania and University of Rhode Island. 

Michigan rests just outside of the Associated Press Top 25, but there are still question marks about its place in the national pecking order. The Wolverines nearly blew a 30-point lead in their home opener against Appalachian State, but followed it with two good wins over Creighton and Elon. Their performance against Iowa State and the winner or loser of Alabama/UNC will tell more about their ability to keep up with top teams.

Iowa State last played the Zags in 2016’s AdvoCare Invitational, a thrilling game in which the then-No. 2 Zags rode 18 points from Nigel Williams-Goss to hold off a furious Cyclones comeback. Tyrese Haliburton is back for round two after a surprising rise to stardom in his freshman year last year, and the Cyclones are 2-1 with their only loss against Oregon State. 

ISU soundly defeated GU’s first-round matchup in Southern Miss, and is yet another power conference team that can compete in this tournament.

Ultimately, if the Zags find their way past these roadblocks, it’s a strong indicator of where they will stand in March.

Connor Gilbert is a sports editor. Follow him on Twitter: @connorjgilbert.

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