A blessed, Merry Christmas to all today. Wish all blessings on this special day during a truly wonderful time of the year.
The University of San Francisco are one of just eight teams in action this Christmas Day. The Dons will be playing much later in the day than just about anyone expected, though, as they will face San Diego State in the title game of the Diamond Head Classic (8 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2).
USF’s play in Hawaii reminds us of one of the many things that makes tournament play so great in this sport: teams can get hot and make a run when least expected. In the Dons’ case, a finish of fifth in Hawaii would’ve been considered an accomplishment coming into this event, with their opener against one of the event’s favorites in Utah, but San Francisco has progressed far more in Kyle Smith’s first season than anyone could’ve expected. Its sweet shooting combined with just enough scrappiness inside have made for a memorable trip to the finals of an event where USF now gets a chance to play for its first in-season tournament title since winning its own USF Invitational in 2005.
The Dons’ past couple days are reminiscent of some of the great runs from nowhere to the title game in major in-season tournaments over the past 30 years. Perhaps none is more renowned than Ball State’s in the 2001 Maui Invitational, when the Cardinals defeated the No. 4- and No. 3-ranked teams in the country in back-to-back games, using red-hot shooting to top Kansas and UCLA, respectively, before facing No. 1 Duke in the final. Ball State also started hot in the title game, building an early nine-point lead, before the touch faded and the upstarts fell by 12 to the Blue Devils.
Minnesota was a surprising winner of the 1994 Great Alaska Shootout, surpassing No. 5 Arizona and 21st-ranked Villanova before holding off BYU to win the title and rising from unranked to 15th in the rankings. Seton Hall was still building under coach P.J. Carlesimo in the late 1980s when the Pirates made a run through a 16-team field to the 1987 preseason NIT final, leading to the school’s first-ever NCAA Tournament bid later that year. The Hall went one step further next year by winning the Great Alaska Shootout final over defending NCAA champion Kansas, and very nearly went all the way in the NCAA tourney that season, too, falling to Michigan in a classic title game.
College of Charleston stunned a pair of Pac-12 schools in the 1996 Great Alaska Shootout, topping Arizona State and Stanford before losing in the final to a Kentucky team that was a juggernaut all year. The Cougars went back to Anchorage six years later and this time completed the task, defeating Wyoming and Oklahoma State to get to the final, where they knocked off Villanova to briefly enter the top 25 poll for one week in the 2002-03 season.
Perhaps no team has accomplished a greater feat than what Alaska-Fairbanks did in 2002. Hosting its own Top of the World Classic as the lone NCAA Division II school in a field of eight teams, the Nanooks defeated three straight Division I foes to win the title, topping Wisconsin-Green Bay, Nebraska and Weber State to become still the only Division II school to win an eight-team in-season tourney. Unfortunately, the Top of the World event folded in 2008, a victim of the increased competition in these events when the NCAA deregulated them.
Finally, the origins of the relatively recent rise of two of the sport’s current top powers started with eye-opening in-season tournament performances.
Gonzaga was a program that had been to one NCAA Tournament in its history when the Bulldogs won the 1997 Top of the World Classic, defeating Tulsa (a 5 seed in the previous NCAA tourney), Mississippi State and then 5th-ranked Clemson in the title game. The Zags still didn’t make their second NCAA trip that year (Dan Monson’s team was a notable snub after falling in the WCC tourney final) but a year later Gonzaga did make the NCAAs and advanced to the Elite Eight, beginning a streak of NCAA tourney appearances that continues to this day.
Butler had won a couple games in NCAA tourney appearances in the early 2000s, and even took a trip to the Sweet 16 in 2003, but the Bulldogs backslid some after that. That is, until the 2006 preseason NIT, when Butler defeated Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee and Gonzaga-the last two nationally ranked teams-to win the tourney title. The Bulldogs eventually won 29 games that year, made their second Sweet 16 in five years and lost to eventual NCAA champion Florida, and that year set the stage for a program that eventually made back-to-back NCAA title game appearances in 2010 and 2011 and moved from the mid-level Horizon League to the top of the sport in the Big East currently.
Wins for San Francisco over Utah and Illinois State are nice ones, not spectacular. But who knows? Perhaps years down the line we’ll look at a run in Honolulu as the start of something really, really big for USF.
- The only games on tap are the final four contests from the Diamond Head Classic. The fifth-place game leads the schedule with Utah against Stephen F. Austin (12:30 p.m., ESPNU), two teams who met in the first round of the 2015 NCAA Tournament. The Lumberjacks aren’t near the same team as that group, though, and the Utes will be heavy favorites here.
- Southern Mississippi and Hawaii are two rebuilding teams playing for seventh place (2:30 p.m., ESPNU), with the Rainbow Warriors holding home court advantage.
- The third-place game is a good one with former Missouri Valley rivals facing off in Tulsa and Illinois State (6 p.m., ESPN2). The always long and athletic Redbirds face a Golden Hurricane squad that is a bit better than expected this year.
- Finally, the title game in the Diamond Head, as mentioned above, featured San Francisco and San Diego State. Can’t wait to see how the Dons’ well-oiled offense does against the Aztecs’ typically stingy defense.
Again, Merry Christmas to all.