UConn will be one of 16 teams taking place in two multi-team events sponsored by Nike to celebrate their founder Phil Knight’s 85th birthday. The Huskies are in the Phil Knight Invitational, which features eight teams in two pods: North Carolina, Portland, Villanova and Iowa State round out the first pod, while UConn joins Oregon, Alabama and Michigan State in the second pod. We break down the first pod, where one of these teams will take on UConn in their final game of the event, below.
No. 1 UNC Tar Heels
2021-22 Record: 29-10
2022-23 KenPom.com Ranking: No. 9
2021-22 in review
The Tar Heels had quite the roller coaster year. Surefire Hall-of-famer Roy Williams retired at the end of the 2021, and his seasoned assistant and former Tar Heel Hubert Davis inherited the program with lofty expectations.
The Heels looked destined for mediocrity until they came to Cameron Indoor for Coach K’s last home game ever, and whooped he No. 4 Blue Devils by 13 points, a game in which they were 11-point underdogs. They rode that momentum to the ACC championship game where they eventually lost to Virginia Tech, but entered the tournament as a No. 8 seed. After almost blowing a 25 point second half lead to Baylor, they went went on an unprecedented run to the national title game, which included another victory against Duke to end head coach Mike Krzyzweski’s career. They were one half away from being the second No. 8 seed ever to win a national championship but eventually fell to Kansas.
UNC just went to the national title game and returns all of their key pieces so it makes sense that they are are the preseason No. 1. They have arguably the best backcourt in the country in RJ Davis and Caleb Love, and leading scorer Armando Bacot also comes back to terrorize opposing frontcourts. UNC will surely miss their sharp-shooting big man Brady Manek, but they get an serviceable replacement in Pete Nance, a 6-foot-8 stretch four that can also light it up from all over the court. Nance isnt the volume shooter that Manek was, but shot 45% from three last year and 50% overall from the floor. Leaky Black also returns to give the Heels their lengthy defensive ace.
The sky is the limit for this UNC team. They have the experience and talent to return to the national title game and are clearly the favorite to win the Phil Knight Invitational.
2021-22 Record: 19-15
2022-23 KenPom.com Ranking: No. 121
2021-22 in review
The Pilots have been the WCC’s punching bag in recent years but showed a lot of fight in 2021, as first-year head coach Shantay Legans was able to lead this program to it’s second winning season in 11 years. It has been especially bad in Portland over the past two seasons, with a 1-32 mark in conference play over that span, so what Legans did is remarkable. Their seven wins in conference were also tied for the most they have had since the 2009-10 season, when they reached 10. Overall, Legans clearly exceeded expectations and hopes to build on the solid foundation he laid last season.
Legans brought over three players from his former team Eastern Washington last year, and two of them — Mike Meadows and Tyler Robertson — return this season. Both Meadows and Robertson averaged double digits, the latter of which was the leading bucket getter on the team at 15.3 points per game and earned a spot on the second team All-WCC. The rest of the starting five is rounded out by three forwards standing at 6-foot-8 or taller, who should help the Pilots hold their No. 4 rebounding mark in the conference last season.
No. 16 Villanova Wildcats
2021-22 Record: 30-8
2022-23 KenPom.com Ranking: No. 20
2021-22 in review
Villanova once again reached the Final Four, their third in seven years, and were a devastating Justin Moore injury away from maybe winning a third title in that same span. Head coach Jay Wright’s retirement wasn’t on anyone’s radar with Coach K’s retirement tour taking over all of the headlines, but the two-time champion head coach decided to hang it up after 20 seasons as Villanova’s head man.
When Wright announced his retirement, Villanova was quick to hire Fordam head coach Kyle Neptune, a long-time assistant under Wright. Neptune comes into a great situation, with some major contributors returning and exciting newcomers. The Wildcats return three starters and one of the best sixth men in the country in guard Caleb Daniels. The aforementioned Moore currently has no timetable for a return, but it looks like his recovery is going well right now and could be back for most of conference play if things keep progressing in the right direction. UConn-killer Eric Dixon returns for the Wildcats to anchor the inside with his 9.4 points and team-leading 6.4 rebounds, along with versatile forward Brandon Slater, who has been a solid contributor for three straight years. Two elite recruits also join the fold in five-star forward Cam Whitmore and four-star guard Mark Armstrong. These two should immediately step into starting roles alongside Dixon, Slater and Daniels.
Iowa State Cyclones
2021-22 Record: 22-13
2022-23 KenPom.com Ranking: No. 62
2021-22 in review
The Cyclones had one of the worst worst seasons in power-five history two years ago, as they went 2-22 (0-18 in conference play) during the 2020-21 season, but saw an incredibly resurgent 2021-22. First year head coach T.J. Otzelberger took the program from rock bottom and lead them to a surprise Sweet 16 appearance. The Cyclones started off 12-0 to shock the college basketball world, and while they didn’t finish that way, they still ended with a No. 43 KenPom ranking and ranked fifth nationally in defensive efficiency. None of this success would have been possible without their do-it-all lead guard Izaiah Brockington, who led the team in points (16.9) and rebounds (6.8).
Wick Brockington gone, Iowa State is going to have to figure out a lot of things on both ends of the floor, especially offensively. They were by far the worst team in the conference by most offensive metrics, and are now without their two top scorers from last season. Otzelberger returns streaky shooting guard Gabe Kalscheur, who had some big games last season (30 points vs Memphis, and 22 vs Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament) but mostly struggled with his shot. Him and fellow backcourt mate Caleb Grill must improve on their combined 29% 3-point mark this year.
The Cyclones also bring over two players UConn should be familiar with in Jaren Holmes and Osun Osunniyi. Both played against the Huskies as starters on St. Bonaventure last season and are high-impact players. Osunniyi has been one of th premier shot blockers nationwide, over the past two seasons and should anchor the Cyclones in the defensive frontcourt while Holmes is a physical guard that can score at all three levels. Both will likely start for Otzelberger, along with Aljaz Kunc, a floor-spacing forward from Slovenia, and Jeremiah Williams, a creative point-man from Temple. The rest of the Cylcones roster has some major question marks, and because of this they will likely struggle to score once again.