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. Pod two features the Huskies, who take on the Ducks in game one, with those two teams playing either Alabama or Michigan State depending on the outcomes.
No. 21 Oregon Ducks
2021-22 Record: 20-15 (11-9 Pac-12)
2022-23 KenPom Rating: No. 29
2021-22 in review
Oregon was picked to finish second in the Pac-12 last season after a Sweet-16 appearance in the 2021 NCAA tournament and having returned key pieces Will Richardson and Eric Williams Jr. Throw in five-star center Nate Bittle into the mix, and the Ducks had as much promise as anyone to compete for a conference championship. This never materialized for head coach Dana Altman, as the Ducks stumbled to a 20-15 record that ended with a second round loss to Texas A&M in the NIT.
For Oregon to truly compete this season, they are going to have to be much better on the defensive end. Richardson (14.1 points, 3.6 assists, 3.9 points) is the unquestioned leader of this team, and Altman is going to need to him to take a major leap this upcoming season. He’s been touted as a breakout player for three straight years, (picked as a preseason first-teamer tin 2020, 21, and now 2022) but has not lived up to that billing just yet.
Another big question mark for the Ducks is defensive rebounding, as they ranked 10th in the conference in defensive rebounding rate according to KenPom. Having two five-star centers manning the front court in Nate Bittle and Kel’el Ware should help with that, although Bittle did not show much promise on that end last season. Bittle only played seven minutes per game as a freshman last season, while Ware is the newbie that seems more poised to immediately step in and give the Ducks an elite presence down low. Returning forward N’Faly Dante, a 6-foot-11 senior rounds out what should be an imposing and talented crop of big men if he can stay on the court. Dante has dealt with multiple injuries over the past few seasons but is effective when he is healthy (8.3 points and 6.3 rebounds in only 20 minutes last season).
No. 20 Alabama Crimson Tide
2021-22 Record: 19-14 (9-9 SEC)
2022-23 KenPom.com Ranking: No. 18
2021-22 in review
The Crimson Tide didn’t necessarily have a disappointing season last year, but it was incredibly turbulent by anyone’s standards. They boasted wins over No. 3 Gonzaga, No. 14 Houston, No. 14 Tennessee and No. 4 Baylor, but also dropped games to Iona, Mizzou, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt. Nonetheless, they returned to the NCAA tournament and were given a relatively high No. 6 seed despite their 19-13 record. However, another Sweet 16 appearance was not in the cards for Nate Oats and Tide, as they bowed out in the first round to Notre Dame, a loss that stings even more for Bama as their best player Jahvon Quinerly tearing his ACL injury about four minutes into the game.
While Quinerly will hope to play a handful of games as he continues to rehab the ACL tear, the Crimson Tide will have a lot of new faces and it starts with the freshmen recruiting class. Oats brought in one of the best in Alabama history, ranked No. 5 nationally per 247. His class is compromised of two five stars — 6-foot-8 wing Brandon Miller and point guard Jaden Bradley — as well as four star prospects Rylan Griffin and Noah Clowney. Add in a top-5 JUCO prospect to the mix in Nick Pringle and there’s an entire new starting five of quality players that will don a Crimson Tide jersey this year.
Bradley especially will be relied upon early and often to handle primary ball-handling duties, along with Mark Sears, a play-making transfer from Ohio who was a Mid-American first team selection after putting up 19.6 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per night. Without a veteran like Quinerly providing a steady veteran presence, Sears and Bradley will have to mesh quick for this team to succeed.
Michigan State Spartans
2021-22 Record: 22-12
2022-23 KenPom.com Ranking: No. 31
2021-22 in review
Tom Izzo and the Spartans started last season off hot, with a 13-2 mark through 15 games that included a win over UConn and four-straight wins to start conference play. The Big Ten proved to be a bit too much to handle, as they proceed to go 7-9 the rest of the way and finish seventh in the end-of-year standings. With two wins against top 15 ranked Wisconsin teams and No. 4 Purdue, the Spartans were able to get an at-large bid to the tournament as a No. 7 seed. After sneaking by Davidson by one in the first round, they gave No. 2 Duke all they could handle but eventually fell to the Blue Devils by nine.
Sparty returns four starters from an NCAA tournament second round team. Izzo doesn’t have a dominant all-league player like usual, but he has a plethora of above average performers who should only get better this season. The backcourt duo of AJ Hoggard (7.0 points and 4.8 assists) and Tyson Walker (8.2 points, 4.3 assists) return to give Izzo a top-five unit in the Big Ten. Forward Joey Hauser and his trusty 3-point stroke (40%) also return to help the Spartans keep up their elite long range shooting efficiency, which ranked second in the conference last season. If the Spartans want to take another leap next year, it may depend on the development of 6-foot-4 sophomore wing Jaden Akins, a former top-50 recruit who saw limited game action but has star potential. While Michigan State returns a lot of production, Akins, and incoming four-star forward Jaxon Kohler hold the keys to unlocking the Spartans’ true potential.