Men’s basketball prepares for the ESPN Events Invitational

Austin Hannon, Staff Reporter

After a successful 4-0 homestand, the No. 10 Alabama Crimson Tide (4-0) will head to Orlando, Florida, for the ESPN Events Invitational. The Crimson Tide will play on Thursday, Friday and Sunday.

Alabama has defeated three of its opponents by a combined 72 points. The Crimson Tide struggled in a five-point victory over South Alabama.

Strong guard play leads Alabama on offense. Guards Jaden Shackelford, Jahvon Quinerly, Keon Ellis and Darius Miles are averaging double digits in points. Ellis is also averaging 8.3 assists per game.

The Crimson Tide are excited for the return of forward Juwan Gary, who Oats said is likely to play this weekend.

“It’s a good marker to test how much we’ve grown through these first four home games,” Shackelford said. “It’s a good test for us, playing some really good teams.”

Alabama head coach Nate Oats said he thinks his team is going to get “three good games” out of the tournament. The bracket comprises Alabama, Kansas, Miami, Dayton, North Texas, Iona, Belmont and Drake.

Here’s a look at each team.

Iona Gaels

Alabama’s first opponent will be the Iona Gaels. The Gaels lost their top two scorers from last season in guards Isaiah Ross and Asante Gist. 

With plenty of returning talent, Iona may have a better team than when they lost to the Crimson Tide in last season’s Round of 64. 

Forward Nelly Junior Joseph is averaging 16.6 points and 7.2 rebounds. SMU transfer Tyson Jolly is averaging 16 points per game at the guard position. 

Head coach and Hall of Famer Rick Pitino is in his second year with the program. Pitino has won two national championships, at Kentucky and Louisville. 

Iona is currently 5-0 with wins over Harvard and Liberty.

No. 4 Kansas Jayhawks

The Kansas Jayhawks failed to win the Big 12 title in 2020, and lost in the Round of 32, but they return with their top three scorers from last year’s squad. Guard Ochai Agbaji and forwards David McCormack and Jalen Wilson all averaged in the double digits last year. 

This season, Agbaji has dominated, averaging 26.3 points per game. Guard Christian Braun has also been a solid contributor, averaging 10.7 points and 7.7 rebounds.

Kansas is coached by Bill Self, who is in his 18th season at the helm. Self has 708 wins, 15 Big 12 championships and one national championship, in 2008. The Jayhawks are 3-0 with a season-opening 87-74 win over Michigan State.

Belmont Bruins

The Belmont Bruins had a terrific season in 2020, going 26-4 overall and 18-2 in the Ohio Valley Conference, but the Bruins lost in the OVC championship game to Morehead State and missed the 68-team field. 

Belmont didn’t lose a single key player from last year’s team, and it has a great shot at making another run at the OVC Championship and an NCAA Tournament berth. Center Nick Muszynski averages 15 points and 6.2 rebounds in the paint, and guard Ben Sheppard averages 14.8 points per game. Freshman guard Will Richard is adding 12.2 points per game. 

The Bruins are led by head coach Casey Alexander, who is in his third season at his alma mater. Belmont is currently 3-2 with a loss to Ohio and a loss to LSU by 30. 

Drake Bulldogs

The Drake Bulldogs started 18-0 in the 2020-21 season before losing to Valparaiso in February. The Bulldogs finished 26-5 and made the NCAA Tournament as one of the final four teams to get an at-large bid. Drake defeated Wichita State to secure its place in the first round, but exited quickly after a loss to USC. 

The Bulldogs lost their second-leading scorer Joseph Yesufu, who transferred to Kansas. Last season’s leading forward ShanQuan Hemphill is back, but forward Tremell Murphy is leading the team this year, averaging 15 points per game. 

Guard Roman Penn is anchoring the team at the point guard position, averaging 12 points and 3.7 assists per game. 

Drake head coach Darian DeVries, who is in his fourth year with the Bulldogs, has 70 wins in his first three seasons and has won Missouri Valley Coach of the Year twice. Drake is 3-0 with a 73-70 victory over Richmond.

Miami Hurricanes

The Miami Hurricanes had a tough 2020-21 season, going 10-17 and 4-15 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Hurricanes made it to the ACC Tournament quarterfinal, however, after defeating Pittsburgh and Clemson in the first two rounds. 

After removing their names from the NBA Draft, guards Kameron McGusty and Isaiah Wong are back for the Hurricanes, and they are off to a great start. McGusty is averaging 19 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. Wong is averaging 16 points and four rebounds. 

Miami is still in the hands of head coach Jim Larrañaga, who is in his 11th season. The Hurricanes are 3-1 with a loss to in-state rival UCF.

Dayton Flyers

It doesn’t seem that long ago when the Dayton Flyers were dominating their way to a No. 1 seed behind now-NBA star Obi Toppin. But that was two years ago, and the tournament didn’t happen because of the emergence of COVID-19. 

Last year, the Flyers made the National Invitation Tournament after finishing 14-10 and 9-6 in the Atlantic 10. Dayton lost four starters from that team, including guards Jalen Crutcher and Ibi Watson, who combined for over 33 points per game. The offense is currently a work in progress. Georgia transfer Toumani Camara leads the team, averaging 11 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. Guard Elijah Weaver is adding 9.3 points per game. 

The head coach of the Flyers is Anthony Grant, who is in his fifth season with Dayton. Grant was the head coach at Alabama from 2009 to 2015. The Flyers are off to a tough start, sitting at 1-3 with losses to UMass Lowell, Lipscomb and Austin Peay.

North Texas Mean Green

Coming off back-to-back league titles, the North Texas Mean Green round out the list. The Mean Green went 18-10 in 2020-21 and made the NCAA Tournament as a No. 13 seed. North Texas beat No. 4-seeded Purdue in the first round before being eliminated by Villanova in the Round of 32. 

The Mean Green lost three of their top four scorers from last year, and will look to rebuild in 2021-22. Guard Tylor Perry is leading the team in scoring, averaging 17.3 points per game in the team’s first three games. Forward Thomas Bell is averaging 15 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. 

North Texas is led by head coach Grant McCasland, who is in his fifth year. McCasland was the 2020 Conference USA Coach of the Year. 

This season, the Mean Green are 2-1 with a 69-66 loss to Buffalo. North Texas held its own against Arkansas in an exhibition game, losing by only eight points in Fayetteville.

Alabama will begin its quest for the tournament title against Iona on Thursday, Nov. 25, at 4 p.m. CT. The game will be broadcast on either ESPN or ESPN2. The tournament will continue on Friday, and the championship will be on Sunday.