In just a few days, four teams, from four separate conferences will head to Cancun, Mexico to face off in the 2016 Cancun Challenge. Thanksgiving week is always the most underrated week for college basketball in my eyes, and holiday tournaments like this are what make the week so great.
Auburn Tigers (2-0) - SEC
Auburn comes in after defeating North Florida and Georgia State to start off their young season. The Tigers are led by Bruce Pearl in his third year and are starting to look like a Pearl coached team. Auburn has a 10-man deep rotation of mostly younger, talented players so this tournament will be a great test to really determine where the Tigers stand this season.
Texas Tech Red Raiders (2-0) - Big 12
Texas Tech comes in after defeating Houston Baptist and North Texas both at home. The Red Raiders are led by Chris Beard in his first season, taking over for Tubby Smith, after leading Arkansas Little Rock to the NCAA Tournament last season. Tubby Smith left Beard with an experienced roster and the Red Raiders could potentially put together a run for one of the top spots in the Big 12 behind Kansas. Like Auburn, this tournament will be an early look at how good the Red Raiders can actually be with Chris Beard at the helm.
Utah State Aggies (3-0) - MWC
Utah State comes in after defeating UC Irvine, NJIT, and Bristol (USCAA) to start their season off undefeated. The Aggies are led by Tim Duryea who is in his second season after leading Utah State to a 16-15 record last season. The Aggies may not have faced the toughest competition so far, like the previous two teams, but the Aggies do have an impressive road win over UC Irvine under their belts.
Purdue Boilermakers (1-1) - Big 10
Purdue comes in with a 54 point victory over McNeese State followed by a close home loss to Villanova in a hard fought game. The Boilermakers are led by Matt Painter who is in his 12th season and led Purdue to a 26-9 record and 5-seed in the NCAA Tournament last season. Purdue comes in with the most talented and most experienced roster as a result of having the longest tenured coach out of the four main teams in the field. The Boilermakers are a huge team (literally) led by Caleb Swanigan (6’9” So.) and Isaac Haas (7’2” Jr.) and this should serve as a big advantage for the Boilermakers throughout the tournament.
Auburn vs Texas Tech (11/22 @ 5:00pm CT)
This will likely be a battle between two very different teams. Texas Tech is the 6th most experienced team in college basketball while Auburn has started 3 freshman and 2 sophomores so far this season. Both teams lack height, so this will be a game decided in the backcourt. As the 38th ranked KenPom team, Texas Tech is currently predicted to beat Auburn (129th KenPom) by 10 points and the official spread will probably be right around that when it comes out. This is to be expected when Texas Tech comes in with their superior experience by a long shot. However, Auburn’s young guys have been playing well so far this season and if they can step up on a neutral court against much tougher competition, the Tigers could pull off the upset. In my pre-season preview for Auburn, I picked the Tigers to beat the Red Raiders. That might have been slightly wishful thinking, but I am confident that the Tigers will finish the Cancun Challenge with one win, and then one loss. The Tigers have looked impressive so far, but the young guys have still make the mistakes that are typically expected. I think that will be exaggerated on the big stage and the Red Raiders will take advantage of them for the win. Auburn’s talent should keep this interesting, but the Red Raiders will move on to the championship game.
Utah State vs Purdue (11/22 @ 7:30pm CT)
Purdue is coming off a very close loss to one of, if not the, top team in the country right now and reigning National Champions, Villanova. With it’s size and experience Purdue should have an advantage over Utah State, but the Aggies should look to slightly replicate Villanova’s game plan to spread out the Boilermakers and force them to play away from their bigs. Utah State may put up a fight with the right game plan, but the Aggies certainly aren’t on the same level as the Villanova Wildcats and will likely get beat handily in this matchup. Purdue (15th KenPom) is favored by 11 against Utah State (109th KenPom) and the neutral court early in the season might keep the game this close. If Swanigan and Haas are able to pound the ball down low and establish their front-court offense, it could get uglier for the Aggies. Purdue will win and make their way to the championship game to face off against the Texas Tech Red Raiders.
3rd Place Game (11/23 @ 5:00pm CT)
By this point, I think the younger Auburn players will have adjusted to the brand new atmosphere away from home and out of the country. In this game we’ll get to see the talent that Auburn has and could potentially continue to improve this season. Utah State, after a more physical game against Purdue will likely come into this game looking to slow the game down more to their style of play and force Auburn to play smart. If Auburn wants the advantage, they’ll have to shake off their opening round loss and stick to their up-tempo style of play. If the game is fast, Auburn’s young talent, especially on the perimeter, might be able to overcome the size advantage for Utah State. Tournaments are all about who can recover the quickest and regroup for a game with just one night of preparation. Both teams are younger than average but with Utah State coming off a game against a slightly better opponent and lacking the pure athleticism that Auburn’s young players have, Auburn should be able to win to obtain 3rd place, but it will probably be ugly on both sides. This game has the potential to be the sloppiest of the tournament but should offer its fair share of excitement as well.
Championship Game (11/23 @ 7:30pm CT)
As a fan of college basketball, I’ll be looking forward to seeing this game over Auburn/Purdue since Texas Tech has the experience to match up against Purdue and could potentially give their skilled bigs a challenge. Texas Tech can prove to the country that they’re a serious contender in the top of the Big 12 if they can knock off an impressive Purdue team on a neutral court. Texas Tech doesn’t have the size to battle down low against Purdue and they haven’t shown that they can play an up-tempo style of play that could spread our Purdue. The experience is there for the Red Raiders, but the styles of play and overall skill level should still be a significant advantage for the Boilermakers. Purdue looked very good with the help of their home crowd when they faced Villanova, but this will be a second big test to establish whether or not the Boilermakers are actually a top team in the country. Texas Tech will have more to prove and less to lose, but ultimately I think the Purdue Boilermakers will be able to establish their front court early and often and this game and grind to a hard fought, physical win to claim the title of Cancun Challenge Champions.