Bruce Weber's Illini fly south Sunday for sun and (hopefully) fun at the Cancun Challenge. Beat writer Paul Klee, whose passport is stamped, gives us his 10 best holiday tournaments:
1. Maui Invitational
UI assistant Jerrance Howard remembers the Illini's trip to Lahaina in 2000, when gamer Frank Williams saw the two rows of NBA scouts. "He tucked in his jersey and said, 'OK. Now we're talking,'" Howard recalled. Illinois was runner-up in 2000 and third in 2007, when Michael Jordan wore orange, played at least 54 holes of golf and openly rooted for Jeff and the Illini against Duke. Illinois (6-3 in Maui) will join a banner field in 2012: Butler, Marquette, Mississippi State, North Carolina, Texas, USC and Chaminade. This year set the DVR (or play hooky) for Monday's Michigan-Memphis matchup (2 p.m., ESPN2) and see if anyone can finally beat Duke (12-0 in Maui) at the finest tournament of all.
2. Coaches vs. Cancer
For prestige and history, the NIT Season Tip-Off would rank above the Coaches vs. Cancer event. But two things work in favor of the "other" tournament at Madison Square Garden: Better teams (Arizona, Mississippi State, Texas A&M and St. John's last week) and exposure (it's a week before the Thanksgiving basketball madness). Illinois went 1-1 last year in the Garden, where Loren Tate and Bob Knight brushed shoulders without fisticuffs.
3. Old Spice Classic
In its fifth year, this Orlando outfit annually claims one of the best fields of November. And it always includes a Big Ten entrant. Michigan State, Michigan, Minnesota (twice) and Penn State are past participants. But only Wisconsin has reached the championship game, which speaks to the depth of quality of teams that take to Disney World.
4. NIT Season Tip-Off
Rich with tradition, this event has taken a hit with the outbreak of preseason tournaments across the country. Check out the first semifinal, back in the mid-80s: Duke, St. John's, Louisville and Kansas. Three of them later would advance to the Final Four. This year, watch if reigning News-Gazette Player of the Year Chasson Randle leads Stanford on a New York City run.
5. Puerto Rico Tip-Off
If you must fly over an ocean or exchange money, your tournament gets a boost on this list. We're suckers for sunshine and sand. And the field in the Caribbean this year featured Alabama, Purdue and a pair of under-the-radar talents that can win multiple games in the NCAA tournament: Temple and Iona. The best team we saw? Wichita State.
6. CBE Classic
It's already basketball season in Kansas and Missouri, what with KU football losing eight straight heading into Saturday and Gary Pinkel's DWI. Plus, this Kansas City-city based event annually promises one of the strongest fields. Past champions include then-No. 1 Duke, No. 1 UCLA, No. 2 Texas and No. 5 Missouri. Get a scouting report on Frank Haith's Tigers when Mizzou meets Notre Dame on Monday (6:30 p.m., ESPN2).
7. 76 Classic
Another relatively new entrant to the preseason soiree, this Anaheim-based event has put together a handful of competitive fields. The fifth-year tournament starts Thanksgiving Day. The headliners: Villanova, Oklahoma. The pick here: Steve Alford's Lobos or Rick Majerus' Billikens.
8. Diamond Head Classic
In its third year, this Hawaii tournament has several things going for it. One is timing. The Christmas Day title game won't fight for basketball exposure due to the NBA lockout. And the field — headlined by Xavier — is surprisingly solid. Our darkhorse pick is Long Beach State. Former UI assistant Chris Lowery has the Salukis in the field, too. Illinois won't be a player for this event due to the proximity of the Braggin' Rights game.
9. Great Alaska Shootout
A sentimental choice. No, this event wasn't what it once was. But few tourneys can roll out a starting five of Kenny Smith (1985), Len Bias (1984), James Worthy (1980), Wayman Tisdale (1983) and Efrem Winters (1982) — all in a five-year period during the tournament's heyday. And you know a tournament has a robust history when Joe Dumars played in the seventh-place game (1981). Bruce Weber still has fond memories of his three trips to Anchorage. Plus, it's the only media room that served Hot Pockets. Who doesn't love a Hot Pocket when it's 5 degrees and dark at 3 p.m.?
10. Legends Classic
Another example how big names and ticket sales trump ability: Cleveland State, arguably the best team in the field this year, isn't guaranteed a spot in the championship round in East Rutherford, N.J. But Vanderbilt, which lost to Cleveland State, will be. Oh, well. Enjoy the November madness.