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MSG At Center Stage For Early Season Tourneys

NEW YORK (AP) — From Madison Square Garden to Maui, early season tournaments offer a little slice of March Madness. Top 25 teams, island scenery and marquee matchups on national TV make this month one of the best in college basketball.

Sure, these games are meaningful to players and coaches, but the real winners are the fans. They can stay up late and set the DVR early for a shot at catching games they normally wouldn't see until its time to fill out an office bracket.

Imagine Duke vs. Kansas State in a final where the winner is a tournament champion and the loser still harbors national title aspirations. No computers determine the championship in this sport, allowing elite programs to go head-to-head early in the season.

So grab your shades and a cool drink for the games in Maui, and put on your team's hoodie for the ones in New York. Here are six early season tournaments that can't be missed.

2K SPORTS CLASSIC: Nov. 18-19, New York: The annual tournament at Madison Square Garden boasts a great field, and a great cause: Coaches vs. Cancer. The first game in Thursday's doubleheader has No. 5 Pittsburgh, the preseason Big East favorite, against Maryland. The second has No. 13 Illinois vs. Texas. That means the potential final could be Pitt vs. Illinois — two teams that could easily be bracketed for a regional championship final in March.

PUERTO RICO TIP-OFF CLASSIC: Nov. 18-21, San Juan, Puerto Rico: No. 8 North Carolina can start to put last year's disappointing season behind it. If the Tar Heels can beat Tubby Smith's best team yet at Minnesota and West Virginia, fresh off a Final Four, in the same week, they can follow up their NIT title with another tournament trophy. North Carolina opens the tournament Thursday against Hofstra at Coliseo de Puerto Rico.

"Whoever ends up here on Sunday night as the last team standing is going to gain a great deal of confidence, because it's such a quality field," coach Roy Williams said Wednesday. "We're ecstatic to be here in this great field and this great location."

The other Thursday games feature the Gophers against Western Kentucky, the Mountaineers against Davidson and Nebraska taking on Vanderbilt. "The one tournament everyone seems to be talking about now is the tournament in Puerto Rico," Nebraska coach Doc Sadler said.

CBE CLASSIC: Nov. 22-23, Kansas City, Mo.: This tournament has the juiciest potential final: No. 1 Duke vs. No. 3 Kansas State. Duke freshman point guard Kyrie Irving and K-State senior Jacob Pullen are sure to shine in this two-day tourney. The Wildcats get an early shot to prove they're worthy of their preseason pick as the team to beat in the Big 12, while the defending national champion Blue Devils get another early test. Both have to reach the title game first, though. Duke opens against Marquette while the Wildcats play No. 11 Gonzaga. The Bulldogs have plenty of tough nonconference games as they go for their 13th straight NCAA tournament, but none may be as formidable as their matchup with Kansas State.

MAUI INVITATIONAL: Nov. 22-24, Lahaina, Hawaii: One of college basketball's most scenic tournaments, and not just because coaches go with casual island attire, Maui is also the place for top teams to be seen — and avoid a monumental upset loss to host Chaminade. This year's field has three Top 25 teams: No. 2 Michigan State, No. 12 Kentucky and No. 17 Washington. Coach Tim Izzo's Spartans could play unranked UConn in a rematch of their 2009 national semifinal, and Kentucky vs. Washington could be a second-round matchup with a nice hook: The Wildcats were the winners over the Huskies in an awkward recruiting race for forward Terrence Jones.

Now, raise your hand if you want to see Kentucky play Michigan State for the championship. Yeah, that's what we thought.

NIT SEASON TIP-OFF: Nov. 24-26, New York: The granddaddy of 'em all returns with a Big East team favored to win in the home of the conference's postseason tournament. No. 6 Villanova leads a field headed for Madison Square Garden that includes No. 24 Tennessee, UCLA and Wake Forest. Coach Jay Wright loves taking his team to New York and wants to leave a championship imprint in one of his favorite, fertile recruiting grounds. The teams are playing this week to reach the semifinals — and it hasn't been easy for the Vols. They blew a 17-point lead against Belmont on Tuesday night before hanging on for an 85-76 victory.

OLD SPICE CLASSIC: Nov. 25-28, Orlando, Fla.: No. 21 Temple, Boston College, California, Georgia, Manhattan, Notre Dame, Texas A&M and Wisconsin are in the fifth annual tournament at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. The Owls are always battling with city-rival Villanova for Philadelphia bragging rights, and another tournament title would add to the rivalry.

Bonus Pick: It's not necessarily a tournament, but Madison Square Garden will be the place to be on Dec. 7 for the Jimmy V Classic. No. 7 Kansas plays a 2008 national championship game rematch against Memphis and No. 2 Michigan State plays No. 10 Syracuse in the doubleheader.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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