Iowa State will head to Orlando for the highly anticipated 2023 ESPN Events Invitational beginning on Thanksgiving Day afternoon against the VCU Rams (4:30 p.m., ESPN 2).
This year’s tournament is loaded with talented teams: Boise State, Butler, Iowa State, Penn State, Texas A&M, VCU, Virginia Tech and a Florida Atlantic squad that is coming off of a Final Four run. Six of the eight teams in the tournament reached the NCAA Tournament last year.
Iowa State will see a major step up in competition starting in the first round against VCU, as opposed to the low-majors that played in Ames in the team’s opening four games.
A breakdown of the competition:
VCU Rams (3-1)
— Iowa State will kick things off against VCU in the first round. The Rams lost to McNeese State on opening night but have since rattled off three-straight wins heading into the tournament.
— VCU has a pair of extremely talented guards running the show in Zeb Jackson and Max Shulga. Jackson is averaging 16.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 5.0 assists per game. Shulga is averaging 13.5 points per game and shooting 43.5 percent from three-point range. The Cyclones will need to find Shulga in transition and on offensive rebounds. Keeping both Jackson and Shulga to a minimum will be key for the Cyclones on defense.
— With Hason Ward out for the rest of non-conference play, this could be the breakout stretch for both Robert Jones and Omaha Biliew. Biliew had his best game as a Cyclone in their last outing against Grambling State. He
recorded 14 points and three rebounds in the win.
Boise State Broncos (2-1)
— The other game on Iowa State’s side of the bracket is between Boise State and Virginia Tech. The Broncos enter the tournament with a 2-1
overall record with wins over Vanguard University and San Francisco, and are led by the program’s all-time winningest coach Leon Rice.
— The Broncos have four players scoring in double figures, and are led by a
pair of upperclassmen in Chibuzo Agbo and Tyson Degenhart. Each of them are averaging 17.0 points per game. Look for Kansas
transfer Cam Martin to disrupt things in the paint, as well. Martin is the leading rebounder for the Broncos’ squad, averaging 8.5 a game.
Virginia Tech Hokies (3-1)
— If there was a team that could shoot itself into the championship game Sunday afternoon, it’s the Hokies.
— Virginia Tech has a pair of sharpshooters who can absolutely torch teams
from behind the arc. Hunter Cattoor and Sean Pedulla both love to shoot
the three. Cattoor is fifth all-time at Virginia Tech in career 3-
pointers. Pedulla started in all 34 games for the Hokies a year ago and
reached double-figure scoring in 31 games. Keeping both guys under wraps
will be tough for any team in this tournament.
— Virginia Tech’s lone loss this season is against an undefeated South Carolina team by two. The Hokies are coached
by Mike Young. In Young’s career at Virginia Tech, he has only lost 14
games during the non-conference (41-14).
Penn State Nittany Lions (4-0)
— In the top half of the bracket, the Penn State Nittany Lions will take on No. 12 Texas A&M. The Nittany Lions have a new leader at the helm this season after former coach Micah Shrewsberry left for Notre Dame. They hired Mike Rhoades, a former VCU coach, and are off to a good start with four straight wins.
— Rhoades brought in three impact transfers including two from his team at VCU last year. He brought Ace Baldwin Jr. and Nick Kern Jr. with him
from VCU as well as 6-foot-11 center Qudus Wahab. Baldwin Jr. has the potential to be a lottery pick in the 2024 NBA Draft.
—Through the first four games, Wahab is averaging a double-double with 11 points and 12.3 rebounds per game.
No. 12 Texas A&M Aggies (4-0)
— The Aggies have one of the most impressive resumes of this entire
tournament. Already this season, they have wins over Ohio State, SMU, and Oral Roberts. Reigning SEC Coach of the Year, Buzz Williams returns to the helm for his fifth season with the program.
— Williams returns two All-SEC players from a year ago in Wade Taylor IV
(first team) and Tyrece Radford (second team). Taylor IV received
preseason All-American honors and the 2023-2024 preseason SEC Player of
the Year honor. Taylor IV is averaging 17.0 points, 4.8 assists, and 3.3 steals
per game while Radford is averaging 15.5 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. The Aggies will be one of the toughest opponents in the field.
No. 19 Florida Atlantic Owls (2-1)
— After a historic run to the Final Four a year ago, FAU is ranked inside the
top 25 and looking to get back to the Final Four in hopes of a National Championship. Coach Dusty May returns all five starters from a year ago and was one of five schools that didn’t lose a player to the transfer portal. Despite all of that, FAU had a disappointing loss to Bryant last Saturday.
— The Owls have both AAC Preseason Co-Players of the Year in Alijah
Martin and Johnell Davis. The team is older than a year ago and will be
tough out in the American Athletic Conference this year. A second-round
matchup between Texas A&M and FAU would be electric.
Butler Bulldogs (3-1)
— The Butler Bulldogs are coming off a disappointing 14-18 record last
season, but second-year head coach Thad Matta is ready to take the next
The Bulldogs are sitting at 3-1 overall going into the ESPN Events
Invitational with their lone loss being to a ranked Michigan State team.