Maui Invitational Preview

The Tournament

The 25th EA Sports Maui Invitational, a three day, eight team tournament annually played Thanksgiving week and featuring some of the best teams in college basketball, is one of the most hotly-contested and prestigious of the preseason college basketball tournaments (really only the Pre Season NIT at Madison Square Garden compares). That trend will continue this season, as the pool contains North Carolina and Notre Dame, as well as the Longhorns. The other trend that will no doubt continue is the habit of participating coaches donning horrifically ugly Hawaiian shirts for the games. Just wanted to warn you so you can prepare your eyes for the visual assault they will experience.

The Teams

  • North Carolina - There aren't many teams on the number one ranked Tar Heels' schedule expected to challenge the ACC behemoth. North Carolina returns their top six scorers from last year's Final Four squad (three of whom returned to school after testing the NBA draft: Tyler Hansbrough, Wayne Ellington, and Tywon Lawson) and will cause major problems for every opponent with their athleticism and depth, becoming nearly unstoppable when allowed to push the tempo. The only early season concerns surround the team's health, most notably 2007 National Player of the Year Tyler Hansbrough, who missed the first two games of the season with a stress reaction in his right shin. Don't believe rumors that Hansbrough injured the shin from jumping into too many pools at frat houses. "Psycho T" returned Friday night against Cal-Santa Barbara, scoring 13 points in 25 minutes on 2-8 shooting from the field. The injury may limit Hansbrough's minutes, particularly if North Carolina reaches the finals, which would be their third game in three days. The Tar Heels' best perimeter defender, senior Marcus Ginyard, won't return until sometime in December after surgergy to repair a stress fracture in his left foot. Freshman Tyler Zeller will miss the rest of the season with a broken wrist sustained last week against Kentucky. Now is the time to beat North Carolina, as Hansbrough and Ginyard recover and the freshman adjust to the college game.
  • Texas - As well-documented around this site, the major concern facing the number eight ranked Longhorns is their point guard play. Dogus Balbay looked capable in his debut against overmatched Tulane, but will come off the bench in Maui, leaving the strating ball-handling duties to Justin Mason and AJ Abrams. The Longhorns will likely patch together minutes at the spot, but expect AJ Abrams to have the ball in key circumstances, asked to play the role DJ Augustin more than ably filled for two seasons. The real signature of the team in the early going has been the defensive effort, with Texas allowing an average of 45 points through the first two games and holding opponents to 28.7% shooting (31-108), 23.2% from beyond the arc (10-43), forcing 44 turnovers, 22 steals, and blocking 12 shots.
  • St. Joseph's - The Hawks lost top scorer (17.5 points per game) and matchup nightmare (he could stroke the three ball) Pat Calathes to graduation, along with two of their best rebounders. With the losses in the frontcourt, the backcourt emerges as the strength of the team behind senior point guard Tasheed Carr and shooting guard Darrin Govens, pegged for a breakout season in his junior campaign.The frontcourt is not entirely bereft of talent, as junior 6-9 forward Ahmad Nivins has lead the Hawks early in the season, averaging 21 points and 12.5 rebounds in the first two games of the season. Not as encouraging is the result of St. Joe's last game, an overtime loss on the road to Holy Cross.
  • Oregon - The Ducks experienced significant losses to graduation from their mostly disappointing 18-14 team in 2007-08. Wing Mailk Hairston, guard Bryce Taylor, and the versatile Maarty Leunen all finished their careers in Eugene, leaving diminutive (5-6) Tajuan Porter as the top returning scorer (13.9 points per game) and Oregon dependent on six true freshman, one transfer, and two redshirt freshman for whatever success they manage this season. Several of the true freshman, including 6-9 Michael Dunigan and athletic wing Michael Humphrey, are highly regarded, but their inexperience will keep from Oregon from anything better than a middle-of-the-pack finish in the Pac 10, which doesn't have a lot of quality depth after UCLA.
  • Notre Dame - Reigning Big East Player of the Year Luke Harangody (21 points in 29 minutes last season) returns for his junior season to lead an experience Notre Dame team that lost only one contributor from last season, also returning long-range sharpshooter and noted stoner Kyle McAlarney. The return of key players camoflouges the Irish's most significant weakness: Their lack of depth. McAlarney played 35.7 minutes last season, while fellow backcourt starter Tory Jackson played nearly 33. Senior Luke Zeller is the only proven backup in the frontcourt. It is Harangody's skill that makes the Irish a formidable opponent. He's a 6-8, 250-pound bruiser who scores 40% of his points with his back to the basket, generally using his strength to establish deep position and getting to the free throw line with great frequency, where he hits more than 75% of his attempts. Defenders have to meet Harangody as far out on the perimeter as possible to force him to catch the ball farther from the basket than he prefers. Despite his strength, Haragody isn't all that athletic, which makes his shot blockable around the rim and in the lane.
  • Indiana - Kellen Sampson left a pile of burning rubble behind him as he high-tailed it out of Bloomington following repeated NCAA violations. Sampson's was only the first in a growing exodus from IU that eventually included the top 10 scorers. Graduation claimed four players, including DJ White, while freshman Eric Gordon declared for the NBA draft, one player left during last season (AJ Ratliff), two players left the team (Eli Holman and Jordan Crawford), and incoming coach Tom Crean dismissed Armon Bassett, Jamarcus Ellis, DeAndre Thomas and Brandon McGee. Crean was eventually left with one scholarship player from the Sampson regime, Kyle Taber, who scored 1.3 points per game last season.Crean will lean heavily on JUCO transfer Devan Dumes to provide scoring and leadership from the point guard position. Indiana will struggle rebounding this season, with only two players 6-8 or taller (Tijan Jobe and Tom Pritchard). Actually, it probably won't just be with rebounding that the Hoosiers will struggle. It's going to take Crean a couple of years to make this team competitive again. Kelvin Sampson woud be well advised to stay as far away from Bloomington as possible. Indefinitely, too.
  • Alabama - The success of Alabama's season rides on the health of point guard Ronald Steele, who redshirted last season with knee and ankle injuries. He's back on the court for the Tide, playing in the team's first two games and averaging 20 points. Alabama got off to a poor start, losing at home to Mercer, before beating Florida A&M handily. The leading scorer from last season, Richard Hendricks, left early for the NBA, while second leading scorer Mykal Riley ran out of eligibility. That leaves Steele's backcourt mate Alonzo Gee, the highest returning scorer at 14.5 points per game, to help Steele score the basketball, as well as McDonald's All-American JaMychal Green, Alabama's best interior scorer as soon as he stepped on campus, who is averaging 14.5 points and 10 rebounds through the first two games of his college career. Ronald Steele's younger brother, freshman Andrew, backs up his older brother at the point and provides the team with good perimeter defense.
  • Chaminade - The Silverswords lost all five starters and top six scorers from last season's squad that notched a win in the Invitational over Princeton to keep them from an eighth-place finish and won its second Pacific West title in three seasons. And suffice it to say that Chaminade isn't bringing in any McDonald's All-Americans to replace their graduated players. They will also be shaking off the rust of the off-season, as they haven't yet played a regular season game.

The First Round Matchups

Note: Texas, St. Joseph's, Notre Dame, and Indiana comprise one side of the bracket, with North Carolina, Chaminade, Oregon, and Alabama comprising the other.

  • North Carolina vs. Chaminade - Host Chaminade has rarely played spoiler in their home arena, posting a 5-65 record in the tournament. The Tar Heels roll in this one easily.
  • Texas vs. St. Joe's - The Hawks aren't even a very good Atlantic 10 team, picked to finish in the bottom three of the conference and likely won't provide more than a minor hurdle for the Longhorns, who move to 3-0 on the season.
  • Oregon vs. Alabama - The solid Alabama squad will likely win this game, but don't look for their continue past their matchup against North Carolina. Alabama's greatest contribution to the tournament field could come if they manage to stay close with North Carolina late into the game and force the Tar Heel starters to expend some energy. Not likely.
  • Notre Dame vs. Indiana - The two in-state rivals, separated by a 4-hour drive, are also separated by a vast gap in talent and experience. Notre Dame dispatches the Hoosiers as Tom Crean begins to realize just how long this season is going to last and starts to wonder how life would be back at Marquette.

Predictions

North Carolina will face little resistance in reaching the championship game to face Texas. The semi-final matchup between Notre Dame and Texas stays tightly contested in the final minutes, as the Longhorns prove too athletic and too deep for the glaringly white Notre Dame squad (seriously, look at all those white boys). After scoring in bunches early, Texas finally finds a defender capable of stopping Notre Dame star Luke Harangody (with Connor Atchley blocking shots and frustrating Harangody with double teams from the weakside), while full court pressure wears down and harasses the Irish backcourt. The point guard situation rears its ugly head for Texas in the championship game against North Carolina, with the offense stagnating for stretches and North Carolina hurting the Longhorns in the transition game.

Winner: North Carolina over Texas.

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