This year's Maui Invitational field can't compare with last year's -- two eventual NCAA Tournament No. 2 seeds (Duke, Kansas), a No. 3 seed (Georgetown), a No. 4 seed (Michigan), and a No. 8 seed (Memphis) -- plus two more teams that wound up on the Tournament bubble (UCLA, Tennessee) -- but I think the seven teams joining host Chaminade University in the 2012 tournament comprise a better and more interesting field than many think. There's going to be a ton of size on the floor in Maui, as well as a lot of strong defense, which is why I like this field as a good proving ground for this young Longhorns squad. Drawing Chaminade in the first round, Texas certainly has a favorable draw for staying in the winner's bracket, but let's take a look at the rest of the 2012 Maui Invitational field.
The team profiles below feature a blend of roster attributes and early season ratings. The ratings include each team's ranking in Ken Pomeroy's system, as well as its adjusted Offensive Rating, Defensive Rating, and Tempo, with the team's national rank in the category in parentheses. The number in the "Experience" column represents each team's average class year per minute played, where 1 is a Freshman, 2 a Sophomore, 3 a Junior, and 4 a Senior. The "Height" column lists the average height of each team's players who have been playing at least 10 minutes per game this season, with the number representing inches above 6-feet tall (e.g. Carolina's average height is 6 feet, 6.3 inches tall; Texas' is 6 feet, 5.7 inches tall, etc.)
A couple of things immediately stand out -- first, the early season defensive numbers confirm my impression of most of these teams as superior defensive squads. It likely won't last all season, but even Roy Williams' Tar Heels have played better on the defensive end of the floor in the early going.
Second of all, you can see the huge disadvantage that Texas finds itself facing in the experience department. Texas isn't just the youngest team in the Maui Invitational, it's among the youngest in the entire country:
Not a single other team in the Maui Invitational has an average experience of less than 2.0 -- the equivalent of five sophomores on the floor -- while at 1.42 Texas is featuring, on average, three freshmen and two sophomores. Whomever wins the first round match up between Illinois and USC, the team that emerges to face Texas won't be overwhelmed by the Longhorns' size and will have a substantially more experienced team.
In the top half of the bracket, if both UNC and Marquette can win their openers, the semifinal between the Tar Heels and Golden Eagles should be a fun and fast-paced affair, while in the bottom half a Texas-Illinois showdown would a great early season match up for both teams, although the Illini shouldn't take what I think is a challenging USC squad for granted.
It's so early in the season, and fans aren't the only ones still trying to get a feel for who teams are -- the teams themselves are still in the early stages of forging an identity. We don't know everything about these teams, but let's take a look at some of the key players and coaches in this year's Maui Invitational, and do some projecting as to how the tournament might shake out.
Best All-Around Player
Top Half of Bracket: Fellow Tar Heel James Michael McAdoo may surpass him by season's end, but at least for now I'm going with Reggie Bulluck, a Swiss Army knife who stuffs the stat sheet and contributes strong play on both ends of the floor. An efficient and effective scorer, he takes good care of the ball, and he puts his 6-7 length to good use on the defensive end, Bulluck is off to a great start to his junior campaign, averaging 10 points, 4.3 boards, 3.3 assists, and 1.7 steals per game, including 7 of 16 from downtown. Honorable Mention: McAdoo (UNC), Davante Gardner (Marquette)
Bottom Half of Bracket: Illinois' star point guard Brandon Paul returns for one more season in Champaign, and unsurprisingly the senior is off to a great start through three games, averaging 19.7 points, 4.3 boards, 4.3 assists, and 1.3 steals per game, including 8 of 20 from downtown. The 6-4, 200-pounder is a versatile scorer and distributor whose outside shot must be respected but can get by a defender and break down a defense, as well. When he penetrates, he's a threat to score, dish it, or draw a foul (21 FT attempts for a 52.5 FTRate so far this year, after last year's strong 46.5 FTRate). Honorable Mention: Sheldon McClellan (Texas), D.J. Richardson (Illinois)
Best Point Guard
Top Half of Bracket: Mississippi State and Butler are both hurting from lack of point guard play right now, but both the Tar Heels and Golden Eagles have distributors who can run the floor and push the pace like both their head coaches want. Although Marquette's Junior Cadougan has the experience, I give the slight nod to UNC freshman Marcus Paige, the McDonald's All-American and consensus No. 1 PG in the class of 2012. He's still raw, but the talent is obvious and he looks close to being an impact player already. Honorable Mention: Cadougan (Marquette)
Bottom Half of Bracket: Certainly with Myck Kabongo's status still up in the air, Brandon Paul is an easy call. Honorable Mention: Javan Felix (Texas),
Top Half of Bracket: Four Tar Heels were rated ahead of him in the RSCI Top 100, but I love what Kellen Dunham, Butler's 6-6 shooting guard, brings to the floor. The Pendleton, IN product is long, smooth, and deadly from outside, and he's off to a strong start for this young Bulldogs squad, averaging 14.5 points through two games. He does have ability to drive and get to the line, and as he continues to develop that skill at this level, he's going to be an offensive menace. Honorable Mention: Paige (UNC), Brice Johnson (UNC)
Bottom Half of Bracket: Texas has the best freshman class, and Cameron Ridley should be the best freshman player by the end of the season, but while Ridley continues his adjustment phase, I'll avoid the homer pick and give a nod to Mississippi State's freshman sharpshooter Fred Thomas. The 6-4, 175-pound shooting guard has some Sheldon McClellan in him, although he's not as explosive an athlete. When he's feeling it, though, he can fill it up from the outside. Honorable Mention: Ridley (Texas), Ioannis Papapetrou (Texas), Javan Felix (Texas), Prince Ibeh (Texas)
Best Three-Point Shooter
Top Half of Bracket: Holy crap, Rotnei Clarke transferred to Butler? I'd missed that news, but the squatty little gunner from Arkansas is now a Bulldog. An Oklahoman by birth, he looks like he should be from Indiana. Texas fans should have little trouble remembering Clarke from his time as a Razorback.
Bottom Half of Bracket: Sheldon McClellan's a natural shooters who's just going to keep getting better and better, and I'd let Brandon Paul shoot for my team any day, but for a tournament being played in Hawaii...
...the tiebreaker has to go to Illini sharshooter DJ Richardson, right? Honestly, I'd choose him in any case: he hit on 39% of his threes as a freshman and sophomore, and 37% a year ago, so don't pay much mind to his 31% through three games this year -- it'll go up. Honorable Mention: McClellan (Texas), Paul (Illinois)
Best Tournament Coach
Top Half of Bracket: All due respect to Roy "7 Final Fours and 2 Titles" Williams, but most of that (4 Final Fours, both titles) came at UNC with ridiculously loaded rosters. That's not a criticism -- that's what he was hired to do -- but even more impressive has been the tournament coaching done by Butler's Brad Stephens. Texas fans who don't like Rick Barnes' style (limit turnovers, get to the line, hit the offensive glass, play tough man defense) will kindly refrain from pining for Butler's coach, who is more Rick Barnes than Barnes himself. But part of it is also that Stephens is an exceptional defensive game planner, and in a tournament format where teams aren't familiar with each other, nobody does a better job than Stephens in taking away an opponent's best offensive weapon, essentially forcing them to dribble with their weaker hand.
Bottom Half of Bracket: Rick Barnes' reputation as a poor NCAA Tournament coach is overblown, but it is fair to say that his Texas teams have not tended to play their best basketball in tournaments, generally. We've never won the Big 12 Championship, nor do we usually play our best basketball in these early season tournaments. In each of his previous two trips to Maui, Barnes' Longhorns have won their opener and lost in the semifinals, before winning the 3rd place game. But is there a better tournament coach in the bottom half of this year's bracket? I'm not sure that there is, but after canning Bruce Weber last season, Illinois hired a coach who's got some impressive tournament skins on his wall in John Groce, formerly at Ohio University. Groce took the Bobcats to the NCAA Tournament as a 14 seed in 2010 and promptly ran No. 3 seed Georgetown out of the gym before falling to Tennessee in the second round. Then he got Ohio U. back in the Dance again this past March, this time as a No. 13 seed, and the Bobcats went on a Cinderella run, slaying No. 4 Michigan and No. 12 South Florida, before losing a heartbreaker in overtime to... none other than Roy Williams and No. 1 UNC.
Best Guess At Who Wins
Top Half of Bracket: All four of these teams were hit hard by roster turnover, which means advantage to the team in the best position to reload. That would be the Tar Heels, of course, and they should have little trouble advancing past a Mississippi State team that was absolutely decimated by roster turnover. The other opening round game in the top half of the bracket features a fascinating match up in contrasting styles, as Butler will work hard to slow-slow-slow this game down and deny Marquette the opportunity to play the style of basketball at which they're best and prefer to play. If Butler can make some outside jumpers, they can beat Marquette, but if the three ball isn't falling, the open floor game should open up for Marquette, as Butler won't be defending out of a set defense following made basket. I'll take Marquette over Butler, but North Carolina to beat either one of them.
Bottom Half of Bracket: In the bottom half of the bracket, Texas drew host Chaminade, giving them the clearest path to the semifinals, and a winnable opening game to acclimate to a foreign gym. They'll await the winner of Illinois and USC, and while the Illini are the superior team in terms of talent, this is a pesky Trojans team that -- like Butler -- will bring the pace of the game to a crawl, and is perfectly happy to grind and bang in a physical game. The Trojans starting backcourt measures 6-0, 6-3, 6-5, and their frontcourt starters include 6-6, 240-pound bruiser Eric Wise, plus 7-footer Dewayne Dedmon, and they have two more 7-footers on the bench, 7-1, 260-pound senior James Blasczyk and 7-0, 270-pound junior Omar Oraby (10.5 points, 6 rebounds, 1.5 blocks per game). The Illini have quality size themselves in sophomore Nnanna Egwu (6-11, 230), senior Tyler Griffey (6-9, 235), sophomore Ibby Djimde (6-8, 245), and senior Sam McLaurin (6-8, 220), and their advantage in the backcourt is substantial, so while I think it may be a more challenging game than some expect, unless the Illini get subpar outings from both Richardson and Paul and wind up bogged down in a halfcourt slugfest, I'll take Illinois to get past USC. In the semifinals, I'm going to hedge, but I think it's fair in this instance: if Texas doesn't have Kabongo, I like Illinois to get the better of the young Longhorns, but if Texas' sophomore point guard were cleared to play in Maui, UT would have a hugely valuable piece for dealing with Brandon Paul on defense, and the most important player to their offense. If Kabongo plays, I'll take the Horns, but assuming he's out I'll go with UNC against Illinois in the finals, with the North Carolina Tar Heels leaving Maui champs of the island.