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Maui Invitational

   by Al McMordie - 11/21/2010

College basketball is here! I know because I’m seeing it firsthand at the Maui Invitational, a great time to get a close look at the start of the college basketball season. The Maui Invitational, as all these early season tournaments do, provides an excellent chance to examine the strengths and weaknesses of clubs beyond the massive print of the Blue Ribbon annual. And that helps handicappers identify soft early season numbers, both with sides, totals and very live, underrated dogs.

The Maui Invitational has a terrific collection of teams across a broad spectrum of college hoops, from the Big 10, Pac-10, Big East, SEC, Missouri Valley and ACC, among others. Youth and players bouncing back from injuries pop up all over the place.

Kentucky is out here, a powerhouse program under John Calipari that lost five players to the 2010 NBA Draft. You think the Cats were young last year? Wait till you see this group!

Calipari has made a habit of signing the nation's top point guards and preparing them to be NBA-ready players in only a few months, like Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall and now, possibly, Brandon Knight. Kentucky almost did it last year, but since freshmen became eligible in 1972-73, few have played key roles on national championship teams: Michael Jordan with North Carolina in 1982, Pervis Ellison with Louisville in 1986 and Carmelo Anthony of Syracuse in 2003, but it’s not common.

In the last 10 years, when freshmen became prominent in college basketball, only 10 averaged more than 15 minutes a game for a championship team. Only three started: Josh Boone for UConn in 2004, and Gerry McNamara and Anthony for Syracuse in 2003. Of the eight freshmen who have been named first-team All-Americans by the Associated Press, only Greg Oden played in a Final Four.

Besides playing with aggressiveness, Calipari said the Cats need to learn the importance of execution, handling the pace of games. "If anybody thinks they know about my team, I'd like to know who that is," Calipari said. "Because I don't know." Kentucky gets two or three big tests coming up: Oklahoma, in this tourney, and possibly Michigan State if each advances to the finals; and against North Carolina in two weeks.

UConn is another powerhouse program with a talented coach in Jim Calhoun and a lot of youth. The mystery surrounds a team with six freshmen and coming off a disappointing season that ended at 18-16 with a second-round loss to Virginia Tech in the NIT. UConn is starting fresh with a clear leader in junior point guard Kemba Walker and an unproven supporting cast. Walker is a reliable outside shooter this season, especially from behind the three-point arc.

Walker scored a career-high 42 points in an 89-73 victory over Vermont . He was 15-for-24 from the field, 4-for-9 on three-pointers and 8-for-10 on free throws. "It was pretty special to see a guy get 42 points — easy," Calhoun said. "It almost looked easy for him. His quickness and speed were just so different from everyone else on the court. It was just a magnificent performance." Starting this week, however, the Huskies will play teams better suited to take away one player, so Walker will need more help.

Calhoun plans to use a rotation of 10. He wants a better commitment to defense and rebounding and he was not happy with the 29 three pointers they attempted against Bridgeport, so don’t be surprised if they focus on fundamentals and the inside game before allowing them freer reins. Up front there is a ton of inexperience with Niels Giffey, Jamal Coombs-McDaniel at small forward and Charles Okwandu and Alex Oriakhi sharing time at center.

"They're going to have to pay attention to details a little more," Calhoun said. "Offensively, we're in pretty good shape, but we could see multiple defenses. We haven't seen that yet. Right now, we have one terrific player, and that's Kemba."

Wichita State, out of the Missouri Valley Conference, is my sleeper to win the Tourney, as it returns four starters, including guard Keaton Schultz. He averaged 13.8 points and made 51.1 percent of his threes last season. Junior Toure Murry, a 6-foot-5 guard, is WSU's leading returning scorer after averaging 11.9 points. One of his goals for his sophomore season was to become a better defender, and he earned a spot on the Missouri Valley Conference's All-Defensive Team.

The frontcourt is very good with 7-foot center junior Garrett Stutz and forward J.T. Durley. This program lost to Pitt early last season, 68-55, then crushed Iowa of the Big Ten, 74-57. Stutz had 18 points in that game, nailing 7 of his first 8 shots. They also beat Northern Iowa, 60-51, snapping the Panthers’ 15-game win streak, so they know how to play tough defense. Wichita State lost key starter Clevin Hannah, their leading scorer, but all their other top players return to a squad that won 25 games and made the NIT.

While the big name coaches mentioned above are dealing with new faces, Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo has a wealth of experience so rare in college hoops these days. The real story is how several players return from injuries. Senior guard Kalin Lucas ruptured his left Achilles tendon in last season's NCAA Tournament, but it didn't keep him from being named the preseason player of the year in the Big Ten. He is the unquestioned star of the No. 2 Spartans.

Junior forward Delvon Roe is healthy for the first time and junior guard Korie Lucious hopes to build off a solid postseason. Seniors Lucas and Durrell Summers begin their final season in East Lansing. Throw in the more experienced Derrick Nix and Garrick Sherman, along with freshmen Keith Appling and Adreian Payne, and the Spartans hope to deliver a second national title for Izzo.

During Michigan State's two exhibitions, Lucas seemed a little apprehensive to cut hard off his left leg. But, he has been scoring as well as ever and is slowly getting back to 100 percent, something to watch closely during this Maui tournament. Besides these four teams, I'll be watching Washington, Virginia, Chaminade, and Oklahoma. And the Huskies, like Wichita St., are also a sleeper to win this Tourney. it should be a lot of fun. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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