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Maui Invitational Preview

   by Al McMordie - 11/21/2011

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, Big 12, Big East, SEC, Conference USA, Pac 12 and ACC, to go with host Chaminade. Mighty Duke is here, a powerhouse program under Coach K, fresh off a big win over Michigan State last week. The Blue Devils lost a pair of senior stalwarts in ACC Player of the Year Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, plus freshman guard Kyrie Irving (the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft). These departures have caused Duke's three-point-oriented offense from last season to transform into this year's version featuring a deep, though young, frontcourt.

North Carolina is the overwhelming favorite in the ACC, but Duke is the clear No. 2 pick. Hard to believe Duke lacks a dominating post player, at least so far, but the depth, as always, is exceptional, which means the Blue Devils have no problem running with anyone in the country. That's why many teams prefer a slower pace against them. A guy to watch is 6-11 Mike Plumlee, who is already projected to go in the first 15 picks of next June's NBA draft…provided there IS an NBA next year! Plumlee averaged 17 minutes per game last season. The over is 5-0 in the Blue Devils last five non-conference games, though they are 4-0 under the total in the Blue Devils last four against a team with a winning overall record.

Georgetown of the Big East is here, scheduled to have a showdown with Kansas on Monday. Georgetown is off a 21-win season but it was a disappointment as the Hoyas were unceremoniously dumped from the NCAA Tournament in their first game by the VCU Rams. It was actually the Hoyas' fifth consecutive loss to close out the campaign. A problem for this season is that Coach John Thompson III is rebuilding after losing a ton of key seniors. The backcourt has senior guard Jason Clark, but adds sophomore points guard Markel Starks, who saw limited time as a freshman. Playing Kansas and, depending on Monday's results, possibly UCLA in their next game, will tell us a lot about the Hoyas – for better or worse!

Many powerhouse teams bring undefeated records into this tourney, but not Kansas. The Jayhawks were dumped by No. 2 Kentucky last week, 75-65, in New York. It was an eye opener as Kansas shot just 33.9 percent. It could have been worse as Kentucky missed 13 free throws (55%). This is a team with two regulars over 6-foot-10 and two very athletic 6-foot-8 players. Naturally, they rebound as well as anyone and attack the basket, which is a matchup challenge for most of their opponents.

Another team here is Memphis, a squad that is rarely challenged in Conference USA. And for the first time in years Memphis is returning almost all of its entire roster from last season with the exception of former starting big man Will Coleman. Coleman will be replaced by 6-foot-10 JUCO transfer Stan Simpson, a talent from John A. Logan College who was also considering Kansas, Kentucky and UConn. He adds a much needed low post game for the Tigers.

They will be fun to watch in this tourney as the frontcourt also boasts 6-8 Tarik Black and 6-9 Wesley Witherspoon, both returning starters. The guy who makes the offense go, though, is sophomore guard Joe Jackson, a hometown hero, who loves the up-tempo game. He had 20 points and 7 assists in the opener. This is a deep team that is full of budding young stars. But the money has moved the line significantly in its opening game vs. Michigan, as Memphis opened at -4 and it's up to -6.5 as of this writing.

Last season I got to see UConn win this tourney (even though the referees significantly helped the Huskies defeat Wichita in the opening round), and the Huskies also went on to win the national title. Remember that at the time UConn was coming off an 18-16 season and had a lot of question marks. Despite having only one star (guard Kemba Walker), Coach Jim Calhoun admitted he was going to use a rotation of 10 and wanted a better commitment to defense. And guess what? They won the Maui tourney, topping No. 2 Michigan State (70-67) and No. 9 Kentucky (84-67) in the final two games. "We wanted to show the world that we're still UConn," Walker said at the time. And they would do it again in March and April! Good luck, as always (and Aloha)...Al McMordie. Also, don't miss any of our Basketball plays this week, as we're a documented 7-0 on our Late Phones this season after cashing Valparaiso on Sunday.

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