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EA Sports Maui Invitational: Can anyone knock off the Tar Heels?

by Matthew Stevens | November 22nd, 2008

It’s turn back the clock time (literally and figuratively) for the 2008 Maui Invitational. This event, which along with the Preseason NIT used to be the highlighted early-season television affair in college basketball, has organized a prime field for its 25th anniversary.

The 2,400-seat Lahaina Civic Center will host three top 10 teams in the current Associated Press poll, St. Joe’s coach Phil Martelli told The Maui News.

All the major storylines of this tournament revolve around the top-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels (2-0), whether it’s the 2008 debut of Wooden Award winner Tyler Hansbrough (sat out first two games after suffering a stress reaction in his right shin during preseason practice) or its starting five of NBA talent. The consensus opinion is UNC can be easily penciled into the Maui title game and is the favorite to take home the Wayne Duke trophy to Chapel Hill for the third consecutive trip.

The question is can Texas or Notre Dame beat North Carolina and give either one of those squads a victory that will grow in importance exponentially (fancy bracket projection math word for over time, nice huh?) by March.

Saint Joseph’s Hawks (1-1)

First Game: vs. No. 7 Texas (2-0), 2 P.M. EST, ESPN2

Ladies and Gentlemen, get ready for the debut of Phil Martelli roaming the sidelines in a Tommy Bahama button-down shirt.

The Hawks are marking their first appearance in the Maui Invitational and are still trying to find how to mesh two new starters and a different 7-8 man rotation that made the 2007 NCAA Tournament.

Graduating starters Pat Calathes and Rob Ferguson accounted for nearly 40 points and 12 rebounds per game have forced Martelli to turn the page to senior center Ahmad Nivins. What the coaches love about this 6-9 post player, clearly the team’s best player averaging 21 points and 13 rebounds through two games, is his unselfishness. Thanks to Nivins, St. Joe’s is expected to improve over time, but right now the Hawks need two well-regarded recruits to make a bigger impact.

6’7” sophomore Idris Hilliard and 5’11” sophomore Charoy Bentley must show they can contribute more than the eight combined points and six fouls during a 69-57 season-opening victory over Rider.

The last time the Hawks took the floor they lost in overtime at Holy Cross on November 16. However, as ESPN columnist and notable HC alumnus Bill Simmons could probably confirm, if you walk into the Hart Center on a night legends Bob Cousy and Tommy Heinsohn have their jerseys retired, you really have no chance.

The Hawks simply don’t have the consistent guard play to defeat the Texas Longhorns, ranked in the top 10, but there’s certainly a chance they could get back on the plane with a 2-1 record and 5th-place finish.

No. 7 Texas (2-0)

First Game: vs. Saint Joseph’s, 2 P.M.. EST, ESPN2

Yes, the Longhorns have the leading returning scorer in the Big 12 Conference in A.J. Abrams. Yes, they already have four players averaging double figures and five players with at least four rebounds per game. Yes, they also opened the season against Stetson and Tulane.

However, this team is doing one crucial thing that will possibly help it win 30+ games for the third time in four years: defense.

Rick Barnes has a team that could be described by the cliché of “scrappy,” because the Longhorns can run you off the floor with Abrams and fellow guard Justin Mason (2008 first team all-conference selection), but can also roll out its assembly line of 6’10” physical post players (Connor Atchley, Dexter Pittman, Clint Chapman and Matt Hill) to force you to take horrible shots in a halfcourt set.

“The thing we were most impressed with as a coaching staff is the things we got done on the defensive end,” Barnes said after his team’s 76-51 win over Tulane.

This team is part of the handful of squads that could have a very impressive resume for 1-2 seed discussion. A win over Notre Dame (and of course North Carolina) would boost the Longhorns RPI ranking immediately because that type of victory is counted equally even though beating a Top 10 team in November is much easier than February (i.e. Michigan over UCLA).

The two wild card concerns for Barnes that may give him headaches throughout not only this tournament but the entire season is point guard play and free throw shooting.

Sophomore Dogus Balbay is being asked to replace lottery pick D.J. Augustin at the lead guard position after the native of Turkey had major knee surgery in the offseason. It’s natural for Barnes for the learning process to take some games to work, but Balbay was impressive while playing for the U20 Turkish national team this season and Barnes had good reviews for his first career contest against Tulane.

“I was really happy for Dogus,” Barnes said. “For his first time in, he really came with a pit-bull attitude.”

It is not a two-game statistical anomaly that Texas is shooting 51 percent from the charity stripe, as the only returning player that shot over 70 percent last year with Abrams. That will possibly cost the Longhorns a bad loss or two in 2008-09.

Indiana (2-0)

First Game: vs. No. 8 Notre Dame , 5:30 P.M.. EST, ESPN2

And the winner for team most likely to give Chaminade its sixth-ever win in the Maui Invitational is…Tom Crean come on down!

After the national anthem at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, the IU administration may want have the band play taps.

Christmas has come early for every fan that despises the crimson and cream program. Nearly every preseason publication has predicted an 11th-place finish in the Big Ten, less than 10 total wins and the longest season for coach Crean and the alumni faithful.

“I don’t think you can describe what winning this way does for our confidence,” Crean said. “We had to find a way to win the game, and the guys were listening and found a way to do that. We beat a really high quality opponent.” Oh, probably should mention these post-game comments came after a 60-57 home win over– wait for it–IUPUI!

“Any win is just a monstrous achievement for us right now,” Crean said. See, eventually the truth comes out. You just have to dig for it.

6’9” freshman forward Tom Pritchard is averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds after being named the Ohio player of the year by the Cleveland Plain Dealer out of Lakewood St. Edward High School. Pritchard and fellow freshman guard Nick Williams out of Mobile, Ala., will be asked to carry this depleted Hoosiers squad.

If this team gets a win against a Division I opponent, the Hoosiers should consider this trip a success.

No. 8 Notre Dame (2-0)

First Game: vs. Indiana , 5:30 P.M.. EST, ESPN2

Fighting Irish head coach Mike Brey isn’t trying to complicate things for his preseason All-American forward Luke Harangody.

“If he’s playing with one guy (on him), we’re going to keep throwing it in there and letting him go to work,” Brey said after a 94-58 victory over USC Upstate.

Harangody had 30 points and 14 rebounds while working against 7’3” center Nick Schneiders.

The Fighting Irish have not played Indiana outside the Hoosier state since a 1958 NCAA Tournament 89-87 Notre Dame victory in Lexington, Ky. They’ve been waiting 50 years for another neutral-site game and a blowout will be worth the wait for the golden domers.

Notre Dame has arguably the best guard duo in the country with Tory Jackson and Kyle McAlarney having complimentary skills. Jackson is a lead guard who topped the Big East Conference in assists and McAlarney hit 44 percent from beyond the three-point arc last year.

That’s something we emphasize every game, coming in unselfishly,” McAlarney said after USC Upstate victory. “I think they mentioned that we had 25 assists, I think and that’s huge for us.”

Notre Dame has the best chance to upset North Carolina with solid coaching, a deep bench, a go-to player down the stretch, and confident guards. However, for the college basketball fan needing a fix for an intriguing early-season contest in this tournament a suggestion would be to tune in for a Texas/ND semifinal that may take a lot of energy from whatever team wins.

The key for Notre Dame is getting everything they can from 6’10” sixth man Luke Zeller. The former McDonald’s All-American and Indiana Mr. Basketball must finally find his potential to contribute in his final season in South Bend.

No. 1 North Carolina (2-0)

First Game: vs. Chaminade , 9:30 P.M.. EST, ESPNU

Do we really need to rehash this? Not much hasn’t already been said, written, or projected in any preseason preview.

So if you’re wondering: no, there will be no Ralph Sampson upset moment here for the Silverswords. Sorry.

Now that we have that out of the way, North Carolina has three NBA first-round picks in its starting lineup and has a possible 13-man rotation for its run, run, run type of offense orchestrated by head coach Roy Williams.

If you’re at this site, you know about Hansbrough (can the Tar Heels win this thing without him?), Ty Lawson, Danny Green, and Wayne Ellington. Not that they needed it, but forward Deon Thompson had introduced himself to the college basketball world with a career-high 20 points in a 77-58 win over Kentucky.

“I guess I have just a little bit more of an opportunity with Tyler [Hansbrough] out of there and just taking advantage and not really trying to force anything,” Thompson said after the win over UK.

What nobody knows yet is how this team will react when tested by a really good team. We’ll know the early answer to that question and how much that first half Kansas embarrassment will haunt the veterans of this team.

The Tar Heels will be the microscope team that will be asked to block out every distraction that goes with the Maui trip in order to stay undefeated and atop the polls.

“I’m ready for it,” Lawson said. “I’m ready to go down there, have fun, play games, go to Maui and chill on the beach.”

North Carolina has a schedule this year that will impress the committee when it sits down in the hotel conference room in Indianapolis as the Tar Heels will have games against Alabama or Oregon, Notre Dame or Texas, and Michigan State before Atlantic Coast Conference play.

Alabama (1-1) vs. Oregon (2-1)

First Game: 12 A.M.. EST, ESPN2

Why are this teams combined for one preview? Simply put, they could switch NCAA resumes in March and nobody would notice.

Remember when no team walked into McArthur Court and got a victory? Not so much anymore because the Ducks nearly had back-to-back losses to Northern Colorado and Oakland (Mich.).

After losing two players to the NBA Draft and having one of the youngest rotations in the Pacific 10 Conference, the Ducks look to be struggling to find an identity on offense beyond their 5-foot-6 point guard Tajuan Porter.

They are shooting 36 percent from the field and from three-point range and have had only three different players score in double figures in two games.

Good news for Oregon head coach Ernie Kent is his squad will square off against a first round opponent that has more talent but can’t seem to find a way to make the pieces the work.

The Crimson Tide faithful filed into Coleman Coliseum with not only the excitement of the new college basketball season but the return of injured star Ronald Steele.

Then the ball went up and like O.J. Mayo’s 2007 Hollywood debut, Mercer simply didn’t care. (In a tease of the 2008 Mid-Major Tuesday column: Mercer is 2-0 after also beating Auburn and on their way to winning the SEC).

It’s possible that Steele’s unbelievable effort with 25 points was overshadowed by the college debut of JaMychal Green (17 points, 12 rebounds in 30 minutes). The problem is nobody else besides Green seems interested in being physical on the block and in the paint as the Crimson Tide was out-rebounded and out-hustled by Mercer to the tune of 56-38. Mercer turned 24 offensive rebounds into 15 second chance points.

“(Mercer) played hard and did a great job,” Alabama head coach Mark Gottfried said after the loss. “We didn’t take advantage of opportunities to help ourselves. We’ve got to learn from it and get better.”

Don’t think because they have the number-one ranked football team in the country that the seat isn’t all-ready burning hot for Gottfried.

A first-round matchup with Oregon is perfect because these two teams, more than any other in the month of November, will reveal themselves either as an early at-large contenders or a dissapointments.

Predictions

(Let’s all remember at this same point last year I picked Washington to win the Preseason NIT and start its run to the NCAA Tournament – WHOOPS!)

FIRST DAY

Texas over Saint Joseph’s by 6

Notre Dame over Indiana by 23

North Carolina over Chaminade by 35

Alabama over Oregon by 1

SECOND DAY

Saint Joseph’s over Indiana by 10

Oregon over Chiminade by 8

Notre Dame over Texas by 2

North Carolina over Alabama by 20

FINAL DAY

Indiana over Chiminade by 3

Saint Joseph’s over Oregon by 14

Alabama over Texas by 4 (UPSET PICK!)

North Carolina over Notre Dame by 5 (overtime) – TAR HEELS WIN MAUI

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2 Responses to “EA Sports Maui Invitational: Can anyone knock off the Tar Heels?”  

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  1. John Says:

    @ Matt. Nice job on the preview. I think that if Alabama can keep their heads into it, they could potentially upset North Carolina. I know, they lost to Mercer(amazing how the Crimson Tide lose to an Atlantic Sun team for the 2nd consecutive year-Belmont in 2007.) With Steele coming back and Green in the low post, the Tide have the personnel to pull this off. I think what they also could use is a nice, comfortable win over Oregon(should be the most competitive game on Day 1.) I can’t believe i’m saying all these nice things about Alabama considering we(we being Florida) are playing them for a spot in the National Championship Game in 2 weeks, but that’s a whole different story for a whole different day. I happen to agree with you about a possible Texas-Notre Dame semifinal. Could be the best game of the young season so far(although it would be hard to top the Virginia Tech-Xavier game or at least the ending.) I think you are probably right in giving the Irish the edge(boy they need it after that Syracuse debacle on Saturday.), however Rick Barnes’ teams always are a threat. I think we could see a lot of potential NCAA vs NCAA games here(Alabama-Oregon, Saint Joseph’s-Oregon, Saint Joseph’s-Alabama, etc.) just like in Puerto Rico where Seton Hall and Missouri picked up invaluable wins for their tournament resumes come March.
    Tajuan Porter is fearless, but doesn’t t have much help. Saint Joseph’s can be dangerous like Seton Hall was in San Juan. As for Indiana and Chaminade……..well let’s hope they play a close game in this tournament, although hopefully IU fans will be patient with Tom Crean. Look what he did at Marquette. Before I get to my predictions, let me clarify 2 things you wrote in your article. 1. Tyler Hansbrough played at UC Santa Barbara, so this is not his season debut. 2. IUPUI is actually not a bad mid-major program.

    Predictions
    Champion: North Carolina
    Runner-Up: Notre Dame
    3rd Place: Alabama
    4th Place: Saint Joseph’s
    5th Place: Texas
    6th Place: Oregon
    7th Place: Chaminade(just to be a little different)
    8th Place: Indiana

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  2. Matt (author) Says:

    John,

    Thank you as always for the comment.
    First, we’re going to differ on Rick Barnes as a top-level coach.
    Second, my column had to be turned in before UNC played at UCSB and I’m sure you can appreciate that I was still unsure if Psycho T would be playing.
    Third, IU SHOULD NEVER, EVER, EVER be going down to the wire with IUPUI in Assembly Hall. I know that Ron Hunter has a good squad that could win the Summit League but that’s not ever acceptable (NEITHER IS BEATING Chaminade by only 2 ha.).

    So I thank you again and please be sure to read my mid-major column every week.

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