Greetings from Maui! Okay, sadly, I'm not there, but how cool would a Hawaii for Maui, Portland for PK80 back-to-back have been? I'll keep dreaming.
As much as everyone loves the opening weekend of college basketball, the true basketball binging starts this week, featuring several elite tournaments. The most historic of these events is the Maui Invitational, which almost always features an excellent seven team field (plus host Chaminade). Plus, we'll get behind-the-scenes clips of players awkwardly learning the Hula and Bill Walton kayaking shirtless in a cove somewhere - what's not to like? Let's take a look at each participating team and what their keys to success over the next three days are...
How They’ve Been: Marquette has seen both sides of the coin, demolishing Mount St. Mary’s in the opener and then getting thrashed by physical Purdue in the Gavitt Games. The Golden Eagles had no answer for Isaac Haas, as Matt Heldt fouled out with 0 points in 16 minutes; thankfully, no one in Maui has a Big Unfriendly Giant (the BUG?) masquerading as its starting center. Andrew Rowsey has been nothing short of prolific on offense, putting up this ridiculous stat line (click to enlarge):
It’s wild that he’s using the 4th-highest percentage of possessions in the country, given the amount of weapons this Marquette team has, and the Golden Eagles’ ceiling likely involves a much more balanced attack on the offensive end.
How They Can Win: VCU doesn’t have the back-to-the-basket bigs to attack the soft Marquette defensive underbelly inside, but Wichita State or Cal is going to assault the paint relentlessly. Coach Woj shouldn’t worry about Game 2, though – getting a win vs. VCU and ensuring that the Eagles avoid a useless matchup with Chaminade should be the number one goal. Woj will need to find a way to create open shots for his snipers, and the Rowsey/Markus Howard/Sam Hauser trio needs to be hot – and figure out a way to stop the bleeding on defense. When those three play together, Marquette is scoring a scintillating 1.24 points per possession, per Hoop Lens, but they’re also allowing 1.24ppp, and you can’t win if your opponent scores the same amount of points as you. That, folks, is a pro tip from your neighborhood friendly basketball analyst.
How They’ve Been: VCU is one of three teams in Maui that has lost a game already, although there’s no shame in losing to the Virginia meat grinder. Justin Tillman continues to be a superhero on the defensive glass, and transfers Issac Vann and Khris Lane have given the Rams additional scoring and physicality. The Rams shot better than expected over the Virginia pack line (and attacked it better than they did against Liberty’s similar defense in the preseason), and their perimeter scoring is a good sign as they implement Rhoades’s more transition-based offensive attack.
How They Can Win: While his defenses are not nearly as turnover-reliant as Shaka Smart’s, Rhoades did learn the value of running opponents off the three-point line, and that will be absolutely crucial against Marquette’s array of perimeter weapons. Tillman is also crucial, as he needs to control the glass to prevent any “offensive rebound, kick out” threes – the best time to shoot a three, as I’m sure Jay Bilas will remind us 752 times throughout the course of the tournament. With deep stable of long wings at his disposal (Vann, Malik Crowfield, De’Riante Jenkins, Mike’l Simms), VCU should be able to bother the smaller Rowsey and Howard, but they could be prone to drive-and-kick opportunities as well.
How They’ve Been: In typical Gregg Marshall fashion, the Shockers crushed both UMKC (by 52) and Charleston (by 18 in a game that was nowhere near that close). No Markis McDuffie, no problem so far, as Wichita’s overwhelming wealth of talent has kept things relatively simple. Shaq Morris is a shockingly-nimble bulldozer (and he added a three-point stroke??), and the Shockers’ guard quartet of Landry Shamet, Conner Frankamp, Austin Reaves, and Samajae Haynes-Jones have combined for a pristine 29 assists and 8 turnovers thus far. Charleston was supposed to be a decent test, but Marshall’s tremendously physical man-to-man was an unsolvable corn maze for the Cougars in Kansas.
How They Can Win: The Shockers have pounded the ball inside with devastating efficiency so far, as Morris, Darral Willis, and the Estonian Enforcer Rauno Nurger all look plenty capable of scoring at will in the post. California is actually a difficult matchup in that regard with Kingsley Okoroh and Marcus Lee up front, but Wichita’s advantage is and always will be its multitude of ways it can skin a cat (or a Golden Bear, in this case). Cal simply doesn’t have the athletes at the guard spots to defend the aforementioned Shockers’ quadrumvirate (that’s a word! I looked it up on Merriam-Webster and everything!), and from that point, the big men should crush the Marquette/VCU winner. I’m hoping for a showdown with Notre Dame come Wednesday night, and the giddy purist college basketball fan in me will be in a true “win/win” state of mind if those two face off.
How They’ve Been: Cal looks to be in trouble in the Big West this year after losing at home to UC Riverside and barely knocking off Cal Poly to start the season – excuse me? They’re in the PAC-12 and have to play USC, UCLA, and Arizona twice each? Oh…oh god. Well then. To Cal’s credit, they looked much better against Wofford in their third tilt, especially since trigger-happy Don Coleman finally met a few shots he didn’t like and instead allowed the Golden Bears’ bruising interior duo of Kingsley Okoroh and Marcus Lee wear down the Terriers.
Side note – what a shiny tournament this is! We have the Golden Eagles, the Golden Bears, and the Silverswords, how fun!
How They Can Win: I’m not really sure how Cal is going to score against the Shockers in game 1, as Coleman will be wrapped in a Zach Brown blanket, and Wichita is one of the few teams against whom Cal doesn’t have an interior advantage. Like Cuonzo-inspired defenses are designed to do, Wyking Jones’s squad will need to take away the three point line and hope the Shockers struggle to finish against the Okoroh/Lee combo inside. More realistically, Cal should hope to find a win, any win, in Maui, even if that comes against the overmatched Hawaiian hosts.
How They’ve Been: A humming buzzsaw, pretty much. The Irish happily played spoiler at DePaul’s new South Loop arena, and they followed that debut with two small school demolitions in which they scored 1.31 and 1.46 points per possession. TJ Gibbs looks every bit the third scoring threat/secondary ball-handler that Irish optimists (read: me) thought he could be, and the Matt Farrell/Bonzie Colson pick-and-roll tandem is as potent as ever.
How They Can Win: Mike Brey excels at putting his players in their ideal spots to score, whether it’s planting DJ Harvey in the corner to launch threes or finding creative ways to get Colson the ball in the mid-post against defenders that are either too slow or too weak to handle his array of moves.
A date with Michigan in the second round would be a wonderful halfcourt execution-gasm - the Lahaina Civic Center might get sucked into an infinite loop of extra passes - while facing LSU might actually be better preparation for the athletic depth that Wichita can throw out in a likely championship matchup. The Irish shooters will need to hit shots to give Farrell and Colson space to operate, and rarely-discussed X-factor Martinas Geben will need to throw his considerable Lithuanian girth around to help defend the paint.
How They’ve Been: I had no idea this was a thing, but Chaminade opened the season 2-0 in the “Hawaii/Alaska Challenge,” defeating Alaska and Alaska-Anchorage in Anchorage to help Hawaii earn the prestigious title of “Best Division II Basketball State Added After World War II.” Congratulations!
How They Can Win: Shooting 75% from three would help? In recent history, Chaminade has given their mainland D-I opponents trouble by spacing the floor with five shooters, forcing big men to extend out to the three point line and opening up driving lanes. Unfortunately, they play a Notre Dame team that will be very disciplined in gaps defensively, and the Irish can throw out a “Colson at the 5” lineup with a bevy of wings to completely take away the Silverswords spacing advantage. If they were to face Cal in the 7th-place game on Wednesday, Chaminade would have a non-negligible chance to win for the first time in a while. Plus, the Silverswords are excluded from the event next year, so let’s hope they go out with a bang (Sorry Cal fans).
How They’ve Been: Despite being 3-0 overall, the Wolverines have largely struggled. They’re 0-2 against the spread (and would likely be 0-3 if their third game was lined), struggling to emphatically beat North Florida, Central Michigan, and Southern Miss – the last of which was an ugly, 54-possession John Beilein fever dream. One issue that’s sure to resolve itself: opponents are shooting 48% from deep against Michigan, a completely unsustainable number unless they play five Kyle Korvers every game.
How They Can Win: Michigan teams thrive in slower, halfcourt games that allow them to ride their superior execution and shooting to the winner’s circle. They’ve struggled with the shooting part thus far, though, hitting under 33% from distance.
I’m not one to question Mr. Beilein’s genius, but to this point, I’m not entirely sure why he’s elected to go with Zavier Simpson over Ohio grad transfer Jaaron Simmons at the point guard spot. Simmons is the more accomplished player, a first-team all-league player in the MAC, and his more steady presence on both ends of the floor would be a boon for the Maize and Blue. The on/off numbers so far this year support this emphatically:
Plus 48 points per 100 possessions! That's a freaking onslaught! Additionally, Michigan is shooting 37% from deep with Simmons at PG, compared to 31% in all other situations. Free Jaaron!!
How They’ve Been: Better than most expected! They blew the doors off of SWACrifical lamb Alcorn State in their season opener and followed that up by hanging 105 on Samford, whom many consider a SoCon contender this year. The offense has put up 1.43 and 1.50 points per possession in those two games, and the play of freshman PG Tremont Waters has been a revelation. He’s setting up teammates, and along with Skylar Mays and Brandon Sampson, he’s making the Tigers’ perimeter attack a potential nightmare to match up with due to having so many creators. The tussle with Michigan will be their first true test, though, so the new freshmen and transfers will be put to the test – as will new coach Will Wade.
How They Can Win: Continuing to shoot 68% from inside the arc and 45% from beyond it would certainly help. Realistically, though, they’ll need to continue adopting Wade’s signature intense pressure in the halfcourt to cover up their deficient rebounding. The opening matchup with Michigan poses an odd challenge for Bayou Bengals’ defense: Beilein’s squads never turn it over, but they also eschew the offensive glass to strengthen their transition D. Even if they’re able to get past Michigan, they’ll run into an even more sure-handed squad in Notre Dame. A matchup with California in the 5th-place game would bode well, but I’m hoping for the Will Wade Bowl – VCU vs. LSU.
Marquette over VCU (Marquette -4, over 158)
Wichita St. over Cal (Wichita State -19.5, under 147.5 - no idea how Cal scores)
Notre Dame over Chaminade (No line - how can you account for that Chaminade home island advantage??)
Michigan over LSU (LSU +5 – close one, over 145)
Wichita St. over Marquette
Notre Dame over Michigan
VCU over Cal
LSU over Chaminade
Notre Dame over Wichita St.
Michigan over Marquette
LSU over VCU in the Will Wade Bowl
Chaminade (!!!) over Cal