Maui Invitational: Will Coach K, Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett lead Duke to a sixth title in Hawaii?
Is Gonzaga or Auburn (or somebody else) the biggest hurdle in the Blue Devils' path?
LAHAINA, Hawaii -- The late Jim O'Connell, a legendary college basketball reporter for The Associated Press, once described the Maui Jim Maui Invitational as "the best in-season tournament in the country -- the standard by which all others are compared." It was true when he said it. It's still true all these years later. And it's especially true this week thanks to an eight-team field that's arguably the best in its 35-year history.
There are three top-10 teams here.
Duke is one of them.
So, naturally, the eyes of the college basketball world will focus on this island in the middle of the Pacific for the next three days -- until a champion is crowned following a title game scheduled to tip Wednesday at 5 p.m. ET. Barring upsets, it'll be No. 1 Duke vs. No. 3 Gonzaga for the trophy. Needless to say, that would be awesome.
Here's the bracket -- followed by five things to know in advance of the Maui Invitational:
1. Duke is the main attraction
The Blue Devils are typically the center of attention whenever they play regardless of where they're ranked or who's on the roster. But such is especially their reality this week because they're the biggest show in college basketball by a significant margin. Duke is 3-0, in possession of 34-point victory over Kentucky, and winning its games by an average of 31.3 points. Mike Krzyzewski's team is ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll, No. 1 in the CBS Sports Top 25 And 1, and No. 1 at KenPom. And the damage is being inflicted by three freshmen -- each of whom is expected to be selected in the top five of the 2019 NBA Draft.
Zion Williamson is the star.
The 6-foot-7 forward has more than two million followers on Instagram thanks largely to an endless highlight reel of dunks created while he was overwhelming opponents in high school. Now Williamson is doing the same thing in college. Take a look, if you don't believe me.
I mean, what?
Dude is 285 pounds and catching lobs above the square. Totally ridiculous. And he's now, on the season, averaging 25.3 points, 10.7 rebounds, 3.0 blocks and 2.7 assists in 25.3 minutes per game. He's 32-of-39 from the field -- meaning Williamson has blocked more shots (nine) than he's missed (seven). And check this out: Steph Curry has the highest Player Efficiency Rating in the NBA right now at 29.1. LeBron James' is 27.5. Kevin Durant's is 27.2. And Zion Williamson's is ... wait for it ... 58.5.
The #ZionShow hits Maui this week.
His first game is Monday at 5 p.m. ET.
2. Gonzaga is shorthanded
A Duke-Gonzaga title game, as previously mentioned, is the best way to spend Wednesday -- if only because that's the lone possible title-game matchup between two ranked teams. But, remember, the Zags do not have a full roster available because Killian Tillie, their leading returning-scorer, had ankle surgery two weeks ago and is expected to be sidelined until late December. That's an obvious bummer and something that could make Gonzaga's path to Wednesday's title game a little difficult -- especially with Iowa State looming as a potential semifinal matchup. No, Iowa State is not ranked. But the Cyclones are 3-0, rated 27th at KenPom and being led by Virginia transfer Marial Shayok -- who is averaging 20.0 points and 5.0 rebounds in 29.3 minutes per game. In a showdown with Gonzaga, he'd likely find himself, at times, matched with projected lottery pick Rui Hachimura. Sign me up for that. But, it should be noted, that one thing working against Iowa State is that the Cyclones are also shorthanded -- most notably because Lindell Wiggington, , has been sidelined with a left foot strain and isn't expected to play this week. So, despite everything I just wrote, perhaps the Zags will advance to Wednesday's title game with little issue. As always, we'll see.
3. Arizona can return to the national radar
It must be wild, if you don't follow college basketball closely, to read me writing about a potential Gonzaga-Iowa State semifinal as opposed to a potential Gonzaga-Arizona semifinal. But, according to KenPom, Gonzaga-Iowa State is more likely because the Wildcats are believed to be down this season considering they lost their top five scorers from a 27-win team and enrolled a sub-20 recruiting class thanks to the FBI investigation placing a cloud above the program. The result is a team rated 60th at KenPom that's projected to a take a 77-72 loss in its opening game against Iowa State. But, it should be noted, projections don't always hold true -- and Arizona is actually a perfect example. You haven't forgotten how Sean Miller's team went to the Battle 4 Atlantis last season undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the AP poll before leaving with losses to NC State, SMU and Purdue, have you? In other words, Arizona was on the wrong end up some upsets last November. So perhaps the Wildcats can be on the right side of some this November. It would make for an interesting story, if nothing else.
4. Auburn might be Duke's biggest threat
The same FBI investigation that damaged Arizona's 2018 recruiting class caused two players to be removed from Auburn's roster last season. But the Tigers still went 13-5 in the SEC, as opposed to 4-14, and shared the league's regular-season title with Tennessee. They then returned six of their top eight scorers -- and got Austin Wiley back from suspension. And now they're 3-0, ranked 10th at KenPom and in possession of an 88-66 victory over Washington that came on the fourth day of this season. Simply put, Auburn is really good. And though Duke is an obvious pick to win this event, it won't be the craziest thing in the world if Auburn sends the Blue Devils to the third-place game -- assuming, of course, Duke and Auburn meet in a semifinal.
5. There are three other teams here too
Xavier, San Diego State and Illinois are the other three programs in this event that I've failed to mention prior to this sentence. My apologies to all three. But the truth is that each will be around a double-digit underdog in its opener. So, barring a big surprise Monday, all three should be in consolation games by Tuesday.
But what about Chaminade!?!?
You might've noticed that Chaminade, a tiny Division II school in Honolulu, isn't in the field for the first time in the Maui Invitational's 35-year history because now the Silverswords will only be involved every other year. Kinda lame, I think. But the decision was presumably made for television reasons. And, as an employee of CBS, I respect decisions made for television reasons.
Either way, it's prediction time!
Yes, I do think we'll get a Duke-Gonzaga title game on Wednesday. I'm not guaranteeing it. But I am expecting it. And if forced to take a stab at the final score of that hypothetical game, I'd go with ...
Duke 81, Gonzaga 77
The Blue Devils will win their sixth Maui title.
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