Maui Invitational Recap
Kemba Walker continues to torch the comp.
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
Maui team-by-team recap (in order of tournament finish):
1. Connecticut- The story of the Maui Invitational and the college basketball season so far is Kemba Walker. The point guard is averaging 30 points per game through five contests and in Hawaii dropped 31, 30 and 29 points against Wichita, Michigan State and Kentucky, respectively, to lead his team to a surprising tournament championship. The former New York City prodigy’s improved three-point shooting, decision making, and leadership has been critical to the improvement of Connecticut, which plodded through last season with arguably more talent but zero drive. Now that they’ve remarkably made it through Maui without a loss, the Huskies should enter Big East play with an undefeated record and a top-10 ranking (top remaining non-conference test is probably Harvard). Jim Calhoun seems to think UConn basketball is back, but the true test may be how his young team responds when their star point guard finally has an off game.
2. Kentucky- No one (except for maybe every Big Blue fan out there) expects this batch of Wildcat freshmen to match last season’s early success. But John Calipari still has some work to do. While Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones are off to great starts, the team hasn’t gelled as quickly as last year’s group. Kentucky had its moments in Maui (like it’s win over Washington), but like most young teams early in the season, inconsistency is the only consistent. A closer-than-it-looked win over a struggling Oklahoma team and the Connecticut loss means this team has a long way to go if it wants to come close to matching last year’s dominance.
3. Michigan State- What happens when you are veteran team that has made the last two Final Fours? Unlike Kentucky, Michigan State gets the benefit of the doubt when they lose an early season game and nearly fall to a Division II team. They’ve earned it. A close loss in a pre-season tournament to the white-hot Connecticut Kemba Walkers — I mean Huskies — is not too alarming. Kalin Lucas is still rounding into shape, and until he does, the Spartans simply won’t be the team they will be in March. It would’ve been nice to win in Maui knowing they have the showdown with Duke at Cameron this week, but Tom Izzo has proven to be more of a post-season coach anyway.
4. Washington- Despite the fourth-place finish in Maui, Washington actually might have been one of the more impressive teams in the field. If you don’t agree that, at the very least the Huskies confirmed they are the clear favorite in the Pac-10 this season. After not handling similarly high expectations very well at the start of last season, the dismantling of an ACC opponent and extremely competitive losses to two top-10 teams show the Huskies are one of the top teams out West. With the athletes Lorenzo Romar has stockpiled (especially in the backcourt), Washington is one team no coach will be excited to face in March.
5. Wichita State- The Shockers led for most of their first round game against Connecticut before faltering in the final minutes. Once in the losers bracket, they took care of business with wins over Virginia and Chaminade, but a win over the eventual champions would’ve given Greg Marshall’s team critical RPI-boosting match-ups (there always seems to be a bubble team or two from the MVC sweating out Selection Sunday). While the trip to Hawaii was definitely a missed opportunity for Wichita, but they did nothing to seriously hurt their standing as one of the top mid-majors in the country this season. That competitive loss to Connecticut could end up looking decent in March (as good as a loss can anyway) depending on how the Huskies play the rest of the season.
6. Virginia- The Cavaliers seem to have talent, but based on their performance in this tournament and so far this season, they can’t be counted on for more than a bottom-half ACC finish. Either they blow you out, or they get shellacked themselves, a sign of a talented but mentally weak team. If things aren’t going well, it snowballs quickly. There’s no shame in losing to Washington but by 43? Following an 18-point win over Oklahoma, Tony Bennett’s team opened the Wichita State game on a 20-4 run and somehow managed to lose by 12. Virginia was not expected to contend this season, but more consistent, complete-game efforts should be an expectation for a growing program.
7. Chaminade- Is beating Oklahoma or nearly beating Michigan State more impressive? If the half court post-game celebration and their 6-73 all-time record in the tournament is any indicator, the win is much sweeter than the moral victory for the Silverswords. Either way, the Chaminade game in the Maui Invitational doesn’t seem to be a gimme any longer.
8. Oklahoma- After hanging with Kentucky for nearly 40 minutes, Jeff Capel couldn’t have foreseen the rest of the tournament unfolding like it did. They followed what seemed to be a huge step forward in the Kentucky game, with a regression of epic proportions. After an 18-point loss to Virginia, another struggling program in a major conference, the Sooners became only the sixth team in the history of the Maui Invitational to lose to host Chaminade. Should be a fun season in Norman.
Jon Jaques is a former starter for the Cornell Big Red and current forward for Israel’s Ironi Ashkelon club.