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Maui Invitational Preview

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I’ll warn you in advance, this is extensive, but here’s a look into who Auburn will be seeing out in Maui this week.

NCAA Basketball: Maui Invitational-Wichita State at Notre Dame Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Aloha! Welcome to the Maui Invitational Preview! Your Auburn Tigers will play 3 games in Maui, beginning tomorrow afternoon against Xavier. Let’s start this by taking a look at the bracket and teams participating this year.

I reached out to the other teams that Auburn will see out in Maui and got feedback from several of the other schools that will be represented out in Maui. Special thanks goes out to the following people for answering my questions:

Arizona - Ryan Kelapire, AZ Desert Swarm

Gonzaga - Peter Woodburn, The Slipper Still Fits

Iowa State - Levi Stevenson, Wide Right and Natty Lite

Xavier - Bryan Dobney, Banners on the Parkway

You will see some of their thoughts throughout this preview. We’ll go down the list of teams participating in this year’s Maui Invitational, in alphabetical order.

Arizona Wildcats

Record: 3-0

Coach: Sean Miller (10th season)

Results: 90-60 over Houston Baptist, 82-61 over Cal Poly, 79-46 over UTEP

The Wildcats lost a lot of players from last year’s group and are working on integrating the new guys together at Arizona. When it comes to how the new faces are fitting in so far...

RK - “It’s hard to say. Arizona’s first three opponents were Houston Baptist, Cal Poly, and UTEP, so it’s hard to accurately gauge how good they actually are. The talent level is lower this year, though, so this team won’t be as good as last year’s.”

This tournament will definitely be a step up in competition for the Wildcats. They play Iowa State in their quarterfinal matchup on Monday night.

A notable player to keep an eye on for the Wildcats is freshmen Brandon Williams.

RK - “He (Williams) is expected to be one of Arizona’s top two scorers, and he is the most talented player on the team, in my opinion. The craziest part is he has 16 assists and zero turnovers so far. I’m actually really interested to see how he fares against major-conference guards, since Arizona hasn’t faced anything like that yet this season. Arizona needs Williams to play well to have any chance of winning. Nothing would surprise me, though. He’s had his fair share of freshman hiccups early on.”

As far as realistic expectations for Arizona in this tournament...

RK - “There really is no expectation. There are so many new faces and Arizona hasn’t played anyone yet, so they could go 0-3 or 2-1 and no one would be surprised. The overall talent level is lower than usual this year, though, so I tend to believe they’ll go 1-2.”

#9 Auburn Tigers

Record: 3-0

Coach: Bruce Pearl (5th season)

Results: 101-58 over South Alabama, 88-66 over #25 Washington, 103-52 over Mississippi College

Auburn looks to be a trendy pick to finish 3rd in this tournament behind Duke and Gonzaga and for that to happen, it would mean they go 2-1 in Maui. I think that’s honestly a realistic goal for this group and would be quite the accomplishment. The first game against Xavier is most important because it determines what part of the bracket you go onto for the remaining of the tournament. Playing teams in the winners bracket, no matter the results, will help Auburn moving forward. We saw Austin Wiley play well the other night and I would expect him to take another step towards establishing himself as one of the best big men in the SEC this week. Add in the excellent pieces alongside him in the frontcourt plus Jared Harper, Bryce Brown and Samir Doughty playing well and this team can do extraordinary things in this tournament.

#1 Duke Blue Devils

Record: 3-0

Coach: Mike Krzyzewski (39th season)

Results: 118-84 over #2 Kentucky, 94-72 over Army, 84-46 over Eastern Michigan

If you’ve been paying attention to College Basketball this year, then Duke has been the best team so far. They absolutely destroyed Kentucky on opening night behind their outstanding trio of freshmen in Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish. Barrett and Williamson are each averaging 25.3 points a game so far and Reddish has 16.7 points a game. This is the one team Auburn fans have dreamt of facing during their time in Maui and with a win over San Diego State Monday afternoon, paired with an Auburn win over Xavier, and we get this matchup Tuesday night. If the thought of Zion Williamson vs. Austin Wiley doesn’t get you excited for this tournament, then nothing will.

#3 Gonzaga Bulldogs

Record: 3-0

Coach: Mark Few (20th season)

Results: 120-79 over Idaho State, 104-67 over Texas Southern, 94-71 over Texas A&M

I watched a bit of the Gonzaga game on Thursday night against the Aggies and I came away impressed with their depth and interior defense. The Zags blocked 10 shots in their win Thursday night over the Aggies. They have 5 guys averaging in double figures so far and expectations have never been higher in Spokane.

PW - “Undeniably yes. Part of that isn’t exactly our fault. It is hard not to have the highest expectations ever when national pundits casually toss Gonzaga as a Final Four/championship level team. Even in 2017, when the Zags finally made their first Final Four, they opened the season ranked No. 14. This year, we not only had our highest preseason ranking ever, but also received a first place preseason vote for the first time ever. And, leading up to the Killian Tillie injury (recovering from a stress fracture in his ankle), it made sense. The Zags have two first round draft picks in Rui Hachimura and Tillie on the squad, Zach Norvell could easily bolt for the NBA this year as well. Combine that with a senior point guard in Josh Perkins, a senior grad transfer guard in Geno Crandall, and one of the more underrated forwards in the nation in Brandon Clarke, and the hype train took off for the moon. I still haven’t figured out how to get down from up here.”

One matchup that would be a lot of fun to watch would be the battle of the backcourts featuring Auburn’s Jared Harper and Bryce Brown against Gonzaga’s Josh Perkins and Geno Crandall.

PW - “The biggest advantage for Gonzaga going in is the size advantage. Both Perkins and Crandall have a few inches on Harper (although Brown packs on the pounds so that is an even matchup). The wild card for Gonzaga will be the 6’5 sophomore Zach Norvell. He is an aggressive guard who loves flying recklessly to the rim as much as he does shooting a three. Auburn will have to find a way to defend him. Otherwise, this is as balanced of a matchup as you could ask for. Two senior backcourts going at it would be a great thing to watch.”

Illinois Fighting Illini

Record: 1-1

Coach: Brad Underwood (2nd season)

Results: 99-60 over Evansville, lost 88-80 to Georgetown

Brad Underwood took over a program that was quite frankly, a mess in March 2017. The Illini are extremely young and essentially have an entirely new look from last year’s team. There are just 2 seniors/Grad Students on this roster but 6 freshmen. The most notable is Point Guard Ayo Dosunmu, who is averaging 21.5 points a game in his first 2 games in Champaign. We’ll see if this Illini can make any noise in this tournament but they have an extremely difficult first round matchup facing off against Gonzaga on Monday night.

Iowa State Cyclones

Record: 3-0

Coach: Steve Prohm (4th season)

Results: 79-53 over Alabama State, 76-59 over Missouri, 85-73 over Texas Southern

If I had to pick a sleeper team in this field, this would be the team. Last year was a difficult one for the Cyclones, but they have gotten off to a good start this year and have a win over a decent SEC team in Missouri to start their year. They are led by Virginia transfer Marial Shayok who is averaging 20 points a game over his first 3 games.

LS - “So far, he’s (Shayok) been pretty rock steady on offense, and is clearly enjoying the opportunity to play in a high tempo offense. His senior leadership will be crucial in keeping all of the young talent pointed the right direction. He’s shot well from the perimeter, but his favorite shot is the jumper from the elbow. Him being able to create that shot on his own will be a useful tool to have, especially late in the shot clock.”

Iowa State brought in one of the most talented freshmen class in program history and Coach Prohm looks for his guys to gel as they prepare for Maui. They will be without one of their better players in Lindell Wigginton, who is recovered from a sprained foot. Still, the Cyclones have optimism entering this tournament.

LS - “I think Iowa State should have a good chance to take down Arizona in the first round, but beyond that it will depend heavily on how well we shoot the ball from deep. After Arizona would likely be Gonzaga, which is looking like a Final Four contender this season. If the Cyclones get hot from deep, they also have a decent shot to take down the Zags, but not having Lindell’s scoring pop is going to hurt in that one. Going 2-1 in Maui would make every Cyclone fan happy, but even going 1-2 while play Gonzaga and whoever the third opponent is close would be good enough to feel solid about going forward.”

San Diego State Aztecs

Record: 2-0

Coach: Brian Dutcher (2nd season)

Results: 76-60 over Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 103-64 over Texas Southern

The Aztecs have 5 guys averaging in double figures but they haven’t been tested yet. That changes tomorrow when they get the unenviable task of facing Duke in the first round of this tournament. An NCAA Tournament team last year, this is a team that is known for priding itself on defense. The Aztecs scored 9 points a game more last year than the previous season and we’ll see if that carries over to this year. Their leading scorer through 2 games is senior guard Devin Watson, averaging 17 points a game.

Xavier Musketeers

Record: 2-1

Coach: Travis Steele (1st season)

Results: 82-69 over IUPUI, 91-85 over Evansville, lost 77-68 to Wisconsin

I’ll have much more on Xavier tomorrow but the Musketeers are coming off a tough loss to Wisconsin leading into this tournament. They have several guys who can challenge Auburn’s big guys. They’ve also been prone to giving up a lot of points so far this year so how they play defense against Auburn’s fast-paced explosive offense will be a key in the result of this game.

Finally, I asked each of the participating writers how they saw a potential matchup with Auburn going down. Here are their thoughts.

RK (Arizona) - “Not very well. Arizona is still learning how to play together, and I just don’t think they’re ready to beat a team like Auburn yet. At the end of the year that could be different, but they still have a lot to sort out.”

PW (Gonzaga) - “These two teams are borderline carbon copies of each other, so, easy way out, I have no idea. Auburn is fantastic at offensive rebounding. So is Gonzaga. The Zags can shoot from long range, so can Auburn. I think that Auburn’s defense has a leg up on Gonzaga, especially when it comes to intensity, pressure, and forcing turnovers. I think that Gonzaga’s offense is better than Auburn, and I’m not sure how they can effectively stop all of the weapons the Zags employ. If the Zags play smart basketball and withstand the defensive pressure, I think they eke out a win here. However, if Auburn is able to dictate the game through its defense, that is going to make it very difficult for Gonzaga to put any sort of pressure on the Tigers. Therefore, I’ll just say it’ll be the first tie in Maui Invitational history!”

LS (Iowa State) - “This one would be a really fun game to watch, as both teams are very good on both ends of the floor. If Iowa State was at full strength, I’d probably give the slight edge to Iowa State, but without Lindell’s scoring punch and Cam Lard’s borderline-automatic double double, the Cyclones would likely face an uphill battle that would require them to get hot from outside to have a shot at taking down the Tigers.”

BD (Xavier) - I’m an optimist by nature, but after seeing you guys run Washington off the floor, I am not holding out a lot of hope. I think X will show better than against Wisconsin, but I also think Auburn is a better team than Wisconsin. 86-75 Auburn. Please beat Duke.”

Stay tuned for more Maui Invitational coverage including my full Q&A with Xavier’s Bryan Dobney, from Banners on the Parkway, tomorrow morning. War Eagle!