Maui Invitational Preview: Can Someone Stop UNC?

November 23rd, 2008
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EA SPORTS Maui Invitational (Nov 24-26)

Key Games:

-       Texas / St. Joseph's winner vs. Indiana / Notre Dame winner

-       UNC vs. Alabama / Oregon winner

-       Championship game


Once again, Maui showcases a little bit of everything.  The country will get a good look at three teams contending for their respective conference titles, two of the most underrated freshmen in the country in Michael Dunigan and JaMychal Green, along with returning stars such as Tyler Hansbrough, Tajuan Porter, Luke Harangody and the great tandem of AJ Abrams and Damion James.

You also have the dueling storylines of a tradition-rich program primed for a run at the national title, along with a tradition-rich program just trying to get through one of their most challenging seasons ever. 

North Carolina starts the season the same way they started the last one, as the top ranked team in the nation.  This time however, there is a noticeable gap between the Tar Heels and everyone else.  Not only do they return the reigning Wooden award winner (not to mention the other five national POY awards), but also feature Wayne Ellington, Danny Green and Ty Lawson - all of whom pulled out of the NBA draft to come back for a title run. 

Marcus Ginyard will be in street clothes for the tournament, which is a huge setback, especially on defense, but the Heels still tower over everyone else and should be the favorite to leave the island with the championship.  Even though Tyler Hansbrough  is still recovering from a stress reaction in his shin, he should be more than effective in Hawaii.

The Maui tournament is also a great test for North Carolina, not only for the high caliber of the field, but for the fact that it also prepares the Heels for a big test at Michigan State.  They should be more than ready for the start of ACC play come January. 

On the other end of the spectrum sits Indiana.  They will field a team with all but two players from last season's roster having either transferred or been booted, a lame duck Athletic Director, an entirely new coaching staff, a self-imposed penalty limiting contact with recruits and a loss of a scholarship - all due to the still-lingering effects of the Kelvin Sampson call scandal. 

Better yet, Indiana still awaits word on the NCAA's ruling over the charge of "failure to monitor," indicating that the school didn't do enough to watch Sampson's calls and activities in regard to recruits.  Indiana angrily, and repeatedly, denied the charge over the summer, but soon after Sampson helpfully issued a statement saying he never concealed his illegal calls from university officials.  Besides, the NCAA rarely likes to admit they were wrong.

So, in a perfect world, the end result would be that Indiana wouldn't have to suffer any more indignities than they already have, and Kelvin Sampson wouldn't be allowed within 100 yards of so much as a NAIA job.  Which means of course that it may be safe to predict that Indiana will find itself facing a postseason or television ban, and Sampson will be back in college again by this time next year (following his foray into the NBA as an assistant).

But we move on.  The Maui Invitational could well feature back to back matchups of Top 10 teams, should Texas play Notre Dame, with the winner facing the top ranked Tar Heels in the title game.  That alone makes it once again the preseason's best tournament.

Another thing to look out for are the two aforementioned freshmen - Michael Dunigan for Oregon and JaMychal Green for Alabama.  It wasn't that long ago that we didn't put much stock in freshmen play in November since they are just getting their first glimpse of the college game.  No more. Dunigan is already averaging 13 & 8 down low, while Green tries to replace Richard Hendrix by chipping in 15 & 10. 

Finally, one last note.  The tournament first began on the 20th anniversary of the greatest upset in sports history, Division II school Chaminade's victory over Ralph Sampson and #1 Virginia in 1982.  They play the Tar Heels in the first round this year.  If a miracle happens, would this be a bigger upset?