Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Postcard From Maui

Someone send me one.

Rather than write a bunch of recaps, I thought I'd write a few sentences about each of the Division I teams that played in the Maui Invitational this week, and what they will take away from the island as they play the rest of their non-conference schedule.

7th place: Tennessee
The Vols had the most question marks of any team heading into the tournament, and the toughest draw, too -- the top (non-Chaminade) half, with Duke in the first round. First-year head coach Cuonzo Martin can't be too upset with his team's performance, hanging with the Devils and then coming back from 20 down to take rival Memphis to double-overtime in the second round. They didn't suffer a letdown after that marathon, easily dispatching Chaminade in Wednesday's seventh-place game -- without the services of Jeronne Maymon, who had a sore leg after going 40 minutes against Memphis. Maymon was the real revelation of Maui for Tennessee -- he had 14 and 12 against Duke and 32 and 20 against Memphis. Trae Golden and Cameron Tatum seem to be the best perimeter options, though both could stand to be more judicious with their shot selection.

6th place: Memphis
The Tigers, who came into the tournament ranked eighth in the country, can't be happy leaving Maui at 1-2. I understand that they want to play at a heightened pace, but a quick tempo cannot be an excuse for poor decision-making. The good news is that they have a ton of talent on the wing, enough to keep them in the game with anyone. The bad news is that they play with such reckless abandon that they keep their opponents in the game, too. Tarik Black showed against the Hoyas that he can be an effective player when he stays out of foul trouble, but his penchant for fouling is so severe that you can hardly count on him at this point. And Wesley Witherspoon, brilliant in the season-opener against Belmont, was almost non-existent in three games in Maui. On a more positive note, I thought Antonio Barton showed that he could be a more under-control version of his older brother Will (who put up some impressive numbers but reminds me of an even wilder Corey Brewer), and freshman Adonis Thomas showed some of the poise and polish that his older teammates don't have. I didn't even mention defense, where the Tigers are pretty horrible. These guys have a long way to go.

5th place: Georgetown
Thanks to ESPN cutting away from its game against Memphis just as it was heading into overtime (in favor of the tip of Oklahoma State-Stanford), I don't know how the Hoyas pulled this game out. I do know that John Thompson III's lightly-heralded club might be being overlooked in the Big East. Not to contend for the title, but at least for an NCAA Tournament bid. Jason Clark and Hollis Thompson have elevated their games another notch, and Henry Sims is the kind of high-post passer/low-post scorer that excels in JT3's offense. Markel Starks is filling in capably for the departed Chris Wright at point guard. The tight loss to Kansas shouldn't hurt them at all, and the win over Memphis is very nice.

4th place: UCLA
This placement is misleading. The Bruins did exactly the same thing that seventh-place Tennessee did -- beat Chaminade and lose to two DI teams -- but because they drew the Silverswords in the opening round, they were able to advance into the winner's bracket and lock in a finish no lower than fourth. On paper, there's nothing all that terrible with losing back-to-back games against the #14 and #15 teams in the country. But UCLA's performance in Maui accents a horrible start to the season; they're 1-4 and still haven't beaten a Division I team. (They get their next opportunity to break through on Monday, against Pepperdine.) Joshua Smith is more out of shape than he was last season. Reeves Nelson was suspended for a game, reinstated, and then promptly missed the team flight to Hawai'i (which cost him the first half against Chaminade). They are anemic offensively and not much better on the other end. With the on-floor leaders behaving as immaturely as Nelson and Smith are, it's hard to see where Ben Howland might turn to get this group going.

3rd place: Michigan
The Wolverines accomplished almost as much as Kansas did in Maui, winning two games against solid programs and playing Duke tough. They're in third instead of second just because of the tournament draw. Michigan is getting the expected senior leadership and three-point shooting from Zack Novak and Stu Douglass, and wing scoring from Tim Hardaway Jr. But they're already answered some of the important questions that were hanging above their heads as the season dawned. Could Trey Burke adequately replace Darius Morris at point guard? (Resounding yes.) Do they have anything inside? (Yes -- Jordan Morgan has been solid and Jon Horford is an emerging force off the bench.) They've also got John Beilein as their coach, one of the best in the business. His offensive innovation and comfort playing multiple defenses keep his teams in any game.

2nd place: Kansas
The Jayhawks lost a ton to player departures from last season, and there were some questions about them heading into the season. It was nip-and-tuck against Georgetown in the first round, but KU quickly answered those questions by beating up on UCLA and then nearly beating Duke. Honestly, if not for Tyshawn Taylor's 11 turnovers, they probably would've won the damn thing. And they might've, anyway, if a sophomore who came in averaging 1.8 points for his career hadn't thrown in two three-pointers in the final minute. Thomas Robinson had an incredible tournament and will be registering double-doubles all season long; Jeff Withey emerged as a solid low-post option; and Elijah Johnson is emerging as a real scoring threat. Taylor isn't my favorite point guard, but he had a bad night and he'll obviously play better throughout the season. I was very impressed with Kansas and the Big XII is looking pretty tough at the top.

1st place: Duke
The Blue Devils have to be happy that they preserved their perfect all-time record in the Maui Invitational, and that they won the tournament. They've got to be most pleased, though, with the play of their frontcourt in the final against Kansas. Robinson and Withey each had better games individually than Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee, but Kelly and Plumlee held their own and didn't allow the Jayhawks to completely exploit their size advantage. The bigs are going to be key for Duke, because as good as Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins are at shooting the basketball, they can't possibly continue to shoot it as well as they have to start the season. Kelly was the tournament MVP and Plumlee is capable of being better than his teammate, and those two guys are going to have to contribute this year for Duke to have a successful season.

Oh yeah, the kid who hit the two threes? Tyler Thornton: eldom-used as a freshman; inserted into this game after Austin Rivers picked up his fourth foul; left in the game for defensive purposes; a Maui hero.

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