The coronavirus pandemic has robbed the college basketball world of so much, the 2020 NCAA Tournament, fans in the arenas in the 2020-21 season, and now adds another offense to its rap sheet; this year the Maui Invitational will be held… Las Vegas, Nevada which actually has a decent population of Hawaiians. Don’t get me wrong, Sin City is lovely, but for very different reasons than Maui, but the Michelob Ultra Arena doesn’t have the same charm of watching high major teams (and Chaminade) take the court in the Lahaina Civic Center.
Houston is the odds on favorite here, being ranked in the KenPom top 10 with no other team cracking the top 30, however the Cougars got a very tough draw here, with three teams who play similar styles to them. Of these four teams in the top half, the fastest tempo team is Wisconsin, who currently ranks 319th in the nation in tempo. These teams will all grind it out on both sides of the ball, and hit the glass hard. If someone has a good game shooting the ball, or Houston has a bad one, it could spell trouble for Kelvin Sampson and company.
The bottom half may be a complete toss up for who advances to the finals. Coming off a blowout loss against BYU, Oregon is looking to right the ship, and are the lucky team who drew Chaminade in this year’s opening round. No disrespect to the Silverswords, but they are a division 2 program, and despite playing in all but one year since 1984 they’ve won a whopping 8 games here. Of those 8, four have come in the opening round, so there’s a non-zero chance they play spoiler for the Ducks, but I wouldn’t bet on it. The other quarterfinal matchup should be a sneaky good game. Notre Dame is the only team in the field with a Maui title to their name, and it came surprisingly recently, in 2017. They’ll take on the the Gaels of Saint Mary’s, who Randy Bennett has turned into a premier mid-major program, but are stuck in Gonzaga’s WCC and don’t get the attention they deserve because of that. These teams are ranked 36 (ND), 38 (ORE), and 44 (SMC), respectively on KenPom so it will truly be a coin flip as to who escapes this half of the bracket.
Players To Watch
Johnny Davis, G, Wisconsin: Davis is averaging 15/4/3.5 and is what makes Wisconsin’s lackluster offense glow, he missed their loss against Providence due to injury, and it showed, as the Badgers only scored .88 points per possession without him. Davis is set to play the opener against A&M, but whether he is 100% is a big question, and Wisconsin needs him to be if they want to win this tournament.
Will Richardson, G, Oregon: Richardson appeared to be Oregon’s new go to guy after dropping 20 and 18 in the first two games of the year after averaging 11 the past two seasons, but then Richardson (and the entire Ducks offense) went MIA against BYU going for only 8 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists while committing 4 turnovers. Richardson is still shooting 57.4% from three this year, and if he can get hot he can lead the Ducks back to a ranking.
Marcus Sasser, G, Houston: Sasser’s development has been outstanding while he’s been at Houston. After averaging 8 and 13 PPG his first two years, Sasser has become The Guy for Kelvin Sampson, with a usage rate nearing 30% while averaging 23.3 through three games. He’s also become a quality floor general with a 2.35:1 Assist:Turnover ratio, and will likely be tasked with guarding an opponent’s best player.
Paul Atkinson, C, Notre Dame: A name many viewers will be hearing for the first time, Atkinson transferred to Notre Dame after averaging 17 and 7 at Yale last year. Those numbers have only improved under Mike Brey, as he now averages 17 and 8.5. At 6’10, Atkinson creates a mismatch for many teams in the field, and draws an impressive 7.2 fouls per 40 minutes. He only shoots 60% at the stripe, but if he can knock down the freebies the Irish can run their offense through the man in the middle.
Kyler Edwards, G/F, Houston: Edwards is a winner, having spent his career doing whatever was asked of him on ranked teams at Texas Tech and now at Houston. Its not surprise that two outstanding coaches in Chris Beard and Kelvin Sampson have been in love with his game, he’s really really good. He hits the glass hard, plays lockdown defense, and can shoot the three ball. He shot 41.8% from behind the arc last season and is up to 45.5% this year. Edwards actually shoots better from 3 than 2 but knows his role, and has attempted more threes than twos this year and last. Like I said before, in a tournament filled with slow, defensive minded teams, a bad night can take Houston out, so the Cougs need Edwards to stay hot from deep in case that happens.
Its a field that is weaker than Maui Invitationals usually sport, and it isn’t even in Maui. But that doesn’t mean the tournament won’t be as fun as it always is. When you take away the outside circumstances, the game is played on the court, and it should be at as fun of a level as ever in this one.