Redemption in Paradise: Maui Preview

November 18th, 2007

As usual, the 2007-08 college basketball season will kick off with a slate of early season, made for-TV tournaments, and once again one of the best among them will be the EA Sports Maui Invitational.

Five of this year’s eight team field have been to the Final Four in the last four years: Marquette (2003), Duke and Oklahoma State (2004), Illinois (2005) and LSU (2006). Two of them (Duke and Marquette) will begin their new campaign ranked in the Top 10 nationally.

However, there is one thing that all the participating Division I teams have in common that makes this Tournament especially interesting to watch.

They’d all like to forget last season.

Marquette managed 10 Big East wins, good enough for a 5th place tie in the conference. However, they lost six of their last nine games, the last one an ugly defeat to Michigan State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, in which they couldn’t muster 50 points for the game.

LSU held up the rear in the SEC West last year, sporting only five conference wins. The Tigers, who began the season coming off a Final Four run and ranked among the Top 5 in the polls, dropped 11 of their final 15 games to finish with an overall record of 17-15. Strangely enough, one of the wins that came amidst the freefall was against soon to be 2-time national champ Florida.

Oklahoma State showed great potential and continued to gain respect nationally after beginning the season with impressive wins against Syracuse (in the Carrier Dome), Pittsburgh, and a legendary, triple overtime win against Texas. Then they endured an epic collapse to close the regular season that saw them lose nine of their final thirteen. The Cowboys would miss the NCAA Tournament just nine weeks after rising to the Top 10 in both the AP and Coaches polls.

Duke managed an uncharacteristic 8-8 ACC record, and failed to advance beyond the first round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in over a decade. The Blue Devils lost eight of their final twelve games, including the ACC and NCAA Tournaments. Even worse: two of those losses came against North Carolina.

Coach Herb Sendek started out his first season in the Valley of the Sun with much fanfare and high expectations, even after the departure of Ike Diogu to the NBA. The season ended as easily the most disappointing in Coach Sendek’s great career. Arizona State finished last in the Pac-10, with a 2-16 record in the conference and an 8-22 mark overall. The Sun Devils lost 15 games in a row in one stretch.

Illinois lost to Virginia Tech by a 54-52 margin in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It marked the 9th time the Illini scored less than 55 points in a game last season (and the 15th time being held to under 60 points). They began Big Ten conference play losing five of their first eight games, although their strong finish (winning five of their last seven) helped propel them to a 9-7 conference record and the NCAA Tournament as a 12 seed.

Finally, Princeton took the cake in the end-of-season-swoon category – losing thirteen of their final fifteen to finish dead last in the Ivy League with just two wins in conference.

So you should probably pass on this Tournament right? Wrong.

Duke has three national championships and a ridiculous ten Final Fours in the Krzyzewski era. Marquette and Oklahoma State both have won titles. Illinois and LSU are recent Final Four participants. Princeton had a guy named Bill Bradley lead them to the 1965 Final Four, and have 25 Ivy League championships.

Once again. this tournament is loaded with teams that have a tremendous history of winning, and they will all be very anxious to atone for last season. It should make for some fun basketball.

Duke just blew out New Mexico State, and earlier eked out a win over North Carolina Central 121-56 (welcome to Division I NCCU!). Duke simply doesn’t have back to back subpar (by their standards) seasons, and this year will be no exception with freshman phenom Kyle Singler and a much improved Jon Scheyer. Marquette’s trio of junior guards – Wesley Matthews, Jerel McNeal and soon-to-be NBA bound Dominic James – look like they are ready to play for the Big East championship.

Two games in particular, LSU vs. Oklahoma State (featuring two of the top freshmen in country in Anthony Randolph and James Anderson) and Arizona State vs. Illinois, promise to be an intriguing battle of up-and-coming programs. Illinois returns Shaun Pruitt, who flirted with the NBA but wisely returned to school, and debut freshman Demetri McCamey, a hard driving guard who should have an immediate impact. The Sun Devils in particular should show dramatic improvement with the addition of Duke transfer Eric Boateng, and Jeff Pendergraph could be ready for a break-out year.

Also, don’t forget about Chaminade.

It was 25 years ago that little known Chaminade, led by Tony Randolph, stunned Ralph Sampson and top-ranked (and undefeated) Virginia in this tournament – widely considered the greatest upset in college basketball history.

This year the Silver Swords bring back seven footer Marko Kolaric, a Division II pre-season All American who had a breakout year last year. They will take on Top-10 ranked Marquette in the first game.

Can lightning strike twice? Well after watching Appalachian State upend top-5 ranked Michigan, Stanford overcoming a 40-point spread to beat USC on the road, and – coming back to our sport – Gardner-Webb blowing out Kentucky (in Lexington no less), I would not be surprised by anything anymore.

The EA Sports Maui Invitational takes place November 19-21, 2007.