Early season tournaments are a great way for teams to simulate the pressure of playing in late March. Last season, Gonzaga was playing some of their best basketball when they traveled to Orlando for the Old Spice Classic. They won the tournament that featured teams such as Michigan State, Tennessee, Maryland, Oklahoma State, and Georgetown. This season, the Zags will be headed to Maui instead of Orlando and instead of facing one of the deepest early season tournament fields in recent history like last season, they'll take on teams similar to them, young, inexperienced, and dangerous. It's not a weak field by any means. It features some of the best coaches in the nation in Mark Few, Sean Miller, Bo Ryan, and Gary Williams and plenty of outstanding youth.
Gonzaga's first opponent in the 2009 Maui Invitational will be last season's worst team in the Big 12 Conference, the Colorado Buffaloes. CU won 9 ballgames last season, only one of those being in the Big 12. They have, for all intents and purposes, have nowhere else to go but up from last season. Jeff Bzdelik, most known for his head coaching stint with the Denver Nuggets, enters his third season as the Buffs head coach and while his seat isn't as hot as the Buffs' football coach, it's obvious that another nine win season won't be tolerated in Boulder. Looking ahead to this season, Colorado has been slated by the Big 12 coaches to finish last in the conference...by a pretty wide margin. The good news is that Jeff Bzdelik is now working with mainly kids that he recruited for his system. Much like Gonzaga, Colorado brought in a large 2009 recruiting class, five in all and it seems that Bzdelik will be giving each of them a fair shot to make an immediate impact. While this class is very promising, I don't think any Colorado fan would tell you that this season will be a huge breakout year for this team. Their matchup with Gonzaga comes at a favorable time. Both teams will be attempting to find their identity as a basketball team and Colorado might have the most talented player on the floor in junior guard Cory Higgins.
Last Season: Jeff Bzdelik's second season in Boulder was extremely difficult. There's no real way to sugar coat a nine win season when you are a Big 12 team but looking at last season's results, it is clear that the missing component was experience. It's difficult to even dissect last season's schedule for Colorado because of it's inconsistencies. They lost to both Kansas and Oklahoma by five points in very tight games and that was kind of the way the rest of the Big 12 slate went. They were constantly overmatched by teams in their conferences late in games and really lacked that killer instinct from veteran players. They lost nine close games of less than 10 points and didn't defeat any team with an RPI of less than 150. A major reason for there inability to close games is because of the style of basketball the Jeff Bzdelik plays. If you watched any CU basketball last season, which I doubt many of you did, you would notice that when CU is playing well, there isn't a whole lot of scoring. The Buffs mostly lingered around the high 50's to low 60's in Big 12 play and when you don't have much talent, opposing teams are able to get back into games no matter how bad they play. The one bright spot on Colorado's team last season was Cory Higgins. Higgins was third team all Big 12 a year ago and averaged 17 points per game for CU. A 6'5'' guard, Higgins also led the team in rebounds and steals.
New Faces: Five new players will suit up for Jeff Bzdelik this season. There are three names that we'll probably hear a lot about come Maui. The first one is Marcus Relphorde. Relphorde has arrived in Boulder via Indian Hills Community College via Saint Louis University. Like most junior college players that make it to division one basketball, Relphorde is a versatile 6'7'' forward with great size that can play four positions on the court, even point guard. Bzdelik has raved about Marcus thus far and all indications point to him starting the season at forward for the Buffs. The second newcomer to watch is 6'0'' guard Shannon Sharpe. Sharpe is a YouTube legend that averaged 18 points and 8 rebounds in his senior season in Corona, California. Sharpe kinda fell off the recruiting landscape when he went to prep school in North Carolina to help him qualify for college. He'll make an immediate impact at the point guard position for Jeff Bzdelik and will provide a great defensive presence off the bench. The last name to remember is Alec Burks. Burks is a lengthy 6'6'' shooting guard that had scholarship offers from Kansas State, Drake, Santa Clara, as well as Colorado. The other two new faces for Colorado are Shane Harris-Tunks, an Aussie that received some interest from Gonzaga and Keegan Hornbuckle. Both players may see the court this season but they will need to physically mature before making a significant impact on this team.
Players to Watch: Colorado returns their top four scorers from a season ago. Leading the charge for the Buffs this season will be Cory Higgins. Higgins was only a sophomore last season but played 37 minutes a game and this season it will be even harder to get him off the court. He is probably the most underrated player in the conference and has a nose for the ball. He led the conference in steals last year but towards the end of the season he really wore down and his efficiency began to decrease. Coach Bzdelik maintains that won't happen this season as freshman Alec Burks should be a steady back up but it remains to be seen if this team can compete without Higgins on the floor. Nearly matching Higgins in minutes played last season was Dwight Thorne II. Thorne started all 31 games last year and averaged 12 points a game. He was basically second on the team in every statistical category behind Higgins. He shot 42% from beyond the arc for the Buffs and that was good enough for fifth in the conference. Thorne will be entering his second season as team captain and this will be his last hurrah in Boulder. He'll be the main source of leadership for the Buffs this season as the other senior this season is Rick Higgins, brother of Cory and a transfer. Sophomore Austin Dufault will be the key in the middle for the Buffs this season. Dufault is only a sophomore but he made a huge impact as a freshman a year ago. He started every game for CU and averaged eight points a game. He'll probably be joined by Relphorde in the paint for the Buffs where they will really need to step up their rebounding performance from last year which was historically bad.
Concerns: This will be a game that is mostly contested on the perimeter. If Colorado is going to have any chance, Higgins and Thorne have to play outstanding all game long. My major concern with this game has to do with the pace that Bzdelik will try and play and how this young Gonzaga team will respond. If Colorado can slow this game down and force their will on Gonzaga, it will be close the entire way and I feel like Higgins now has the experience to deliver a knockout blow. Gonzaga will need Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray to outshine Higgins and Thorne and play a very good defensive game. I would imagine that Matt Bouldin will want to come out and make a statement against the Buffaloes; after all, he was one of the best players to ever come out of the state of Colorado and I'm sure he'd love to show them what they are missing, even though Bzdelik wasn't there during his recruitment.
What we are watching for: The Higgins/Bouldin match up should be worth the price of admission. Even though they might not guard one another, they are the centerpieces of these young teams. This match up will be great for basketball fans, but as a Gonzaga fans, I am looking towards the front court to really establish themselves. Rob Sacre, Elias Harris, and Andy Poling are all young and inexperienced in their own ways but their talent level should exceed whatever combination of bigs Colorado puts out there. Austin Dufault, while very skilled offensively, is not a good rebounder and Marcus Relphorde will be an outstanding match up for Elias Harris. Both are a similar size and have outstanding versatility. If Elias can dominate this game at the power forward spot, Gonzaga fans will have much to look forward to in 2009. This should really be a field day for Robert Sacre. The 6'11'' Canadian will benefit from playing against a Colorado team that was abused on the boards last season. He should be the key to this game and it could be his breakout game as a full-service big man that can not only rebound and provide energy, but score at will.