When the Zags take the court tomorrow morning in Maui, it will mark the opening round of one of my favorite preseason tourneys. Obviously Gonzaga fans have a strong connection with the Maui Invitational, especially after the historic performance from Adam Morrison four years ago. However, the field this year does not have the initial strength that the 2005-2006 field featured. Still, I would argue that this field has the potential to be equally impressive by the end of the season. With Maryland, Gonzaga, and Cincinnati, I think there are three teams in this tournament that have the potential to be Sweet 16 caliber teams. Arizona, Vanderbilt, and Wisconsin will also be solid, and the latter two should certainly compete for spots in the NCAA Tournament. Thankfully, the Zags avoid those teams mentioned in the opening round, and will instead kick off the tournament again the Colorado Buffaloes. This is a Buffs team that has been in a consistent rebuilding mode since early in the decade, and unfortunately they will be without head coach Jeff Bzdelik.While the Buffs do have a nice core developing in the program, this team is essentially a two man show. Leading the way is the very solid Cory Higgins. Higgins is averaging an incredible 23.3 points per game and can keep Colorado in this game with his incredible shooting. I would be stunned if Steven Gray doesn't follow Higgins around the court for the full 40 minutes. Higgins is the type of guy that has given Gonzaga trouble over the past years, and the ability to slow him down would be a huge achievement for the Zags. Higgins is matched in the back court by the terrific Alec Burks. Although he is only a freshman, Burks plays a very mature game on the offensive end, averaging 18 points. Burks is not the shooter that Higgins is, but he is a strong finisher at the rim. If these two can play explosive and loose, the Buffs have the ability to hang around and make this a game.
As has been in the case in the previous games this season, Gonzaga has a tremendous advantage in the front court. The tallest starter for Colorado is 6'9 and neither of the guys they start in the front court has the athleticism or length to even remotely slow down the duo of Rob Sacre and Elias Harris. While the Zags back court will certainly look to score and take advantage of outside looks, the game plan tomorrow should certainly be focused on the inside game. I would look for the Zags to try and push the tempo throughout the game, since the Buffs will look to drain the shot clock and make this a slow and tedious game.
Normally, a physical and slow tempo team like Colorado would be a cause of concern. However, with the toughness and poise I have seen from this team so far in the early season, this is the Gonzaga team best prepared to deal with that type of style. I would bet that Mark Few has this team totally focused on the Buffs and not looking forward to any of the further rounds in the tournament. Gonzaga needs to use the depth that they have and make sure that guys like Bouldin and Gray get a solid rest since they will be needed over the next three days. Behind a huge game from Rob Sacre, Gonzaga will pull away for a 71-58 victory.