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Maui Invitational Q&A: Talking About Arkansas, California, And Syracuse

A few great SB Nation blogs got together to answer a few questions about the upcoming Maui Invitational...

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The best part about being in a solid Maui Invitational field?  Lots of great SB Nation blogs representing those schools, of course!  Several SB Nation blogs got together an answered the same four questions about their respective squads.  Unfortunately, all the teams below are on the opposite side of the Zags' bracket but they should see one of them in this tournament (hopefully in the championship game!)

Arkansas Razorbacks: Scottie Bordelon, Arkansas Fight

1. Who is your team's #1 player to watch, and why might he lead your team to the Invitational title?

So far this season, Arkansas' top guy has been Alandise Harris. Harris, who sat out last season after transferring from Houston, has been a huge surprise for Arkansas early on. Coming into the season we knew he would add toughness and rebounding to the team, but he's leading the team in scoring (18.3 ppg) while playing the sixth man role.

Harris' strength and versatility make him a tough match for opponents. His aggressiveness attacking the rim and on the glass give him opportunities at the foul line. Watch for the quick baseline-spin reverse-layup move from the short corners. That's his go-to move.

2. Who are your under-the-radar player(s), and how might they impact the game?

I said this last week in a article I wrote following the SMU game - Michael Qualls may be a household name after Maui if he continues the tear he's on to start the year. You may have seen him on SportCenter's Top 10 plays a couple of weeks ago, posterizing a defender much taller than him.

Qualls has vastly improved his game since last season and is second on the team in scoring and rebounding, and is tied for the team lead in assists and blocks. He's freakishly long and athletic, can jump out of the gym, and is basically a highlight waiting to happen.

Coty Clarke would be someone else to watch for. He and Alandise Harris have a lot of similarities. Both are aggressive big guys with a soft touch. Anthlon Bell is also a sharpshooter to watch for. He can absolutely fill it up.

3. Biggest team strength?

The biggest team strength is definitely the depth. To play the "Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball" style Mike Anderson likes, you have to be a deep team. And the great part about this team is although the talent dips a bit with the bench players, the production is still there, and the length and defensive pressure keep coming in waves. Anderson is finally completely comfortable playing 10-11 guys every night, allowing him to keep key players fresh while maintaining a high tempo and level of pressure.

4. Biggest team weakness?

Most Arkansas fans would agree that there is not a distinct leader amongst all of the guards. All of them play an important role in getting the offense going, but don't necessarily provide a ton of leadership.

Coming into the season, junior guard Rashad Madden was projected to be the starting point guard, but wound up being suspended before the season began for violating team rules. That's not what you're looking for in a leader and floor general. Defining that role could go a long way in this team taking the next step and getting back into the NCAA Tournament.

You may have heard, but we also have a hard time winning games away from Bud Walton Arena. That's a big problem, too.

Syracuse Orange: Sean Keely, Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician

1) Who is your team's #1 player to watch, and why might he lead your team to the Invitational title?

That would be one C.J. Fair, ACC Preseason Player of the Year. C.J. is a typical Syracuse wing in that he's extremely athletic, can create for himself and at one point in the game you're going to look at the box score, see that he has 15 points and eight rebounds and not know where it came from. He hasn't been blowing things up so far this season but he's shone flashes of his promise. And given that it's his first season as the No. 1 guy, I'm guessing that he's going to turn it on sooner or later. If it does so in Maui, it could be big trouble...

2) Who are your under-the-radar player(s), and how might they impact the game?

Tyler Ennis is the latest young point guard to star for Syracuse. The freshman is going to churn minutes for the Orange and he's slowly but surely coming into his own. He's due for a breakout game one of these days. His backcourt compadre is Trever Cooney, the latest "white guy on Syracuse who seems to only shoot threes." That's still kinda his role and he's very hit-or-miss, literally. But when he hits, look out.

3) Biggest team strength?

Certainly, the zone defense can stifle an opponent whose not used to it. Otherwise, Syracuse's strength is in its ability to find scoring in a couple of different ways. C.J. Fair,Trevor Cooney and Jerami Grant all seem capable of putting up 20 on any given night. And then guys like DaJuan Coleman and Tyler Ennis have proven capable of adding their own fair share.

4) Biggest team weakness?

Probably the big men. Rakeem Christmas has yet to live up to his potential and make "the leap" that most good SU big men make by this time. He's a defensive threat but an offensive liability. DaJuan Coleman seems to be coming long sooner, but he's still capable of some lapses as he figures out his game. Ironically, it's when back-up Baye Keita comes into the game that SU fans feel the most secure. The senior is the team's glue guy and seems much more capable most of the time to play an all-around game.

California Golden Bears: Nick Kranz, California Golden Blogs

1) Who is your team's #1 player to watch, and why might he lead your team to the Invitational title?

He's not a big name player, but senior point guard Justin Cobbs is quietly Cal's key contributor. He doesn't typically take a game over with his scoring, and his passing isn't of the spectacular variety, but he's the guy that makes everything else happen. He's Cal's best shooter and best passer, and although he's been very deferential to start the season, everybody knows that if the game is close in the final minute, he's the guy that will be shooting the ball.

When he's on, he's ultra efficient and he's getting into the lane and either finishing or dishing to Cal's posts. When he's off he's making bad decisions while under constant ball pressure. Cal's hopes at Maui ride on him orchestrating a strong offensive showing.

2) Who are your under-the-radar player(s), and how might they impact the game?

There are two easy answers. The first is Richard Solomon, a senior power forward/center who has gradually developed into an elite interior defender and rebounder. Obviously it's early in the season and Cal's schedule can charitably be described as soft, but he's been one of the single best defensive rebounders in the country and teams have really struggled to get good looks inside thanks to his length and shot blocking ability.

The other is 5 star freshman Jabari Bird. Saying that he's under-the-radar might be a bit disingenuous since he's a coveted recruit leading the team in scoring. He's already flashed impressive two-way athleticism and a good outside shot, and now the question is if he can bring that same level of production against much stiffer opposition.

3) Biggest team strength?

Two point defense. Cal is currently first in the nation in opponent two point field goal percentage (34.3%), after finishing 6th in the country last year. Solomon and David Kravish are an excellent interior duo, and Cal's guards are very good at preventing dribble penetration. It's not an insanely active pressure defense - the Bears are simply very disciplined and compact. They don't foul much, and when their opponents miss, they usually get the rebound.

4) Biggest team weakness?

Right now, the biggest question mark is probably Cal's ability to get good shots and baskets if they can't score in the paint. Last year, Cal didn't have a great jump shooting team, and that was with an excellent shooter in firstsecond round draft pick Allen Crabbe. With Crabbe off to the NBA, Cal could struggle to score against teams that know how to defend the paint. The Bears typically can't rely on offensive rebounds to get 2nd looks, so they need to create good first shots, and if their opponents can take away the paint it can be difficult for them on offense.

We answered the same set of questions and here are our responses...

Gonzaga Bulldogs: Zach Bell, Slipper Still Fits

1) Who is your team's #1 player to watch, and why might he lead your team to the Invitational title?

This is still a very debatable question after the loss of Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris but I would say the player to watch for Gonzaga is PF Sam Dower. The Zags are looking more like a backcourt dominated team this year with Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell but with Dower playing well, they hit another level. Even though he is a 5th year senior, this is Dower's first year to really be the man in the front court and so far, he has been up to the task. He's extremely versatile but has struggled in the past to defend opposing bigs. Looking ahead to possible games against Baylor and Syracuse, the only way the Zags can compete is if Dower plays aggressively on both ends of the court. If he falls back into old habits, it could be a rude awakening for the Zags in their first test of the season.

2) Who are your under-the-radar player(s), and how might they impact the game?

Gonzaga has a pair of under-the-radar wings that have each shown flashes this season of being very solid contributors. The first is Gerard Coleman, a wiry and athletic transfer from Providence. In several games this season, Coleman has shown an incredible ability to get to the rim and finish with ease. He is a type of guard that Gonzaga has not had in quite some time in that he's rather penetrate versus sitting back and taking an outside shot. He played a mysteriously small amount of minutes against Washington State but look for him to be a key factor if Gonzaga advances deep in Maui.

The other wing to watch for Gonzaga is Kyle Dranginis. The redshirt sophomore from Idaho was rarely used last season and was very tentative but so far this season he has been much more comfortable. At 6'5", he gives Mark Few a bigger option at the wing and he can get hot from deep or bury the mid-range jumper.

3) Biggest team strength?

The strength of this team is absolutely the experience and ability of the backcourt. With three-year starters Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell running the show, this team will be rarely outmatched in terms of guard play. The good news for Mark Few is that both have played at a very high level and have assumed the massive hole in leadership that was left when Kelly Olynyk, Elias Harris, and Mike Hart graduated. The depth in the backcourt has also been very solid so far this year. David Stockton is a reliable backup point guard (by the way, did you know his dad is John Stockton? If you don't, ESPN will remind you every 45 seconds during Maui.) and then you add in guys like Coleman, Dranginis, and Drew Barham to the mix and the backcourt comes very versatile and dangerous. Bell has been especially outstanding so far this year and, like Sam Dower, Gonzaga hits a different level when he is at the top of his game. He's Gonzaga's best perimeter defender and can get as hot as anyone in the nation from outside.

4) Biggest team weakness?

Not to sound insanely redundant in a four question write-up but this team has one weakness that has already shown up and another that most fans are fearful of.

The first one is very obvious: the interior depth is very thin. At this time, Gonzaga really only has two true interior players, Sam Dower and Przemek Karnowski. Both are very skilled and show flashes of outstanding ability but they are both wildly inconsistent and they are being relied on to carry a majority of the load in the post. Mark Few has gotten creative by using Kyle Dranginis and Drew Barham in the post but against bigger teams like Baylor, that strategy will not hold up. What compounds the issue is that Przemek Karnowski has had issues with picking up silly fouls early in the game that force him to sit for extended periods of time. If that happens in Maui, the Zags could get victimized.

This next point is not so much a weakness but a fear of an impending weakness: this team hasn't been tested all. After losing so much from such a great team last year, there is a fear of how they respond when they get popped in the mouth. It will almost certainly have to be the backcourt that pulls this team through rough stretches but, as the team's senior leader, Sam Dower also has to step up when this team faces adversity. A year ago, it was easy enough to isolate Kelly Olynyk and let him to go work but that kind of force doesn't exist on this team anymore.