The Maui Invitational (November 19-21) is the most competitive early season tournament in college basketball this season. Gonzaga is playing in its fifth all-time appearance in this tournament, the last being in 2013. The Bulldogs won this tournament in 2009 with a 61-59 OT win over Cincinnati. Steven Gray and Matt Bouldin were named Co-MVPs.
Here are my predictions:
1st Round - Auburn over Xavier, Duke over San Diego State, Arizona over Iowa State, Gonzaga over Illinois
2nd Round - Duke over Auburn, Gonzaga over Arizona, San Diego State over Xavier, Iowa State over Illinois
7th Place Game - Xavier over Illinois
5th Place Game - San Diego State over Iowa State
3rd Place Game - Auburn over Arizona
Championship - Gonzaga over Duke
#8 Auburn Tigers: (3-0)
Wins - South Alabama, #25 Washington, Mississippi College
KenPom Ranking - #9
This is Auburn’s first appearance in the Maui Invitational. Bruce Pearl looks to turn the basketball program around and is already off to a good start. The Tigers made the NCAA Tournament last season, their first time since 2003. This year, Auburn has extreme depth in the frontcourt and has a roster that can use a variety of different lineups.
Player to Watch For - Bryce Brown, Senior
Coming off a 2nd-Team All-SEC performance last season, Brown looks to continue his snipper-like shooting from beyond the arc. Bryce shot 107 three-pointers in 2017-2018 due to the up-tempo style of play that Auburn uses.
Xavier Musketeers: (2-1)
Wins - IUPUI, Evansville
Losses - Wisconsin
KenPom Ranking - #68
Xavier has lost two key players in Trevon Bluiett and JP Macura who have been apart of the program for the last four years. The Musketeers also lost Kerem Kantar, the brother of Enes Kanter. The head honcho for the past nine seasons, Chris Mack, ended up taking the Louisville job so I’m thinking this will be a down year for Xavier.
Player to Watch For - Naji Marshall, Sophomore
Naji looks like the perfect candidate to pick up the slack on this Xavier team. Marshall is a two-way player whose strength is his versatility on both ends of the floor. He has a strong mid-range jumper as well as crafty moves going to the hole. As he makes the transition from freshman to sophomore, he needs to get his confidence up.
#1 Duke Blue Devils: (3-0)
Wins - #2 Kentucky, Army, Eastern Michigan
KenPom Ranking - #1
If you still don’t know about this team and their amazing recruiting class, you just don’t watch college basketball. RJ Barrett, Tre Jones, Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish. The young and extremely athletic Blue Devils versus the experienced and also extremely athletic Bulldogs is the matchup all of college basketball wants to see happen.
Player to Watch For - Zion Williamson, Freshman
Did you know Zion (6’7, 285 pounds) weighs more than all the players in the NBA except Boban Marjanovic (7’3, 291 pounds)? He is a freight train coming down the lane and is drawing comparisons to LeBron James (a little early if you ask me). Zion is averaging 25.3 PPG, 10.7 RPG, 2.7 APG, and 3.0 BPG.
San Diego State Aztecs: (2-0)
Wins - UAPB, Texas Southern
KenPom Ranking - #57
As much respect I have for head coach Brian Dutcher, I miss Steve Fisher. What a legend. Even though Nevada will win the Mountain West Conference, San Diego State is good enough to get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament this year. The Aztecs have some key pieces returning to build off last year’s success like forward Jalen McDaniels and Matt Mitchell.
Player to Watch For - Devin Watson, Senior
The transfer from the University of San Francisco is a special player. I first saw him at USF when Gonzaga came to my neck of the woods in 2015. He is a true leader on the court. Watson had 10 points and 3 assists in the 70-72 upset over #12 Gonzaga last season.
Arizona Wildcats: (3-0)
Wins - Houston Baptist, Cal Poly, UTEP
KenPom Ranking #61
Sean Miller has led the Wildcats to six straight NCAA Tournament appearances but while losing players like DeAndre Ayton and Allonzo Trier to the NBA, this could be the year the Wildcats don’t end up in March Madness. Arizona does have redshirt junior forward/center Chase Jeter active who is a Duke transfer and former McDonald’s All-American.
Player to Watch For - Brandon Williams, Freshman
This name must sound familiar to Gonzaga fans as he was a former recruit for the Zags and he actually had Gonzaga in his top 3 schools. He originally de-committed from U of A due to the NCAA scandals but ended up committing back to Arizona. Williams is a 6’1 guard and was ranked #39 in the 2018 ESPN100.
Iowa State: (3-0)
Wins - Alabama State, Missouri, Texas Southern
KenPom Ranking - #27
The Cyclones didn’t make the NCAA Tournament last season after making six straight trips to March Madness. This season, it looks like Iowa State will have a better chance in fighting for a Big 12 crown (although, Kansas will most likely win their 15th straight) and grabbing an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. They will rely heavily on their strong backcourt of Weiler-Babb and Lindell Wigginton (will be out until December due to a foot injury).
Player to Watch For - Nick Weiler-Babb, Senior
A 6’5 point guard who is only one of the three seniors on the roster. He made a huge jump last season due to his high IQ and vision when finding a path to the hoop.
#3 Gonzaga Bulldogs: (3-0)
Wins - Idaho State, Texas Southern, Texas A&M
KenPom Ranking - #6
This tournament will be the first real test of the season with tough possible matchups against Arizona and Duke. Winning this tournament will be the ultimate statement to the nation that the Zags are for real this season. One game at a time though, let’s beat the Fighting Illini first.
Player to Watch For - Rui Hachimura, Junior
Rui has really jumped out to a fast start this season with averages of 22.7 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 1.0 APG. He has shot efficiently from the field this season so far at a .643%. I’m excited to see who will guard him (and vice versa) against the possible matchup with Duke. Will it be Zion versus Rui in Maui?
Illinois Fighting Illini: (1-1)
Wins - Evansville
Losses - Georgetown
KenPom Ranking - #76
Most likely the worst team in this tournament but that still doesn’t mean they’re bad. The Illini have four key returning players from last season and a top 25 recruiting class coming in. Although, Illinois lacks a frontcourt this season as well as a legitimate star.
Player to Watch For - Trent Frazier, Sophomore
Frazier was a reserve halfway through last season but proved his worth as the best guard on the team. This leftie is very smooth in transition and has a strong catch/shoot game.
*Arden Cravalho is a senior at Gonzaga University... Follow him on Twitter @a_cravalho