Early season tournaments continue to emerge and increase from a competition standpoint. Non-conference schedules have gotten tougher and college basketball fans prepare for premier match-ups and upsets even in November.
Let’s take a look at five storyline to watch for at the Maui Invitational:
1. Is North Carolina the Favorite to Win?: The Tar Heels will head to Maui in November, likely as the highest-rated team in the tournament’s field. However, there are a number of improved squads in this year’s eight-team bracket looking to make a splash early on in the season. Head coach Roy Williams lost a considerable amount of talent from last year’s squad, but UNC reloads in 2012-13 with high expectations as usual. Teams like Texas, USC, and Butler are all looking to improve from a season ago and like many early-season tournaments, the opportunities to add resume-building, non-conference wins present themselves.
2. New-Look USC Has Higher Expectations: After a 6-26 season that also included a 1-17 mark within a disappointing Pac 12 Conference, things couldn’t get much worse for the Trojans. The loss of Maurice Jones due to academic issues hurts the team’s back court depth, but Jio Fontan is back and head coach Kevin O’Neill looks to build anew with a plethora of newcomers and eligible transfers. J.T. Terrell, Ari Stewart, Renaldo Woolridge, and Eric Wise all look to help the Trojans’ rotation. Brighter days could be coming for USC, but we’ll see what they can do with some early, stiff competition in Maui.
3. Early Look at New Illinois Head Coach John Groce: After dismissing Bruce Weber (now at Kansas State), Illinois hired former Ohio head man John Groce. Groce led the Bobcats on a surprising run to the Sweet 16 back in March, but expectations are uncertain in his first season at Illinois. Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson return to give Groce an experienced back court, but what can really be expected from the Illini after a disappointing collapse late last year? The Maui Invitational will give college basketball fans an early look at Groce’s system and allow many to see just what potential this Illinois team has in 2012-13.
4. Texas, Marquette Look to Crash Tournament Field: Marquette head coach Buzz Williams is preparing to move forward this season without stars Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom. However, as the Golden Eagles have proven in the past, they can consistently emerge as a true threat, no matter who their opponent may be. As for Texas, head coach Rick Barnes brings back sophomore point guard Myck Kabongo, along with an incoming freshmen class that should instantly help strengthen the Longhorns’ rotation. Can either of these squads crash the field and make a run similar to UConn’s back in 2010?
5. Is Butler Ready to Burst Back onto the National Scene?: After back-to-back trips to the national championship game in both 2010 and 2011, the Bulldogs failed to make the NCAA Tournament field in 2012. Andrew Smith returns down low, while junior Khyle Marshall and senior Chase Stigall look to provide additional veteran presences. However, head coach Brad Stevens has top-100 recruit Kellen Dunham joining the program this year, as well as Arkansas transfer and sharpshooter, Rotnei Clarke. The Bulldogs are making the transition to the Atlantic 10 Conference this season, but their relevance may be evident once again, even prior to conference play.
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