The college basketball season is getting into full swing, and that means early-season tournaments in far away places. One of this year’s best tournaments is the Maui Invitational, which gets underway on Monday. It brings together three top-20 teams as well as several other teams capable of knocking them off which should make for an interesting three days in Hawaii.
The tournament favorites are the Syracuse Orange, who are fresh off a trip to the Final Four last year. Syracuse has struggled a bit out of the gate, as they’re relying on the maturation of their sophomores to bring them success this season. But Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense generally causes problems for teams in tournaments who are unfamiliar playing against it and have little time to prepare for it, and that should give the Orange a distinct advantage in Maui.
Syracuse’s path to the championship game in Maui starts with the Minnesota Golden Gophers, who are led by the backcourt duo of Andre and Austin Hollins. Andre Hollins is averaging 22 points per game early in the season and will be someone the Syracuse zone will pay close attention to, leaving it up to the rest of the Golden Gophers to step up if they want to pull off the upset.
Assuming Syracuse beats Minnesota, the Orange’s semifinals matchup will be against either the Cal Golden Bears or Arkansas Razorbacks, both teams that Syracuse beat last season. Cal was stifled by the Syracuse zone in the second round of last year’s NCAA Tournament and could have a tough time if they have to see it again this year.
As for Arkansas, they field a much different team than the one that had Syracuse on the ropes last year and are now led by Houston transfer Alandise Harris. But the Razorbacks tend to be a much different team away from home as the up-tempo style they play doesn’t always work without the home fans cheering them on. This may not bode well for them in Hawaii.
On the other side of the bracket, the Baylor Bears should get easy passage to the semifinals against host school Chaminade. The Bears have had a couple close calls this year against South Carolina and Charleston Southern, but they are getting exceptional shooting from senior Brady Heslip which has saved them from losing a game or two early in the season.
Matching up with Baylor in the semifinals will be the winner of Gonzaga and Dayton. Mark Few’s Bulldogs are obviously the favorite as they have five players averaging double figures, and that doesn’t even include point guard David Stockton. But Dayton is off to a good start too, and they’re coming off an impressive road win over Georgia Tech. The Flyers also have five players averaging double figures which should enable them to compete and give the Bulldogs a difficult first round game.
On paper, it would seem like the Maui Invitational championship game will end up being Syracuse against either Gonzaga or Baylor. However, this field is a lot deeper than most of the other early-season tournaments. While it’d be nice to see a matchup of top-25 teams in both the semifinals and finals, Minnesota and Dayton should both be considered sleepers that can challenge the tournament’s favorites. In any event, the Maui Invitational should be an intriguing and telling early-season tournament.
Bryan Zarpentine is a New York Mets writer at RantSports.com. He also writes frequently about the NFL, College Football, College Basketball, and International Soccer. Like him on Facebook, follow him on twitter @BZarp and add him on Google.