Gonzaga is heading out of the cold, and to the warmth of Maui as the Maui Invitational tips off on Monday. This will be the fourth trip the Zags have made to Hawaii as they look to bring home their second title. Gonzaga finished in fourth place in 2002, second in 2005, and 1st in 2009. This year’s field has several good teams as Gonzaga plays a step up in competition, included in the field are the number 9th ranked Syracuse, and 20th ranked Baylor.
Gonzaga seems to be a favorite to get through their side of the bracket and into the finals. They open up the tournament against Dayton on Monday. Dayton is out of the Atlantic 10 conference and thus far is 4-0 on the season including a win over Georgia Tech last week. Dayton is a guard-oriented team that can score the basketball. Thus far into the season, Dayton has 5 players averaging double digits. Their leading scorer is Jordan Sibert, who is a 6-foot-4 guard averaging 13.8 points per game. Dayton averages over 77 points per game. They are the sleepers on the Atlantic 10, and could give Gonzaga some fits.
If Gonzaga gets past Dayton, they will match up with the winner of Baylor vs. the host school Chaminade. Chaminade is 7-75 all time in the tournament and most likely will not be able to get past Baylor. Baylor is 4 and 0 on the season, but I have not been impressed by their play, especially for a top 25 team. Brady Heslip after what it has seemed like 10 years at Baylor is finally a senior and he is a straight shooter. Heslip is averaging 15 points a game, while shooting 51.9 percent from three. Outside of Heslip, the two big men for Baylor are very talented in Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin. Jefferson has put up 13 a game thus far and at 6-foot-9 is a big talented power forward. Austin is in his second year, and at 7 foot 1, is projected as a future 1st round pick. Baylor has not put it all together yet this year, and this could be a tournament that gets them going, but thus far I have not been overly impressed with their play.
On the other side of the bracket Syracuse is the likely favorite. The first round games, which also start tomorrow, feature Arkansas vs California, and Minnesota vs. Syracuse.
Arkansas is lead by Houston transfer Alandise Harris, who is averaging over 18 points a game for the Razorbacks. Arkansas has an up-tempo style offense scoring 88 points per game. Maui will be the first test of the season for them as they have had a weak schedule up to this point. California is a middle of the league Pac-12 team, whose led by five star recruit Jabari Bird. Bird is a talented Point Guard who has a lot of potential for the Golden Bears. It is early in the season, but this Cal team has some players and could make a little noise in Maui.
The winner of Arkansas and California plays the winner of Minnesota and Syracuse. Minnesota is another guard-oriented team led by Andre and Austin Hollins. They are 5 and 0 on the season, but are only shooting 34 percent from the three-point line, which will make it hard to beat Syracuse and their Zone. The Cuse are in the top 10 yet again. Lead by senior C.J Fair, Syracuse is the overall favorite in the tournament. They are long and athletic averaging 12 steals per game. I expect Syracuse to run through both Minnesota and Cal and be in the finals.
Maui is always one of the best preseason tournaments, and this year the field is strong. Gonzaga should be able to handle Dayton and Baylor to reach the finals. Syracuse has the size and talent to run past Minnesota and the Arkansas-California winner, setting up a Gonzaga vs. Syracuse final. Gonzaga has not faired well with the Syracuse zone in the past, but with a shooting oriented team this season, Gonzaga may have enough to get past Syracuse. This tournament is always memorable and full of big moments and I wouldn’t expect anything less from this stacked field.