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2018 Maui Invitational Preview

Illinois is playing in what might be the toughest Maui Invitational ever

After dropping their first game of the season at home to Georgetown following a win over Evansville, the Illini will be heading out to Hawaii to play in the Maui Invitational. The last time Illinois played in this, the Illini won the whole thing.

Unlike in 2012 when Illinois won, there will be no Chaminade in the second round for Illinois to play, and no team as poor as the 2012-13 Trojans in the field either. Illinois will play three very tough games no matter what.

Sidenote: This is sadly the first year the Chaminade won’t play in Maui, which is a damn shame, but ESPN has to have its TV rating bump a half of a percent.

The 2012 Maui Invitation featured only one ranked team — North Carolina, which Illinois avoided playing due to a Butler upset. This year’s Maui field features three teams currently ranked in the top ten, two in the top four, and the No. 1 ranked team with NBA lotto picks galore, Dook — yes this is the correct spelling.

The reason that Illinois is playing what may end up being its toughest out-of-conference schedule in its history is this tournament.

According to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, Illinois is the second-worst team in the field ahead of only Xavier. Kenpom puts Illinois as the worst team. This is a huge challenge for a young team, but the Illini may be able to catch teams off-guard with their unique defensive set, and with Illinois’ ability to score — especially with Trent Frazier’s return — they have a chance to make some noise

So let’s preview the possible match-ups that Illinois could have next week starting with Gonzaga and moving down to the least likely opponent.

Gonzaga Bulldogs

Illinois will face Gonzaga next Monday night at 10:30 p.m. on ESPN2. The Zags are very much still the Zags. Mark Few’s best player is an international, junior Rui Hachimura, from Japan, who is scoring 22.7 per game in the Zag’s first three games. The Zags put up 120 on Idaho State before dialing it back a little with only 107 against Texas Southern and 94 against Texas A&M.

Hachimura would be a incredibly tough player for Illinois to guard. He is a very athletic player at 6-foot-8 and 230 pounds, and he plays every bit and more of his size. He is a very tough matchup down low and the matchup will likely be handed to Kipper Nichols to start but we may also see Giorgi Bezhanishvili on him as well. Illinois will also have to worry about a very experienced group around him that can also put up points in bunches. I don’t think an experienced team like Gonzaga will have issues with Brad Underwood’s pressing defense either.

Gonzaga is a Final Four favorite for good reason and this is a very tough draw for Illinois. ESPN’s BPI gives Gonzaga an 83.5% chance at a win. Illinois is likely looking at a loss, and one that could even get ugly, but I wouldn’t be too worried about it if that does happen. Gonzaga has multiple upperclassmen while Illinois is returning only four players who contributed last season.

Illinois has a small shot to win, but it will need something special.

Arizona Wildcats

Illinois scheduled a home-and-home series with Arizona starting next season, and there is a good chance Illinois will see Arizona three years in a row. Arizona had a lot of FBI trouble, and it looked as if Sean Miller may be fired. The Wildcats lost some recruits because of it, but through it all, Arizona has come out relatively clean and Sean Miller is still able to sweat through as many shirts as he likes.

Matt Barrie / Twitter

They are not very deep but are led by a good trio with sophomore guard Brandon Randolph, freshman guard Brandon Williams and junior center Chase Jeter, who transferred to Arizona from Duke.

Not many are high on the Wildcats, and ESPN’s BPI only gives them a 32% shot at beating Iowa State in their opening game, but it should be an decent game. The most likely case is Illinois will be seeing Sean Miller in round two.

Iowa State Cyclones

The matchup I would prefer for Illinois in game two is most certainly Iowa State. Talen Horton-Tucker, you may remember, was a high target for Illinois, and it seemed he was on the cusp of committing, but Illinois pulled the offer. The rumors are due to some drama between Ayo Dosumu and THT, when THT left the AAU Mac Irvin Fire. There were also rumors the pair didn’t get along, and because of that, Ayo gave Illinois a “him-or-me” proclamation, and the Illini choose Ayo.

So yes, basketball gods. Let this happen. Give me the highest drama.

Besides that, Iowa State is very much Iowa State led by two upperclassmen. Marial Shayok in his first year at Iowa State after transferring after not getting much playing time at Virginia and is averaging 20 points per game. They are a borderline top-25 team, who look like they will have a bounceback year in Steve Prohm’s fourth season. They had a very nice 75-59 win over Mizzou.

This would be a very tough game for the Illini, but since Iowa State is not an especially gifted offensive team, they should be able to hang with them into the second half and have a shot down the stretch, at least I’d hope.

Xavier Musketeers

Xavier is the one team Illinois would likely be favored against by oddsmakers.

Xavier may find life tough in its first year without Chris Mack. Xavier hired from within promoting assistant coach Travis Steele to the head job. He has a very young team this year with a high percentage of his players being underclassmen. Xavier has only one senior, a grad-transfer big man in Ryan Welage.

They are 2-1 after a 77-68 loss to the Wisconsin Badgers at home. They are the worst ranked team in the field according to ESPN’s BPI only ahead of Illinois, and the second-worst team according to Kenpom. They have a very tough game against Auburn in the first round, which they will likely lose before playing the San Diego State Aztecs, another game I think they’ll lose.

In the most likely scenario Illinois will be facing Xavier after both drop their first two games, but it’s also possible the teams could meet after losing in round one and picking up a slight upset win in round 2.

San Diego State Aztecs

I don’t know much about San Diego State this year, but.......googles the roster..........yep, a bunch of long wings who will play the hell out of some defense. That’s the San Diego State brand.

Brian Dutcher got the Aztecs back to the tournament last season after they missed it in the last two of Steve Fisher’s coaching reign, and it looks like the Aztecs should be able to go dancing again this season.

Senior guard Devin Watson leads the way, who is off to a very hot shooting start from three-point lant, making 3.5 per game on 7 attempts along with 5.5 assists.

Their size and defense would be a huge challenge for Illinois, and this is a match-up that could easily happen. The Aztecs open up with Duke which will be a loss barring any huge surprises. SDSU will likely beat Xavier in the second round. If Illinois could pull off a second round win over Iowa State/Arizona, they would play the Aztecs and Trent Frazier and Ayo Dosunmu will have a shot to show everyone what they can do against a very good defensive team. Illinois will need them both at their best to have a shot.

Auburn Tigers

Part of me really wants this matchup to happen. I want to have a shot to shove it in Bruce’s face. But part of me is scared he might do the same thing to us.

Bruce Pearl’s Tigers are currently ranked ninth in the nation after finishing last season sharing the SEC regular season title with Tennessee before getting an embarrassing blowout to Clemson in the second round of the NCAA Tournament as a four seed.

Two starters from last season’s team did transfer, but they return most of their depth. Guard Samir Doughty is tied as the leading scorer in his first year eligible for Auburn after transferring from VCU at 15 points per game with 5-foot-11 Jared Harper also putting up 15.

Auburn is a team that plays small and tries to outscore as many opponents as they can. Illinois’ starting lineup is much bigger than Auburn’s, whose starting center is only 6-foot-8, but they do have 6-foot-11 Austin Wiley to bring off the bench for some size.

An Illini-Auburn game could be an exciting high-scoring match-up, but it will not likely happen. Auburn opens the tournament against a struggling Xavier, who they will likely beat. They will probably lose in the semi-finals to Duke, but you never know. Illinois will likely need to beat Gonzaga and then lose their second game for this match-up to happen.

If it does though, I’m picking Illinois to win by 50.

Duke Our Coach is a Basketball Vampire-s

Something would have to go incredibly wrong for Duke or miraculously right for Illinois for this to happen. Duke has come out strong to start the season with its exciting group of freshman led by Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett. It sucks that we live in a world where not only are Alabama Football and Duke Basketball the clear cut best teams in their respective sport, but they are also arguably the most exciting.

Duke will not lose its first game to San Diego State, and will likely take care of business against Auburn in the second game. Illinois would need Duke to have a massive amount of injuries or have a massive upset win over No. 4 Gonzaga followed by another upset over Iowa State/Arizona for this to occur. Even if Duke somehow lost to Auburn in the semi-finals, Illinois would still need to beat Gonzaga to possibly play Duke.

It’s not going to happen.

This is a very tough tournament for a very young Illinois team. Playing Gonzaga in the first game is brutal, and Iowa State or Arizona in the second game wouldn’t give any breaks either. Even if Illinois does end up playing in the last place game against Xavier, that is still a very high-quality opponent.

Illinois could very well go 0-3, but even if they do it’s not time for alarm bells. It doesn’t mean the team is worse than last year or not improved. It’s just a very tough slate of games early in the season.

I’m hoping Illinois can find at least one win, and if they do, that would count as a successful tournament. Winning two would be amazing. Upsetting Gonzaga and the fan base will rightfully be on the full-hype train.

I wish that we weren’t playing in Maui this year with such a tough group of teams with this young team that needs all the wins it can get, but here we are. So, let’s see what the team has got.

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