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Illinois draws Gonzaga in Maui Invitational

The Illini and the Bulldogs. Fun!

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

It might be Big Ten Media Day, but basketball is still finding its way into the news cycle.

According to our man Jon Rothstein, Illinois drew Gonzaga in its first-round matchup at the Maui Invitational this season.

The rest of the bracket — the most stacked field ever — is Auburn/Xavier, Duke/SDSU and Arizona/Iowa State.

This has always been my favorite non-conference event in college basketball. There are a million preseason tournaments now that are trying to duplicate the magic that Maui has found. 2018 will also field the strongest teams ever with host school Chaminade no longer participating.

Duke signed the top three freshmen in the class and are a Final Four favorite. Gonzaga returns key players and looks like a top-15 team. Bruce Pearl has proved that if you cheat enough, you can even make Auburn a decent basketball program. They will likely contend at the top of the SEC this year. I don’t think a young Illinois squad has much of a chance against these squads.

Arizona loses a bunch of players to the pros and lost a bunch of recruits amidst the FBI scandal and Xavier loses its coach, but those are still two powerhouse programs. I don’t think it’s likely, but there are probably a few parallel universes where Illinois could pull out a win against one of these teams.

San Diego State and Iowa State round out the field. I have to be honest, I’m not really up to date on SDSU’s 2018-19 season outlook, but I’m assuming they have a bunch of long pesky defenders and athletes who can’t really shoot like they always do. Iowa State brings in a lot of new transfers and freshmen after rebuilding last year, similar to Illinois. (And who wouldn’t love to see Ayo vs. THT/George Conditt in the first month of the season?) If Illinois can pull out a win, I would think it would be against one of these two.

Try to get a win in Maui. Anything more is gravy. And if Illinois goes 0-3 that’s okay. The competition will be a great experience for the new guys and should make the transition to conference play a little smoother.

Coming off a National Championship Game appearance, Gonzaga went 32-5 (17-1 WCC) last season, which is really good. The Bulldogs lost to Florida State in the Sweet 16 after disposing of UNC Greensboro and Ohio State as a four-seed.

The last time the two teams played? Illinois beat a ranked Gonzaga on the road in 2012.

How do you feel about the Illini’s first-round matchup?