A little case of the Mondays, huh? Chin up, buddy. This Monday is better than most.
Why? I'll tell you why: The mother of all early-season tournaments -- the Maui Invitational -- kicks off today.*
The Maui is usually among the best early-season tourneys, but it's on another level in 2011. Duke, Memphis, Kansas, Michigan, UCLA, Georgetown and Tennessee are all on hand -- the big-name programs and top-flight talent abounds. (Amazingly, this tournament field looked even better when it was announced last year. That was before Bruce Pearl got the boot at Tennessee; before Georgetown lost Austin Freeman, Chris Wright and Julian Vaughn; and before UCLA started with two mind-bogglingly bad losses. All that, and it's still good.)
*OK, so technically, it kicked off when Towson played Kansas on Nov. 11, but we're not counting that game or the preliminary rounds that followed it. You have to be in Maui to be in the Maui Invitational. This isn't Vietnam, Smokey. There are rules.
Anyway, to get you up to speed, here's a look at the first four teams set to square off at the Lahaina Civic Center, complete with a speculative best- and worst-case scenario for each team. Breakdowns for the next four teams -- Chaminade included! -- are to follow. If you'd like a handy visual guide, here's the bracket.
All set? Good. To the rundown we go:
Their story: Michigan arrives in Maui with much to prove. The Wolverines are among the Big Ten's many question marks; we assume they'll be pretty good, but we're not sure how good and we haven't had much evidence to analyze just yet. Michigan's 3-0 record is the product of wins over Ferris State and Towson and a surprisingly close one against Western Illinois -- none of which are powerhouses, we'll say.
Player to watch: Trey Burke. A freshman point guard, Burke may be the biggest key to this team's success in 2011-12. When last season's Wolverines thrived, they did so largely because of the heady point guard play of Darius Morris, who posted the third-highest assist rate (44.2 percent) in the country last season. Burke has already impressed coach John Beilein enough to earn the starting point guard spot, allowing former starter Stu Douglass to come off the bench and "hunt" shots, as Beilein put it. Can Burke slot into this lineup smoothly? Tim Hardaway Jr. is this team's leading scorer and best player, but Burke is almost certainly its most important.
Best case: Burke plays beyond his years, Hardaway scores with ease, the Wolverines' outside shots fall and Beilein's team overcomes Memphis' athleticism in the first round to set up a rematch of its near-miss against Duke in the 2011 NCAA tournament.
Worst case: Memphis' defense overwhelms the Wolverines with speed, athleticism and length, and Michigan heads to the left side of the bracket and (likely) loses the opportunity to play Duke and UCLA/Kansas.
Their story: Three weeks ago, this humble college hoops writer would have ranked Memphis behind Duke and Kansas -- and maybe even UCLA -- as the Maui Invitational favorite. The Tigers simply seemed overrated, ranked in the top 10 based more on talent than on-court performance and results. But Josh Pastner's squad may already be proving us wrong: It was as impressive as any team that played during the ESPN Tip-Off Marathon, unloading an unexpectedly versatile, efficient offense to the tune of 97 points on a sneaky-good Belmont team. The Tigers defended well in 2011, but they were, believe it or not, the least efficient offense in C-USA. (I know, right?) If the Tigers can score like this, look out. They'll be well worth that top-10 ranking -- and then some.
Player to watch: Joe Jackson. Memphis' hometown point guard was obviously talented from the moment he stepped on the court as a freshman last season, but his flashes of brilliance were accompanied by far too many mistakes. To wit: Jackson's assist rate in 2011 was an excellent 29.3 percent. His turnover rate was a brutal 29.0 percent. For every great pass and easy setup, Jackson just as frequently gave the ball away. With Jackson as the primary ball handler and pace-pusher, those turnovers had a crippling effect on Memphis' offense. But the lightning-quick guard looked much more solid in the Belmont rout, dishing seven dimes to his two turnovers while pouring in 20 points in the process. One game is hardly enough data with which to judge Jackson's progress; let's see how he runs the Tigers' high-flying show in Maui.
Best case: Memphis proves the Belmont game was far more than an offensive fluke by handling Michigan and causing major matchup problems for Duke in the second round. At that point, few could pick against the Tigers to come home champions.
Worst case: Michigan outwits Memphis with cautious pace and calculated offense, and the Tigers undo whatever perception-related gains they earned on Marathon day.
Their story: These are not your slightly older brother's Volunteers. Pearl is out. So are many of his players. His replacement, Cuonzo Martin, is in the midst of a classic post-scandal rebuilding project; it may not take five years, but it will certainly take more than one. How deep is this overhaul? Martin's five leading scorers this season -- Trae Golden, Jeronne Maymon, Jordan McRae, Skylar McBee and Cameron Tatum -- combined to average 19.2 points a season ago.
Player to watch: Trae Golden. He was a little-used freshman last season, accounting for just three of the aforementioned 19.2 points per game. But Golden has showed signs he could have a major breakout campaign as a sophomore. In Tennessee's first two games -- admittedly, the opponents were UNC-Greensboro and Louisiana-Monroe, so let's not get too carried away -- Golden is averaging 23 points, 10 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game, and he's doing so while shooting 60 percent from the field and 46.2 percent from beyond the arc. Again, it's just two games. But if Golden is that kind of talent -- sometimes guys just need time and touches -- Martin's rebuilding project may not be quite as rocky as most assume.
Best case: Tennessee plays a lively 40 minutes against Duke, gains worthwhile experience and builds some much-needed confidence.
Worst case: The Vols are drubbed in their first game and find themselves as underdogs to the loser of Memphis-Michigan and end up in the seventh-place consolation game, likely against Chaminade.
Their story: Even the most casual of fans will be familiar with the Blue Devils' recent foray into the national sporting consciousness, which came last week when coach Mike Krzyzewski won the 903rd game of his career and surpassed his mentor, Bobby Knight, for the most wins in the history of men's college hoops. Now that K has his milestone out of the way, he can go back to focusing on his team -- another talented bunch (of course), albeit one younger than he's used to.
Player to watch: Austin Rivers. At this point, the hyper-talented freshman guard remains the biggest variable in Duke's lineup. We know what Coach K has in the frontcourt (two Plumlees, Mason and Miles, who continue their slow but steady improvement), on the wing (Ryan Kelly, a Euro-style forward who creates matchup problems with his accurate shooting) and at most of the guard positions (Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins, two lights-out jump shooters who can put teams away in the matter of a few minutes). Rivers, however, is a question mark. That's to be expected for most freshmen, but Rivers entered this season as one of the most highly touted players in the country. His integration into Duke's attack won't be seamless, but if he figures things out, the combination of his penetration and Duke's myriad outside shooters could form a devastating attack.
Best case: Frankly, Duke is the favorite here. Any best-case scenario has it not only winning the tournament but winning in convincing, hey-we're-a-national-title-contender-too style.
Worst case: The Blue Devils should handle Tennessee, but Memphis' athleticism could present some mismatches. There's no shame in losing to the Tigers, of course, but if Pastner's rangy team defends the perimeter and bangs on the low block, it could expose some of this young Duke team's glaring weaknesses.