It's safe to say the Maui Invitational has lived up to expectations. We've had quality games, better-than-expected performances from better-than-expected teams (take a bow, Tennessee and Georgetown), breakout stars (take another bow, Jeronne Maymon) and now this: The finale everyone wanted -- including Bill Self -- came to fruition.
“We came here to play Duke, to be real candid with you,” Self said Tuesday night. Coaches don't often admit to looking ahead to opponents, but you can't fault him for his honesty. He's right. It's a big one. So let's break it down, shall we?
(For previews of Maui's other Wednesday games, see here.)
Kansas vs. Duke, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN3:
What Duke does well: The Blue Devils are rather rapidly developing into one of the best floor-spacing and outside-shooting teams in the country. At this point -- at least as it regards to this specific style -- they probably are the best. Andre Dawkins, Seth Curry, and even forward Ryan Kelly, are all lights-out shooters from the perimeter. Freshman guard Austin Rivers can make his fair share of 3-pointers too, but at his best (and he is slowly beginning to showcase his best) he serves a much more important purpose : as the entry point to the rest of Duke's offense. Rivers is always a threat to score, so when he comes off screens (and Duke runs a lot of ball screens) and enters the pressure point at the top of the key, defenses have to help. This draws defenders away from Curry, Dawkins, Kelly and even big men Mason and Miles Plumlee.
Rivers' decision-making has taken its fair share of criticism in the first few games of his collegiate career, and deservedly so. It's important to remember they're just the first few games of his collegiate career. He was much better against Michigan on Tuesday night, and he should only improve as the season moves forward. When he does, look out. In the meantime, the Blue Devils' offense is still rolling, and their perimeter play is the primary reason why.
Where Duke struggles: On the offensive glass. The only problem with Duke's attack as currently composed is that the Blue Devils don't retrieve many of their own misses. When Duke shoots well -- and it usually shoots well -- that's no big deal. But if it shoots poorly, a lack of offensive boards and second-chance opportunities presents a recipe for stagnation. If Kansas can contain Rivers and the sharp little set plays the Devils run to free shooters, it should be able to prevent Duke from getting second looks at the rim.
What Kansas does well: Ball movement. This is nothing new for Self's teams, but it is a little surprising how good the Jayhawks are in this regard already. Their wins over Georgetown and UCLA in Maui have occasionally been offensive clinics, as Self's well-drilled lads pick and poke holes in opposing defenses, frequently finding forward Thomas Robinson for alley-oop dunks. (If Robinson is anywhere near the low block, and there isn't a defender between him and the rim -- and frankly, you're probably better off with two -- then watch your head. You're about to get dunked on. Then it goes on YouTube, and that just ruins your day. Fair warning.)
Robinson is a super talent, but he's still learning how to play with the ball in the block, so he frequently needs good passing to set him up. That's where Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson come in. Both players are good passers, both players are more than comfortable in Self's system, and both players add a slightly different dimension from last season's crop of very efficient, but less dynamic, players. They can also get to the rim. If KU can keep pressure on Duke's backcourt, not only through that side-to-side motion passing but through incisive penetration, the Jayhawks can score against this defense.
Where Kansas struggles: The biggest issue is depth. After Taylor and Johnson, the Jayhawks don't have much to bolster the back line; guard Conner Teahan is a 42 percent 3-point shooter, but he could find himself overmatched against Duke's coterie of guards. If Rivers' penetration gives Taylor and Johnson trouble, and either picks up an extra early foul or two, Self could find himself reaching into a bench he doesn't quite seem to have.
And now for the disclaimer: These are just a few of the issues that will come into play Wednesday night. Remember, it's still early. Players are still developing; teams are still congealing. By this time tomorrow -- when you're neck deep in turkey and mashed potatoes and mmm, Thanksgiving -- this knowledge may seem like old news.
In the end, this game is going to be less definitive than speculative. There's still five months of hoops ahead. We'll know more in a few weeks, and then more in February, and so on and so forth.
But whether or not you want to trust the result, come on: It's Duke and Kansas in Maui. Pre-Thanksgiving hoops feasts don't come much better than this.