- Chad Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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LAHAINA, Hawaii -- Here are some observations from the first day of the EA Sports Maui Invitational:
This is clearly a down season for talent at the Maui Invitational. The names on the front of the jerseys are all impressive -- North Carolina, Texas, Illinois, USC, Marquette, Butler, Mississippi State -- but every single program, with the possible exception of UNC, is having a down season.The USC and Mississippi State programs are in shambles. Both teams aren’t even close to being competitive against a solid D-1 team.
Texas, after being blown out by Chaminade, doesn’t look much better. Yes, they were missing point guard Myck Kabongo, but even with Kabongo the Longhorns have major issues. Chaminade shot just 37 percent from the field for the game and it still won by 13.
Illinois dominated USC, but it’s hard to tell whether Illinois is actually playing better under new head coach John Groce or whether USC is just that bad.
Marquette and Butler played the most entertaining game of the day, but it was marred with fouls, poor shooting and mistakes. Neither team boasts an elite player on its squad.
As for North Carolina -- yes it blew out Mississippi State -- but as far as NBA talent goes, the Tar Heels are having a down season too. After forward James Michael McAdoo, it’s unclear whether they have another first-round draft prospect on their roster.
Nevertheless, if UNC doesn’t roll through this field, it will be a major upset.
Tomorrow’s best game should be Butler versus North Carolina at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN. North Carolina has much more talent, but the Bulldogs are scrappy and well coached. The Tar Heels are more of a finesse team. The physicality of Butler could give the Heels problems.The rest of the field looks like a wash. Marquette should roll over Mississippi State. Texas versus USC will be interesting only if the NCAA somehow clears Kabongo.
Illinois will be the heavy favorites to beat Chaminade in the finale at 10:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2. Yes, the Silverswords just knocked off the Longhorns, but they didn’t play particularly well. The Illini should roll.
A number of NBA GMs -- including the Celtics’ Danny Ainge, the Jazz’s Kevin O’Connor, Bulls’ Gar Forman, the Warriors Bob Myers and the Blazers Neil Olshey -- were in attendance. Overall, they are seeing the same phenomenon here that they are seeing everywhere. This is a down season, talent wise, in the NCAA. “If Cody Zeller, Shabazz Muhammad, Nerlens Noel and James McAdoo are your top four picks, it’s going to be an ugly, ugly draft.”
Other than McAdoo, I couldn’t find a scout or GM convinced there was another first-round prospect here. If Kabongo plays, that could be two. But that explains, in part, why the field is so weak.
There were some good performances by top prospects on Monday. Perhaps the best was Illinois’ Brandon Paul. Scouts have loved Paul’s combination of elite athletic ability and scoring prowess for years. However, they’ve been puzzled by his inconsistency. He had a 43-point game against Ohio State last season. But there have been plenty of others in which he completely disappeared.
He seems to be more settled and more consistent under his new head coach. He was averaging nearly 20 points a game coming into the tournament and scored 26 points and shot 6-for-9 from 3-point territory on Monday night in Illinois’ win.
UNC’s Reggie Bullock was on fire against MSU. He had 16 points in 22 minutes and was 4-for-5 from beyond the arc.
There are many NBA scouts who believe both P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald could start on most high major NCAA teams and they probably would average 16-20 points. Once the game quickly got out of hand, Roy Williams turned to both of them and both delivered. The two combined for 39 points and shot 10-for-17 from behind the 3-point line.
UNC has a number of talented freshmen: Joel James, Brice Johnson and J.P. Tokoto. All three got plenty of playing time on Monday. Of the three, it was James who shined on Monday. He was a significant defensive presence for the Tar Heels. He's still trying to get a feel for the game and could still probably lose another 10 to 15 pounds, but his seven rebounds and two blocked shots, combined with just a general toughness in the middle gave NBA scouts an encouraging glimpse into his future if he continues to develop.
The most memorable moment of the day was Rotnei Clarke’s buzzer-beating heave to defeat Marquette. Here’s how both Clarke and Marquette coach Buzz Williams described the moment.
Williams: “He shot it off one foot from behind his head from 40 feet. It was contested. As soon as the ball left his hand, I knew it was a basket. The trajectory and everything was perfect.”
Clarke: “It was just kind of a scramble play. I was dribbling around, and I almost thought about flipping it to Roosevelt Jones, who was going down the lane line just to have him drive and make a play, [but] ended up keeping it, and got through and got around a couple of guys, and just let it up there, and luckily it went in.”