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Monday, November 21, 2011
Burning questions for Maui Invitational

By Dana O'Neil
ESPN.com

What am I looking forward to from the Maui Invitational? The mai tais, the sunsets, the warm ocean breezes.

Oh, wait. I'm not actually going to Maui.

Right. Back to reality.

From the comforts of my comfortable -- albeit less scenic -- sofa, there are still plenty of reasons to tune in to the island tournament.

So grab the ukulele and channel your inner Don Ho. Here are a few questions to get you ready for this luau of hoops.

Is there a Kemba Walker in the bunch?

Jackson
Joe Jackson and Memphis passed their first test against Belmont. A Maui date with Michigan will provide another challenge.

It was this time a year ago that Connecticut started its season-long "shock the world" march, winning the Maui title to gain everyone's attention. It was also in Maui that the force who would become Kemba Walker served notice of his arrival.

If anyone can, my money is on Memphis' Joe Jackson.

The heralded recruit was equal parts exciting and exasperating for the Tigers last season, as he and a young Memphis team tried to corral their skill into a manageable -- and turnover-free -- style.

One game in is not enough to make any sort of guarantee, but Jackson played well and, more importantly, smart in Memphis' win against Belmont. In 33 minutes, he was a smart distributor, handing out seven assists to just two turnovers and picking his scoring spots wisely -- 6-of-7 shooting for 20 points.

The competition ratchets up immediately in Maui -- Memphis' first game against Michigan ranks as perhaps the best early game -- but Jackson certainly has the talent to handle the competition.

Can Duke keep its Maui streak alive?

The island vibe suits the Blue Devils well.

Duke has been invited to the Maui Invitational four times -- in 1992, 1997, 2001 and 2007. The Devils have four titles to show for it, rolling up a perfect 12-0 record, better than anyone in Maui history.

Duke will arrive as the likely favorite, the highest-ranked team in the field, but this is no slam dunk. The Blue Devils are good but they are a work in progress, regrouping with Austin Rivers, Ryan Kelly and the Plumlee brothers and without Kyrie Irving, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith.

So far the new mix of Devils has worked well -- Duke kept focused amid the noise to beat Michigan State for Mike Krzyzewski's 903rd record win and is an early 4-0 already.

But Belmont, Presbyterian and Davidson aren't quite the same as the potential matchups the Devils will get here.

Is UCLA skidding, or can the Bruins regroup?

This could be the single most intriguing storyline to follow from Maui. Right now UCLA looks like a train wreck, a team on the brink before the end of November. To recap: The Bruins lost to Loyola Marymount to open the season, suspended Reeves Nelson, lost by 20 to Middle Tennessee State with Nelson tweeting "Wow" from afar.

Nelson has been reinstated but the vultures already are circling over Ben Howland's head, and while the opening game against Chaminade should be a cakewalk, remember that a year ago the Silverswords gave Michigan State all it could handle and then beat Oklahoma. People will not only be watching UCLA's final scores here, but the Bruins' body language to see whether Howland still has a hold on this team and can right the ship.

Who dictates tempo, Michigan or Memphis?

The game between the Wolverines and the Tigers is the best of the first day, a legit top-25 matchup for your Monday afternoon viewing pleasure. More interestingly, you couldn't find two more contrasting styles.

John Beilein's team isn't afraid to run when the opportunity presents itself, but Josh Pastner's squad prefers a track meet. The Wolverines can't keep up with the Tigers for 40 minutes, and they definitely don't want to try, so it will be interesting to see what Beilein does to control the tempo. Michigan, a more deliberate team, could frustrate Memphis into turnovers and miscues, or the more athletic Tigers could run the Wolverines off the court.

Tyshawn Taylor
Kansas and Tyshawn Taylor hope to rebound from a poor shooting performance against Kentucky.

Is Kansas better than it looked against Kentucky?

The Wildcats' dominating 10-point win against the Jayhawks was interpreted as both a sign of Kentucky's prowess and Kansas' problems.

Truth is, expecting this KU team to be as good as that UK team early in the season wasn't exactly fair. Kentucky is loaded with draft picks, Kansas with question marks.

This week in Maui -- where the Jayhawks will face an equally rebuilding team in Georgetown and potentially UCLA, Duke, Michigan or Memphis down the road -- will be a far more realistic barometer for Kansas.

Right now the biggest problem for KU, ironically, is scoring. Once a team known for its lack of defense, these Jayhawks were absent on the offensive end, their guards combining for a woeful 8-of-30 from the field versus the Wildcats. Other than Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson, Kansas is relying on former role players to fill starting -- and starring -- roles. Game experience like the Jayhawks will get in Maui may be the best thing for them.

Just what is Georgetown?

It's hard to remember the last time the Hoyas flew under the radar, but without Chris Wright and Austin Freeman, no one is saying much about Georgetown.

And don't think for a minute that doesn't suit John Thompson III just fine.

These Hoyas are relatively anonymous -- freshmen and sophomores fill up 10 spots on the roster, and only Jason Clark and Hollis Thompson have starting experience -- but the Georgetown coach said at Big East media day he thinks he's got a very good team.

Just who that team is remains the mystery. Thompson played 11 guys against Savannah State and 12 against UNC Greensboro. Certainly some of that is a byproduct of the walkover wins, but there's no denying that Thompson is still tinkering with his team.

With three games in as many days -- not to mention three good opponents -- Maui should be a place for some of those roster kinks to work themselves out.

What's to gain for Tennessee here?

In short, plenty.

No one is giving the Volunteers much thought here, a sure sign of the comeuppance (or is it comedownance?) in the wake of the Bruce Pearl mess. And the truth is, this is an uphill battle on downhill skis for Tennessee, especially drawing Duke in the first game.

Still, as Cuonzo Martin tries to build a program as well as a team, a trip like this could pay huge dividends down the road.

Tennessee, frankly, has nothing to lose and ought to play that way. The Vols can only gain experience here as they adjust to a retooled roster sans Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris and a new coaching style from Martin. The risk, of course, is that the Vols' psyche after so much turmoil is fragile. A bad showing here -- a string of ugly losses -- could bury the confidence of a team that, as of right now, believes in itself.

Who pulls off the Hawaiian shirt best?

I've been to Maui and for reasons I can never understand, all middle-aged mainland men wear Hawaiian shirts there … even though it's rare to see a real middle-aged Hawaiian man wearing a Hawaiian shirt. It would be like going to Germany and wearing lederhosen. But since basketball staffs are, for the most part, made up of middle-aged men (and Josh Pastner), mainland men expect a full array of team-colored island fare. It's meant to channel that casual and relaxed island vibe. Because "relaxed" is often a word we use to describe basketball coaches in season. So who wears the shirts well and who looks downright silly?

Who wins and … what will it mean?

We know what the Maui title meant to the eventual champion a season ago -- this was Connecticut's kick-start to a run that would end with a trophy.

Could the same happen here? Is the eventual national champion in the field?

Considering the heap of talent at the top of this season's rankings, that would seem unlikely, but then again the Huskies were pretty darned unlikely a year ago.

Without predicting a sprint to New Orleans, we will at least predict a winner in this space. And I'm sticking with my early pick of Memphis.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.