Thursday morning, ESPN’s College Basketball Nation gave college hoops fans a brief drink in the vast offseason desert, revealing the brackets of the November and December tournaments that will air on the Worldwide Leader. Now in its 29th season, the EA Sports Maui Invitational is the most well-known of these early-season events, and once again Rick Barnes and his Longhorn squad will take part in the famous tournament this November.
The opportunity to discuss and analyze brackets — even those that aren’t played out in March — is a great distraction from the fact that there are still 102 days until the 2012-13 regular season tips off. With that in mind, we’re stretching our breakdown of this year’s Maui field over two days. It’s up to our dear readers to find ways to occupy the other 100.
The Longhorns will open play on the island of Maui with on November 19th against host Chaminade. The Silverswords are just 6-76 all-time in the tournament, with their most recent win coming in 2010 against another Big 12 school, Oklahoma. Chaminade escaped with a narrow 68-64 win over the Sooners, locking up 7th-place in that 2010 tourney. While they are best known for the monumental upset of top-ranked Virginia in 1982, the Silverswords also boast a pair of Maui wins over Louisville and victories against Villanova and Princeton.
This year’s Chaminade squad has nowhere to go but up, as they wrapped up their 2011-12 campaign by losing eight of their last ten and sputtering to a disappointing 11-14 finish. It was destined to be a rough year for the Silverswords, as they were blasted in their three EA Sports Maui Invitational games last November, losing to UCLA, Georgetown, and Tennessee by an average of 28.3 points.
Although Chaminade lost leading scorer and rebounder Matt Cousins to graduation, the squad will be very experienced and eager to return to the NCAA Division II tournament after a one-year absence. Four of last year’s starters are back on campus, including three seniors. All told, the returning nucleus of Bennie Murray, Lee Bailey, Dominique Cooks, and Waly Coulibaly accounted for 65% of last season’s minutes and nearly 63% of the team’s points.
As is to be expected with a D-II squad, the Silverswords will be very undersized when compared to their mainland opponents. Sophomore Casey Oldemoppen and juco transfer Tyree Harrison are the team’s biggest bodies, with both checking in at just 6’8″. Although the experienced backcourt should improve on the ugly 0.91 assist-to-turnover ratio they posted last year, that height disparity will still lead to a lot of second-chance points for the Longhorns and the other D-I teams.
After taking on Chaminade in opening round action of the EA Sports Maui Invitational, the Longhorns will face either Illinois or Southern Cal on November 20th.
The 2011-12 campaign was a brutal one for the Illini faithful. Longtime coach Bruce Webber watched his team lose 12 of their last 14 games, ultimately finishing 6-12 in the Big 10. The slow meltdown of a once-proud program spelled the end for Coach Webber in Champaign, but he found a new home at Kansas State before Kentucky had even cut down the nets in New Orleans.
The biggest challenge for the Illini was simply trying to put the ball in the basket. Illinois had a putrid offense that was more efficient than only Nebraska’s in league play. They were one of the 50 worst teams in all of Division I basketball in both three-point percentage and free-throw rate, meaning not only that they couldn’t hit from outside, but that they also weren’t being aggressive inside. If not for a stifling defense that allowed just 0.933 adjusted points per possession, Illinois wouldn’t have even been competitive in the six league games it did manage to win.
So with the entire Illinois roster back, except for lottery pick Meyers Leonard, why is there optimism surrounding the 2012-13 season? There isn’t an influx of new talent headed towards Assembly Hall. In fact, there’s only one new player who will see the court this year, Coastal Carolina transfer Sam McLaurin. A graudate student who is eligible to play right away, McLaurin was so flippant about his move that he announced his transfer destination with the tweet, “Fuck it im going to Illinois. #illinination”
With that hope not being a result of new faces on the court, perhaps the optimism comes courtesy of the new man at the reins, former Ohio coach John Groce. Fresh off a Sweet 16 appearance and a near-upset of North Carolina in the NCAA regional semis, Groce inherits a team full of talent that has yet to live up to expectations. Fans can only hope that he is able to reach a group of players that seemed completely checked out at the end of Webber’s reign.
D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul are returning, and will make the Illini backcourt one of the most experienced in the nation. Joining them on the perimeter is junior wingman Joseph Bertrand, who showed flashes of brilliance throughout the season, especially in a January upset of Ohio State. He earned starts in 14 of the team’s 18 league games, and fans are hopeful he’ll truly break out in 2012-13.
The biggest hole was left by Leonard, who went pro after just two years at Illinois. That means there are a lot of expectations weighing on sophomore Nnanna Egwu, a raw 6’10″ Nigerian center who appeared in every game last year. With Leonard chewing up the bulk of the post minutes in Webber’s four-guard look, Egwu averaged just under 10 minutes per game. He will have to make a big leap to be competitive in a physical Big 10, but will still likely be going through some growing pains when the team is in Hawaii.
USC had an even more disappointing season than Illinois, but Coach Kevin O’Neill and the Trojans should bounce back quickly. Unlike the Illini, the abysmal season in L.A. wasn’t a result of inexplicable chemistry issues. Rather, the Trojans were a walking MASH unit, playing in some late-season Pac-12 games with only six scholarship players. Pro prospect Dewayne Dedmon and forward Aaron Fuller both missed significant chunks of the year, while point guard Jio Fontan sat out the entire season following knee surgery.
This year, the Trojans are back at full force, and welcome some much-heralded new faces to the locker room. Ari Stewart and Eric Wise are eligible to join the team in 2012-13, having sat out last season after transferring from Wake Forest and UC-Irvine, while former Tennessee Volunteer and hip-hop artist Renaldo Woolridge can immediately play thanks to the graduate transfer rule.
The Trojans also welcome 6’3″ guard J.T. Terrell, who averaged more than 11 points per game for Wake Forest in 2010-11. Following an arrest just two months before the 2011-12 season, Terrell left Wake and played at Peninsula College, where he led the team to an NWAACC playoff berth while averaging over 24 points per game.
Even with a depleted roster, Coach O’Neill was able to make his Trojan squad one of the toughest defensive units in the country. USC allowed just 0.944 adjusted points per possession, 47th-best in D-I hoops. They forced turnovers on nearly a quarter of their opponents’ possessions, one of the ten best marks in the country last year.
Where USC struggled was on the offensive end, and that struggle was a mighty one. The team’s adjusted offensive efficiency was 326th out of 345 Division I teams, thanks in large part to the third-worst three-point percentage in the country. USC also was one of the ten worst teams in offensive rebounding percentage, free-throw rate, and effective field goal percentage. It would be practically impossible for the healthy, reloaded Trojans cannot to do worse on the offensive end this year.
The EA Sports Maui Invitational will be an early indication of just how well this team can perform in 2012-13. O’Neill has been an outstanding defensive coach in his four years as head coach at USC and Arizona, so there’s no question they will remain competitive. The pieces are there for the Trojans to make a remarkable turnaround, but the offense has to at least reach serviceable levels to take advantage of that stingy D.
For a look at the other half of the EA Sports Maui Invitational bracket, check out Part Two of our preview.