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November 21, 2011
One of the best sports weeks of the year isn't just for football fans.
The in-season tournaments start in full force Monday with the Maui Invitational, which has been a king-maker of sorts. The finalists last season - Connecticut and Kentucky - reached the Final Four, with the Huskies winning the title.
Connecticut isn't in the Maui field this season. Instead, the Huskies are in the new Battle 4 Atlantis field, which may have some of the most interesting matchups. The Huskies lead the field, but the other side of the bracket includes two NCAA tournament hopefuls in Harvard and Florida State.
The Preseason NIT semifinals could give an upstart or two a chance to make a statement, as well. Syracuse is the most established team in the mix, but the Orange draw a Virginia Tech team with a solid backcourt despite the departure of Malcolm Delaney. In the other semifinal, Oklahoma State's heralded freshman, LeBryan Nash, could make his first statement on a big stage.
Here is a look at the top matchups for this week in college basketball.
All times Eastern.
Game(s) of the week: Any game in the Maui Invitational (Monday through Wednesday). The field is loaded this season, with Duke, Kansas, Memphis, Michigan, UCLA, Georgetown and Tennessee. The team that leaves Maui as the champion should leave with a ton of confidence - and with good reason. Three of the past seven Maui Invitational champions won the national title (2004-05 and 2010-11 Connecticut, 2008-09 North Carolina). Combined, the past seven Maui champs have gone 27-4 in the NCAA tournament. This group could yield similar results.
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Don't overlook this one: Marshall at Cincinnati, Friday, 7 p.m. Marshall should be a worthy foil to Memphis in Conference USA. To what degree, we'll find out in the coming weeks. The Thundering Herd visit Cincinnati, Syracuse and play a home and home with Belmont before conference play begins. G DeAndre Kane is a budding star, but he needs to take some strides this season by cutting down on his turnovers and playing with more maturity. Cincinnati expects to reach the NCAA tournament for a second consecutive year, but this season is off to a dubious start. The Bearcats on Saturday blew a 15-point lead and lost to Presbyterian, which is only its fifth season in Division I.
Mid-major of the week: Other than the Maui Invitational, the most intriguing tournament this week may be the Battle 4 Atlantis in Nassau. Defending national champion Connecticut leads the field, but Harvard will be a team to watch. The Crimson return four starters and adds a top-100 recruit to a team that missed the NCAA tournament by losing a one-game playoff to Princeton. Harvard should handle its first-round opponent, Utah, which has its only win against San Diego Christian of the NAIA in a nail-biter. After that, Harvard could draw Florida State in the second round. An experienced Harvard team is in good position to make a statement.
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Individual matchup of the week: Michigan G Tim Hardaway Jr. vs. Memphis G Joe Jackson, Monday, 3 p.m., ESPN2. Hardaway is one of the best scorers in the Big Ten. Jackson is Memphis' best defender. The first game of the Maui Invitational may produce the most pivotal one-on-one matchup in the tournament. Also worth watching: Michigan freshman PG Trey Burke against a talented Tigers backcourt.
Interesting coaching matchup: Alabama's Anthony Grant vs. VCU's Shaka Smart, Sunday, 9:30 p.m., ESPNU. Jeff Capel set the foundation at VCU, Grant built on it and Smart delivered the program's proudest moment by leading VCU to the Final Four last season. VCU may have made the tournament at the expense of Alabama - VCU was in the "First Four," while Alabama was a top seed in the NIT. In this matchup, Alabama has the stronger team, as VCU is rebuilding after losing four starters.
Storyline you might be missing: Last season was supposed to be the breakout year for Rick Majerus' Saint Louis team, but suspensions to Kwamain Mitchell and Willie Reed derailed those hopes. Redemption might come this season. Mitchell is back, surrounded by five returning starters. The Billikens beat Washington 77-64 on Saturday and have a chance to build on that in the 76 Classic. Saint Louis faces Boston College in an opening-round game and could draw Villanova in the second round. New Mexico is the top team on the other side of the bracket.
Stat watch: Another season, another Connecticut point guard with a triple double. Shabazz Napier recorded the season's first triple-double with 22 points, 12 rebounds and 13 assists against Coppin State on Sunday. Kemba Walker had triple-double early last season when he had 24 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists on Dec. 3 against UMBC.
Tournament implications: This could be a key week for the Pac-12, especially after some league teams took some early losses. After starting the season with losses to Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee, UCLA mercifully starts the Maui Invitational with host Chaminade. Arizona lost last week to Mississippi State 67-57 in the final of the 2K Sports Classic. Oregon State defeated Texas in the Legends Classic, but that may say more about Texas than it does Oregon State. The Beavers draw Vanderbilt in the final Monday. Cal may be the top team in the Pac-12 and should face Missouri or Notre Dame for the CBE Classic championship.