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November 23, 2009

Maui an early exam for NCAA tourney hopefuls

The Maui Invitational has featured two eventual Final Four participants in the past three years -- including national champion North Carolina last season -- but that trend seems unlikely to continue this season.

One year after serving as a showcase for the eventual national champion, the latest edition of the Maui Invitational that tips off Monday looks more like an early season "BracketBuster" tournament.

The eight-team field doesn't include a school from The Associated Press' preseason poll, though Maryland has since entered the rankings at No. 25. But that shouldn't shorten the amount of intrigue in this annual event.

While the tournament doesn't feature any likely national title contenders, it features plenty of evenly matched squads that eventually could be competing for the final few at-large spots in the 65-team field.

"We've talked about being one of those teams that could go north [into the NCAA tournament] or south [out of the tournament] when the season is over," Arizona point guard Nic Wise said. "Every game counts toward making the tournament."

Last year, Arizona and Wisconsin earned the lowest seeds of any at-large teams in last season's NCAA tournament. They're both in Maui.

So is Maryland, which used a late-season surge to earn an at-large tournament bid with a No. 10 seed last year. The field also includes Cincinnati and Vanderbilt, which headed into the stretch with NCAA tournament aspirations before either tailing off late in the season or losing early in its conference tournament.

The Maui Invitational entrant most likely to earn an NCAA bid is Gonzaga, which has won nine consecutive West Coast Conference tournament titles. Colorado and host school Chaminade round out the field.

Leading indicator?
North Carolina won the Maui Invitational last year on its way to capturing the national title. Here's a look at how the past 10 Maui champions have gone on to fare in the NCAA tournament:
Year Winner Postseason
1999North CarolinaFinal Four
2000ArizonaNational runner-up
2001DukeRegional semifinal
2002IndianaSecond round
2003DaytonFirst round
2004North CarolinaNational champion
2005ConnecticutRegional final
2006UCLAFinal Four
2007DukeSecond round
2008North CarolinaNational champion
Because Gonzaga is the only team that enters Maui as a virtual shoo-in to make the NCAA field, this year's event could mean more to the teams involved than usual. They know they have to stockpile early season wins to boost their postseason resumes.

"We know we can pick up some quality wins that can definitely help us out later on," Wisconsin forward Jon Leuer said.

A look at the brackets shows how this week's results could mean plenty in March.

For example, Vanderbilt faces Cincinnati and Arizona battles Wisconsin in opening-round games. Preseason prognostications suggest all four of these programs could become borderline NCAA tournament teams. The outcome of Monday's games eventually could have at least some say in determining which teams end up in the NCAA field and which have to settle for NIT berths.

"We haven't really thought about that too much," Leuer said. "We know there are some teams [at Maui] with great traditions of going to the NCAA tournament and that had proven success, but you really can't focus on the NCAA tournament right now or what seed you're going to get. We're just focusing on what we need to do."

The NCAA tournament tradition is particularly evident at Wisconsin and Arizona. Arizona leads all teams across the nation with 25 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. Wisconsin has gone dancing 11 consecutive seasons. Both teams barely kept those streaks alive last season and could have a tough time getting back into the field this season.

Wisconsin must replace leading scorer Marcus Landry and defensive stalwart Joe Krabbenhoft. Arizona lost Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill to the NBA and underwent an offseason coaching change with the arrival of Sean Miller from Xavier.

The schedule

Game 1: Colorado vs. Gonzaga, 3 p.m., ESPNU
Game 2: Cincinnati vs. Vanderbilt, 5:30 p.m., ESPN2
Game 3: Chaminade vs. Maryland, 9:30 p.m., ESPN2
Game 4: Arizona vs. Wisconsin, midnight, ESPN2

Game 5: G2 loser vs. G3 loser, 1:30 p.m., ESPN2
Game 6: G1 loser vs. G4 loser, 4 p.m., ESPN2
Game 7: G2 winner vs. G3 winner, 7 p.m., ESPN
Game 8: G1 winner vs. G4 winner, 9:30 p.m., ESPN

Game 9: G5 loser vs. G6 loser, 2 p.m., ESPNU
Game 10: G7 loser vs. G8 loser, 4:30 p.m., ESPN2
Game 11: G5 winner vs. G6 winner, 7 p.m., ESPNU
Game 12: G7 winner vs. G8 winner, 10 p.m., ESPN

"Coach has been harping about not worrying about the streak," Wise said. "This is a whole new team with a whole new style."

Other teams in Maui are trying to start new NCAA tournament streaks.

Cincinnati lost six of its final seven games last season to drop out of NCAA contention, but the Bearcats seem poised to make a move in the Big East. The Bearcats have a solid inside-outside combination in Yancy Gates and Deonta Vaughn, and they should benefit from the arrival of former five-star prospect Lance Stephenson.

Vanderbilt made the NCAA tournament in 2007 and 2008 before getting left out last season, but the Commodores return their entire roster and added five-star prospect John Jenkins to their backcourt. Vanderbilt's high expectations are evident from its early season schedule. The Commodores won 72-70 at Saint Mary's on their way to Maui, and they face Missouri, Illinois and Western Kentucky next month.

"Before we go into finals, we don't have any easy games," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said.

Consider this trip to Hawaii an early exam for each of the teams in the field. By the time they return to campus, they should have a good idea how much homework they need to do before entering their conference schedules.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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