Surveying the daunting field at this year’s Maui Invitational
photo by: AP Photo/Michael Conroy
When the Maui Invitational announced its field for its 2023 edition — way back on April 5, 2022, the day after Kansas won the national championship — tournament head Dave Odom said that the group “may be the best one, at least on paper, that we’ve ever had.”
A year and a half can render teams unrecognizable in college basketball, especially given the frequency and abruptness of player and coach movement in the modern era. Certainly KU looks quite a bit different than it did that fateful night in New Orleans. In the intervening season-plus since Odom announced this group, some of the shine has come off Syracuse, for example, which has missed the postseason in back-to-back fallow years and now has a coach other than Jim Boeheim at the helm for the first time since the 1975-76 season. UCLA, too, lost the boldface names from its string of three straight Sweet 16 teams under Mick Cronin and is rebuilding with seven true freshmen.
But KU is the AP’s No. 1 team in the nation, and Gonzaga, Marquette, Purdue and Tennessee are not far behind. Any road to the title at this year’s Maui Invitational will require the Jayhawks to face at least one, if not two, bona fide contenders to hoist the national championship trophy next April.
KU drew the de facto top seed in the event and will face host Chaminade, a Division II school, in the first round Monday in Honolulu. From then on, if the Jayhawks win, they’ll take on either Marquette or UCLA Tuesday, then a team from the other half of the bracket Wednesday.
Here’s more on what to expect from each of the Division I teams making the trip to Hawaii this weekend. Note that all AP rankings are from Monday’s poll, while all KenPom ratings incorporate the results of games through Wednesday. (KU is No. 3 in KenPom thus far behind Purdue and Houston, for the record.)
photo by: AP Photo/Young Kwak
AP ranking: No. 11
KenPom rating: No. 7
All-time record against KU: 1-1
Last season’s finish: lost to UConn in Elite Eight, 82-54
This season so far: beat Yale (86-71) and Eastern Oregon (123-57)
With Boeheim’s retirement, Gonzaga’s Mark Few is the only other former AP coach of the year honoree left in this year’s field besides Bill Self, and will reliably have his Bulldogs at the top of the West Coast Conference — although this year, Saint Mary’s was picked first in the league’s preseason poll for the first time since 2017. Part of that is because this Gonzaga team has a new look, in what feels like uncharted territory with Drew Timme gone to the pros, not to mention the loss of Julian Strawther.
The Bulldogs, who still have Anton Watson and Nolan Hickman, are expecting big things from Ryan Nembhard, a Creighton transfer and the younger brother of Andrew Nembhard, a former all-conference guard for the Zags. They also canvassed the Northwest for other top transfers in Graham Ike (Wyoming) and Steele Venters (Eastern Washington), although Venters is expected to miss the season with a torn ACL.
Gonzaga has only played two games so far and one was against an NAIA school, so it is the least battle-tested program entering the Maui Invitational. One mild surprise has been the play of redshirt freshman Braden Huff, who is averaging 21 points and 7.5 rebounds off the bench.
photo by: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
AP ranking: No. 4
KenPom rating: No. 9
All-time record against KU: 1-7
Last season’s finish: lost to Michigan State in Round of 32, 69-60
This season so far: beat Northern Illinois (92-70), Rider (95-65) and No. 23 Illinois (71-64)
Besides KU, Marquette has the only other win over a ranked team for any of the Maui participants — and it happens to be against the Illini, who beat KU in a charity exhibition in Champaign on Oct. 29.
That game saw Tyler Kolek, a senior and Big East player of the year who is in the conversation with Dajuan Harris Jr. and more for the label of best point guard in the country, come in with an ankle injury and still score 24 points on 10-for-18 shooting with six rebounds, four assists and two steals. Junior guard Kam Jones is firing away and led the Golden Eagles in scoring against NIU and Rider. Forward Oso Ighodaro has scored exactly 13 points in each game and is averaging 8.7 rebounds.
All three are veterans who have spent years in the Marquette program under Shaka Smart; continuity will provide the basis for this team’s success.
photo by: AP Photo/Michael Conroy
AP ranking: No. 2
KenPom rating: No. 1
All-time record against KU: 2-4
Last season’s finish: lost to Fairleigh Dickinson in Round of 64, 63-58
This season so far: beat Samford (98-45), Morehead State (87-57) and Xavier (83-71)
What can you say about Purdue? The Boilermakers have arguably the best player in the nation in 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey (although KU’s Hunter Dickinson may make a case for that title this year). Yet they lost to Fairleigh Dickinson in one of the most dramatic and most inexplicable upsets in sports history last season. They will hope to follow the model of 2018-19 Virginia, which came back from losing to a No. 16 seed — the first time that had ever happened — and promptly won the national championship.
Around Edey, who is already averaging a double-double and more than three blocks in lower-than-usual minutes this season, the young guards Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith return from that ill-fated 2022-23 squad, as do seniors Mason Gillis and Ethan Morton. Fifth-year senior and Southern Illinois transfer Lance Jones is also now starting in the backcourt.
The Boilermakers have plenty of size off the bench as well, and while Edey will exert a gravitational pull on everyone else on the court, Purdue is a well-rounded team capable of going all the way in the Maui Invitational and, later on, the NCAA Tournament.
photo by: AP Photo/Adrian Kraus, File
AP ranking: none
KenPom rating: No. 114
All-time record against KU: 3-3
Last season’s finish: did not make postseason
This season so far: beat New Hampshire (83-72), Canisius (89-77) and Colgate (79-75)
The Orange trailed Colgate by 24 points in the opening minutes of the second half and were still down 70-62 with three and a half minutes remaining before 3-pointers by Justin Taylor and sophomore forward Chris Bell (25 points, including six 3s) helped Syracuse go on a 14-0 run to win the game.
In its first season under former player and longtime assistant Adrian “Red” Autry, the Orange have not exactly dazzled defensively against three Northeastern mid-major foes. They certainly come into Honolulu with the lowest expectations of any non-Chaminade competitor. But they do have Judah Mintz, who was one of the top freshman in the Atlantic Coast Conference last year and considered the NBA before returning to school. The high-scoring 6-foot-4 guard has already exceeded his career high with 26 points against Canisius.
The team is composed almost entirely of sophomores and juniors (including KU transfer Kyle Cuffe Jr., who hasn’t played much so far) and will likely grow into its new identity under Autry as the season progresses.
photo by: AP Photo/Wade Payne
AP ranking: No. 7
KenPom rating: No. 8
All-time record against KU: 3-4
Last season’s finish: lost to Florida Atlantic in Sweet 16, 62-55
This season so far: beat Tennessee Tech (80-42), Wisconsin (80-70) and Wofford (82-61)
This is the only team in the Maui field that played KU last year — and the Volunteers won, 64-50, in the Battle 4 Atlantis championship game in the Bahamas. It was a wonky matchup in which Tennessee committed 24 turnovers but outrebounded the Jayhawks 45-27, and KU’s offense couldn’t do much with Harris in foul trouble.
The Volunteers still have Santiago Vescovi, the Uruguayan guard whose 20 points in that matchup led all players, and Zakai Zeigler, a preseason all-conference selection who started for Tennessee late last season until suffering a torn ACL, and has been coming off the bench so far this year. They did lose one-and-done forward Julian Phillips and frontcourt mate Olivier Nkamhoua, who left for Michigan.
Northern Colorado transfer Dalton Knecht, a junior-college product, was the Southeastern Conference player of the week after an opening pair of games that included a 24-point, five-rebound showing in the win over Wisconsin.
photo by: AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
AP ranking: RV
KenPom rating: No. 36
All-time record against KU: 10-8
Last season’s finish: lost to Gonzaga in Sweet 16, 79-76
This season so far: beat Saint Francis (75-44), Lafayette (68-50) and Long Island (78-58)
The member of the Maui field with which the Jayhawks are best acquainted — the last two meetings between the two schools, in fact, came at the 2011 and 2015 Maui tournaments — UCLA has a new look this season. The Bruins lost their top five players in minutes per game from last year, including familiar faces like Tyger Campbell, Jaylen Clark, Jaime Jaquez Jr. and David Singleton (Jaquez and Campbell each started every game last season) and one-and-done guard Amari Bailey.
They do bring back forward/center Adem Bona, who as a sophomore with substantial starting experience suddenly becomes by default one of the veterans on the roster. The native of Nigeria opened his season with a bang as he scored 28 and grabbed nine rebounds against Saint Francis. Fellow returnee Kenneth Nwuba got the first two starts of the year before giving way to 7-foot-3 Spanish freshman Aday Mara, who acquitted himself nicely with 14 points and four blocks versus Long Island.
One initial area of concern for the Bruins is 3-point shooting, as they have gone a combined 7-for-29, including 0-for-6 against LIU, this season. Utah transfer Lazar Stefanovic, another starter this year, was 86-for-256 (33.6%) in his two seasons with the Utes.