The Maui Invitational is one of the premier early-season tournaments that NCAA men's basketball has to offer on an annual basis.
Although the tournament may be one of the furthest away for most programs and fans, it is definitely worth the extra time and money spent once you have witnessed the atmosphere that the small tournament provides to the everyday basketball fan.
One team that has taken advantage of every opportunity to play in the tournament is the Duke Blue Devils. They have made the long journey to Hawaii four times in the program's history, and they have four titles to their name—including an undefeated record of 12-0.
Previous Duke MVPs of the tournament include such greats as Bobby Hurley in 1992, Steve Wojciechowski in 1997, Mike Dunleavy Jr. in 2001 and, most recently, Kyle Singler in 2007.
This year, however, will be the first time in the tournament's history that there will be mainland teams competing in the bracket not traveling to Maui. The four teams staying in the states are Belmont, Middle Tennessee, UNC Greensboro and Towson.
The eight teams that will participate in the championship round are Duke, Kansas, UCLA, Michigan, Georgetown, Tennessee, Memphis and the local Chaminade.
The favorite heading in, though, has to be the Blue Devils. They have revamped their starting lineup from just one season ago (due to the losses of Kyrie Irving, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler) and should be well prepared to face any team in Maui after their preseason trips to Dubai and China.
They also have the most talented backcourt of any of the eight teams making the trip, and their frontcourt players, with the addition of Marshall Plumlee and Alex Murphy, should be able to withstand any opposing team's big men.
However, that doesn't necessarily mean that Duke will be given the title.
With the strongest field in the tournament's history, as well as the number of legendary programs invited to compete in Hawaii this season, this could be the year that the Blue Devils fall in Maui.
Which potential opponent has the talent and ability to hand Duke its first loss in the tournament's history? Which players could give the Blue Devils problems on defense and possibly lead to an upset win for their program?
The following is a slideshow of five potential opponents that could knock off Duke in this season's Maui Invitational.
Potential Matchup with Blue Devils: First Round
2010-11 Overall Record: 19-15
Key Returning Players: Cameron Tatum (8.8 points, 3.3 rebounds), Skylar McBee (3.0 points, 1.0 rebounds) and Jordan McRae (1.8 points, 0.8 rebounds).
The changes taking place around Knoxville, Tennessee, have gradually begun to cease over the summer.
That certainly was not the case last March, when head coach Bruce Pearl was fired after his Volunteers lost to Michigan in the NCAA tournament's first round, 75-45. The dismissal of Pearl, although an unpopular decision by many, was expected—he had been under intense scrutiny by the NCAA for unethical conduct, amongst other charges.
Then, to make matters worse, the coach search committee decided to hire Cuonzo Martin—a widely unknown candidate and coach at Missouri State.
Finally, with the graduation of Melvin Goins and Brian Williams, as well as the departure of the talented duo of Tobias Harris and Scotty Hopson to the NBA, the program seemed to have a large lack of talent.
However, with the likes of Skylar McBee, Jordan McRae and even veteran Cameron Tatum returning next season, it seems that the program may be heading in the right direction after all.
While it may be a stretch to say that Tennessee will be good enough to potentially beat Duke next season, it's certainly a possibility. The best opportunity for the team to knock off the Blue Devils would be in the first round, which is the current stage slated for the matchup.
So, although certain alterations to the Volunteers program have seemed questionable at best, there still seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel. It would also be beneficial for the program if it can get off to a good start under first-year coach Martin by upsetting Duke in the first round in Maui!
Potential Matchup with Blue Devils: Semifinals
2010-11 Overall Record: 21-14
Key Returning Players: Zack Novak (8.9 points, 5.8 rebounds), Stu Douglass (7.1 points, 3.0 rebounds) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (13.9 points, 3.8 rebounds).
The Wolverines lost a major contributor when Darius Morris opted to enter his name into the NBA draft, rather than return to Michigan for his junior season. Still, all hope for the 2011-12 campaign should not be lost in Ann Arbor.
Tim Hardaway Jr., arguably one of the best freshmen in the entire country last season, will be returning to improve his skills and help lead the Wolverines in the absence of Morris.
Zack Novak and Stu Douglass, both senior guards, will also help soften the blow considerably and should have little problem commanding attention on the court.
Novak, in particular, will be a primary weapon for fifth-year coach John Beilein next season—he has become a potent three-point shooter over his career at Michigan, and has the skill set and winner's mentality that is necessary to win at the college level.
Last season's team was an interesting one for Beilein, as their were no seniors on roster. Although this year's team will have three (Novak, Douglass and Corey Person), there is still a large number of underclassmen that have the potential to take their games to the next level as Wolverines.
Hardaway Jr. is the key young player on next year's squad, but sophomores Jordan Morgan and Evan Smotrycz will each look to improve their impressive statistics from their freshman seasons at Michigan.
Should Michigan advance to the semifinal stage of the Maui Invitational by defeating Memphis, it will most likely meet Duke in a rematch of last year's NCAA tournament second-round matchup.
In that particular game, the Blue Devils led by as many as 12 points in the closing minutes, before the Wolverines fought back. With 8.7 seconds left in the game, and the score in favor of Duke (73-71), Michigan had the opportunity to win the game with a three-pointer.
Morris, however, missed a runner in the lane in the final seconds that would have tied the game, and the Blue Devils advanced to the Sweet 16 in a highly entertaining contest.
The rematch to this game, should it occur in Maui, would be extremely interesting. And although both teams are without their leading scorers from that encounter, Novak, Douglass and the other upperclassmen would be out for blood against Duke.
Potential Matchup with Blue Devils: Semifinals
2010-11 Overall Record: 25-10
Key Returning Players: Will Barton (12.3 points, 4.9 rebounds), Joe Jackson (9.9 points, 3.1 assists), and Tarik Black (9.1 points, 5.0 rebounds).
For the majority of last season, the Memphis basketball team looked very unorganized and was often overmatched by veteran teams.
While youth is never a bad thing, it was certainly the reason that the Tigers (who have been the team to beat in Conference USA for a number of years) finished fourth in their league and eventually lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
However, while their age may have forced them to be less successful than they would have hoped last season under third-year coach Josh Pastner, the team undoubtedly has talent—and lots of it.
With three freshmen from last year's team returning for their sophomore campaign (Will Barton, Joe Jackson, and Tarik Black), as well as veterans like Wesley Witherspoon, Antonio Barton, and Chris Crawford competing for starting positions, Memphis will certainly have the pieces in place to contend in 2011-12.
If the Tigers can manage to defeat Michigan in the tournament's first round action, then they will have the opportunity to see just how much the team has matured against likely opponent Duke.
That match-up, while intriguing to basketball fans across the country, hasn't turned out well for Memphis fans in the past.
This would be the best opportunity in the season for the Tigers to pull off the upset, however, as the Blue Devils will likely be "tweaking" their starting line-up and may potentially be vulnerable early in the year.
Their overall athleticism and speed, as well as the large number of talented young players on Memphis' roster, may also allow Pastner to earn the biggest win of his young career.
It's still unclear if both teams will advance to the Semifinal round (most of that skepticism hinges on the Tigers' first round result), but if both teams do turn out victorious in their first matches in Maui, expect a great game from two of the top college basketball programs in the country.
Potential Matchup with Blue Devils: Championship Game
2010-11 Overall Record: 21-11
Key Returning Players: Jason Clark (12.0 points, 4.1 rebounds), Hollis Thompson (8.6 points, 4.4 rebounds) and Nate Lubick (4.0 points, 3.5 rebounds).
When you first glance over the bracket for the Maui Invitational, you'll notice that two of the most successful teams over the past few seasons landed on the opposite side of the draw from the Blue Devils.
One of those teams just happens to be the Georgetown Hoyas.
Last season, Georgetown had one of the most talented backcourts in the entire country, consisting of senior guards Chris Wright and Austin Freeman, as well as junior guard Jason Clark. The trio averaged 42.5 points, 10.7 rebounds and 9.5 assists a game, averaging roughly 60 percent of the team's points on the year.
Now, with the graduation of Wright and Freeman, Clark will be counted on more than ever this upcoming season—he will need to become more of an offensive threat, as he was the third-highest scorer of the trio.
Joining Clark in the upperclassman department are talented forwards Hollis Thompson and Nate Lubick, both looking to improve their statistics from last year. Lubick, especially, will be a major presence in the paint if he can develop and improve his low-post game.
While anyone could argue that this year's Maui Invitational field is one of the best, I believe a first-round matchup between the Hoyas and Kansas truly settles this matter.
The two teams have such talented rosters that they could potentially meet each other later in the season in the Elite Eight or maybe even the Final Four. Although, in Maui, they will face off and battle for a spot in the tournament semifinals.
The team that comes out on top in that particular game will be the heavy favorite to advance to the championship game, as its semifinal opponent will be either Chaminade or UCLA—most likely the latter, however, you can't forget about last year's loss to Montana, so you never know!
You also can't help but remember Georgetown's recent success against Duke. The Hoyas upset the Blue Devils in 2006 when they were No. 1 in the country, and they thumped them once again in 2010, 89-77.
If the 2011 Maui championship game does pit Duke versus Georgetown, expect a much closer contest than the one in 2010—the Hoyas shot nearly 72 percent from the field and never let the Blue Devils in the game.
The game would make one interesting matchup, and one that college basketball fans around the country could enjoy watching!
Potential Matchup with Blue Devils: Championship Game
2010-11 Overall Record: 35-3
Key Returning Players: Tyshawn Taylor (9.3 points, 4.6 assists), Thomas Robinson (7.6 points, 6.4 rebounds) and Elijah Johnson (3.4 points, 1.8 assists).
The pick for No. 1 on this list should come as no surprise, and it may be the most highly anticipated matchup the tournament has to offer.
The program with the most wins in NCAA history versus the program with the fourth-most wins.
Bill Self versus Mike Krzyzewski.
The Jayhawks versus the Blue Devils.
Two of the most legendary college basketball programs in history going head-to-head for a tournament title; while it may not be the national championship at stake, it would a great accomplishment for either program.
The two schools haven't even played each other since the 2003 NCAA Sweet 16, when Nick Collison exploded for 33 points and Kansas ended up winning, 69-65. How great would it be for the two "blue bloods" to battle each other for a title in Maui, yet alone in November?
The matchup is very intriguing, even to the casual college basketball fan, but it's unlikely either team will be at its strongest this early in the season.
Sure, Duke will have Austin Rivers to complement Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry on the perimeter. The Blue Devils will also have the Plumlee brothers trying to withstand opposing teams' big men. Kansas will also return proven players the likes of Tyshawn Taylor, Thomas Robinson and even Elijah Johnson.
However, neither school will have the one dominant player that can take over the game. Neither school will have its vintage All-Star lineup at the beginning of each contest. Neither school will be the "premier" team of the loaded tournament field in Maui.
That's what is special about these two programs: They have been successful for such a long period of time that, no matter what kind of players they have on their rosters, they will find a way to win—and win a lot of games.
That's what would make this championship game matchup the best early-season game of the year, and that's why the Jayhawks—and no other team in the field—have the best shot at beating the Blue Devils in Maui.