To college basketball fans, Thanksgiving week means one thing — Maui Invitational time! Luckily for Tennessee fans, this year includes watching the Vols as they were one of the seven teams invited to the tournament. The Maui Invitational is one of the most anticipated regular season tournaments of the college basketball season and seem to bring a handful of high-profile programs every year. Hosted by Chaminade University, the Silverswords round out the field of eight. This year’s group is arguably the most loaded in Maui Invitational history, with the programs combining for 14 national championships. The bracket can be seen here.
Of the eight teams, three of them were ranked in the preseason top 10 — Oregon (No. 4), North Carolina (No. 5) and Wisconsin (No. 9). As for the rest of the field, Connecticut and Georgetown are teams with Top 25 talent. Oklahoma State has Jawun Evans, one of the most exciting point guards in college basketball college basketball. Chaminade is a Division II school who typically find themselves in the seventh place game. And then, there’s Tennessee.
This year will mark the third trip Tennessee has made to Maui. They finished in fourth in 2004 and seventh in 2011. Unfortunately for Tennessee fans, the odds are better for them to match its 2011 finish. They’ve been dealt a tough hand.
The Vols kick off action in Maui today against No. 9 Wisconsin at 2:30 p.m. ET. The Badgers will be amongst the most talented teams Tennessee will face all season and will provide quite an uphill battle in avoiding an opening round loss. Wisconsin enters the game with a 2-1 record after suffering an upset loss to Creighton, but despite the loss, is still a team deserving of a top 15 ranking. The Badgers are very talented and experienced, with the starting five consisting of four seniors, including Big Ten preseason player of the year Nigel Hayes. The senior averaged roughly 16 points and six rebounds a season ago and is one of three Badgers who earned preseason All-Big Ten recognition. Joining him on the list, was senior guard Bronson Koening and sophomore forward Ethan Happ.
For Tennessee, head coach Rick Barnes said they will continue to monitor the ankle injury to freshman point guard Kwe Parker and the Vols could use his quick presence on the court this week. Due to a mismatch in both size and talent, Tennessee will more than likely lose the opening game to Wisconsin. So what would be next?
The other matchup on the Vols’ side of the bracket is No. 4 Oregon vs. Georgetown. Following a trip to the Elite Eight last season, Oregon brings back a loaded roster and could very well be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament again this season. The Ducks have been without their best player, Dillon Brooks, thus far and it’s uncertain whether he will play this weekend. But even if he remains sidelined, they have the talent to compete for the championship in Maui. As for Georgetown, the Hoyas have the talent to be a tournament team, but after starting the season 1-2, have proven just as capable of blowing games and failing to compete for all 40 minutes. With that being said, Isaac Copeland, L.J. Peak and Jessie Goven are all very nice players.
Odds are, the Vols will face Georgetown for a chance to advance to the fifth place game. Tennessee would likely be a near double-digit underdog, but that’s okay, though. This isn’t a tournament the Vols were expected to make any noise in. This is a young and growing program that should appreciate this tournament for what it will be — an awesome opportunity to compete against some of college basketball’s best. A young team needs that.
As long as encouraging performances are given against superior opponents, this tournament should be marked as a success for a program at the level Tennessee is at right now. Now, a loss to Chaminade in the seventh place game or if multiple blowout losses occur, then there’s a reason to be concerned.
But who knows, maybe Tennessee can force turnovers, get out in transition and knock down its three pointers. That’s how Creighton was able to beat Wisconsin, and sure, it’s possible Tennessee could somehow pull off an opening round upset using a similar recipe for success. Even if that were to happen, the Vols would more than likely face Oregon next, and is anyone expecting Tennessee to beat ranked opponents in consecutive days? Encouraging efforts are the goal, but maybe Rick Barnes and his squad could end up surprising some folks.
First Round Predictions
No. 9 Wisconsin vs. Tennessee
Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes should be too much to handle for Tennessee down low and you can’t forget about Bronson Koening either. Wisconsin should handle this game rather easily.
Wisconsin 84, Tennessee 68
No. 4 Oregon vs. Georgetown
Even if Dillon Brooks is forced to miss another game, the rest of Oregon’s core should still be too much for Georgetown to handle. The Hoyas should give the Ducks a run for the majority of the game, but expect Oregon to run away with it in the last few minutes.
Oregon 83, Georgetown 72
Connecticut vs. Oklahoma State
UConn has had quite the disappointing start, dropping two of its first three games to the likes of Wagner and Northeastern. Regardless, the Huskies have plenty of talent and don’t be surprised if they come out looking to make a statement. For Oklahoma State, Juwan Evans is a top point guard and a joy to watch. He’s averaged 23 points and six assists through three games.
Oklahoma State 76, UConn 73
No. 5 North Carolina vs. Chaminade
Outside of Duke and Kentucky, there may not be a better team in the country than North Carolina. Joel Berry Jr. has quietly become one of the best point guards in the country. The Tar Heels should handle this game with ease.
North Carolina 96, Chaminade 62
- North Carolina
- Oklahoma State
Edited by Dalton King
Featured image by Vol Hoops, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics