The Maui Invitational begins today and wraps up Wednesday, just in time for you to spend the night before Thanksgiving talking to that awkward high school friend you haven't seen in five years. ('Tis the reason for the Thanksgiving season. Well, that and the Maui.)
Earlier, we broke down the first four teams in the bracket, which you can read here. Now it's time to take a look, including respective best- and worst-case scenarios, for the four teams set to tip off this evening. Want to refer to a bracket? Here you go. To the rundown, part deux:
Their story: UCLA fans can feel free to skip this portion of the preview; that's how ugly the Bruins' story has been thus far this season. The preseason favorite to win the Pac-12, UCLA opened with an 11-point loss to Loyola Marymount, followed by -- get this -- a 20-point loss to Middle Tennessee. Even worse, both losses came at home (or UCLA's temporary version of a home, the LA Sports Arena, which is filling in for the Pauley Pavilion while it undergoes renovations this season). In the meantime, coach Ben Howland suspended forward Reeves Nelson, UCLA's most productive and most unpredictable player, after he sulked through much of the loss to LMU. After the Bruins suffered the MTSU debacle -- and after Nelson tweeted "WOW" from the comfort of his couch -- Howland quickly reinstated his power forward.
Naturally, the episode and the losses that sandwiched it raise serious doubts about this talented but disjointed team. Can Nelson get his act together? Does his attitude, the early play of the Wear twins, and the need to get big minutes for emerging sophomore Joshua Smith mean this frontcourt is simply too crowded to work? What about that backcourt? Can UCLA turn this season around before things snowball and Howland suffers a disastrous repeat of the 2010 train wreck? Now's the time to find out.
Player to watch: Tyler Lamb. I was going to point to Nelson, and you would have definitely wanted to keep an eye on him, all the better to watch for apathetic shoulder shrugs, teammates' ignored high-fives and a variety of other similarly corrosive behaviors. Alas, Nelson -- if you can believe this -- missed the bus to the airport with his team and had to catch a later flight to Hawaii. But even if Nelson is absent, the frontcourt is in decent shape. The backcourt, however, is this team's real weakness. The Bruins lost Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt to the NBA draft this summer, leaving Howland with much less experience, depth, length and defensive solidity at the point of attack. Lamb was just a freshman last season, and he's still finding his way, but any emergence from him, even as a solid-but-unspectacular game manager, would be a boon to UCLA's depleted ranks.
Best case: UCLA puts the past week's mess behind it, congeals in a convincing win over Chaminade, beats or at least pushes Kansas to the absolute limit in the second round and calms the nerves of the many freaked-out Bruins fans, if only temporarily.
Worst case: Chaminade shocks the world. If this happens, Howland might just be better off staying in Hawaii. ("When life hands you lemons, just say [forget] the lemons and bail.")
Their story: Besides having one of the best team nicknames anywhere -- it would have been so easy to settle for "Swords," but Chaminade went the extra mile, and I respect that -- Chaminade is also the Maui Invitational host and its perennially plucky never-say-never upset threat. Usually, the Division II school is easily dispatched in the first round. In 2010, though, Chaminade pushed Michigan State for 38 minutes before eventually losing 82-74. Then the Silverswords went on to beat Oklahoma. Could they go the distance against a reeling UCLA team?
Player to watch: Steven Bennett. He is listed at 5-foot-6, which means he's probably an inch or so shorter than that, but that doesn't stop him from putting up numbers: The point guard averaged 13 points, five assists and three rebounds per game last season, and he's already eclipsing those numbers, while playing about 37 minutes per game, in the Swords' first two games this season.
Best case: Bennett & Co. take advantage of whatever funk UCLA began the season in, dropping the Bruins to 0-3 and earning top billing on "SportsCenter" for at least one night.
Worst case: Chaminade can't keep up with its Division I opponents and makes an expected appearance in the seventh-place game.
Their story: After losing star guards Austin Freeman and Chris Wright and defensive stopper Julian Vaughn to graduation, John Thompson III's team appears to be in a bridge year. The players the Hoyas retained -- guard Jason Clark and face-up forward Hollis Thompson, in particular -- are more accustomed to supporting roles. The young players JTIII recruited -- including ESPNU top 100 prospects Otto Porter, Michael Hopkins and Jabril Trawick -- look like they'll need some time to adjust to the college game. In their first two games, seven Hoyas have averaged more than 20 minutes, and nine have averaged more than 12.5. Georgetown should be eager to prove it's a little bit better than most people think, but at this stage of the season, Thompson III is still finding out what he has.
Player to watch: Hollis Thompson. As a role player and spot shooter at the stretch forward position in 2011, Thompson had the benefit of selectivity in his shooting; when Freeman and Wright are running the show, you don't have to score. That helped make him Georgetown's most efficient offensive player. Thompson won't be able to pick and choose his spots in 2011-12. He'll have to be the guy. It's almost certain that will cause a drop in his efficiency, but Thompson has been shooting the ball at a torrential pace in his first two games; he's made 7 of 9 from 3 to start the season. If he can stay hot, you never know.
Best case: Thompson causes mismatch problems with Kansas' big men, shoots lights-out from beyond the arc and steers Georgetown to a surprising upset victory over a good but hardly unbeatable Kansas team.
Worst case: Georgetown's talented and athletic freshmen aren't ready to match the interior size and strength of Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey, and Georgetown is relegated to play Chaminade in the loser's bracket Tuesday.
Their story: This is almost certainly the least talented team Bill Self has ever coached at Kansas. It's a testament to how good his teams have been that one could plausibly say that about a team with a lottery pick at power forward (Thomas Robinson), a 7-foot shot-blocking machine at center (Jeff Withey), a four-year starter at point guard (Tyshawn Taylor) and a veteran sharpshooter on the wing (Elijah Johnson). Still, Kansas was obviously outclassed in its Champions Classic blowout loss to Kentucky, and without freshmen Jamari Traylor and Ben McLemore, Self simply is forced to go to walk-ons when he needs to rest his starters for any extended period of time. Does that mean Kansas is going to take a step back this season? Or can Self squeeze enough water from this stone in time to maintain the Jayhawks' impressive streak of Big 12 conference titles?
Player to watch: Thomas Robinson. KU's system works best when its bigs are either so dominant they can catch the ball near the rim and score immediately (think Cole Aldrich) or so skilled they can draw a double-team and move the ball to the perimeter to get guards a plethora of open looks (think Marcus and Markieff Morris). Robinson has the former qualities in spades; few bigs in the country have his combination of strength, size, athleticism and aggressive finishing around the rim. But Robinson's skill set remains limited, and he hasn't shown that he can (A) score with his back to the basket or (B) find the preferred pass when defensive help arrives. His development in these areas might be the most important factor in KU's season. Robinson is insanely talented, but if all that talent still needs a little polish, Self's high-flying offensive machine finds itself frustrated for large stretches.
Best case: If Robinson dominates, Withey blocks everything in his path, Taylor delivers heady point guard play and Johnson provides much-needed scoring at the guard, there's no reason Kansas can't bring a Maui title back to Lawrence in time for Thanksgiving.
Worst case: KU's draw is the most favorable of any prospective favorite; the toughest team it could possibly face before the final is UCLA. But the Jayhawks are still a work in progress, and if they stagnate against the Hoyas, Georgetown might just be able to shoot them off the floor.