<
>

Duke freshmen face high-profile test at Maui Invitational

play
Pierce on Duke: 'They can beat Cleveland' (1:15)

Paul Piece is all in on Zion Williamson and Duke, and says that the Blue Devils can beat the Cavaliers. (1:15)

LAHAINA, Hawaii -- On Sunday morning, the Pacific Ocean's violent waves crashed against the edge of the Hawaiian island that will host the Maui Jim Maui Invitational, the most notable and intriguing tournament of the holiday season.

Duke, Auburn, Iowa State, Arizona, Illinois, Xavier, Gonzaga and San Diego State will all battle at the Lahaina Civic Center in the event that begins Monday.

Duke will enter the tournament as America's most imposing team. Its 34-point win over Kentucky in the Championship Classic, the most lopsided loss of John Calipari's career, announced to the world that Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish and the Blue Devils must be reckoned with on the road to the national tile.

This is where the Duke hype, however, could take a hit. A stacked, single-elimination tournament in November played 4,700 miles from Durham, North Carolina, could become a humbling experience for a young team.

Three top-10 teams are here (Duke, Gonzaga and Auburn). Five projected first-round picks in ESPN's 2019 mock draft (Williamson, Reddish, Barrett, San Diego State's Jalen McDaniels, Gonzaga's and Rui Hachimura) are here, too.

To win the title in Maui, Duke might have to beat a San Diego State squad that made 44.4 percent of its 3-pointers, an Auburn team that could win the SEC and a Gonzaga squad that has led by a lottery pick.

Duke acted as a juggernaut when Mike Krzyzewski's team hogtied Kentucky in Indianapolis. But Army was down just six points with 12 minutes to play in the second half after making 39 percent of its 3-pointers against Duke only days after that Champions Classic game. That does not mean Duke is a lesser force than the team we witnessed in the Champions Classic.

It does represent, however, the reality among the teams in this field and beyond: November basketball is scary because the season is so fresh and so many questions have not been answered.

Arizona won the Pac-12 title last year but its three consecutive losses in the Battle 4 Atlantis last November dropped the program from the Top 25 rankings. During the 2004-05 season, North Carolina lost to Santa Clara in its season opener. Florida had two losses by Dec. 3 in the 2006-07 season, the same season the team won its second consecutive national championship. Connecticut suffered a 16-point loss to Georgia Tech on Nov. 26, 2003, months before the Huskies beat the Yellow Jackets in the national title game.

Just like those teams that eventually found their footing and matured into the dominant programs they were projected to be entering the season, the Blue Devils could leave Maui with a collection of impressive wins that elevate the buzz about the program and its pursuit of Krzyzewski's third national title since 2010. This is a difficult, albeit early, test for the talented program.

Here are five other things to know about the Maui Jim Maui Invitational:

play
1:11

Zion puts on a dunk show in Duke's win.

Zion Williamson shows off the athleticism, throwing down a variety of dunks in a 21-point, 9-rebound and 2-assist performance in Duke's 84-46 win.

Zion Williamson could leave Maui as the unanimous favorite to win the Wooden Award and secure the No. 1 pick

The Maui Invitational has rearranged the seating chart in the arena to accommodate the flurry of NBA scouts and executives who are expected to attend this week's games. Williamson is the most intriguing prospect here. Right now, Williamson is also atop the early list for potential national player of the year candidates. He leads a team that has ranked first in adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom.com. He has made 86.1 percent of his shots inside the arc and committed turnovers on less than 10 percent of his possessions. He has an opportunity to wow voters for end-of-season accolades and NBA power brokers alike this week.

Rui Hachimura could steal Williamson's spotlight

Two seasons ago, Gonzaga's star didn't play in the national title game against North Carolina. Today, he's a legit lottery prospect and versatile threat. The 6-foot-8 forward made noise on the international circuit last summer when he led Japan's national team to a win over an Australian squad that featured NBA players Thon Maker and Matthew Dellavedova. But he hasn't enjoyed the attention that Duke's stars have been granted thus far. That could change in Maui. Through three games, Hachimura is averaging 22.7 points. And if Gonzaga and Duke meet in the title game on Wednesday, a strong performance by Hachimura against Williamson could raise his stock among NBA executives.

Some big names will miss the event

The field in Maui is impressive. But some of the top players that fans hoped to see when they booked the trip will not play. Iowa State's Lindell Wigginton, a projected second-round pick by ESPN.com, will miss this week's games with a foot injury. The guard told ESPN he expects to return in early December. Auburn's Danjel Purifoy continues to sit as part of a nine-game suspension for his alleged connection to the ongoing federal probe of a corruption scandal in college basketball. Illinois standout Trent Frazier, who missed last week's game against Georgetown and has been under concussion protocol, is questionable though he traveled with the team to Maui. And Gonzaga star Killian Tillie will miss this week's action due to an ankle injury that could sideline him for the first two months of the season.

We'll find out if Duke can really shoot in Maui

Duke has made at least 37 percent of its 3-point attempts each season since the 2009-10. This year's group has a 37.2 percent clip through three games. But those numbers don't tell the full story. The Blue Devils made a ridiculous 46 percent of their 3-pointers against Kentucky in the Champions Classic and 42 percent of their 3-point attempts against Army. But they made just 20 percent of their shots from beyond the arc against Eastern Michigan. When you have three players who could snatch the top three spots in the NBA draft (Williamson, Barrett and Reddish), talent is never a concern. If the Blue Devils continue to shoot the way they did against Kentucky, and the Eastern Michigan effort was just an anomaly, they'll be incredibly difficult to stop this season. A team with that talent and shooting from the perimeter is a terrible matchup for any team in America. A strong effort this week would prove that Duke is a dangerous and consistent threat from the 3-point line. And if that's the case, good luck, America.

Yes, Auburn can beat Duke and win the tournament

Bruce Pearl is one of America's most polarizing coaches. Two of his players were suspended last season and his assistant, Chuck Person, was arrested and indicted on federal charges all in connection to the FBI investigation that has rocked college basketball. Yet, Pearl remains. His rebuilding effort at Auburn is a great story. The Tigers won the SEC title last season and they're a threat to repeat despite losing Mustapha Heron, the team's top scorer in 2017-18. Austin Wiley, one of the players who missed last season due to the FBI probe, is back and already changing the program. With Wiley on the floor, Auburn has averaged 1.41 points per possession while connecting on 66.7 percent of its shots inside the arc, per hooplens.com. Bryce Brown and Jared Harper form a strong backcourt. Anfernee McLemore, the forward who suffered a season-ending leg injury last year, is healthy again. Auburn can beat Duke in Maui.

All-Maui First Team

G (Auburn) Jared Harper (15.0 PPG, 7.3 APG)
G/F (Duke) RJ Barrett (25.3 PPG)
G (Iowa State) Marial Shayok (20.0 PPG, 38.5 percent from beyond the arc)
F (Duke) Zion Williamson (25.3 PPG, 10.7 RPG)
F (Gonzaga) Rui Hachimura (22.7 PPG, 5.7 RPG)

All-Maui Second Team

G (Illinois) Ayo Dosunmu (21.5 PPG)
G/F (Duke) Cam Reddish (16.7 PPG)
F (Gonzaga) Brandon Clarke (16.0 PPG, 11.0 RPG)
F (Xavier) Naji Marshall (14.3 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 4.0 APG)
F Jalen McDaniels (14.5 PPG, 9.0 RPG)

Sleeper of the field

Iowa State doesn't have a full team right now with Lindell Wigginton, Cam Lard and Solomon Young all sidelined, but this veteran group could exceed expectations in Maui. Steve Prohm expects to have his team at full strength sometime next month. He doesn't feel as vulnerable without Wigginton as he might have a year ago because this season's team is much deeper. The Cyclones are an interesting team, even without their best player.

Player who could surprise

After losing Deandre Ayton, Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins, Sean Miller expected Arizona to struggle. At Pac-12 media day, he said he wasn't sure if his team deserved a top-six ranking in the league's preseason poll. But Brandon Randolph has taken advantage of the void to put up big numbers (18.7 PPG) for Arizona. He could shine in Maui. The Wildcats need three great games from the 6-6- guard.

Who will win?

Auburn is a talented program with veterans who won't be intimidated by Duke's elite freshmen. Gonzaga is a national title contender too. But Williamson is the player who will create chaos in Maui. He's just a unique asset in college basketball.

He can get the rim when he wants. He's a stellar passer. He's smart. He gets other players involved. And he's unpredictable, in a good way.

Duke might have flaws but its overwhelming talent pool will continue to mask the bulk of them. Duke and Gonzaga will battle in the title game with the Blue Devils emerging as the champion of the Maui Invitational.

Prediction for the title game: Duke 87, Gonzaga 83