At the beginning of each college basketball season, fans and critics get a taste of tournament basketball in November. For most teams, this opportunity provides an early checkpoint to see not only how far a team has progressed since the dog days of summer lifting, but more importantly, in what areas they need to improve before conference play commences.
For teams that slip under the pundits’ radar, an early-season tournament can also be an emphatic coming-out party. This was the case at this year’s Maui Invitational for the previously unproven young squad out of Storrs, Connecticut, the UConn Huskies.
With three freshmen, a sophomore, and a junior logging the most minutes through five games, it is unnerving to consider what this UConn team may be capable of doing this season, as well as in the coming years.
Yet entering the Maui Invitational, there were only moderate expectations for the unranked Huskies. After squeaking by perennial mid-major contender Wichita State, the Huskies came up against the No. 2 Michigan State Spartans.
Behind 30 points from instant superstar Kemba Walker and a monstrous 15-point, 17-rebound game from sophomore Alex Oriakhi, UConn knocked off the Big 10 favorites. Freshman Shabazz Napier shut down Kalin Lucas, holding the senior guard to only ten points en route to the upset.
On the other side of the bracket, two of the country’s most athletic teams, Washington and Kentucky, went head-to-head in a wild, up-tempo semifinal after beating unimpressive squads from Virginia and Oklahoma, respectively.
Two players who, in this game, emerged as potential stars were the dynamic guards who run each team’s offense: Isaiah Thomas for Washington and Brandon Knight for the Wildcats. On this night, Knight got the better of Thomas, scoring 24 points and shooting Kentucky into the Maui Invitational championship game.
Knight’s performance was solid, albeit erratic as times, as he finished with eight turnovers. Kentucky overcame those errors thanks to a dominant performance on the glass, led by freshman forward Terrence Jones, who tallied 17 boards to go along with 16 points.
The final game pitted two traditional powerhouse programs against one another, with youth and energy the common denominator. UConn completed its surprise run by completely demolishing their second-straight top 10 opponent, leading by 21 at the break and never looking back.
Walker and Oriakhi were the star pair once again for UConn, perhaps the best inside-outside duo in the country at this point in the season.
(It will be interesting to see just how high UConn is ranked in the next poll, considering that they were unranked last week. A No. 1 ranking does not seem out of the question given what they accomplished in Maui, and it would be difficult to argue that any other team in the nation accomplished more in November.)
While this fast start for UConn may seem to have come out of nowhere, three of its key players have been playing with each other for years. Oriakhi, Napier, and important contributor off the bench, Jamal Coombs-McDaniel all hail from the Boston area and have been part of the same AAU circuit for the better part of the last decade.
This familiarity may be a part of what has allowed such an inexperienced team to look so polished through the first month of the season.
While UConn’s rise to the Maui title stole the headlines, much was revealed about the other squads over the course of the week’s games. Kentucky, incredibly, has reloaded very quickly after losing their entire starting line-up to the NBA Draft last summer.
It had an excellent guard/big-man duo in freshmen Terence Jones and Brandon Knight. With Tennessee winning the NIT Tip-Off Final against Villanova, it looks like the SEC may be a thrilling two-horse race at the top.
Michigan State, coming off last season’s Final Four appearance, is the only team out of these early-season contenders with the all-important experience factor on their side. The Spartans have been to the last two Final Fours, giving this particular squad invaluable maturity and poise.
Behind Kalin Lucas, the Big Ten preseason Player of the Year, their third-place finish in Maui will surely provide motivation for improvement and revenge, should UConn find themselves on the same side of the bracket as the Spartans in March.
Meanwhile, Washington appears ready to challenge for the Pac-10 crown thanks to remarkable speed and athleticism. The chief downfall in their fourth place finish at Maui was undisciplined shot selection, but if Coach Lorenzo Romar can mold the exceptional talent in Seattle, the Huskies could be a team to fear.
Ian Halpern is the basketball editor at The Juice Online.