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Aloha Means Hello AND Goodbye, So "Aloha!"*: Maui Invitational Tournament Preview

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The tournament bracket is here.  First up for MSU is tournament host Chaminade at 9:30 p.m. ET tonight (ESPNU).  Assuming MSU wins, they'd play the UConn-Wichita State winner at 7:00 p.m. Tuesday night (ESPN).  Then they'd play Wednesday at either 5:00 p.m. (with a loss; ESPN2) or 10:00 p.m. (with a win; ESPN).

Chaminade gets to play in the thing because they are fortunately situated in our nation's 50th state and, well, it's their tournament.  The (Silver)Swords are, of course, most famous for upsetting the Ralph Sampson-led Virginia team in 1982--a game that apparently helped lead to the creation of the Maui Invitational.  A decade-plus later, Chaminade gave MSU a run for its money in Tom Izzo's first ever game as head coach (in 1995), coming within 3 points of upsetting the Spartans in that game.  MSU beat the Swords to open the 2005 invitational, before going on to lose the epic triple-OT game to Gonzaga and then beat Arizona in another OT affair.

This particular MSU team should put Chaminade away with relative ease, although the Swords do appear to have some quality players at the Division II level.  The team is coming off a 10-15 season, posting a 7-9 mark in PacWest play.  Last year, they lost their three Maui Invitational games by a combined 60 points.

The team returns 4 of its 5 starters, led by 5'6" senior guard Steven Bennett, who averaged 17.0 points and 5.0 assists per game last season.  He posted a .459/.345/.519 shooting line (2pt/3pt/FT), indicating he's not the purest of shooters.  Bennett is shooting a healthier .760 from the line this season through 3 games, averaging 19.3 points/game.

7'0" junior center Mamadou Diarra--who is now eligible after transferring from USC--gives the Swords a legitimate inside presence.  He's averaging 16.3 points (on .697 two-point shooting), 12.3 rebounds, and 5.3 points per game so far this season.  We'll see how he fares against the smaller but more-Division-I-ready Delvon Roe and Garrick Sherman.

Ideally, MSU will put Chaminade away early so the starters can rest at the end of the game, but the Spartans will need to show more intensity than they did against South Carolina for that to happen.  Limiting Kalin Lucas' minutes would be particularly helpful, as it's unlikely he can go 30 minutes/game on three consecutive nights at this point in his return from the Achilles' tear.  The team will need some quality minutes from Korie Lucious and Mike Kebler; the baseline for improvement is, of course, very low for Lucious, coming off last week's zero-point, five-turnover season debut.

As for the rest of the field in Maui, your big-picture statistical overview table is after the jump: 

Team 2010 Overall 2010 Conf KenPom Rk Offense Rk Defense Rk Adj Tempo Rk
Michigan State 28-9 14-4 8 15 11 74
Connecticut 18-16 7-11 42 47 35 99
Wichita State 25-10 12-6 73 68 100 292
Oklahoma 13-18 4-12 94 75 137 235
Kentucky 35-3 14-2 6 14 6 142
Virginia 15-16 5-11 71 77 80 309
Washington 26-10 11-7 16 28 14 7

Note: Rankings are based on KenPom projections for 2010-11 season.

MSU (#2 in the nation) enters as the nominal favorite to win the invitational over #12 Kentucky and #17 Washington.  Those other two ranked teams each bring one component of the two-part formula that has MSU sitting so high in the rankings, though.  Kentucky can match MSU in terms of pure talent, with a very highly-touted freshman class replacing the very highly-touted freshman class of last year that now mostly plays in the NBA.  Enes Kanter turned out not to be so much an amateur, but Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones (both at 18+ points/game through two games) are plenty good enough to build a national contender around.  Washington, meanwhile, has the same kind of player experience levels and depth as MSU, returning about three-quarters of its player minutes from last year's Pac-Ten Tournament Champion and Sweet Sixteen squad and playing 10 guys 14+ minutes/game through its first two (breakneck-paced) games this season.

MSU's two potential second-round opponents look to be good but not great teams.  Given MSU's traditional early-season struggles, though, either could knock the Spartans off.   UConn is coming off a disappointing season, but has a deep freshman class to go with returning point guard Kemba Walker (30.0 points/game through two games).  Last season, Wichita State beat eventual Kansas-beater and MSU NCAA foe Northern Iowa at home last season and played them to within 3 points on the road (they also lost a third meeting with UNI, in the conference tournament); this season, the Shockers are the preseason favorite to win the Missouri Valley Conference.

We'll try to fill in more details as the action proceeds, although I don't anticipate doing full game previews for the second and third games.  Given the injuries MSU has dealt with going into this season and the program's historical difficulties in these sorts of affairs, an appearance in the tournament final is probably an acceptable result.  The last time MSU won a neutral court preseason tournament was in 1998, when they won the Pearl Harbor Classic; the team has entered eight such tournaments since then, with no trophies to show for it.  A win in Wednesday's final would signal this MSU team might round into top form more quickly than previous editions have.

With the team's roster distinctly less deep than it was a few months ago and this tournament being played on a back-to-back-to-back schedule, contributions from the two freshmen (Keith Appling and Adreian Payne) will be needed, as will quality minutes from the two one-time walk-ons (Kebler and Austin Thornton).  Durrell Summers (19.5 points/game) and Draymond Green (15.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 3.5 blocks, [pauses for breath] and 3.5 steals per game) will look to build on their early individual success this season and lead the way to team success on the island.

*50 bonus points if you can name the stupendous TV sitcom from which that line originates.