After two impressive performances against clearly inferior teams, this week's Maui Invitational is a chance for the Washington Huskies to prove just how good they really are against elite competition.
Although people are starting to wonder if this year's Huskies can make it to the Final Four, it's still too early to make any concrete prognostications - just ask fellow Maui Invitational participant Kentucky. On top of the fact that there are over 30 games left in the season, it's also worth acknowledging that UW has plenty of young talent - most notably sophomore guard Abdul Gaddy - who are more than capable of improving dramatically over the course of the season and making this team even better come March Madness time.
So let's put all the forward thinking ahead for a moment - as basketball fans, this year's Maui Invitational is exciting in its own right. And since it's probably safe to assume that Seattle fans are plenty familiar with UW's nascent 2010-11 identity - a team with outstanding perimeter defense, a more versatile rotation than past seasons, and with still more to come from potent scorer Isaiah Thomas - here's a look at the rest of the Maui field and the path UW's early season test might take before things kick off.
Of course, all of this is based on three games or less and we'll know more about all of these teams as the tournament progresses, but let's start with what we have based on a combination of statistics (click here for a description of Dean Oliver's Four Factors) and what we thought we knew about these teams in the pre-season.
First round opponent: University of Virginia
Key statistical performer: Mike Scott, F (6-foot-8, 240, Sr.)
Statistical strength: offensive rebounding (UVA: 29.76 offensive rebounding percentage vs. opponents: 20.88 percent)
Despite claims out there to the contrary, you pretty much know what to expect from a Tony Bennett coached team: defense and potentially long scoring droughts. And certainly that will present the Huskies - a program Bennett is familiar with from his Washington State days - a new challenge at this stage in the season.
UVA has been outrebounding opponents overall, led by the rebounding of forward Mike Scott who is averaging nine rebounds a game and three offensive rebounds per game. However, Stanford thoroughly dominated the offensive boards in their matchup with UVA last Thursday, nearly doubling their offensive rebounding production by percentage. In fact, Stanford beat them in every area of the major Four Factors to winning. If we assume - and most people at this point seem to - that UW is significantly better than Stanford this year, then perhaps we can assume that the Huskies will advance to the second round.
Potential second round opponent: Oklahoma
Key statistical performer: Andrew Fitzgerald, F (6-foot-8, 235, So.)
Statistical strength: shooting efficiency (OU: 53.66 percent effective shooting percentage vs. opponents: 43.13 effective field goal percentage)
To say that Oklahoma had a tumultuous season in their 2009-10 campaign might be an understatement. And after losing four starters, it was probably safe to keep expectations low for this season. However, through three early season games against teams of little consequence on the national landscape they have performed well statistically. That it took overtime to beat North Carolina Central 71-63 is probably reason for concern as they look ahead to a first-round meeting with Kentucky in Maui, but there are reasons for optimism.
One is the improved rebounding of Andrew Fitzgerald, who has tripled his rebounding average from last season thus far. That in addition to his continued offensive efficiency might give the team some hope, but whether the team can keep up their performance against a strong Kentucky team is another story.
Potential second round opponent: Kentucky
Key statistical performer: Doron Lamb, G (6-foot-4, 195, Fr.)
Statistical strength: shooting efficiency (UK: 65 percent effective shooting percentage vs. opponents: 37.9 percent effective field goal percentage)
A second round match between UK and UW could end up being the marquee matchup of the tournament, if not because they are presumed to be the strongest teams in the tournament because Terrance Jones will face the team he spurned under questionable circumstances and because Brandon Knight is good.
But for now, let's highlight another freshman, 6-foot-4 guard Doron Lamb who has started well out of the gate helping Kentucky's shooting efficiency by shooting 73 percent from the field and 6-for-9 from the 3-point line. If we are to believe that one of the Huskies' strengths is perimeter defense with guard Venoy Overton as well as improved defensive play from Isaiah Thomas then this could be a good barometer for just how good they are.
Other half of the bracket:
Key statistical performer: David Kyles, G (6-foot-4, 184, Jr.)
Statistical strength: shooting efficiency (WSU: 63 percent effective field goal percentage vs. opponents 47.4 percent effective field goal percentage)
One game is not enough to say much of anything about a team, but WSU's 23.5 percent turnover percentage against Texas Southern might be reason for concern in their first round matchup against Connecticut. That said, the games are played for a reason and David Kyles' 5-for-7 three point shooting in their first game will be important for a team that shot 6-for-18 overall in its first contest. Things might not be quite as easy against Connecticut.
Key statistical performer: Kemba Walker, G (6-foot-1, 172, Jr.)
Statistical strength: offensive rebounding (UConn: 50.6 offensive rebounding percentage vs. opponents: 26.5 percent)
Good luck to Wichita State in stopping Kemba Walker, who just dropped 42 on Vermont last week on 15-for-24 shooting. Of course, he also shot 6-for-17 against Stony Brook and is turning the ball over a little more than one might want from a guard with the ball in his hands so often, but he will demand attention from the defense and that's what matters most.
As a team, they've been rebounding well and that begins with 6-foot-9 post player Alex Oriakhi who is averaging 4.5 offensive rebounds per game. One test in Maui will be whether they can keep up that offensive rebounding against stroner competition that might have players to contend with Oriakhi and few other players who stand out as exceptional rebounders.
Chaminade (Host, Division II)
Key statistical performer: Mamadou Diarra, C (7-foot-0, 235, Jr.)
Statistical strength: shooting efficiency (CU: 54.97 percent effective field goal percentage vs. opponents: 42.86 percent)
One might figure that Michigan State will have a relatively easy time with Chaminade, but the Spartans will have to contend with Diarra who averages over five blocks per game. As Pac-10 fans might remember, Diarra began his collegiate career with USC and proved that he is an athletic big man with the ability to run the floor in defend before his career with the Trojans was stymied by injury. But Diarra aside, there's only so much we can read into the numbers of Chaminade this point as they prepare to face the #2 team in the nation.
Key statistical performer: Draymond Green, F (6-foot-6, 230, Jr.)
Statistical strength: shooting efficiency (MSU: 59.38 percent effective field goal percentage vs. opponents' 41.10 percent)
Michigan State has gotten strong shooting from across the roster during their first two games and is currently shooting 43.3 percent from 3-point range. And although they aren't dominating the boards as one might expect, forward Draymond Green is doing his part.
Green is currently pulling in nearly 25 percent of the defensive rebounds available to him and averaging 10 rebounds per game in addition to scoring 15 points per game on 75 percent shooting. But most impressive about Green's game is his versatility - having shown the ability to handle the ball at the end of last season, Green is arguably the most efficient ball handler on the team, assisting teammates on over 30 percent of his possessions while turning it over on just over 10 percent. Although Green deserves the majority of the statistical credit for MSU's success through two games this season, teams will still have to find a way to contain Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers, who is picking up where he left off from last season averaging a team-high 19.5 points per game.
The class of this tournament is probably Connecticut, Kentucky, Michigan State and Washington with the Huskies likely to face Michigan State in the championship round if they can get by Kentucky, which will be a challenge in its own right. While UW's perimeter defense might be among the best in this tournament, we'll leave this tournament with a very good idea of just how good those perimeter players are if they face the likes of Kentucky and/or Michigan State. The other question that may be tested in this tournament is how well their much talented versatility holds up against stiffer defenses.
But the bottom line is that it will be good tournament with plenty of tests to gauge where UW is right now.