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Maui Invitational Preview: All eyes on North Carolina


Success in Maui has been a good sign for most teams in recent years. Two of the last four Maui Invitational champions have gone on to win the national title (2008-09 North Carolina, 2010-11 Connecticut). Players like Kemba Walker, Ty Lawson, Kyle Singler and Adam Morrison have thrived in this tournament in recent seasons as well.

The field isn’t as strong as its been in recent years with the Battle 4 Atlantis (which begins on Thanksgiving) taking the mantle for top early-season tournament this season. Still, there’s plenty to keep an eye on in Maui this week.

North Carolina may be the top team here, but teams like Marquette, USC, Texas and Illinois are all hungry to make statements. Here’s our preview of the action in Maui.

Will James Michael McAdoo be this year’s breakout player in Maui?
McAdoo has been the breakout star he was expected to be so far this season, averaging 21 points and 11.3 rebounds in the first three games. The competition level in Maui will be turned up a notch, especially if North Carolina advances past Mississippi State, which is rebuilding under first-year coach Rick Ray. McAdoo is taking an awful lot of shots, however, with 17 against both Long Beach State and FAU and 20 against Gardner-Webb. The focus may be on his supporting cast just as much as its on McAdoo becoming a potential All-American.

Intriguing potential matchup: North Carolina vs. Marquette in the semifinal
Marquette’s season has been a bit disjointed so far, first with the opener against Ohio State canceled and then with inconsistent showings (especially on defense) against Colgate and Southeastern Louisiana. Davante Gardner has been a rock on the inside, something that will need to continue in a potential matchup with Carolina. That said, Marquette’s lack of rhythm shouldn’t be a total surprise with Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom gone. North Carolina is still working out its personnel as well, so both teams will be worth watching as they figure out rotations and matchups.

Player to watch: Sheldon McClellan, Texas.
With Myck Kabongo out while the NCAA investigates impermissible benefits, McClellan has carried the Longhorns with 20 points in a close call with Fresno State and then 25 against Coppin State. Kabongo has been cleared to travel to Hawaii, but Texas might not expect him to play in Maui. That shouldn't be a problem in the first game against host Chaminade, but potential second round opponents USC and Illinois both rely on high-scoring backcourts. McClellan will need to continue his heroics, but the young Texas team will need to find answers elsewhere on the court. Texas needed late free throws from McClellan to beat Fresno State and needed to overcome 26 team turnovers to beat Coppin State.

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MAUI INVITATIONAL Site: Honolulu, Hawaii
Dates: Monday-Wednesday
First-round games (All times Eastern)
Butler vs. Marquette, 3:30 p.m., ESPN2
Miss. St. vs. North Carolina, 6 p.m., ESPN
Texas vs. Chaminade, 4:30 p.m., ESPNU
USC vs. Illinois, midnight, ESPN2
Final: Sunday, 6:30 p.m., ESPN2
Top potential matchup for the final:
North Carolina vs. USC
Bracket (.pdf)

Individual matchup to watch: Illinois’ shooters vs. USC
Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson like to shoot the ball, something that helped the Illini save themselves from embarrassment against Hawaii when Richardson hit a game-winning three-pointer in overtime. USC coach Kevin O’Neill generally has good defensive teams, so a first-round test against Illinois will be worth keeping an eye on.

Freshman to watch: Marcus Paige, North Carolina.
After a 1 of 10 performance from 3-point range in the first game, North Carolina’s perimeter game has been much improved in the last two. Paige has been up-and-down in his first three games, which isn’t a total shock for a freshman. His main job will be to run North Carolina’s fast-paced offense and set up James Michael McAdoo. Should North Carolina advance, Paige will run into a handful of veteran backcourts, a key test for the stud freshman.

Sleeper team to watch: USC
USC has perhaps the most potential for a major turnaround in the Pac-12, but that speaks quite a bit to how dreadful the Trojans were a year ago. USC has a handful of transfers including J.T. Howell from Wake Forest, Eric Wise for UC Irvine and Omar Oraby from Rice. But the most important addition is a healthy Jio Fontan, a great leader at point guard. How all these pieces fit together will be critical for USC’s season.