Just a few days before Thanksgiving, the Arizona men's basketball team will make their way to the island of Maui, Hawaii and participate in one of college basketball's most iconic events: the Maui Jim Maui Invitational. A three-day tournament consisting of eight teams will take place at the Lahaina Civic Center, a historical venue that holds just 2,400 seats and has been the tournament's host since 1987.
The upcoming trip will be the Wildcats' eighth trip to the island, but the first under Tommy Lloyd, as the program's last visit to the island occurred in 2018 with Sean Miller finishing with a record of one win and two losses. The school holds a 14-8 record in the tournament while bringing the trophy back to Tucson in 2000 and 2014.
This year's field is loaded with talent, one that will leave viewers glued to the television screen for three days straight. The Tournament is from Nov. 21 to Nov. 23. Here is a breakdown of the current teams that will be joining Tommy Lloyd and his Arizona Wildcats.
The Razorbacks of the University of Arkansas will likely be seen as one of the front-runners to win this year's tournament pending the availability of five-star freshman Nick Smith Jr. as he deals with a knee injury. Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh will join Smith as the focal point of success in Fayetteville, Arkansas this winter. The group will be battle-tested early in their college careers, and head coach Eric Musselman likely understands that growing pains will transpire as he looks to replace almost all of his rotation from a team that was a Duke loss shy of reaching the Final Four. The only returning piece from last year's nine-man rotation is junior guard Davonte Davis who averaged 8.3 points per game. Davis will have to step up and lead this bunch early on throughout the tournament especially if Smith is sidelined. The Razorbacks will play the University of Louisville in the opening round on Nov. 21.
Upperclassmen will have to pave the way if the University of Cincinnati and head coach Wes Miller want to leave Maui victorious. The Bearcats will likely be seen as underdogs in all of their contests. The Bearcats had a disappointing seven-win and eleven-loss record in the American Athletic Conference last season. However, Miller has high aspirations as he hopes to flip the culture of Cincinnati basketball. Compared to recent years, Miller and staff have a rather veteran-heavy backcourt, as David DeJulius and Rob Phinisee will be responsible for handling the rock with Jeremiah Davenport. DeJulius and Phinisee will be entering their fifth year of NCAA eligibility.
Coincidentally, the pair began their college careers playing in the Big-10 conference for their respective programs. Nonetheless, the key factor is that their leadership will hopefully play dividends as both have played on many big stages in their college careers. The program landed transfer Landers Nolley II from the University of Memphis and has high hopes he can be a top option offensively. The senior will provide physicality and instant shot-making ability to Miller’s offense and can score in bunches when in a rhythm. Arizona will need to hone in on Nolley defensively in the opening round.
The Creighton University basketball fanatics in Omaha, Nebraska have had a roller-coaster ride involving their Bluejays over the past few years. Fans have witnessed productive seasons of Bluejay basketball paired with off-the-court issues involving head coach Greg McDermott. However, expectations should be high if the end of last season was any indication of what will occur this winter. McDermott brings back the vast majority of his production while making a few splashes in the transfer portal. The Bluejay roster is highlighted by returning sophomores Arthur Kaluma and Ryan Nembhard, the brother of Indiana Pacers guard Andrew Nembhard. Last season, both averaged double-digits in scoring and will look to facilitate the offense alongside Ryan Kalkbrenner, the big man up-front. The mobile 7-foot-1 center, Kalkbrenner, returns for his junior season after a sophomore year second on the team in scoring at 13.1 points per game.
The 2022 off-season featured the landing of Baylor Scheierman. Before moving to Omaha, Scheierman spent three seasons playing for the Jackrabbits of South Dakota State University, winning last season's Summit League Player of the Year. With a smooth and fluid release, Scheierman is a deadly shooter from the outside. The lefty showed glimpses of his potential last season in the first round of the NCAA tournament against Providence, scoring 18 points. Scheierman has the potential to cause mayhem throughout this tournament in Maui. The Bluejays are a dark horse in this tournament and will open against the Red Raiders of Texas Tech University.
The Kenny Payne era could not have started any worse as his group lost their first two contests, one being an exhibition, but both defeats came to lesser opponents. The basketball world would be somewhat surprised if Louisville were to win a game in this tournament after their lackluster performances to start the 2022-2023 season. The program has yet to stabilize since the departure of head coach Chris Mack back in 2021. In the backcourt will likely be El Ellis and Mike James. A former 4-star recruit, James has the potential to blossom into a star in Louisville. however, the pressure the 6-foot-5 guard will see on the offensive end could be too much for him to propel the Cardinals forward throughout the tournament.
Former five-star recruit Brandon Huntley-Hatfield left Knoxville, Tennessee to join Payne. Coming out of high school, Huntley-Hatfield was one of the more sought-after prospects but has yet to put all the pieces together since seeing the more advanced game the collegiate level presents. However, there is still time for the forward to showcase his potential before potentially entering his name into the NBA Draft. Louisville will face the challenge of the freshman trio of the Arkansas Razorbacks in their first game.
Ohio State Buckeyes:
Many new faces joined head coach Chris Holtmann and his coaching staff in Columbus, Ohio at Ohio State University this summer, hoping to build off a season where the Buckeyes were bounced in the second round of the March Madness Tournament. The Buckeyes have had minimal postseason success since Holtmann took over for Thad Matta in 2017, and finding replacements for E.J. Liddell and Malaki Branham could impose adversity. Holtmann will lean on transfers Tanner Holden, Sean McNeil and Isaac Likekele. Holden, paired with his production at Wright State University, flew under the radar this off-season, where landing the transfer was not advertised as much as it should have been. McNeil provided West Virginia University men's basketball head coach Bob Huggins with consistent shooting throughout his time in Morgantown, West Virginia playing for the Mountaineers.
Opponents will need to make it a priority to run McNeil off the 3-point line. Likekele spent time with head coach Mike Boynton and Oklahoma State University before joining the Buckeyes, known as one of the more impactful rim protectors in the Big-12 conference. Likekele was a vital part of Cade Cunningham's success in Stillwater, Oklahoma, before departing for the NBA. Likekele will spend most of his time living around the rim and cleaning up the glass. Finally, junior forward Zed Key will round out the frontcourt. Many NBA scouts believe he is poised for a breakout season after showing flashes of his potential throughout his first two seasons in Columbus. The Buckeyes will not receive many championship votes before the tournament but certainly can run the table as the talent is there.
San Diego State Aztecs:
The Aztecs of San Diego State University bring a handful of veterans to the island, a squad that returns four out of five starters from a 2022 NCAA Tournament appearance. Seattle University star and transfer Darrion Trammell will fill the lone spot in the lineup after two seasons of averaging over 17 points per game for the Redhawks. Trammell, a high-volume scorer, thrives in the pick and roll given his quick decision-making. The senior also impacts the game on the defensive end, a pesky defender who hounds opposing guards. With his quick feet, constant on-ball pressure, and high motor, it will be no easy task for opposing ball handlers.
Two-way guard Matt Bradley, one of college basketball's best, found himself on the preseason watch list for the Jerry West award, which recognizes many of the top shooting guards in the country. One of the unique aspects of Bradley's game is his quick first step. Then, in isolation situations, the 6-foot-4 guard can be seen taking defenders off the dribble, finishing at the rim. Bradley's skill set, combined with his experience, makes him one of the more dynamic two-way guards not just in the tournament, but rather the country.
With a 7-foot 4-inch wingspan, Mensah always finds a way to impact the game, living along the glass and protecting the rim. Given his large frame, Mensah can run the floor reasonably well for someone his size. Lamont Butler and Keshad Johnson will help round out the starting five. The Aztecs have enough talent to win three games in Maui, but there are some question marks with the second unit. Head coach Brian Dutcher and his group will be in the bottom half of the tournament bracket, opening against Ohio State, and will see Arizona or Cincinnati in their second game.
Texas Tech Red Raiders
Head coach Mark Adams will be without his newly acquired star in Fardaws Aimaq throughout the tournament as he continues to recover from a foot injury. Aimaq, a transfer from Utah Valley University, averaged just under 19 points per game last season for the Wolverines. Instead, Adams will rely heavily on fifth-year senior Kevin Obanor, who returns for his second season in Lubbock, Texas. Obanor was pivotal to the historical Oral Roberts University run in the NCAA tournament back in 2021. Daniel Batcho will likely start next to Obanor in the frontcourt. Batcho enters his sophomore year, and Adams expects him to take a big leap forward from a season ago when he averaged just under 10 minutes of playing time per game.
De'Vion Harmon will be orchestrating the offense for the Red Raiders, who left the University of Oregon this past spring, joining his third school in the past four years. Late this past summer, Kerwin Walton, formerly of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, joined the Red Raiders. Walton provides length on the defensive end and a reliable catch-and-shoot option along the perimeter. In his freshman year under head coach Roy Williams at North Carolina, Walton shot 42% from distance. The Red Raiders will be thin up front throughout the tournament, but the mind of Adams and the stability of their backcourt is enough to compete for three days.
Follow Aidan Alperstein on Twitter