Tremendous field has Duke and Gonzaga set up to potentially meet in title game

By Chris Norlander



An old reliable in college hoops is back and seemingly as good as ever: the Maui Invitational field for 2018 is really appealing.



On Tuesday, the matchups and schedule for the 35th iteration of the Hawaii-based bracket were revealed. This year’s field, which was announced in 2017, had grown even more intriguing over the past year thanks to recent performance upgrades from programs like Auburn and Xavier.





The Maui Invitational, which traditionally runs Monday-Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving, will be held Nov. 19-21 this year. The quarterfinals get underway with a lot of intrigue. Consider that this year’s field features three top-10 teams (Gonzaga, Duke and Auburn) and has traditional powers in Arizona and Illinois. Then you’ve got NCAA Tournament hopefuls in Xavier, San Diego State and Iowa State.

While unlikely, it’s not unthinkable that all eight Maui teams make the 2019 NCAA Tournament. It’s quite a field, and that’s before you get to the intriguing storyline aspects.



First-round games

Auburn vs. Xavier

The teams have met nine times (Xavier leads 5-4), but this is the first time either have played in Maui. For Auburn, we’ll be keeping an eye on how good this team is vs. its expectations. Last season, Bruce Pearl saved his job thanks to a 16-1 start that ended with a 26-8 record. Now Auburn will be pegged as a top-three team in the SEC. And Xavier? Travis Steele is now the coach because Chris Mack took the Louisville job. The Musketeers were a No. 1 seed in the 2018 NCAA Tournament and are expected to take a step back. But how big?

Duke vs. San Diego State

Duke will be a heavy favorite, but SDSU won’t be a pushover. I think the Aztecs wind up as a borderline top-40 team in college hoops in 2018-19. The Blue Devils will be must-watch because of athletic powerhouse Zion Williamson and potential No. 1 2019 pick R.J. Barrett. But Duke is also going to be young. Maui is a great barometer for its early-season cohesion. Here’s what’s nuts: Duke has never lost a Maui game, racking up a 16-0 record with four titles.

Arizona vs. Iowa State

These teams haven’t met in 20 years. Arizona’s a Maui staple; the Wildcats have played in this event seven times, matching UNC for the most ever. Iowa State hasn’t been out to Hawaii for this since 1990. Sean Miller has kept his job, but Arizona is expected to struggle in 2018-19 because all five starters from a season ago have moved on. ISU, which was down last season but should be 5-7 wins better, will probably be favored in this game. Steve Prohm brings back most of his most important players (Lindell Wigginton was a borderline top-10 freshman last season). One curiosity: Will anything change with Arizona in terms of the FBI investigation between now and when Maui gets going?



Gonzaga vs. Illinois

Illinois is 5-1 all time vs. Gonzaga, but the Zags will be a heavy favorite in this game. The Bulldogs could be 1-seed material come March 2019. Gonzaga has potential All-American candidates in Killian Tillie, Josh Perkins and Rui Hachimura (all three won’t earn that honor but I think at least one will). Mark Few continues to restock his roster and keep his team veteran-laden. Another 30-win season could be on the horizon. Illinois is in year No. 2 under Brad Underwood, who probably needs another season to get things in order with the Illini.

There are 27 Final Four showings combined from schools in the 2018 field. Arizona (2014), Illinois (2012) and Duke (2011) and all won the Maui Invitational the last time they played in it. And here’s a great stat from event organizers: “In each of the last eight seasons, one or more teams that have competed in Maui to begin the season have gone on to at least the Elite Eight.”

Given how good Gonzaga, Duke and Auburn should be in 2018-19, the streak should get to nine consecutive seasons.

Just-for-fun predictions

  • Quarterfinals: Auburn over Xavier; Duke over San Diego State; Iowa State over Arizona; Gonzaga over Illinois
  • Semifinals: Auburn over Duke; Gonzaga over Iowa State
  • Championship game: Gonzaga over Auburn

I’m not going on any limb in the quarters, but Auburn over Duke? A little daring. Here’s why I like the Tigers as of now: Experience, frontcourt veteran play and improved guards. Duke is going to be talented but so young. Auburn gets Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy — both of whom missed 2017-18 due to the FBI’s investigation into Auburn’s program — back on the floor. Wiley’s a potential NBAtalent. Bryce Brown is back. Anfernee McLemore will be healthy to go. The Tigers are loaded. I’ll take their experience over Duke at this point in the season. I like Gonzaga to win the event because the Bulldogs should clearly have the best assembly of talent, experience and coaching.

You might be asking “where’s Chaminade?” The Division II Silverswords are now on an every-other-year rotation. They’ll still be part of the event this year but will only play on the mainland against lesser Division I opponents. Come 2019, Chaminade will be back in the main event and playing host to Kansas, Michigan State, UCLA, Georgia, Virginia Tech, BYU and Dayton



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