Huskies open against Virginia in tournament of heavy hitters
LAHAINA, Hawaii — You get the feeling that given half the chance, Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun would trade places with Tom Izzo.
“He has the finest team I’ve seen in maybe 10 to 20 years,” Calhoun said about No. 2 Michigan State, which is the prohibitive favorite to win the Maui Invitational that begins Monday and includes 17th-ranked Washington.
“We’re all playing for second place,” Calhoun quipped during a Sunday morning news conference.
Moments later, he said he was joking, but the point was made clear: The Spartans are a team to be reckoned with the next three days.
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“What separates them and the rest of us is answers,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Coach Tom has more answers than we do right now.
“No one has more championship experience than his team, so that’s a great benefit. The rest of us, we’re still finding out if our teams can play at a high level and I think he has a pretty good idea.”
Izzo downplayed the flattery.
“You’re not buying that stuff, are you?” he joked. “They’re saying that because they don’t want the pressure that comes with (being favored).”
Still, he didn’t disagree that the Spartans’ extensive NCAA tournament experience gives them an edge this week.
Led by all-Big Ten point guard Kalin Lucas, senior Durrell Summers and junior forward Draymond Green, Michigan State returns three starters and nine lettermen from the team that posted a 28-9 record last season and made its second consecutive trip to the Final Four.
“I think experience does help,” Izzo said. “We’ve had four or five guys who have had Final Four experience, so they know what the big stage is like and playing in front of 75,000 people. And this is a big stage.
“Everybody knows Maui. And everybody watches Maui.”
The tournament, which is televised on ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNU, tips off with a noon (PST) pairing Monday between Connecticut and Wichita State in the 2,400-seat Lahaina Civic Center.
No. 12 Kentucky plays Oklahoma at 2:30 p.m., followed by Michigan State and host Chaminade at 6:30 p.m.
Washington caps the first-day bonanza against Virginia at 9 p.m.
“We’re finally at the stage where the games are almost here,” UW coach Lorenzo Romar said. “We’ve been building this game up and talking about it so much that you almost feel like it’s not going to get here quick enough.
“Well, now we’re almost here. It’s an incredible setting and an incredible tournament. I just hope we play our best.”
After a year when the talent dipped, the Maui Invitational is loaded once again with high-profile players, including Connecticut junior Kemba Walker, Kentucky freshmen Doran Lamb and Terrence Jones, Washington junior Isaiah Thomas and Lucas.
There’s also no shortage of intriguing story lines.
• Washington and Kentucky are poised to meet in the semifinals, which would pit the Huskies against Jones, who verbally committed to UW before signing with the Wildcats.
• If there’s a sleeper in the tournament, it’s Wichita State, which returns four starters and nine lettermen. Conversely, Connecticut has nine underclassmen (six freshman and three sophomores) in its 11-man rotation.
• Michigan State is loaded, but the Silverswords have the shooters to repeat one of the biggest shockers in college basketball history when they knocked off Ralph Samson and No. 1-ranked Virginia in 1982.
For most teams, Maui is the first real test after feasting on lower-tier opponents.
“I’m a firm believer in scheduling a strong nonconference schedule,” Izzo said. “Especially when you can take your team on the road. You see what you’re made of. And you see what you have to work on.”
It’s not as if a poor outing this week will ruin anyone’s season, but a strong showing can bolster a team’s claim to be considered among the elite.
“No one is going to cancel the season after Wednesday,” Calhoun said. “There’s still a lot of basketball left in the season.
“But yeah, it’s pretty important to do well this week.”
Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or email@example.com