We already knew that a pair of likely preseason top-five teams will headline next season’s strongest holiday tournament.
On Tuesday, we also learned they’ll be on opposite sides of the 2018-19 Maui Invitational bracket.
On one side will be Duke, which boasts a star-studded group of freshmen featuring four of the top eight prospects in the 2018 class. On the other is Gonzaga, which brings back the core of a Sweet 16 team including emerging stars Rui Hachimura, Zach Norvell and Killian Tillie.
There’s no guarantee the Blue Devils and Zags will meet in the Maui title game because of the quality of the field around them.
Duke’s opening-round opponent is a San Diego State team that won reached the NCAA tournament last March and should challenge Nevada for the Mountain West crown again this season. Should the Blue Devils survive that game, they’ll either meet an Auburn team that should start the season in the top 15 in the AP poll or a Xavier team expected to contend in the Big East despite the loss of five key players from last year’s 29-win squad.
Gonzaga catches a break drawing rebuilding Illinois in the opening round, but its potential semifinal matchup won’t be easy. The Zags will either draw an Iowa State team that should be much improved after a rare down season a year ago or a Arizona team that said goodbye to its five leading scorers this past spring and will need its sophomore class to step up.
Absent from this year’s field is Division II Chaminade, the Maui Invitational’s longtime host school. In an effort to strengthen the tournament, organizers announced in 2016 that the Silverswords will only play in the storied eight-team main event in alternating years, 2019, 2021, and so on.
While the Maui Invitational loses some of its charm without Chaminade’s annual quest to pull a titanic upset, the quality of next season’s field makes up for it.
Two preseason top-five teams, loaded Auburn, new-look Arizona and Xavier and improving Iowa State and San Diego State? It’s no wonder the Maui Invitational will reclaim its place as the holiday season’s most anticipated college basketball tournament.
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