LAHAINA, Hawaii — The Maui Invitational championship matchup that most anticipated and preferred when the pairings for this tournament were originally announced will begin Wednesday at 5 pm. ET on ESPN when No. 1 Duke faces No. 3 Gonzaga in the title game.
The Blue Devils and Bulldogs were on most preseason lists of potential Final Four teams. But for different reasons. Duke was praised for its incoming talent, while Gonzaga was lauded for the group of players who returned.
Both Mike Krzyzewski and Mark Few will be remembered as two of the most talented coaches in college basketball history whenever they leave the game. Duke’s Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish, and Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura comprise four of the top-12 picks in ESPN’s 2019 NBA mock draft.
A fleet of NBA teams will have representatives at the championship game. This is the show.
It’s also just the second matchup between a pair of top-three schools in Maui Invitational history, per ESPN Stats & Information research. In 1997, No. 3 Duke beat No. 1 Arizona in the title game.
In this matchup, Duke will have an opportunity to record its third win against a top-10 opponent this month. And Gonzaga could spoil the Duke hype with a convincing win over a program that many have penciled into a spot in April’s national championship matchup.
Here’s what you need to know about the Maui Invitational title game:
Pop some popcorn for Hachimura vs. Duke’s stars: Hachimura is a versatile, 6-foot-8 forward who has become the face of Japanese basketball. His presence on Japan’s national team has altered expectations for the host country in the 2020 Olympics.
He’s also a lottery prospect who will be facing three big, physical Duke wings who will either become the reasons Hachimura leaves Maui as a more intriguing prospect or the reasons his stock falls if he’s exposed against superior athletes.
Williamson, Reddish and Barrett have all showcased their strengths (and some of their weaknesses) in high-profile games this season. But this will be Hachimura’s first significant matchup of the season. If he carries Gonzaga to a win, his stock will skyrocket overnight.
Duke is facing its first real winner of the season: The Blue Devils have put together one of the most impressive starts for a young team in recent college basketball history. Although Auburn closed the gap — Duke led by 17 at one point — to five points late in the second half of the semifinal game, the Blue Devils never seemed concerned.
“We threatened, but they were never scared,” Bruce Pearl said following Auburn’s 78-72 loss to Duke.
The advantage that Gonzaga has over Kentucky and Auburn, a pair of top-10 teams that both lost in November to the Blue Devils, is its pedigree. A young Kentucky team full of new faces has talent. Auburn won an SEC championship last season. But neither program has players who’ve experienced the sustained success Gonzaga’s veterans have enjoyed in recent years.
In Josh Perkins’ three-plus years with the program, Gonzaga has won 102 games, reached the national title game and put together a top-30 defense in three consecutive seasons. Even young players such as Hachimura and Zach Norvell Jr., who competed on last season’s squad that won 32 games and reached the Sweet 16, know how to win.
“We knew things would go our way eventually,” Perkins said after Gonzaga overcame a 13-point deficit in the second half and beat Arizona by 17 points in the semifinals on Tuesday.
Duke hasn’t faced a team with that attitude. The Bulldogs just know how to win. San Diego State and Auburn had their moments against Duke but both seemed intimidated by the Blue Devils in Maui. That won’t be the case on Wednesday.
Duke freshman Tre Jones drives baseline and hits a baseline shot before the buzzer.
Tre Jones, again, was the most important player on the floor for Duke: After his team’s win over Auburn, Krzyzewski gave his freshman point guard credit for defending Jared Harper, a strong guard who finished 1-for-9 inside the arc in the loss. Jones’ early pressure on Auburn’s point guard changed the dynamic of that game. On Wednesday, he’ll face another talented point guard, though Perkins is a more experienced player who has led his program though turbulent moments. Jones, however, has been essential to Duke’s success. Entering Tuesday’s matchup against Auburn, Duke had averaged 1.34 points per possession with Jones on the floor and just 0.91 PPP without him.
Although Reddish, Williamson and Barrett attract the biggest spotlights as NBA prospects who could command the top slots in next summer’s NBA draft, Jones has emerged as the steadying force for the program, much like his brother Tyus Jones, who led Duke to a national title in 2015 and played a similar role.
Gonzaga will miss Killian Tillie: After his team’s come-from-behind win over Arizona, Few said Tillie (12.9 PPG, 47.9 percent from the 3-point line last season) had been his best player in multiple games last season. Now he’s sidelined with an ankle injury until next month.
Gonzaga will miss his presence against Duke, especially if Marques Bolden (seven blocks) competes the way he did against Auburn. Tillie would have been the first big man with the ability to stretch the floor that Duke had faced this season. What happens when Williamson, Bolden or Javin DeLaurier have to step out to the 3-point line because Tillie is a threat out there? We won’t find out Wednesday. And that could play a significant role in the outcome of the game. Tillie means a lot to this Gonzaga team.
The action around the rim might be more important than what happens on the perimeter: Last season, Gonzaga made a respectable 37 percent of its 3-pointers. Most of the players from that team returned this season. But the Bulldogs have connected on just 33.1 percent of their attempts this season. The absence of Tillie hasn’t helped. But the long ball hasn’t been a consistent component of their offensive attack, which is odd because most of Few’s teams have been dangerous from beyond the arc. Gonzaga has connected on just 33.3 percent of its 3-point attempts in Maui.
Duke hasn’t been much better, starting the tournament with a 17-for-50 clip through two games after entering the Maui Invitational making nearly 40 percent of its 3-pointers.
But both programs have been wonderful inside the arc with Gonzaga making 65 percent of its shots and Duke connecting on 58.5 percent this season. With the big, explosive athletes on both rosters, the action around the rim could be more significant than at the 3-point line. Both teams have finishers who are difficult to guard when they penetrate.
The other element here is that Gonzaga has the athletes to switch defensively. Arizona’s players said their defensive versatility disrupted their rhythm. Duke is a hard team to stop when its players attack, but Gonzaga is more equipped than Auburn and San Diego State to adjust.
Brandon Clarke is a name that a lot of folks will know after Wednesday’s game. He’s an explosive, 6-8 forward who could have a big game. Both he and Hachimura are capable of guarding any position on the floor.
Maui Invitational notes
• Dave Odom, chairman of the Maui Invitational, said his team has worked overtime to deal with slippery floors throughout the tournament. There was clearly an issue with the floors in Monday’s games. Multiple players slipped. Odom said an air conditioning unit had malfunctioned and contributed to the humidity in the arena. But he said he had the event’s staffers clean the problematic areas after the games ended on Monday. He also said the air conditioning unit had been fixed. The floors were much better on Tuesday.
• Vlade Divac, the former NBA standout and current Sacramento Kings executive, was the most popular man in Maui not named Zion Williamson or Bill Walton. Multiple fans approached him for selfies and autographs. He entertained every request. Divac was there to watch the NBA prospects in the building, but he has been a very popular figure at the tournament this week.
• Mike Krzyzewski praised Jimmy Butler for arranging the chartered flight that allowed Tyus Jones to travel to Indianapolis to see his younger brother Tre Jones play his first collegiate game, a matchup against Kentucky in the Champions Classic. “A lot is said about Jimmy Butler,” Krzyzewski said. “Good, bad. Jimmy provided the transportation to have Tre’s brother Tyus there. I texted him right after the game.”Duke, face, Game, Gonzaga, heavyweight, Maui, title