LAHAINA, Hawaii – Zion-Rui? Yes, please. RJ-Snacks? Second that. Reddish-Clarke? Yup.
Perkins-Williams? Yes, sir. Clarke-Jeter? Affirmative.
Great teams colliding make for great games, but the subplot within those games is the star-studded individual matchups. Think Russell-Chamberlain, Kareem-Parish/McHale, Ewing-Olajuwon, Bird-Magic (though they rarely guarded each other) back in the day. Think LeBron-Kawhi or LeBron-Durant in recent years.
Coaches tend to stick to one-game-at-a-time adages, and that generally trickles down to the players. The Maui Invitational presents a stern test of that mantra, with third-ranked Gonzaga facing an Illinois squad picked 13th out of 14 Big Ten teams before potential heavyweight battles with blue-blood programs.
“We don’t want to look too far ahead,” GU sophomore wing Zach “Snacks” Norvell Jr. said. “We’ve got a good Illinois team in front of us Monday. It is exciting knowing that if we get our jobs done, that we could possibly face those guys.”
We’ll take it from here, Snacks. Those guys, from our viewpoint, are Arizona in the semifinals and Duke in a championship showdown. We’re shamelessly looking ahead to the Maui matchups that we, and likely the majority of college basketball fans across the country, want to see.
Gonzaga-Arizona? That’s OK by us. Provided both teams win their openers, it’s a renewal of the programs’ long-running battle for West Coast supremacy. If it happens, three matchups immediately send the intrigue meter soaring.
Josh Perkins vs. Brandon Williams
The Zags’ floor general is playing just as one would expect from an experienced senior. He’s scoring when needed and delivering high-efficiency distribution (25 assists, three turnovers).
Williams, a top-40 recruit, originally committed to Arizona before reopening his recruitment. He visited Gonzaga, which believed he could be its point guard of the future, but ultimately stuck with the Wildcats.
The 6-foot-2 freshman has been as advertised. He’s shooting just 37.5 percent, but he has 14 assists, six steals and no turnovers in nearly 29 minutes per game. He’s averaging 14.3 points.
Rui Hachimura/Brandon Clarke vs. Chase Jeter
Another Wildcat who visited the Zags before heading to the desert. Jeter was one of the top recruits in the 2015 class, but didn’t cement a spot in the rotation in two seasons at Duke.
The 6-10 junior forward is averaging 14 points – on 71 percent shooting – to go with seven boards. Hachimura is nearly at a point-per-minute pace (74 minutes, 68 points). Clarke is a double-double machine.
Brandon Randolph vs. Norvell
Randolph, a wiry 6-6, 175-pound wing from Yonkers, New York, leads Arizona at 18.7 points per game and rarely misses a free throw (17 of 18). He’s another top-40 recruit with a vertical jump measured in the mid-40 inches. Norvell’s knack for scoring and delivering at key times is well documented. He’s made strides at the defensive end, too.
OK, let’s move on to the main event. It’s easy to identify the tournament’s most attractive matchup on paper: No. 1 Duke vs. No. 3 Gonzaga. We’re cool with GU-No. 9 Auburn, but we’re dreaming big here. Duke has already been involved in one of these top-five tussles, throttling then-No. 2 Kentucky by 34 points.
In that one, freshmen Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish introduced themselves to the college basketball world with a two-hour highlight reel. Some mock drafts have them going 1-2-4 in the first round. How would the Zags stack up?
Zion vs. Rui
Williamson is 6-7 and 285 pounds, a rim-wrecking freight train in the open court. He also moves like a guard. No wonder he was offered a football scholarship by LSU. He’s shooting 32 of 39 (82 percent) from the field in three games.
Hachimura would be giving away roughly 50 pounds, but he is Gonzaga’s strongest interior player and had success defending 260-pound Jock Landale last season. Clarke is an option, but he’d have to find a way to counter Williamson’s size and strength advantages.
Barrett vs. Norvell
Two versatile, talented, creative scoring wings going at it would be a treat to watch. The 6-7 Barrett, who was Gonzaga freshman Filip Petrusev’s teammate at Montverde Academy, is a handful inside and out. He’s taken 22 shots per game, but he’s also producing 25.3 points. The 6-5 Norvell can put up points in a hurry.
Reddish vs. Clarke
This game would be filled with athletic, skilled bigs, and Reddish and Clarke certainly fit that description. The 6-8 Reddish appears destined to join Williamson and Barrett as one-and-dones. He’s drained a team-leading 11 3-pointers, averages 16.7 points and is a willing passer (eight assists). Clarke is a high-riser who can score, rebound and block shots. Corey Kispert could be an option here on defense, with Reddish doing most of his damage on the perimeter.
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