Maui Should Be Heck Of A Trip

FAYETTEVILLE - Talk about a wowie in Maui? Well, sure.

Nice diversion to sunny thoughts during these cloudy days of baseball suspensions, practice football jersey scheming, closed practices and basketball assistant musical chairs.

The next EA SPORTS Maui Invitational field, of which Arkansas will be a member in November, became even more impressive in the last few days as North Carolina knocked off Illinois in Monday night's national title game which basically was a repeat of the championship game of last season's tournament in the Lahaina Civic Center, a 2,400 facility that rests just 10 football fields from the Pacific Ocean.

Next season's tourney could provide comparable insight and results. Check out this lineup (last season's highlights in parenthesis):

* Michigan State (Final Four)

* Arizona (Elite Eight, a short jumper from knocking off Illinois)

* Kansas (Big 12 champion)

* UConn (Big East champ)

* Gonzaga (West Coast Conference champ)

* Maryland (19-13)

* Arkansas (18-12)

* Chaminade (16-11)

A committee will rank that bunch and put together a bracket for this deal (in which teams are guaranteed three games) in mid-August.

For now, let's dig a little deeper into this field for more golden nuggets.

The Michigan State angle is particularly interesting as Spartans coach Tom Izzo is fourth-year Arkansas coach Stan Heath's mentor. They helped push MSU to the national title in 2000 and Heath hung with the Spartans during the Final Four weekend. Izzo, whose team lost to North Carolina in an NCAA tourney semifinal after leading at the half, has made the Final Four four times in his ten seasons. Izzo will be hard-pressed for a repeat as he loses five seniors, but he retains tough center Paul Davis.

Arizona, the 1997 national and 2000 Maui champ, will enter with great national expectations. Incredible NCAA tourney game against Illinois during which the Wildcats built a 20-point lead before melting down. The Wildcats' Web site is horrible, so that's all the research we're doing for now.

UConn has won two national titles under Jim Calhoun and the Huskies appear loaded for another serious run, even with the early departure of sophomore forward Charlie Villanueva. This week, forward Rudy Gay (The Sporting News' National Freshman of the Year) and sophomore center Josh Boone (Big East Defensive Player of the Year) announced they won't yet try to walk on NBA waters.

Despite the usual excellent regular-season record (23-7) and ranking, Jayhawks fans were less than thrilled with second-year coach Bill Self and the stunning second-round NCAA Tournament exit (a 64-63 loss against Bucknell). Self already is in lukewarm water and needs a hot start - and finish - to appease those Rock Chock folks next season. Won't be easy. Big 12 Player of the Year Wayne Simien, Aaron Miles, Michael Lee and Keith Langford are done. Self, whose name came up after Arkansas' Nolan Richardson was fired in 2002, may be, too.

Last season was the first in nine that Maryland failed to notch 20 wins, and hard-nosed coach Gary Williams has promised the Terrapins will work harder next time around. Maryland lost to NIT champ South Carolina in the Final Four of that tourney and knocked off Duke (twice) and Georgia Tech last season. The Terps also played within 85-83 of North Carolina.

Gonzaga has made seven consecutive NCAA Tournaments, but after being seeded second two seasons ago (and losing to Nevada in the second round) and falling, as a No. 3 seed, against Texas Tech in March's Sweet 16, the campus is becoming known as the little school that couldn't. But coach Mark Few loses only two seniors (forward Ronny Turiaf was an honorable mention All-America) and returns sophomore forward Adam Morrison (also an honorable mention All-America, he had 25 points and 9 rebounds vs. Texas Tech). Gonzaga finished 10th in the AP's final ranking.

Chaminade is the tiny Honolulu school that stunned the world with its mammoth upset of Ralph Sampson and then-No. 1 Virginia back in 1982. The Silverswords return hot-shot guard Zack Whiting, an All-Pacific West first-teamer who averaged 14.5 points and a conference-best 6.8 assists last season.

That brings us, as always, to Arkansas.

The Hogs started 13-1 last season, but became overconfident in doing so against a mostly weak nonconference slate, fizzling out at 18-12 after hitting the brick wall of Southeastern Conference reality.

Unless sophomore do-everything guard Ronnie Brewer makes a terrible decision to dribble off to the NBA (which, surely, he won't), the Hogs return all but designated shooter Mike Jones.

The Hogs will have lots to build with and this could be just what the Hogs need to toughen up for SEC play next season. It seems impossible, but 199 of 268 Final Four teams, 51 of 67 national runnerups and 51 of 67 NCAA champions have competed at one time or many others during the 22-year history of this tourney.

ESPN will televise the Maui Invitational, but this calls for close (sun!) screening.

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