Welcome to Maui; UConn vs Arkansas Preview

The EA Sports Maui Invitational packs a mean preseason punch this year making it "must-see TV" for any college hoops fan. It's not just the best field Maui has ever seen, it might just be the best preseason tournament field EVER assembled. The highly-ranked Huskies face phase one of this tough test Monday night against Arkanas and UConnfan.com has a preview.

The Huskies head to beautiful Maui to take on one of the toughest preseason fields college basketball has ever seen. UConn is one of six past national champions in the field and Gonzaga is certainly no slouch. Even Division II Chaminade (the host school) has proven capable of handing out the occasional "L". In a bracket this tough there's nowhere to run and nowhere to hide for Jim Calhoun's squad, but the UConn head coach wouldn't have it any other way. Calhoun knows the magnitude of these early season games will capture the attention of the NCAA selection committee come March.


"I think this is a unique opportunity that you could actually play hypothetically a Michigan State, a Maryland, and an Arkansas, Kansas or Arizona. All of them will play great competition during the season, and these are games that are going to be highlighted by the committee. You and I both know that," Calhoun stated via conference call last week. "Those (wins) could be a tremendous bonus for you – that you beat some quality opponents early in the season."


Calhoun views these types of games as an opportunity to change your grade at the end of the season. Two or three impressive wins against a field like this could be the difference between a one-seed or a two-seed come March. But it's a very early test for a team with two freshmen splitting the point guard duties.


"It's awfully early to be doing it, but we'll all come out of there (Maui) with a heck of a lot better feel about who we are and what we are," said Calhoun.


The freshmen backcourt tandem of Craig Austrie and Robert Garrison performed admirably in their first test against Pepperdine Friday, but they are about to face a new level of competition.


"Hopefully it's going to keep their confidence up. This will be a test. I don't have any question that Craig Austrie and Rob Garrison are going to find out exactly what college basketball is all about," Calhoun confirmed. "They're going to have to deliver the ball to a couple of 6-10 kids, and they're going to have to hold up under pressure."


So then with youth at such a key position does a coach like Calhoun need to consider the timing of test of this magnitude or is it too good to pass up?


"Well it was a better idea back in May," Calhoun said as he chuckled. "But I agree with you, it's a no-brainer. I don't know why you wouldn't want to go play three great teams."

The Huskies will face a tough regular season schedule in the newly-formed Big East Conference including double-dips against Louisville, Syracuse and Villanova. UConn will also play Indiana and LSU during their non-conference tilt.


"If we aren't going to be prepared coming out of this tournament to play the best teams in the country, then I'm missing something," Calhoun said.


It has been 50 years since UConn has won an in-season tournament they did not host. Their quest to break that drought begins with an interesting match up against the Arkansas Razorbacks.


"As athletic as we are – they (Arkansas) are one of the few teams in the country I think is as athletic as we are," Calhoun proclaimed.


The Razorbacks like to get the ball up-and-down the court much-like UConn, and are led by All-SEC guard Ronnie Brewer. But Head Coach Stan Heath knows his unranked team has a tough, but necessary, test in front of it.


"We know we still have a lot of work to do. Facing a team like UConn that has great experience on its front line – they're awesome. And the wing players are terrific as well," Heath continued. "We just feel for us to figure out where we are and get a gauge on our team and how much we've progressed – we need to play against this kind of field."


The Razorbacks are dealing with a drought of their own. Heath's team hasn't made the Big Dance since 2001 and is hoping for a breakthrough year.


"We hope so. We've made steady progress every year. We feel now that we've got some guys with experience and we've got a good amount of talent. This should be a great experience for us to play against this elite field we have here in Maui," concluded Heath.


For UConn the expectations are high. Calhoun did not shy away from making a strong statement when asked how capable the Huskies would be in February and March once Marcus Williams returns.


"Good enough to win," Calhoun quickly answered. "If Denham Brown continues to play like he has, if Craig Austrie can help Marcus at the two-guard and the one, if Rudy Gay becomes what he can…My point simply being that I think we have a chance because of our frontcourt and our experience. We have six kids who wear National Championship rings. If we develop –without Marcus and then with Marcus – I think clearly we have a chance to make a run for it in Indianapolis."




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