So speaking of Champions our Ben Ball warriors are back in action tonight. They are in Lahaina, Hawaii during this thanksgiving week, playing in one of the most high profile pre-season basketball tournaments. They are taking on the host team - D II Chaminade - in a late game tonight. Diane Pucin of LA Times who is in Lahaina covering the actions gives us a flavor of what is going on in basketball's version of paradise:
Lahaina is an old whaling town and at the wharf UCLA fans wearing blue and gold leis were doing an eight-clap cheer while dozens of Kentucky fans walked down the street in a hip-hop rhythm and chanted, "Wildcats, Wildcats."
The EA Sports Maui Invitational begins today. This isn't the NCAA tournament, but all the games will be televised and four of the teams -- No. 6 UCLA, No. 13 Memphis, No. 22 Kentucky and No. 23 Georgia Tech, are nationally ranked.
The Bruins (1-0) open against the only Division II team, host Chaminade, but the Silverswords (0-0) have a savvy senior point guard in Zack Whiting and a sliver of a tradition of pulling upsets in the tournament it stages (Virginia in 1982, Villanova in 2003).
And if Kentucky were to beat DePaul in the first round, UCLA and Kentucky, which have combined for 18 national titles (11 for the Bruins) would play Tuesday.
Second-year Chaminade Coach Matt Mahar said, "We have three guys with some playing experience and we brought in seven new players. We brought in five junior college athletes, a Division I transfer and we got one kid who is a true freshman out of the Navy.
However with the loss of five seniors including leading scorer and Pacific West Conference Player of the Year, Chris Reeves, 2006-07 looks to be a rebuilding year for Chaminade. The Silver Swords return only three players who saw significant action last season.
The Silver Sword's best player and floor leader is All-Pacific West point-guard Zack Whiting. (6'3, 205) from Chico, California. A Bob Cousy Award nominee, Whiting averaged 14.1 points, 8.1 assists, and 5 rebounds last season and is the only senior on the squad.
Whiting considers himself an "old school" type player while coaches comment on his excellent court vision and ability to get the job done on both ends of the court.
Junior wingman Stewart Kussler (6'5, 215) from Santa Maria started in 23 games last season averaging 7.7 points and 3.8 rebounds in 19 minutes of play per game. He is a hard-nosed player who shot an impressive 61% from the field.
Chaminade has 7'0 230 lb Marko Kolaric from Serbia in the middle. The junior averaged 5.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and shot 53% from the field. In the NCAA post season Division II game against Alaska Anchorage last season, Kolaric recorded career-highs of 21 points and 16 rebounds.
From the players comments in the OC Register it is pretty clear the level of seriousness with which the players are approaching this tournament:
"We had a chance last year in the (Preseason) NIT to really put our name on the map. We really didn't do much last year in the NIT, but we understand that first tournament is really important. That can help you get a higher seed in the (NCAA) Tournament. That can only make your résumé look good."
Despite advancing to the NCAA championship game last season, where they lost to Florida, the Bruins do not believe they have regained the national profile of a Duke or North Carolina.
"I don't think that becomes common knowledge until you show some longevity with it," guard Arron Afflalo said. "It's good that we got there last year, and my freshman year we had made strides from the previous year. But you have to do it year in and year out and, yes, it is a yearly basis because of recruiting and unexpected things. But we're definitely headed in that direction."
To that end, the Bruins are in a much better spot than they were a year ago in the NIT, where they lost to Memphis and defeated Drexel by only one point.
"Last year, we didn't know who was who," Collison said. "We didn't have too many plays last year. All we had was motion. And you need plays in big games."
The Bruins are well past that. They are more familiar with each other, their strengths and weaknesses, and the defense is now ingrained.
"I think this year from the start of the season, it's a step ahead, as far as our maturity, as far as our athleticism, our ability to play the way Coach Howland wants us to play from the get-go," Afflalo said. "And don't make the season such a long progression like it was last year.
The game is set to tipp off around 8:30 PST. It will be televised on ESPN. And yes we will have an open game thread. Can't wait to see our Ben Ball warriors hoping it up in paradise.