The seeding of these early-season tournaments has been a hot topic of discussion this year as we’ve seen two of the better teams face-off before the championship game more often that not. Minnesota and Syracuse may not be the two best teams in the Maui Invitational but it’s tough to imagine why these two play each other in the first round of such a deep tournament. Ninth-ranked Syracuse enters first round play as an ever-so small one-point favorite over the Minnesota Golden Gophers who have sprinted out to a 5-0 early season record.
Minnesota basketball has slowly brought itself back to prominence; and it’s done so with a pipeline of coaching pedigree. Richard Pitino stepped in directly after the Tubby Smith era ended and has injected this team with a youthful excitement. The Golden Gophs are led by the two (unrelated) Hollins guards. Andre and Austin average over 18 and 13 points per game respectively and bring veteran leadership with five years of previous experience between them. Something to really like about both is that they rebound from the guard spot – something that is absolutely pivotal against Syracuse’s size. Between their rebounding ability and great three-point shooting, the Hollins “brothers” should give Syracuse’s zone a very tough time in Maui.
While the top of the zone will have to work very hard to contain Andre and Austin Hollins, the back of the 2-3 should be able to dominate Minnesota like it typically dominates just about any team in the country this year. Syracuse’s size is astounding and boasts physicality like never seen in college hoops. Rakeem Christmas is now more than a big, young athlete. In his Junior year, Christmas is blossoming into a defensive presence in the middle of the zone that opponents rarely test. CJ Fair and Dajuan Coleman are as big as just about any player Syracuse typically sees on the opposition but can move well enough to stretch the zone out to Boeheim’s liking. Then SU has the luxury of bringing 6’10” Jeremi Grant and 7’0″ Baye Keita off of the bench. Michael Gbinije replaces Michael Carter-Williams as the long, lanky guard at the top of the zone.
At the end of the day, Minnesota does have the shooting to take down Syracuse in a 40 minute game but I’m not sure that it’s a sustainable model to actually consistently beat the zone. The Gophers are an impressive team but getting just one point in this game certainly stands out as a spot to fade. Syracuse gets a hard-fought win but moves on.