Hoops Preview: Luaus & Layups

In the preview of this year's college basketball tournaments, you have to spend some time drooling over some warm weather destinations. The premier American destination to swoon over during the Winter has to be Hawaii. The palm trees, the beaches, the surf ... it's all part of the dream to take some of us away from our snowy, blustery, freezing surroundings. Each year, 14 college basketball programs get to visit this archipelago for some fun, sun, and basketball. Here's a peek at this season's lucky participants.

Maui Invitational (Nov. 25-27)

Obvious Team to Watch: This is a big year for Syracuse. The Orange will premiere in the ACC after a run to the Final Four in April. The team took some losses (Brandon Triche and James Southerland to graduation, Michael Carter-Williams to the draft), but the inside presence is back (C.J. Fair, Rakeem Christmas, Baye Moussa Keita). Add in a talented freshman class, led by heralded point guard Tyler Ennis, and another deep run in the NCAAs could be a possibility. What some in this circumstance might see as an afterthought, Jim Boeheim's crew might turn Maui into a chemistry experiment.

Under the Radar Team to Watch: This appears to be a tournament where most of the squads are rebuilding. But the turnover at Minnesota went straight to the top. After getting back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years, a second-game ouster to Florida still felt like a letdown to a program full of them over the last few seasons. Exit Tubby Smith and enter Richard Pitino ... you know, the son of the reigning championship coach. Quite a bit of talent has returned from last year's squad. We'll see how the old guard and the new leader mesh.

Best Early Matchup: California vs. Arkansas

The Bears lost to the Orange in the 2013 NCAA tourney and would like to get back this time around. Four of the five starters from last season's team are back, including point guard Justin Cobbs. But who will step up to be this season's Allen Crabbe? The Razorbacks return three starters from last season's squad. The senior class is hungry to secure the school's first NCAA bid since 2008. But who will replace the prowess of B.J. Young and Marshawn Powell? Coaches Mike Montgomery and Mike Anderson could find some answers in this matchup.

Best Potential Final: Syracuse vs. Gonzaga

Mark Few has raised this program to the point where they reload a bit at a time, allowing young talent to mix in with their older teammates. Life after Kelly Olynyk means that the leadership falls to David Stockton and Kevin Pangos. And along with the usual infusion of freshman talent, the 'Zags will receive the services of Providence transfer Gerard Coleman. If the 'Zags end up meeting the Orange, it will be fun to watch how the strengths of each team (GU's backcourt vs. SU's frontcourt) will offset the other.

Diamond Head Classic (Dec. 22, 23, 25)

Obvious Team to Watch: There are three Power Six programs in this field (South Carolina, Oregon State, Iowa State). The first two are coming off of 14-18 seasons that you would think should get better. The third will experience another year of turnover after the last batch of transfers fell to a perennial power in the NCAAs. That being said, none of these teams should be looked at early in this field. There are two squads that bring back all five starters from last season. One is Boise State.

The surprise of the Mountain West finished as one of the last four at-large teams to make the NCAAs. If it weren't for La Salle, maybe the Broncos make a run to the Sweet 16. Now, coach Leon Rice wants BSU to be tops in a league that features New Mexico, UNLV, and San Diego State. The football stadium's blue turf might turn green with envy if it's basketball brethren start off the season with one trophy and end with a shot at the trophy.

Under the Radar Team to Watch: The other team that returns its starting five is George Mason. Paul Hewitt is in his third season back in the mid-majors. He brings back a squad that finished with 22 wins last March. There will be the challenges of a new conference ahead (the Patriots join the Atlantic 10 this season). Just before that kicks into gear, though, they'll have a chance to play through a good field in Honolulu.

Best Early Matchup: Iowa State vs. George Mason

This will be your classic matchup of Power retooling against Mid-Major experience/cohesiveness. As I said above, the Patriots return all of their starters from last season. The Cyclones will have to rely on a couple of players from the past year to really get them going. Forwards Melvin Ejim and Georges Niang will have to carry ISU until the rest of the squad can mesh. But I have to give coach Fred Hoiberg a lot of credit. One thing he's been doing well in his three years on the job is molding pieces together ... and quickly.

Best Potential Final: George Mason vs. Boise State

Even though I'm an Iowa State alum, for purely basketball purpose, I want this game to happen. If it does, it should be one to note for March 2014. What could have easily been a Bracketbusters game if the format stayed intact, this meeting would have big implication for the next NCAA tourney. If both teams take care of business in their respective conferences, a win of this nature would just be a cherry on top. However, if both squads find themselves on the bubble come Selection Sunday, a matchup like this one could shift a balance.

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