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What to watch when Arizona plays in the Maui Invitational

The Wildcats open the tournament Monday against Iowa State

NCAA Basketball: Houston Baptist at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports


The Arizona Wildcats (3-0) will open the Maui Invitational on Monday against the Big 12’s Iowa State Cyclones (3-0).

Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. MST on ESPNU, and here are some things to watch for as the Wildcats navigate through the tournament.

Finally, a real test

The Maui Invitational represents the first time Arizona will play a non-terrible opponent this season, so it should help elucidate just how good or bad this team is, as well as what its strengths and weaknesses are.

Some things the Wildcats were good at in their first three games, like defense and taking care of the ball, could prove to be fool’s gold, while some aspects we thought were weaknesses, like rebounding, might not be such an issue after all.

Battle 4 Atlantis quickly sobered the Arizona fanbase last year, and the Maui Invitational could have the same effect. It could also have the opposite effect, too. Arizona could play better than expected and build some buzz that it didn’t already have.

Brandon Williams’ first big game(s)

Aside from some shooting woes, Williams has lived up to all the hype so far, averaging 14.3 points per game with an absurd 16:0 assist-to-turnover ratio.

The Maui Invitational will be the freshman’s first time playing against major-conference guards though, so it will be interesting to see how that affects his production.

Will he be someone who rises to the occasion when his team needs him most or will he crumble in those big moments?

Other than the Brandons...

A common theme for Arizona in the first three games was finding a third and fourth scoring option to complement Williams and Brandon Randolph. That is still the case in Maui.

For both Ryan Luther and Justin Coleman, these will be their first games against major-conference teams since December of 2017. For Chase Jeter, you have to go all the way to January of 2017.

Will the stiffer competition bring out the best in them or expose them as players who won’t be able to cut it as starters at this level?

A defensive stopper

Arizona hasn’t faced any potent scorers yet, but that will change Monday when it faces ISU’s Marial Shayok, who’s averaging 20 points per game.

The Virginia transfer is a 6-foot-6 wing, which means slowing him down will likely fall on the shoulders of Brandon Randolph, Emmanuel Akot and Dylan Smith.

Akot and Smith have received a lot of praise from Sean Miller for their defense this season, and we’re about to find out how much they have improved in that area. The Wildcats had real trouble guarding perimeter scorers like Shayok last year. They look more capable this year, but that could be more a product of the bad teams they’ve played.

Avoiding going winless

The Pac-12 appears to be weak this season with Washington getting blown out by Auburn and Oregon losing to Iowa. That means Arizona needs to do well against its non-conference opponents, since it projects as a bubble team and quality wins will be hard to come by later in the season.

While we don’t know who Arizona is going to play in Maui aside from Iowa State, the tournament field is as strong as ever, so the Wildcats should face three high-quality opponents no matter how the bracket shakes out.

Dropping all three games could be extremely costly, both from a resume standpoint and from a morale standpoint. We saw how Battle 4 Atlantis set the tone for last year’s team, and getting swept in Maui would leave a sour taste that would take a lot to overcome, probably needing wins over UConn, Baylor, and Alabama to make up for it.

At the same time, Monday’s game will be just the fourth game of the season. There is still a long, long way to go and Arizona will be a lot different by the end of the season once it gets more and more games under its belt and its revamped roster has more time to gel.

So while the Maui Invitational will help us learn more about this team, it isn’t necessarily an indicator of what’s to come.