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Top-ranked Duke heads loaded Maui Invitational field

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    Coaches posed for photos following today’s Maui Invitational press conference.

LAHAINA >> The Duke juggernaut heads to paradise, where college basketball’s most talked-about team will be even more in the spotlight at the Maui Invitational.

The top-ranked Blue Devils should be able to handle it. They’re 5 for 5 at the Lahaina Civic Center: five trips to Maui, five additions to the already-full trophy case for the trip home.

This, of course, is a new team with new stars like R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson, but these freshmen have embraced the spotlight’s glare so far and there’s little reason to believe it will be any different in Maui.

“If you’re playing in our program, you have to keep a balance and we have a lot of good young players, but our upper classmen have been the key for us in developing an atmosphere where the younger guys can be themselves,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said today during a news conference overlooking the Pacific Ocean. “Our upperclassmen our very secure and our lower classmen our very secure, and that creates a good environment to get better. Hopefully when we get on a plane on Thursday, we’ll be secure then, too.”

The Maui Invitational kicks off on Monday at the quaint Lahaina Civic Center in another stacked field that includes three of the top nine teams in the country.

Joining the Blue Devils in paradise will be No. 3 Gonzaga, No. 9 Auburn, Arizona, Xavier, Illinois, San Diego State and Iowa State.

Even with a loaded bracket, Duke (3-0) will be the favorite.

The Blue Devils shot the college basketball season out of a canon by dismantling then-No. 2 Kentucky in front of national TV audience, followed by lopsided wins over Army and Eastern Michigan.

Barrett and Williamson have been the headline grabbers — Drake was seen wearing Zion’s high school jersey — but Duke is loaded top to bottom. Freshmen Cam Reddish and Tre Jones were both top-10 recruits, and the Blue Devils are buoyed by the play and advice of upperclassmen Marques Bolden, Jack White and Javin DeLaurier.

Duke opens the Maui Invitational against San Diego State.

“It doesn’t surprise me. I’m pleased with it because you don’t expect problems,” Krzyzewski said. “We recruit really good kids, but you don’t necessarily know how high a level they will mesh in a short period of time. The freshmen are very secure. They’re not worried about their rankings. You can’t tell a class on our team.

A few more things to look for during the Maui Invitational:

AUBURN’S INVITE: Auburn coach Bruce Pearl has wanted to bring his team to Maui since being hired in 2014. One problem: the Tigers were never good enough to be invited into the elite field.

That’s changed in recent years as Pearl has built the Tigers into one of the SEC’s top programs. This year’s team is loaded with star guards Bryce Brown and Jared Harper back, and big men Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifo both eligible after having to sit out last season. Auburn opened the season with three lopsided victories and kicks off the Maui Invitational against Xavier, which has a new coach and an overhauled roster after losing five of its top seven scorers from last year’s NCAA Tournament team.

“When I talked to (tournament chair) Dave Odum a few years ago, he was honest with me and said ‘Coach, your program isn’t up to snuff. I don’t know if you’ll travel or if you’ll be competitive,’” Pearl said. “So I’m glad were able to travel and we are competitive.”

ZAGS ADAPTING: Gonzaga (3-0) was a popular preseason pick for its second Final Four in three years. The Zags have a strong core of returning players, skilled new players and superstar-in-the-making forward Rui Hachimura.

But Gonzaga will be short handed in Maui and likely the first two months of the season after forward Killian Tillie injured his ankle in preseason practice.

SHORTHANDED CYCLONES: Gonzaga may be down a key player, but Iowa State made the trip to Maui with just eight scholarship players due to injuries and suspensions.

Cyclones point guard Lindell Wigginton is out indefinitely with a left foot strain and forward Solomon Young had groin surgery during the preseason. Cam Lard and Zoran Talley are both out on suspensions.

Iowa State (3-0) opens the Maui Invitational against new-look Arizona (3-0).

“We’ll play a lot of young guys, some freshmen, but I like our leadership,” Iowa State coach Steve Prohm said. “The big thing this year is we’re playing selfless, we’re really sharing the ball.”

NO CHAMINADE: Chaminade of Honolulu is the tournament host, but is not in this year’s championship field. The Division II Silverswords, known for pulling off upsets in the tournament, are only in the championship bracket every two years and will return to the main field in 2019.

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