Thoughts and observations heading into this week's Maui Invitational ...
• After Tyler Hansbrough suffered a mild tweak of his left ankle, North Carolina coach Roy Williams determined that Hansbrough would not play against Chaminade in the first round of the Maui Invitational. Williams had been feeling that three games in three days would be pushing it a bit, but was also considering playing Hansbrough on Monday and Wednesday. Instead, Hansbrough will sit Monday, and most likely play both Tuesday and Wednesday. Hansbrough will sit, but he desperately wants to play.
• Marcus Ginyard, out since his Oct. 8 surgery for a stress fracture in his foot, jogged for the first time at practice on Sunday.
• North Carolina has had so many injuries and so many players with ice on after practice that frostbite seems in play as an issue. The Tar Heels have great depth, but that depth is being tested in ways that few expected this early.
• The Tar Heels' 84-67 victory over Santa Barbara provided a good test, but also a few laughs. Tyler Hansbrough was introduced to the UCSB crowd as being from Poplar Bluff, Mont. -- he is from Poplar Bluff, but in Missouri -- and the public-address announcer actually asked the crowd before the game to watch its language and refrain from the use of "F-bombs." For one 15-second stretch, the Gaucho crowd failed.
• Danny Green suffered a mild tweak of his hamstring against UCSB. Just one more bump in the Tar Heels' road, but compared to the injuries already suffered, Green probably won't get a whole lot of sympathy.
• Hansbrough was so ready to play against UCSB that he got the first four balls he went after. Hansbrough was a little rusty, but still found his way to the free-throw line.
• North Carolina assistant coach Joe Holladay has been in coaching for 40 years, and he said that he has never seen a player like Hansbrough. The national Player of the Year is the most focused player that he has every seen, and while other players Holladay has had worked equally as hard, no player has been as focused off the floor and could sustain the effort and concentration as long as Hansbrough. Hansbrough's latest injury broke a streak. Over the summer, Hansbrough made 150 threes per day, which usually took him about an hour.
• North Carolina and Notre Dame have a pair of brother tandems. Tyler Hansbrough plays for the Heels, and his brother Ben Hansbrough just transferred from Mississippi State to Notre Dame to play for the Irish. Tyler Zeller plays for the Heels, and his older brother Luke Zeller plays for Notre Dame. North Carolina has to lead the nation in Tys, with Hansbrough, Zeller and Ty Lawson. Also, Tyler and Luke Zeller have a younger brother, Cody, who may be the best of the Zeller clan. Cody is a 6-foot-8 high school sophomore, and if he can crack the McDonald's All-America team, that would give the Zeller brothers the unheard-of triple.
• Saint Joseph's had a very good week of practice, concentrating mostly on the offensive end. Phil Martelli has tapped 6-foot-5 junior Garrett Williamson as his point guard after Williamson had a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio during the preseason. Martelli believes his team will really compete and will not panic. The Hawks were down 9-0 to Rider and won, and they were down 20-10 to Holy Cross and lost in overtime. Holy Cross played St. Joe's with a matchup zone, and Ahmad Nivins took only four shots in the second half. After two games, Nivins is averaging 21 points, 12.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks, but he is shooting a better percentage from the field than he is from the free-throw line. The good news is that Nivins is shooting 80 percent from the line. He has made 15 of 18 field goal attempts in two games.
• The biggest challenge for Saint Joseph's will be the defense of Texas. The Longhorns have given up only 11 assists in two games, which indicates that Texas has taken its opponents out of their offense and forced them to make individual plays.
• Oregon coach Ernie Kent went through a little exercise with his team as this season began, and it is one that he has done in years past. He asked each player to write down how many minutes per game he felt he should play. After each player forecast his minutes, the sum total was 385 minutes per game. There are only 200 minutes per game for each team in a regulation college game. The total was the highest Kent has had from a team since he began doing the exercise.
• Oregon expects to be the best-dressed team at the Maui Invitational. The Ducks will be wearing specially made shoes by Nike with Hawaiian print, and the Hawaiian print will also be on the trim of the Oregon uniforms. Also wearing the Hawaiian floral print shoes will be Saint Joseph's, Texas and Alabama. The Alabama shoes by Nike will be red, which should conjure up images of the ruby red shoes worn several years ago by the Tide's Antoine Pettway, currently an assistant coach to Mark Gottfried.
• Since he was at St. Mary's and Colorado State, Ernie Kent has taken his team on a retreat at which the players and coaches are able to get to know each other and get closer as a team. The retreat is focused on self-improvement, handling the media, proper dress, workshops on team building and leadership, and corporate presentations. Kent appreciates the greater understanding the players and coaches get from learning about each other's different backgrounds and experiences, and it allows the coaches and players to come together as one. This particular group has been one of Kent's best in the interactions they have with each other.
• Oregon has great depth, although the depth is very young and inexperienced with six freshmen. Expect Oregon to play fast, get out and press, and try to wear opposing teams down. Oregon will pressure Alabama all over the court and will try to keep the ball out of the hands of point guard Ronald Steele. The more other players handle the ball for the Tide, the better chance that Oregon has to disrupt them and win.
• Oregon is young, deep and talented, but a very different team than last season's Ducks. Maarty Leunen was a versatile big man who could step away and hit perimeter shots and stretch a defense. This year, Joevan Catron is more of a back-to-the-basket big, but a very fine passer. Tajuan Porter is the most explosive scorer, but he needs a point guard to handle the ball and let him concentrate on scoring. Garrett Sim, a high school triple-jump champion, and Kamyron Brown will be able to play the point and allow Porter to move off of the ball. Porter can still bring it up as the point guard on dead-ball situations, but he still needs to be a scorer for Oregon.
• Indiana is building a foundation under new coach Tom Crean, and it is one of attention to detail, accountability, enthusiasm and competition. The young Hoosiers may not have the horses to win at the highest level this season, but they will compete and they will play hard. Crean is spending his time teaching, and right now, this is a coach-directed team. Crean has to be involved in every detail of every drill, including minute details of fundamental footwork. The results on the scoreboard my not be what Hoosier fans want to see this season, but this team will make Indiana proud.
• Crean runs very good and innovative drills and is always looking for new and fresh ideas, not matter from where they come. Crean attended an Indianapolis Colts practice earlier this year and came away with a basketball drill. The Colts were working a drill in which the object was to get to the quarterback, represented by a towel on the field. Crean took the underlying concept of that drill, the pursuit of the quarterback, and took it to the basketball floor. The Hoosiers take a towel, rolled up and with tape on the ends, and sling it over the rim with the taped ends of the towel draping down. Two players, facing each other, have to compete to get the towel off of the rim. Pairs of players start from different spots on the floor, and as soon as the towel is grabbed off of the rim, a manager slings another one up there and another pair goes at it. It is a quick, intense and competitive drill, and it is impressive to watch.
• Not only does Crean find drills from other sports, he finds players from other sports. Through his relationship with the Indiana baseball coach, Crean got the basketball team and the baseball team together for some competition. The basketball team went to the baseball field and participated in a home run derby with the IU baseball team, and Nick Williams was the only cager to hit one out of the park. The baseball team then came to Assembly Hall to compete in a dunk contest and a 3-point shooting contest. Outfielder Kipp Schutz, expected to be selected in the next Major League Baseball draft, drilled 3 after 3 after 3. Crean was impressed, and asked Schutz to come out for the basketball team. Now, the outfielder is pursing towels on the rim and playing roundball for the Hoosiers.
• Notre Dame is not the most athletic team in the country, but the Irish may be the most comfortable team in knowing exactly who they are. Instead of lamenting what they may not do relatively well, the Irish accentuate what they do very well. And that is score. Notre Dame can spread shooters all over the floor and have one of the toughest, hardest-working and productive big men in the country in Luke Harangody. In addition to Harangody and sharpshooting guard Kyle McAlarney, coach Mike Brey has a terrific point guard in Tory Jackson, whose play could determine just how good the Irish wind up being this season. Jackson is a very good player, but his toughness is what makes him special. Brey is starting Zach Hillesland, and his passing, versatility and transition ability make him a very valuable piece. The ball just moves better with Hillesland on the floor, and he gets opportunities in the open floor. Senior Luke Zeller -- who Brey calls a "man ... he's 22 years old" -- is shooting the ball very well and is confident on the floor because he knows his minutes are secure.
• Notre Dame is not a pressure defensive team, but don't fall into the trap of believing the Irish do not defend. Notre Dame players build a wall, get their chests on you and stay in front of you, making you shoot it over the top. The Irish make you take a tough jump shot and limit you to one shot. Last season, Notre Dame finished in the top four in the Big East in field goal percentage defense and fourth in rebound margin. But that was with Rob Kurz in the lineup, and he has graduated, so somebody needs to help make up for Kurz's defensive rebounding ability.
• One good thing about being off the mainland and away from South Bend for four games ... being away from the pall and negativity around the football program. Irish fans are understandably disappointed over the football season, but things are going well in basketball and the Irish want to focus positively on their season.
• Few players have had a tougher time staying healthy than Alabama point guard Ronald Steele. Two years ago, Steele started the season with knee pain and tried to play through it during the year. Steele's practice time was affected even though he was playing in games, but his condition slowly deteriorated throughout the year. Steele's knee got so bad that Mark Gottfried decided to shut his season down with seven games to go in the regular season. One postseason surgery led to another, and Steele missed the entire 2007-2008 season. Now back, Steele is pain-free and injury-free, but he has yet to gain complete confidence in his game. When Steele gets some games under his belt, and as freshman JaMychal Green gets some games under his, Alabama can be pretty good.
• Senior swingman Alonzo Gee is a strong and powerful athlete, and Gottfried wants him to operate as a forward instead of a guard. Gee is playing closer in to the rim, and he has embraced the role of a defender. Gee used to gauge his performance on offense, instead of defense, rebounding and passing. Gee does not need to have big scoring games to be an outstanding player for the Tide.
• A note from back on the mainland ... Oklahoma's Blake Griffin is the best player in the country. I am not saying that the Player of the Year trophy is his yet because there is a long, long way to go and because there can be a difference between the best player and the Player of the Year, but there is nobody better than Griffin. After averaging 18.5 rebounds in his first two games, Griffin's rebounding average went up in each of his next two games. After four contests, Griffin is averaging 26 points and 19.8 rebounds while shooting almost 75 percent from the floor, but his numbers are not the whole story. Griffin is an incredible combination of power and skill, and he is an outstanding athlete who is absolutely unstoppable. The one area in which he can really improve is his free-throw shooting. When Griffin starts drilling his free throws, forget it. When you get a chance to watch Oklahoma, take it. Griffin is the real thing.