Zimmerman, Rebels embrace Maui Invitational challenge

LAHAINA, Hawaii — It’s a big stage, arguably the highest-profile holiday tournament of the college basketball season, and Stephen Zimmerman Jr. is looking forward to the spotlight.

The Maui Invitational is a proving ground for teams, and for some players, it’s a first shot to be seen.

“I’m super excited to play in it,” said Zimmerman, UNLV’s 7-foot freshman.

The Rebels (3-0) open play against UCLA (2-1) at 8:30 p.m. PST Monday in the 2,400-seat Lahaina Civic Center. The game will be televised on ESPN2.

The winner likely faces No. 4 Kansas, a big favorite against Division II Chaminade, on Tuesday. Each team in the eight-team field plays three games in three days.

“I know the prestige of playing in Maui. It’s always a star-studded field,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “There are no easy games in Maui, and it’s a quick turnaround. It’s great for our program, and the exposure of being on ESPN is huge.”

It will be the first opportunity for fans across the nation to see Zimmerman, a Bishop Gorman High graduate and former McDonald’s All-American, as a college player. He averaged 12.7 points and 9.7 rebounds in the Rebels’ victories over Cal Poly, New Mexico Highlands and Southern Utah.

“I’m really excited to be able to challenge ourselves,” Zimmerman said. “I think we’re confident where we are, but we obviously still have a lot to work on. UCLA is a great first game. A team that’s going to push us more is just going to make us better.”

The other half of the bracket features No. 14 Indiana along with St. John’s, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest.

“It’s a great tournament. I’ve been watching it since I was little,” UNLV senior guard Jerome Seagears said. “It’s like a Final Four type of atmosphere.”

It’s also the first trip to Hawaii for Seagers, Zimmerman and most of the Rebels’ players. The team went on an ocean cruise Saturday morning, practiced in the afternoon and attended a luau in the evening.

“We’re definitely going to be on the beach and stuff like that,” said Zimmerman, who vowed he would not try surfing and would avoid a sunburn. “I want to be able to play, so I’ll keep it as safe as possible.”

But with the vacation aspect of the trip nearing an end, it’s almost time for business.

“The main thing is we want to win,” Zimmerman said.

Scouting the field in Maui:

UCLA — After a stunning season-opening overtime loss to Monmouth, the Bruins bounced back to beat Cal Poly (88-83) and Pepperdine (81-67). Steve Alford returned three starters from an NCAA Tournament team. The coach’s son, Bryce Alford, is a junior point guard and the team’s leading scorer at 19.7 points per game. He has hit 39 percent of his 3-point attempts. Tony Parker, a 6-9, 260-pound senior center, is averaging 16.7 points and 16.0 rebounds. UCLA, big on the front line and athletic in the backcourt, will be a small favorite against UNLV.

Kansas — The Jayhawks (1-1) were upset by Michigan State in Chicago last week. But coach Bill Self is a little shorthanded. His star freshman, Cheick Diallo, has not been cleared to play by the NCAA. He was granted a waiver to travel with the team to Hawaii. Junior guard Brannen Greene was just suspended six games. But with Perry Ellis, Frank Mason III and Wayne Selden Jr., Kansas still is the tournament’s most experienced and talented team.

Chaminade — If the Rebels lose to the Bruins, they can count on facing the Silverswords, the host team from Honolulu. Dantley Walker, the former Lincoln County High shooting star who transferred from UNLV, has scored 14 points (4-for-9 3-pointers) in two games as a reserve for Chaminade (0-2).

Indiana — Rice is under pressure to win this season. If any coach is feeling more heat, it’s Tom Crean. But the Hoosiers (3-0) are off to a strong start by beating Eastern Illinois, Austin Peay and Creighton by an average of 28.7 points. The backcourt duo of James Blackmon Jr. (18.7 ppg) and Yogi Ferrell (16.7) is one of the Big Ten’s best. Indiana opens against Wake Forest and probably will reach the championship game.

St. John’s — Chris Mullin’s return to Queens, N.Y., is going well so far. The Red Storm (3-0) opened with a win over Wagner before blowing out Maryland-Baltimore County and slipping by Rutgers 61-59 on Thursday. Federico Mussini, a freshman point guard from Italy, leads the team in scoring (16.3). But Mullin might have the second-weakest team in the tournament.

Vanderbilt — The 17th-ranked Commodores (3-0) returned four starters from a 21-14 team, and five players are averaging double figures in scoring. The most imposing player is 7-foot junior Damian Jones. Sophomore point guard Wade Baldwin IV leads the team in scoring (14.7 ppg) and is shooting 44.4 percent from 3-point range.

Wake Forest — Danny Manning, in his second season as Demon Deacons coach, returned three starters from a 13-19 team. Wake Forest (2-1) suffered a 91-82 loss to Richmond before leaving for the Islands. Devin Thomas, a strong 6-9 senior center, is averaging 17.0 points and 13.0 rebounds. The Deacons are predicted to finish around 10th in the 15-team Atlantic Coast Conference.

— Contact reporter Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.

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