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November 22, 2010

Huskies trying to forget about recruiting owie in Maui

LAHAINA, Hawaii - Leis around their neck, the Pacific Ocean over their shoulders, Kentucky's John Calipari and Washington's Lorenzo Romar didn't look like two coaches still bitter about a fierce offseason recruiting battle.

If anything, they were almost giddy, thrilled to be in one of the most beautiful places in the world and about the opportunity their teams have in the first true test of the season.

Terrence Jones? He didn't come up until someone asked, and even then the down-to-the-last-second recruiting duel wasn't an issue.

"Honestly, we could make a big deal out of it, but it's just going to be a game where you have a lot of respect for their program," Romar said as waves crashed about 50 yards away. "All the teams we have a chance to play here, all our guys are going to look forward to it."

The Maui Invitational, after a so-so year talent-wise in 2009, is loaded again, filled with high-profile teams and players, and some of the best coaches in the game today.

With teams like No. 2 Michigan State, Calipari's 12th-ranked Wildcats and Romar's No. 17 Huskies, this year's tourney will be as much about the play on the court as the tropical print shirts worn by the coaches and the wish-I-could-be-there setting outside the gym.

Nestled within this must-see lineup is an intriguingly juicy subplot for a game that might not even happen: Kentucky vs. Washington in the second round.

The reason is Jones, Kentucky's talented 6-foot-8 freshman forward.

One of the most sought-after players in the country, Jones had waffled between wanting to play for Calipari and one of the college basketball's storied programs, or staying in the Pacific Northwest to play for Romar's on-the-rise Huskies.

Jones made his in choice in April, lining up the hats of prospective schools before pulling on a Huskies lid. The high school star from Portland was headed to Washington.

Or was he?

Just a few hours later, Jones was on the phone with Calipari, saying he had made a mistake. He called Romar, too, expressing concern about his decision.

A month later, Jones had changed his mind completely, agreeing to play for Calipari in Lexington, leaving Huskies fans shocked, though not Romar.

"I remember he was someone who was confused when it was time to make a decisions," he said. "He set a date for a news conference to announce what he was going to do that (was) I don't know what I'm going to do now, but when the time comes I'll figure it out.

"When the day got there, he still hadn't fully figured it out. Deep down, I think he always wanted to go to Kentucky."

While Romar couldn't find it in himself to blame a confused 18-year-old, Huskies fans were livid, especially after Enes Kanter, another five-star recruit, had earlier backed out on a verbal commitment to Washington and headed to Kentucky.

Once Jones switched, the thought was that Calipari had pulled something underhanded, working behind the scenes to lure him to Lexington. Truth was, Jones was the one who called Calipari, not the other way around.

If fans might be up for this potential second-round matchup, so might Jones. Washington's players might even take a let's-stick-it-to-him approach, too. As for the coaches, the past is just that. This game, if it does happen, is just an early chance to see where their programs stack up against another good team.

"I don't have any ill will or feelings in any way," Calipari said. "I know the Jones thing makes people kind of, 'Argh!' But I'm not into that. This is going to be a tough game for us."

There doesn't figure to many easy ones anywhere in the three-day tournament that starts Monday at Lahaina Civic Center. To get to the second round, Kentucky has to get through young but talented Oklahoma.

Washington opens with Virginia, a team that figures to be better in its second season under coach Tony Bennett.

That game won't start till 9 p.m. Pacific time.

In the bracket's top half, Michigan State is loaded again, returning a core of Kalin Lucas, Dreymond Green and Durrell Summers from last year's Final Four team.

Wichita State has developed into one of the nation's best mid-majors, and returns nine regulars and plenty of length. Connecticut is rebuilding, but Jim Calhoun has a load of young, talented players as well.

Even Chaminade doesn't figure to be a pushover. The Silverswords can shoot with anyone and have one of the biggest upsets in college hoops history on their resume, that 1982 win over top-ranked Virginia and Ralph Sampson on this same set of islands.

After an early-season schedule filled with patsies for most of these teams, it's time to find focus amid the beauty.

"One of the great things about Maui," Calhoun said, "is you find out right away what basketball's going to be like at a major level."


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