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Maui Invitational Preview: Who will be UNC’s toughest opposition in Hawaii?

The Tar Heels will face stiff competition as they go for the fourth title in Maui.

NCAA Basketball: Maui Invitational-Purdue vs Kansas State Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina will be making their seventh appearance in the Maui Invitational this year. In their previous six appearances, the Tar Heels have won the tournament three times, including 2004 and 2008, which both preluded another tournament win later in the season.

UNC’s last trip to Maui ended in a third place finish in 2012. The Tar Heels came in ranked ninth in the country but lost in the semifinals to Butler, before defeating Chaminade to take third.

This year’s edition of the Maui Invitational sees UNC as one of three top ten teams in the field.

One of those other top ten teams is Oregon, who are ranked ahead of the Tar Heels in both polls, but likely won’t be by the time the tournament tips off. The Ducks dropped a game to Baylor on the road, but will provide tough opposition should Carolina face them.

Oregon returns several key pieces from a team that was a #1 seed and reached the Elite Eight in last year’s NCAA Tournament. Ducks’ star Dillon Brooks may be back in time for Maui after missing the early season with a foot injury. Chris Boucher would also be a tough matchup inside for UNC, as he is a solid shot blocker and can stretch out and knock down threes on offense.

The third top ten team in the field is Wisconsin, who also dropped a game early in the season. In his first full season as coach, Greg Gard has a team expected to challenge for the Big Ten. Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig are still key pieces for the Badgers, two years on from being part of the team that knocked UNC out of the NCAA Tournament in 2015.

Wisconsin’s loss came on the road at Creighton. They shot just 41% from the field in that game, and were 11-39 from three. It would be unlikely for them to shoot that poorly again should UNC draw them at any point.

Both Wisconsin and Oregon sit of the opposite side of that Maui bracket, and UNC would only meet one of them on day three of the tournament. On Carolina’s side of the bracket sit Oklahoma State, Connecticut, and UNC’s first opponent, Chaminade.

The Silverswords have won games in the Maui Invitational before, but it’s hard to see them knocking off this North Carolina team. They do have a win over a Top 25 Division II team this season, but haven’t won a Maui Invitational game since 2012.

UNC’s second round opponents will either be Oklahoma State or Connecticut. UConn entered this season ranked 18th in the AP Poll, but opened the season with losses to Wagner and Northeastern, and was nearly knocked off by Loyola Marymount Thursday night.

Former NC State guard Rodney Purvis was expected to be a key piece for the Huskies, but he’s scored just 12 points in two games. As a team, the Huskies have shot under 40% in both games to open the season.

Oklahoma State comes into Maui 3-0 after three easy wins. Brad Underwood took over as coach after leading Stephen F. Austin to the Sweet 16 last year. Sophomore point guard Jawun Evans was a top 50 recruit in his class and is averaging over 20 points through three games.

The other two teams in the field are Tennessee and Georgetown.

The Volunteers are expected to finish near the bottom of the SEC, as Rick Barnes still tries to rebuild after the Donnie Tyndall situation. Redshirt freshman point guard Lamonte Turner could bring some stability to a young Tennessee team.

Georgetown is looking to bounce back after a losing season in 2015-16. After a dominant win in their first game, the Hoyas lost by just one to Maryland. They dropped a game to Arkansas State last night. Rodney Pryor leads the team in scoring so far, averaging 23 on 61% shooting (64% from three) after two games.

UNC will be one of the favorites in Maui. However, if they are to come away with a fourth Maui Invitational championship, it won’t be easy.