For thirty years, Maui has showcased the best of college basketball
It was a bit of shtick that had come to feel as comfortably time-worn as Hawaii's celebrated beaches: Every year at the banquet on the eve of the EA Sports Maui Invitational, master of ceremonies Bill Raftery would introduce tournament chairman Dave Odom by reminding the crowd that Odom had been an assistant on the top-ranked, undefeated Virginia team that lost to tiny NAIA Chaminade University in Honolulu two days before Christmas in 1982. One of the sport's greatest upsets, that game would launch not only the Maui Invitational, but also a new era of parity in college basketball.
On cue, Odom would accept the mic and say, with well-practiced aggrievement, "How many times must one guy lose one game?"
For the tournament's 30th edition, which tips off on Monday at 3 p.m. ET, the banquet has a different emcee, Jay Bilas, and Odom may get a somewhat different introduction. But he'll still take the opportunity to tell the crowd how strongly he feels about the impact of that balmy night 31 years ago, when a rag-tag team of Silverswords toppled the mighty Cavaliers and three-time national Player of the Year Ralph Sampson in front of 4,000 people and zero TV cameras.
"In a lot of ways I still hate that we lost that game," says Odom, who retired from coaching in 2008 after a 19-year career at the helm of Wake Forest and South Carolina. "But it brought an awareness to the islands that college basketball was important. With that loss, college basketball gained another territory." That territory includes vast swaths of Asia, says Odom. "Hawaii is a bridge from the mainland's west coast to the Phillipines, Korea, Japan and China, where basketball has made huge inroads. I really believe this tournament serves as a basketball conduit to those countries."
Aside from its role as global hoops propagator, the Maui Invitational is the college game's best early-season tournament -- an eight-team, 12-game throwdown that plays out for three days in the intimate cauldron of the Lahaina Civic Center, a glorified high school gym that recently welcomed air-conditioning but still only seats 2,400 fans and serves as the local DMV office when future NBA lottery picks aren't clogging the hallways.
"Maui is the cream of the crop," says Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who'll be making his fourth appearance at the invitational this week, his first since the Zags beat Cincinnati 61-59 in OT in the 2009 final. "It has a great tradition, great television coverage, a great format, and you're not going to find a better place for your fans to travel to. And with that little gym and those tiny little locker rooms -- it's basketball in its purest sense. Yet if you look at the names of the winners, it's a who's who of the best teams in college basketball. To be on that list is something special."
While Few would be happy to spend every Thanksgiving week in Maui, the NCAA restricts teams from participating more than once every four years. Odom, whose main task is to procure and bracket the participants, has generally built his fields by getting one team from each of the six power conferences plus one team from a non-power conference to join host Chaminade, which is now a DII school. Though the recent conference realignment will force him to tweak that approach, his goal will be the same. "I want to get the seven best teams I can possibly get," says Odom, who is in his fifth year at tourney chair. "I feel like I owe that to everybody."
It is a credit to Odom and the late Dave Gavitt before him that no coach goes to Maui expecting to pad his win column. "When I left Wake Forest and took over at South Carolina in 2001, I walked into my office the first day and athletic director Mike McGee handed me my schedule," recalls Odom. "I had been in the ACC all my coaching life and I thought I was finished with them. On that schedule our first game out of the box is over in Maui. Who do we play? Duke."
Odom's team lost to the Blue Devils, who have yet to lose a game in five trips to Maui. Their most recent win, over Kansas in the 2011 final, featured 16 lead changes and two critical three-pointers from Duke's Tyler Thornton, a defensive specialist who had previously made just four three-pointers in his college career. But as an example of what Odom calls "Maui Magic," Thornton's threes pale next to the 2005 semifinal between Gonzaga and Michigan State. The Zags' Adam Morrison scored a tourney-record 43 points in a triple-overtime thriller that featured 13 lead changes in the final 7:30 of regulation. "That was one of the all-time great college games," recalls Few, whose team finally won it 106-103, only to lose 65-63 to Connecticut in the championship the next day. "So many guys made big plays. More impressive were both teams coming out of time outs and executing perfectly what they were supposed to do."
It can be argued that no team has conjured Maui Magic as successfully as six-time participant North Carolina, which has parlayed two of its three tournament championships (in 2004 and 2008) into NCAA titles the following April. (Michigan in 1988 and Connecticut in 2010 likewise launched NCAA title runs with championships in Maui.) Tar Heels coach Roy Williams so enjoys the Maui experience that he recently told Odom, "As long I'm coaching here, just send us the contract every four years, you don't even have to call!"
No team looks forward to the Maui Invitational as much as its host, Chaminade, even though the Silverswords have lost many more games (78) than they've won (seven). The tournament's success hasn't changed the program's circumstances much: coach Eric Bovaird still has a tiny recruiting budget ($5,000) and a tiny office located in a building known as "The Shack." Chaminade still shares a campus with a Honolulu high school, which owns the gym the Silverswords rent time to practice and play in. And yes, the coaching staff -- that is, Bovaird's lone assistant -- still has to do the team laundry. But Bovaird can offer recruits something no other DII can: three quality DI opponents and national TV exposure every year.
"The tournament means the world to us," says Bovaird, now in his third year in Honolulu. "We recruit globally, and everyone in the basketball world is familiar with our tournament. That's a big recruiting advantage for us. I was a DII All-America (at West Liberty in Wheeling, W.Va.). I wished I could have played at North Carolina, Duke or Kansas, but they didn't recruit me. The next best thing is the opportunity to play against them. To be in that elite class, at least for a few days, is a huge deal for us."
This year's elite class may not have the wattage of the 2011 lineup, which featured five former NCAA champions -- Duke, Kansas, Michigan, UCLA and Georgetown -- as well as 10th-ranked Memphis and Tennessee. But it does have three teams that have championship banners hanging from the Civic Center rafters -- Gonzaga (2009), Dayton (2003) and Syracuse (1990, 1998). Arkansas is making its third appearance; Baylor, Minnesota and Cal, their second. In an unprecedented confluence of perfection -- at least since the college season started launching well before Thanksgiving week -- every team arrives in Maui undefeated. "To have an undefeated field is always my wish," says Odom. "My other wish is that the winner of the tournament goes on to win the NCAA title."
Will Odom go two-for-two on his wishes this year? Far unlikelier things have already happened on this Pacific patch.
Cal (4-0) vs. Arkansas (3-0), Nov. 25, 3 p.m. EST
The Bears arrive in Maui with a small grievance: Despite returning four starters from last year's 21-win squad and adding a top 20 recruiting class, they were picked by the media to finish fifth in the Pac-12. "It's a slap in the face," says senior point guard Justin Cobbs. Even without All-American shooting guard Allen Crabbe, who left early for the NBA, this could be one of coach Mike Montgomery's better Cal squads once his five freshmen get some seasoning -- and if his thin frontcourt can stay out of trouble. Senior point guard Justin Cobbs, a two-time All-Pac-12 selection, leads a deep and talented backcourt that includes McDonald's All-America freshman Jabari Bird, do-everything slasher Tyrone Wallace and sharpshooter Ricky Kreklow. Senior center Richard Solomon is blossoming into one of the top rebounders in the country: his 12.5 boards a game is tied for sixth in the nation.
Venturing beyond the comfort zone of Bud Walton Arena has been perilous for the Razorbacks under third-year coach Mike Anderson. Their 37-5 home record during his tenure includes wins over ranked teams like Florida, Michigan and Kentucky. But outside of Fayetteville, their record is just 3-23. The Hogs are counting on their pressure defense and the offense of Houston transfer Alandis Holland and sophomore guard Michael Qualls, who have combined for nearly 35 of the Hogs' 88 points a game in their three home games to date, to help change their road luck.
No. 9 Syracuse (4-0) vs. Minnesota (5-0), 5:30 p.m. ET
Like Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim has never lost in Maui. Can he three-peat? Unlike his previous two appearances, in 1990 and 1998, there will be no Bobby Knight-led Indiana team to exact 1987 NCAA title-game revenge upon in the championship game -- if the Orange can make it there. To do so will require far better half-court execution than was on display in Syracuse's recent game against St. Francis, when it eked out a 56-50 win despite getting just seven points from star forward C.J. Fair, shooting just 35.3 percent and delivering a measly eight assists as a team.
Meanwhile, first-year Minnesota coach Richard Pitino has been coaxing impressive performances out of his undermanned Golden Gophers, including 6-foot-2 junior Andre Hollins, who was the Big Ten's leading scorer through his first four games; 6-4 senior Austin Hollins; and 6-8 Latvian forward Oto Osenieks, who is thriving as a starter after languishing on the bench last year.
Chaminade (2-0) vs. No. 20 Baylor (4-0), 9:30 p.m. ET
Among the players Bovaird has lured to his rented hillside gym are five DI refugees, including 6-3 senior guard Christophe Varidel, who scored 11 points in Florida Gulf Coast's upset of San Diego State in the Round of 32 last year. (In his one game as a Silversword, Varidel scored 30.) "We have a really good shooting team," says Bovaird. "Every guy on the team can handle the ball and shoot from the perimeter. We're basically all guards. We don't have a big dominant, physical presence on the inside. So we know most team's strategy against us will be to pound it inside."
Baylor has just the team to do that: The Bears have started 4-0 on the strength and length of bigs Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson -- with significant outside help from sharpshooter Brady Heslip. But their last win, a 69-60 squeaker over Charleston Southern in Waco, revealed a porous perimeter defense: The Bucs shot 46.2 percent from the three-point arc. Can a good shooting team like Chaminade exploit the holes? Baylor should be wary: The last Big 12 team to face the 'Swords got gutted -- last year, Texas fell 86-73 to their hosts.
Dayton (4-0) vs. No. 13 Gonzaga (4-0), midnight ET
Unlike the rest of the field, the Flyers arrive in Maui with a little road momentum, having dispatched Georgia Tech and former Flyer coach Brian Gregory in Atlanta 82-72 on Nov. 20. Archie Miller's squad has a few other things working for it, including five double-digit scorers. Sophomore guard Khari Price and Ohio State transfer Jordan Sibert are shooting 46.7 and 44.4 percent, respectively, from the three.
The Zags have something no other DI team in Maui can boast: three players who have been to the tournament before. Starters Sam Dower and David Stockton were redshirt freshmen when the Zags won in 2009, and reserve guard Drew Barham was redshirting with Memphis when the Tigers played two years ago. Will that confer any advantage? "I don't think so," says Few. "Nice for them, though." What will help the Zags repeat 2009's title is a talented and seasoned backcourt, led by junior Kevin Pangos, who scored 27 points and dished out four assists in the Zags' 90-74 win against Washington State Nov. 21. Barham, whose most vivid memory of Maui from two years ago was "sitting on the bench wanting to play so badly," added 16.
Few is eager to get to the island, don a Hawaiian shirt ("Honestly, I wish we could wear those all season," he says) and start preparing for the three-day gauntlet before his team can relax and enjoy the beach and a Thanksgiving feast on Thursday. "You have to be prepared for anything in this tournament," says Few. "It's an intense few days. But if you can make it to Thursday, it's a great deal."