Deep field again at Maui Invitational
LAHAINA, Hawaii (AP)
The eight coaches sat at a table perched on soft grass, leis around their necks, palms swaying above their heads, the Pacific Ocean crashing behind.
When it comes to settings for a basketball tournament, it doesn't get much better than the Maui Invitational.
The basketball figures to be just as good.
A tournament known for its beautiful surroundings and deep fields, the Maui Invitational could be on the verge of one-upping itself as the pre-eminent holiday hoops tournament with seven teams coming off NCAA Tournament appearances and a field that's combined for 20 national championships.
''That's the reason it's been such a great tournament because they've always had great fields,'' Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Sunday, just a few yards from picturesque Kaanapali Beach. ''This one measures up to any of the others in the past.''
After a so-so field in 2009, the Maui Invitational was back in full force last year with a bracket that included some of college basketball's best programs and coaches. Connecticut won the title behind one-man gang Kemba Walker, a win in paradise that served as a warm-up to the Huskies' national title in Houston.
This year's tournament has a chance to be even better.
There's No. 6 Duke, the four-time Maui champions who are 12-0 under Krzyzewski at the tournament. Josh Pastner returns to the Maui Invitational for the first time as a coach, leading 10th-ranked Memphis after playing and serving as an assistant coach for Arizona in two previous trips here.
No. 12 Kansas, a three-time NCAA champion, is back in Maui for the first time since 2005 with a talented but inexperienced team.
No. 17 Michigan, which won a national championship in 1989, is back in Maui after a 13-year absence with a team that returns four starters and 12 players from a team that brought the buzz back to the program last season.
UCLA has the deepest resume with 11 national titles and the 2006 Maui title, but is looking to bounce back after two ugly losses to open a season that started with high expectations.
''There's so much talent, there's so many good players from each of these teams represented here, and obviously well-coached,'' said UCLA coach Ben Howland, whose team opens with Chaminade. ''It's very exciting. It's always the best tournament in the country this time every year.''
The list of coaches is impressive.
Krzyzewski has won four national titles and passed mentor Bobby Knight last week to become the winningest Division I men's coach. Bill Self earned a national title with Kansas in 2008 and has won 83 percent of his games in nine seasons in Lawrence. Howland took UCLA to the Final Four three straight seasons. With Michigan's John Beilein, Georgetown's John Thompson III and Tennessee's Cuonzo Martin, six of the eight coaches have combined to win over 2,600 games.
Pastner is considered one of the nation's best young coaches and Chaminade's Eric Bovaird takes over a program that shocked the basketball world by beating mighty Virginia and Ralph Sampson in 1982 in Hawaii.
''It's an honor just to be here with all these great coaches,'' said Bovaird, who initially turned down the job at Chaminade before taking it.
The players, as you might expect with teams like these, include some of the best in the country.
The list includes six on the preseason Wooden Award watch list: Will Barton and Joe Jackson of Memphis, UCLA's Joshua Smith and Reeves Nelson, Michigan's Tim Hardaway Jr. and Thomas Robinson of Kansas.
Duke has the Plumlee brothers, Seth Curry and Austin Rivers, considered by most recruiting services to be the top incoming freshman for 2011-12. Georgetown returns a pair of good scorers in Hollis Thompson and senior guard Jason Clark, and Tennessee has five players averaging double figures in its first season under Martin, the former Missouri State coach who took over for Bruce Pearl after an NCAA investigation.
''It's no secret that you need great players performing well to win,'' Krzyzewski said.
With so many good teams, there are no real letups, no chances for teams to coast into the next round.
The tournament gets started Monday morning with Michigan facing Memphis in a matchup of Top 25 teams. Duke opens with Tennessee, while Kansas and Georgetown play each other in the first round.
UCLA doesn't figure to have it easy with Chaminade in its opener, either. Picked as the favorites to win the Pac-12, the Bruins opened the season with double-digit losses to mid-majors and are facing a team that relishes the underdog role on its home turf.
''The competition is fierce,'' Howland said.
Perhaps more this year than any other.