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Forgrave: Maui Invitational started trend of early-season showcases
In the 30 years since the first Maui Invitational started to set a new standard for high-profile college basketball games in November, the early-season landscape of college basketball has changed. No longer can coaches of high-profile programs schedule nothing but cupcakes in November and December. Come March Madness, schools are rewarded not just for win-loss record but for the strength of teams they’ve beaten – or lost to.
Which is how you can get an early-season showcase that featured four of the nation’s top five teams – Kansas vs. Duke and Kentucky vs. Michigan State in the Champions Classic in Chicago – in the first full week of the season. It’s how you get the possibility of Duke vs. Arizona – superfreshman Jabari Parker vs. superfreshman Aaron Gordon – in the NIT Season Tip-Off this week in New York. It’s how you get Creighton and possible All-American Doug McDermott versus Arizona State and possible All-American Jahii Carson on Thanksgiving Day in California’s Wooden Legacy. It’s how you get likely No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Wiggins of Kansas playing in a ballroom that seats less than 2,000 in November.
And all of this – the 19 November non-conference tournaments that make college basketball still relevant in a time of year when it’s more natural to focus on football – started with Maui.
It’s four games a day for three days on one of the most beautiful locations on earth. It’s a draw for recruits and for alumni who are looking to support their school and take a holiday break. And most of all, it’s about great games in a 2,400-seat arena, essentially a glorified high school gym that’s dressed up for television.
“You get lost in so much basketball,” said Steve Skinner, the CEO of Chicago-based KemperLesnik, the owner and operator of the Maui Invitational. “If you’re a college basketball junkie, it’s truly a bucket list event. You’re sitting there watching players in what’s smaller than most high school gyms these days.”
The tournament itself came about by accident. In 1982, the Virginia Cavaliers and their star center, Ralph Sampson, were ranked No. 1 in the country. Virginia was one of the few teams with a killer non-conference schedule that year. First the Cavaliers beat Duke. Then they beat Georgetown and sophomore center Patrick Ewing. Then they went to Tokyo for a two-game tournament, where they beat Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston team as well as Utah. On the way back from Tokyo, they paused their grueling trip for a stop in Hawaii and played a game against an NAIA school.
And that’s when tiny Chaminade beat the No. 1-ranked team in the country in one of the most improbable upsets in college hoops history.
“Darned if they didn’t beat us,” said Dave Odom, the former Wake Forest coach who was an assistant at Virginia at the time, and who now is the tournament director for the Maui Invitational. “That was the first awakening that there was basketball on the islands.”
Since then November has brought no shortage of what Maui aficionados call “Maui Magic” — not least of which the Butler-Marquette game from last year that featured Rotnei Clarke’s halfcourt buzzer-beater.
For Jim O’Connell, the longtime Associated Press college basketball writer who has covered 19 Maui Invitationals, the most memorable game was the 1993 Maui championship game, where future NCAA tournament three-seed Kentucky beat future NCAA tournament two-seed Arizona, 93-92.
“That was the first time I ever heard anybody use the phrase, ‘It’s a March game in November,’ ” O’Connell said. “That’s what they’re all going for now. The games that people say, ‘Wow, that woulda been a great game a few months from now.”
The 19 November tournaments are great for college basketball. They make sure non-conference schedules aren’t filled with cupcakes. They're great for the players, who get to enjoy a bit of a spring break in the middle of college hoops season. At Maui, the players stay right on the beach. In such a quaint environment, locals say, it’s easy to co-mingle with your favorite basketball team’s players and coaches.
“What’s special about it is the intimacy,” said Chuck Bergson, a Maui radio station owner who is attending his 24th Maui Invitational this week. “You know it’s tournament time when you see all these tall skinny kids out on the beach. A lot of these kids have never seen the ocean. It’s a whole new world opening up to them.”
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