KAANAPALI, Hawaii — The Lahaina Civic Center will roar again.
After two years of relocation forced by the pandemic, the Maui Jim Maui Invitational returns to its namesake island Monday when eight powerful college basketball teams battle it out in the intimate spaces of a storied 2,400-seat gym.
The event remains one of the premier pre-conference tournaments in esports, with five of the eight participating teams placed in the Associated Press’s most recent top 25 poll.
The field’s eight coaches shared stories of Maui memories from their times as players, aspiring coaches at other institutions, or just tourists during the traditional pre-tournament press conference Sunday morning at the Hyatt Regency Maui.
While last year’s Maui Invitational was successfully held in Las Vegas and 2020 in Asheville, NC amid a pandemic quarantine, everyone agreed that something was lost in transit.
“It feels good to be back home,” said Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd, who made traveling here a regular part of his life, with or without a basketball team in tow, during his 22-year career as an assistant to Maui maniac Mark Few worked at Gonzaga.
San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher was assistant to the legendary Steve Fisher in Michigan in 1988-89 when the Wolverines traveled to the islands for the nascent tournament and won it all in a prelude to a national championship.
“This is it – the Maui Invitational. If you’re not in Maui, the brand is, but it’s not Maui,” Dutcher told Spectrum News. “That’s what makes it special. Being on the island, enjoying this beautiful place. … I’ve been here many times and it’s by far the best tournament there is.”
The last Maui Championship to be played in Lahaina, the epic 2019 duel between Kansas and Dayton in overtime, is considered by some to be the tongue-in-cheek national championship game of the 2019-20 season given the abrupt cancellation of the NCAA tournament in March was amid COVID-19 outbreaks across the country.
It’s 40th Anniversary of the infamous 1982 upset against top-ranked Virginia by the small, then-NAIA Chaminade that spawned the tournament. The coach of this Silverswords team, Merv Lopes, is expected to perform at this year’s tournament.
This year’s field consists of several teams looking to prove themselves in the sport’s major league: No. 9 Arkansas (3-0), No. 10 Creighton (4-0), No. 14 Arizona (3-0), No .17 San Diego State (3-0) and No. 23 Texas Tech (3-0). Another, Ohio State (3-0), gets votes. The bottom two are Cincinnati (3-1) and Louisville (0-3); The latter suffered three one-point home defeats earlier in the season.
The only past champion in this field is Arizona (2014, 2000).
Creighton’s 13thth-year coach Greg McDermott makes his first appearance on Maui.
“They work years in advance to set up these tournaments. Our staff and fanbase have really pushed forward to this day,” said McDermott. “I think we’re going to be well represented here and I think our fans are going to have a great time while we’re on the island.”
Arkansas coach Eric Musselman took his team surfing on Saturday.
“Hopefully we’ll play a little better than we surfed yesterday,” he joked.
Cincinnati coach Wes Miller played with that year’s winner, North Carolina under Roy Williams, at the 2004 Maui Invitational.
“It’s one of those memorable experiences as a player,” Miller said. “I’ve talked about it for the last 18 years.”
Texas Tech and Creighton, the first entrants of the field, begin the tournament at 9:30 a.m. with the first men’s collegiate game at the Civic Center since 2019.
Louisville and Arkansas follow at noon. Ohio State and San Diego State start afternoon games at 4:00 p.m. and Cincinnati and Arizona play the nightcap at 6:30 p.m
All four of the day’s games will be televised on ESPN2.
It’s one of those alternate years that sees traditional guest school Chaminade drop out of the Maui field and instead play preseason games on the mainland against some powerhouses. Silverswords head coach Eric Bovaird still attended the pre-tournament press conference.
Although the field is considered strong, it is largely untried.
San Diego State goes into the tournament with two of the best wins of any team in the field, at home against BYU and at Stanford. Cincinnati is coming off a 13-point loss in Northern Kentucky.
Some of the teams, such as Arkansas with 11 new scholars and Ohio State with four freshmen among the seven new rotation players, are examples of the transitional nature of college hoops.
There are two local players in the field. OSU grad forward Justice Sueing Jr., the son of the former Hawaii star of the same name, is the Buckeyes’ third-best scorer at 12.3 points per game.
Sueing entered the 2017 Maui Invitational with California as a true freshman. Chaminade defeated Cal in the seventh-place game this year, which remains the Silverswords’ last win of the event.
The other local player is Cincinnati 7-foot-1 true freshman center Sage Tolentino, who is yet to appear in an official game. Like Sueing, Tolentino played at Maryknoll School before ending his prep career on the mainland.
“He’s going to be a great player,” Miller said. “And it’s nice for him to be able to return to his home state. He’s not from Maui, he’s from Hawaii. And it was really neat for his family. I know he will have 30, 40 people here on the island to see him and our team.”
Brian McInnis covers the state’s sports scene for Spectrum News Hawaii.