Looking for a little Maui magic
The eight-team field has been defined as unimpressive. There is no Duke, no Arizona, no Kansas, no Kentucky. But what this year's Maui Classic -- version No. 20 for those counting -- does again offer is opportunity for programs seeking admiration on a national level.
It's a pretty simple formula inside that hot, dusty 30-year old gymnasium: Play well and you get noticed. Just ask the hosts.
Prior to its upset of Villanova on Monday morning, the only other fact known about Chaminade was its victory against Ralph Sampson and Virginia in 1982?
Didn't think so.
"If you are successful or can play reasonably well in Maui, it always helps you in recruiting," said Santa Clara coach Dick Davey. "Name identity is an issue in recruiting. Let's face it -- being on television is also an issue.
"It has been a high for us when we played over there. And we'd like to have the same thing happen this time, but I think some other teams might have something to say about that."
Others include San Diego State, another West Coast program that will spend Thanksgiving week in and around the Lahaina Civic Center. The Aztecs are picked to finish in the lower tier of the Mountain West Conference, but are potentially much better with Missouri transfer Wesley Stokes at point guard and one of the top freshmen out West in combo guard Brandon Heath.
Hawaii -- if you can believe it -- will make its first Maui appearance when it plays Santa Clara in a first-round game. For years, the Warriors competed with the Maui event by hosting their own Rainbow Classic.
"The Maui is the most prestigious preseason tournament there is," said Aztecs coach Steve Fisher, whose team opens against Ohio State on Monday on ESPN2. "We're going there expecting to win. Most people will say Ohio State has a better team. I don't know whether they do or not, but I do believe we'll have a chance to win against anyone we play there.
"And if you get lucky and play well and win that first one, all three of your games will be on national television. It is a tournament with all kinds of residual effects for your program."
Davey and Santa Clara knows this well.
The Broncos -- another lower-tier pick in what should be a Gonzaga-dominated West Coast Conference this season -- won two Maui games in 1995, knocking off defending national champion UCLA and Michigan State. It helped, of course, that a lad named Steve Nash then directed the Santa Clara attack.
There have been others. Chaminade's improbable win over Virginia led to the tournament's creation. A few years ago, Ball State earned national acclaim by beating Kansas and UCLA before falling to Duke in the final.
"Maui gives our school and program instant recognition," said SDSU junior forward Chris Walton, the last of Bill Walton's four sons. "It's not every year we get to play in a tournament like this on ESPN. People are saying it's a down field, maybe the worst field ever in Maui. But guys play Division I basketball for a reason -- they're good.
"Look at what Yale did to Connecticut the other night, leading at halftime. Our expectations are to go there and win."
Translation: Villanova was, and Ohio State remains the favorite.
On Maui, that means nothing at all.
|Games to Watch|
Fresno State at Oregon
The Bulldogs finally get to play for real again after being denied a chance to participate in the postseason last year due to NCAA violations. Oregon has won all six meetings played at McArthur Court. The Ducks play their first official game without point guard Luke Ridnour, who departed early for the NBA. Even so, coach Ernie Kent has said freshman Aaron Brooks is equal to where Ridnour was during his first season.
Monday-Wednesday (ESPN and ESPN2)
First-round games include San Diego State against Ohio State and Santa Clara against Hawaii. On SDSU's side of the bracket is Central Michigan-Dayton, while Villanova-Chaminade is on Santa Clara's side. The Broncos desperately need a healthy guard in Kyle Bailey (lost six games into last season) to find success; starting freshmen highlights Aztecs coach Steve Fisher's career, and he will do so with at least one (combo guard Brandon Heath) and possibly two (forward Marcus Slaughter) this season.
BYU at California
The team picked by many to win the MWC tries to handle one of the more promising Pac-10 squads. BYU is led by preseason all-conference senior picks in wing Mark Bigelow and center Rafael Araujo. But can the Cougars handle the athleticism and versatility Cal offers with such talents as senior Amit Tamir and freshman Leon Powe?
"He will be a factor right away," Olson said. "But the way we play, we need some numbers out there. You can't play the pace we do and have the same guys out there all the time."
One player who has impressed early is sophomore forward Andre Iguodala.
"If he shoots it like he did in our first exhibition (8-of-10), he'll be one of the best 6-foot-6, 6-foot-7 players in the country," Olson said. "It's unusual to have a guy that size who sees the court as well as he does. We had a 20-minute scrimmage the other day and he had 15 rebounds."
"Justin is ready for a breakout year," said Montgomery. "He is a very good offensive player, hard to block off, and difficult to defend. Lottich is as good a shooter as anybody in the league. Josh is ready to again be a big part of the team's success."
The other key: Starting point guard Chris Hernandez must remain healthy, a hurdle he has yet to clear in college.
"I'm excited about what he brings to our team,'' said second-year coach Ray Lopes. "He's a true floor general, an extension of the coach. His leadership and basketball instincts and knowledge can only benefit us. We didn't have a true point guard like Shantay last year. Some guys had to play out of position."
"I'm just thankful to be back in the game that I love. It's not so much a destination, but a journey. I missed the journey, even the hard parts."
-- First-year Washington State coach Dick Bennett.
Ed Graney of the San Diego Union-Tribune is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.