Maui field is loaded
Matt Mahar isn't likely to forget his introduction to life as a college basketball coach.
When the first-year Chaminade coach arrives at the Westin Maui for this morning's press conference in advance of the EA Sports Maui Invitational, he'll find himself in some elite company.
Joining Mahar on the panel will be a collection of coaches who usually wouldn't find themselves facing each other until the late rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
Lute Olson (Arizona), Gary Williams (Maryland), Jim Calhoun (Connecticut) and Tom Izzo (Michigan State) have all won national championships. Mark Few of Gonzaga, Bill Self of Kansas and Stan Heath of Arkansas aren't far behind in prestige.
Then there's Mahar, who was promoted to head coach of the NCAA Division II Chaminade program in the offseason and leads the Silverswords into a tournament that resembles an Elite Eight.
"It's like you have all these national championship winners and then you have us," Mahar said. "Our guys love it. The new guys don't have any idea what they're coming into. When we get over there, there's just so much going on the entire time and the atmosphere is just tremendous."
The Maui Invitational tips off tomorrow at the Lahaina Civic Center and even by its lofty standards, this year's tournament field qualifies as a monster.
Half of the field is ranked in the Associated Press preseason top 10 -- No. 3 Connecticut, No. 4 Michigan State, No. 8 Gonzaga and No. 10 Arizona. Maryland checks in at No. 24.
A young Kansas team is just outside the rankings and Arkansas is eyeing a return to the postseason.
"I think it's a credit to all the schools that we want to be in this situation," Williams said. "You get a really good read, where you could go schedule three games and win those games by 30 points, but really not have a feel for your team."
Although the teams are just starting their seasons, the coaches know a few wins this week could pay off when the NCAA Tournament's selection committee meets in March.
"All of them will play great competition during the season and these are going to be games that are going to be highlighted by the committee," said Calhoun, a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame's class of 2005. "It's awful early to be doing it, but I think we'll all come out of there with a heck of a lot better feel about who we are and what we are."
Chaminade opens the tournament at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow against Michigan State. Maryland plays Gonzaga in the second game. Arizona then faces Kansas, and UConn and Arkansas meet to close out the opening day.
The tournament continues with semifinal action on Tuesday and concludes Wednesday. The strength of the field creates stern early-season tests for all involved.
"I think this is the greatest tournament going outside of the NCAA Tournament," Few said. "That being said, my heart sunk when Maryland showed up as our opponent, because I think they're really, really good."
Chaminade faces a Michigan State team smarting from yesterday's 84-62 loss to Hawaii. Izzo began his career with the Spartans against Chaminade in the opening round of the 1995 tournament and escaped with a two-point win.
Gonzaga forward Adam Morrison was named an AP preseason All-American after averaging 19 points and 5.5 rebounds for the Bulldogs last season.
Connecticut features sophomore forward Rudy Gay, who Calhoun said could contend for national player of the year honors. Arizona lost two of its top players from last year's Elite Eight squad in Channing Frye and Salim Stoudamire, but remain a favorite in the Pac-10.
Kansas lost four starters, but brought in a heralded freshman class that includes three McDonald's All-Americans.
Maryland missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 11 years last season and is led by seniors Nik Caner-Medley and Chris McCray.
Chaminade added to its legacy of upsets with a win over Villanova two years ago. The Silverswords return point guard Zack Whiting, the only player who participated in the win over Villanova. Guard Chris Reaves scored 33 points against Texas in last year's tournament.
"We also get recruits because of (hosting the Maui Invitational)," Mahar said. "You can go to a smaller Division I and not play the caliber of teams we're going play over that three-day period and all of it's on national television."