In the last 15 years, the Gonzaga Bulldogs have played in just about every prestigious holiday tournament on the map, venturing to Alaska, New York City, Kansas City, Orlando, Fla., Washington D.C., Honolulu and East Lansing, Mich.
In two years, Gonzaga will sample the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas.
But for now, there’s nothing like the EA Sports Maui Invitational, which turns 30 this week when eight teams gather at the charming Lahaina Civic Center. There will be three ranked teams – No. 9 Syracuse, No. 13 Gonzaga and No. 20 Baylor. Minnesota is receiving votes. The eight teams combined are 30-0.
“I just got done telling the team, outside of the NCAA tournament it’s the best tournament you can be in,” said coach Mark Few, shortly after the Bulldogs thumped Washington State on Thursday. “You get there and look up in that gym at the banners and see who has won it over the years. It’s the who’s who of the best teams in college basketball.”
If you look at the walls inside the 2,400-seat gym (thankfully equipped with air conditioning since 2005), the 2009 Bulldogs are represented on the list of champions alongside the likes of Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Kentucky. Adam Morrison (2005) and Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray are on the list of MVPs. The two guards shared the award in 2009.
Junior guard Gary Bell Jr. has never been to Maui but he offered a pretty good sight-unseen scouting report.
“I’m for sure looking forward to the weather, especially with the cold weather we’re having here,” Bell said. “We’ll get some nice weather, wear some shorts and play some basketball.”
Basketball comes first, but the Bulldogs will enjoy one post- tournament day in Maui. In 2009, Robert Sacre’s voice could be overheard a half-mile down the beach as the Bulldogs swam in the ocean.
“It’s going to be awesome weather so I think it’ll have the guys in a good mood,” sophomore guard Kyle Dranginis said. “But at same time it’s a business trip. We have to go try to defend that title we have.”
Following a welcome gala Saturday night and press conferences today, the games provide stout competition with limited preparation time in between. Coaches like both of those aspects, particularly having to implement a game plan quickly, similar to the turnaround between NCAA games. Few has pointed out the benefit of facing different styles.
Depending on the results, tournaments can send a team’s momentum soaring or sinking. Gonzaga smoked three major conference foes in winning the 2008 Old Spice Classic, jumping from No. 10 to No. 5 in the USA Today rankings. The Zags went undefeated in WCC play and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen.
Gonzaga won the Old Spice again last season en route to a school-record 32 wins and No. 1 ranking.
“When you’re on the road, all you have is your team and that’s all you’re hanging out with,” Bell said. “We find things to do together and we usually play good basketball.”