LAHAINA, Hawaii – Gonzaga head coach Mark Few loves the Maui Invitational for all the reasons you might think – location, weather – and several others that probably wouldn’t cross the mind of the average fan.
The Bulldogs have made two trips to Maui. In 2002, Gonzaga beat Utah before falling to Indiana and Kentucky, two of college basketball’s storied programs. In 2005, GU beat No. 23 Maryland and No. 12 Michigan State, the latter a 109-106 triple-overtime classic fueled by Adam Morrison’s 43 points. Gonzaga lost to No. 3 Connecticut 65-63 in the championship.
“It’s the greatest tournament out there,” said Few, whose Bulldogs (2-1) open against Colorado (3-0) today at noon Pacific. “We’ve had a great history (in Maui). For some of these kids, it’s their only opportunity to ever be in Hawaii and it’s basketball in its purest sense. It’s a tiny gym. You get 20 minutes to warm up. You get about five minutes in the locker room because they’re exchanging teams (from the previous game). It takes all the fluff out of it and it’s just basketball. I think that’s what makes it so neat.”
And powerhouse fields don’t hurt. There’s just one ranked team (No. 25 Maryland, in the opposite side of the bracket from Gonzaga), but four made it to the NCAA Tournament a year ago. Eventual national champion North Carolina beat then-No. 8 Notre Dame to win last year’s tournament.
The Gonzaga-Colorado winner/loser matches up with the corresponding Arizona-Wisconsin winner/loser Tuesday.
Colorado lost 19 of its last 21 and finished 9-22 in coach Jeff Bzdelik’s second season. Bzdelik will miss the tournament after learning Sunday his mother is ill. The Buffaloes are picked to finish last in the Big 12 Conference, but they’ve thumped three lightly regarded opponents.
“They run the Princeton offense, but they’re fast-paced, not as slow down and methodical as they were (when Bzdelik coached) at Air Force,” GU assistant coach Ray Giacoletti said.
Junior guard Cory Higgins, son of ex-NBA player Rod Higgins, has scored 26, 21 and 23 points in CU’s three games. Bzdelik calls Higgins one of the nation’s best players at his position. True freshman Alec Burks has scored in double figures in every game. Dwight Thorne (11 points per game) and 6-7 JC transfer Marcus Relphorde (10.3 ppg) give Colorado a four-guard starting lineup.
The Buffaloes are shooting 55.5 percent from the field, 49 percent on 3-pointers and 83 percent at the free-throw line.
The tournament format (three games in three days), coupled with the regular season being only a few weeks old, present a variety of challenges, particularly for Gonzaga’s young bench.
“We’re pretty deep,” guard Demetri Goodson said. “If you get tired, call for a sub. You have to play hard in 5-6 minute segments.”
G.J. Vilarino and Kelly Olynyk have been steady off the bench, Few said.
“We have to keep figuring out maybe another wing and Will (Foster) gave us great minutes at Michigan State,” he said.
Few expects tests over the next three days.
“You’ll see different things like the dribble-drive (offense), Wisconsin plays the ‘swing’ offense, Colorado the Princeton style,” Few said. “With our veteran-type teams we’ve taken to Maui it’s always been easy to move from game to game. It’s going to be a challenge with these guys because we don’t have our all of our offensive package in and we surely don’t have all of our defense (in).”
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