PARADISE – The feel-good negative ions flowed in on gentle Waikiki breezes, uke music plinking in the background at the convention center in Oahu.
At a wide dais on a riser sat eight college basketball coaches, wearing matching floral shirts and beaded necklaces. Despite the lush tropical setting, the coaches shared the dour visages of co-defendants being arraigned on felony charges.
The occasion was the Sunday morning pre-Maui Invitational press conference. Wildfires in Maui forced the annual invitational up to Honolulu this year, but this works fine.
Each coach claimed to be delighted to be there, but all appeared to be as comfortable as men seated on a row of pineapples.
The reason for their pained expressions was more about preoccupation than displeasure. Over the subsequent three days, they will be asked to face at least two teams, perhaps three, who are legitimate national championship contenders.
Three in a row without a breather. Another day, another dolor. And it’s not even Thanksgiving yet.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few, a veteran of annual trips to these early, murderers-row events, pointed out: A coach can lose two of three and still feel like he has a Sweet 16-quality team.
But this one may be the most daunting. “I think it’s the best (multiteam event) there’s ever been,” Few said. “It’s too hard to put a field like this together – usually coaches are too paranoid to play in a field like this.”
Five of the eight teams here were rated in the top 11 in the country as of Sunday, including Nos. 1 (Kansas), 2 (Purdue), 4 (Marquette), 7 (Tennessee) and 11 Gonzaga. That means that this gathering has more firepower than many of the Elite Eights in the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s an intense time,” Few said, explaining the behind-the-scenes challenges that put the worry-lines on the coaches’ faces. “Think about preparing for two different teams, getting all the film together, all the personnel reports, all the clips, and then, bang, it changes, sometimes that (first) night, and you have to get your team ready by noon the next day. The pressure that puts on the staff and assistants is something. They’re the real heroes of this.”
Few believes in pressurizing his teams early, having done so with success for 25 years. “It’s daunting and scary when you’re about to take it on, but it usually ends up working out,” he said.
The risks of high-profile early losses are counterbalanced by the experiences, and the value of seeing where you stand and how far you have to go.
“In a three-game tournament like this, you see presses, you see different zones and different schemes offensively, all in game situations, crammed into 120 minutes of basketball,” Few said. “You experience it all, and hopefully learn from it.”
The Zags have won the Maui Invitational twice, and even though GU’s sustained competitive success opens the doors of nearly every elite recruit in the country, it doesn’t hurt to mention their being a regular in the four-year rotation of teams being invited to Hawaii.
“There’s only a certain number of programs that get invited to Maui, usually it’s the elite or the best of the best, so it’s an honor to get into it.”
Asked if time on the beach and the laid-back “aloha spirit” ever made players too mellow to go out and swap elbows under the basket with the likes of Purdue big man Zach Edey, Few said he hasn’t had troubles, nor any severe burn cases.
“Looking back, I don’t think we’ve had anybody show up intensely sunburned – so far, so well,” he said.
The Sunday practice, in prep for the opener Monday against Purdue, was early, so the players would have a little free time for beach duty in the afternoon.
The real reward for the players, he said, is Thursday. Traditionally, the Zags get the whole day off on Thanksgiving. “It’s always been a special day in our program,” Few said. “They get a full day at the beach, then we have a great Thanksgiving dinner, just the team and the families and staff, and then fly home Friday.”
Few said he’s been surprised how many of his players over the years had never been to Hawaii – or even been in the ocean – before playing in the Maui tourney.
Swimmers or not, they all get thrown into the deep end this week.