KAANAPALI, Hawaii — The Lahaina Civic Center will roar once more.
After two years of pandemic-forced relocation, the Maui Jim Maui Invitational makes its long-awaited return to its namesake island on Monday when eight potent college basketball teams will face off in the intimate confines of a storied 2,400-seat gym.
The event remains one of the premier pre-conference tournaments in the sport, with five of the eight teams in the field ranked in the most recent Associated Press Top 25 poll.
The field’s eight coaches swapped stories of Maui memories — from their days as players, up-and-coming coaches at other institutions, or just tourists — during the traditional pre-tournament press conference on Sunday morning at the Hyatt Regency Maui.
While the Maui Invitational was held successfully in Las Vegas last year and in Asheville, N.C., in a pandemic quarantine setting in 2020, all agreed something was lost in the transportation.
“It feels good to be back home,” said Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd, who made trips here a regular part of his life, with or without a basketball team in tow, while a 22-year assistant under Maui maniac Mark Few at Gonzaga.
San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher was a first-year assistant at Michigan with the legendary Steve Fisher in 1988-89 when the Wolverines traveled to the islands for the still-nascent tournament and won it all as a prelude to a national championship.
“This is what it is — the Maui Invitational. If you’re not in Maui, it’s the brand, but it’s not Maui,” Dutcher told Spectrum News. “This is what makes it special. To be on the island, to be enjoying this beautiful place. … I’ve been here numerous times, and it’s by far the best tournament there is, of all of them.”
The last Maui championship to be held in Lahaina, the epic overtime 2019 clash between Kansas and Dayton, is considered by some to be the tongue-in-cheek national championship game of the 2019-20 season because the NCAA Tournament was suddenly canceled in March amid COVID-19 outbreaks nationwide.
It is the 40th anniversary of the infamous 1982 upset of top-ranked Virginia by tiny, then-NAIA Chaminade that spawned the tournament. The coach of that Silverswords team, Merv Lopes, is expected to make an appearance at this year’s tournament.
This year's field features several teams looking to prove themselves among the sport's upper echelon: No. 9 Arkansas (3-0), No. 10 Creighton (4-0), No. 14 Arizona (3-0), No. 17 San Diego State (3-0) and No. 23 Texas Tech (3-0). Another, Ohio State (3-0), is receiving votes. The last two are Cincinnati (3-1) and Louisville (0-3); the latter suffered three one-point home losses to begin the season.
The only past champion in the field is Arizona (2014, 2000).
Creighton’s 13th-year coach, Greg McDermott, is making his first Maui appearance.
“You work years in advance to set up these tournaments. Our staff and our fan base has really been working forward to this day,” McDermott said. “I think we’ll be well represented here and I think our fans will have a great time while we’re on the island.”
Arkansas coach Eric Musselman took his team surfing on Saturday.
“Hopefully we play a little bit better than we surfed yesterday,” he quipped.
Cincinnati coach Wes Miller played in the 2004 Maui Invitational with that year’s winner, North Carolina, under Roy Williams.
“It’s one of those experiences as a player that you hold dear as a memory,” Miller said. “I’ve been talking about it for the last 18 years.”
Texas Tech and Creighton, the field’s first-time participants, begin the tournament at 9:30 a.m. with the first men’s college game at the Civic Center since 2019.
Louisville and Arkansas follow at noon. Ohio State and San Diego State begin the afternoon games at 4 p.m. and Cincinnati and Arizona play the nightcap at 6:30 p.m.
All four games of the day are televised on ESPN2.
It is one of the alternating years in which the traditional host school, Chaminade, rotates out of the Maui field, instead playing preseason mainland games against some powerhouses. Silverswords head coach Eric Bovaird attended the pre-tournament press conference, anyway.
While the field is considered strong, it is largely untested.
San Diego State comes into the tournament with two of the best wins of any team in the field, at home against BYU and at Stanford. Cincinnati is coming off a 13-point loss at Northern Kentucky.
Some of the teams, like Arkansas, with 11 new scholarship players, and Ohio State, with four freshmen among its seven new rotation players, are examples of the transitional nature of college hoops.
There are two local players in the field. OSU graduate forward Justice Sueing Jr., the son of the former Hawaii standout of the same name, is the Buckeyes’ third-leading scorer at 12.3 points per game.
Sueing participated in the 2017 Maui Invitational with California as a true freshman. Chaminade beat Cal in the seventh-place game that year, which remains the Silverswords’ last win in the event.
The other local player is Cincinnati 7-foot-1 true freshman center Sage Tolentino, who has yet to appear in an official game. Like Sueing, Tolentino played at Maryknoll School before finishing his prep career on the mainland.
“He’s going to be a great player,” Miller said. “And it is neat for him to be able to come back to his home state. He’s not from Maui, but he is from Hawaii. And it’s been really neat for his family. I know he’s going to have 30, 40 people here on the island to see him and see our team.”
Brian McInnis covers the state’s sports scene for Spectrum News Hawaii.