- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Tournament: Maui Invitational
When and where: Nov. 23-25 at the Lahaina Civic Center in Maui, Hawaii
Teams involved: UNLV, Kansas, Wake Forest, Vanderbilt, Indiana, Chaminade, UCLA, St. John’s
Initial thoughts: Much about college basketball has changed in the three decades since the Maui Jim Maui Invitational's birth, most notably the scheduling landscape that surrounds it. Before the Champions Classic and the Armed Forces Classic and the aircraft carriers -- before the sport made its recent concerted effort to garner at least some late-fall attention -- early-season tournaments in seasonally attractive locations had long since normalized. By now, they're a fixture, and the events are so numerous that keeping track of who will play where requires either Excel-sheet macros or a really handy web page (or both). In the weeks to come, ESPN.com will reveal a number of these tournaments' brackets, and fans will argue their various merits: which field is the best, how a loss in a given bracket could rob their team of an important nonconference opportunity, how the tournaments fit with the rest of their coaches' pre-league schedules.
For better or worse -- and mostly better -- it all started with Chaminade's epochal 1982 upset of the Ralph Sampson-era Virginia Cavaliers. A few years later, the Maui Invitational was born.
Let's be real: No other early-season college basketball tournament has an epic origin story. (Most are as simple as: "Would this make money? Y/N.") None can boast the three decades of historical cachet or the minor, charming traditions that accompany it. Few have a Division II school like Chaminade perennially hunting its next unthinkable upset. Few can match Maui's venue -- the Lahaina Civic Center -- or how uniquely that gym's intimacy comes across on TV.
Still, the most impressive thing about Maui isn't charm or influence. It's that, even in the crowded landscape it helped spawn and even with intense, almost head-to-head competition with up-and-comers such as the Battle 4 Atlantis, the event keeps on assembling compelling mini-tourneys each and every November. The 2015 field is by no means a classic -- it is no 2011, that's for sure -- but it has plenty to offer all the same.
Why you'll want to watch: Chief among the offerings: Kansas. By KU-fan standards, the 2014-15 season might be regarded as a minor disappointment. Elite prospects Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander suffered varying degrees of growing pains; the Jayhawks never quite congealed into a genuine national title contender; and the season ended with a second-round tournament loss to a would-be in-state rival who has been desperately trying to smack-talk the blue blood into a home-and-home series for years.
All of which ignores the fact that Kansas, you know, won its 11th straight Big 12 regular-season title (11th straight!) against, arguably, the toughest version of that conference yet.
In any case, chin up, KU fans: There is every reason to expect even more from 2015-16. The core of last season's team -- guards Frank Mason, Devonte Graham, Wayne Selden and Brannen Greene, senior star forward Perry Ellis, and uber-promising sophomore Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk -- is all back and likely to be even better. Meanwhile, Bill Self has the No. 3- and No. 5-ranked power forwards in the recruiting Class of 2015 -- Cheick Diallo and Carlton Bragg, respectively -- at his disposal, and Diallo should be an immediate contributor for his rim protection and rebounding alone. After Kansas plays Michigan State at the Champions Classic in Chicago on Nov. 17, the Maui Invitational offers a chance to see how far this off-and-on KU group has come since that season-ending loss to Wichita State.
Indiana is the second-most-intriguing team on the Maui schedule (and the second-most likely to pack the Lahaina with traveling fans). Yogi Ferrell's decision to return for his senior year sealed IU coach Tom Crean's most talented roster since the Cody Zeller era -- a mix of great guards (Ferrell, James Blackmon, Robert Johnson), an ever-improving, versatile wing (Troy Williams), and a freshman center (Thomas Bryant) to fill one of the massive holes (size) that stunted IU's growth a season ago. The other hole? Defense. If this team can guard -- it finished 13th in the Big Ten in points per trip allowed last season -- it's going to be really, really good.
The rest of the field comes with varying degrees of certainty. UCLA lost Norman Powell and Kevon Looney this spring but remains intriguing -- not because it backed its way into the Sweet last season 16, but because its solid returners (Tony Parker, Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton, Thomas Welsh) and new faces (freshmen Prince Ali and Aaron Holiday and previously ineligible sophomore Jonah Bolden) could produce a more cohesive offensive blend.
Vanderbilt might be the sneakiest Top 25 team in the country. The 2014-15 Commodores fell off everyone's radar after an awful 11-10 start, after which they finished the SEC 8-2 and -- with three freshman guards and a future pro big (Damian Jones) in the starting lineup -- finished in the top 20 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. Wake Forest went 13-19 a season ago but figures to be better with three four-star recruiting additions and the ongoing improvement of Codi-Miller McIntyre. UNLV coach Dave Rice keeps recruiting elite talent to the Mack Center -- the latest of which is No. 5-ranked 2015 center Stephen Zimmerman -- but, in Year 5, needs to reverse the Rebels' declining on-court product in a hurry. And while St. John's is a good bet to be the worst 2015 Maui participant save Chaminade, the tournament will effectively serve as new coach Chris Mullin's introduction to the world of college hoops coaching.
There are plenty of reasons to watch, in other words, and those reasons go beyond "because it's the Maui Invitational." Charm is great. Good basketball is better. Fortunately, the Maui still has both.