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Columnists | Message Board  | Kevin McNeill Archive

By Kevin McNeill

November 19th, 2005

Maui Invitational: Strength of Schedule


On Monday, November 21st, one of the best preseason tournaments in NCAA history will tip off at 2:30pm Eastern, and countless college basketball fans around the country will be anxiously tuning in. 


The EA Sports Maui Invitational will feature four preseason top ten teams, and five teams overall that have won national championships in the past dozen years.  The tournament will also host two Hall of Fame coaches, and three more that will likely be enshrined in Springfield in the near future. 


Those coaches, Jim Calhoun of Connecticut, Lute Olson of Arizona, Bill Self of Kansas, Gary Williams of Maryland, and Tom Izzo of Michigan State joined coach Stan Heath of Arkansas, Mark Few of Gonzaga and Matt Mahar of host Chaminade for a teleconference to discuss the upcoming tournament and its implications for the season. 


The conference call had what you usually expect from these things – gushing respect for their opponents, the tournament, and promoting their own players and chances for the season.  Calhoun touted Rudy Gay for Player of the Year.  Bill Self called this year’s squad his deepest and most athletic since he arrived in Lawrence.  Olson said his team may be the deepest in school history. 


However, the biggest question looming over the event was one that was asked over and over again in some form or another:  Why are you here?


It’s a question that invokes a heated debate every year at this point in the season.  If you are a head coach of a Division I program, what are the benefits of playing a tough early season schedule?  Why not play three cupcakes in November and go 3-0, as opposed to traveling to Maui - with a field where every singe team except Chaminade (Chaminade is a Division II school) will likely be playing on CBS in mid-March – and risk going 1-2 or even 0-3?


The answers the coaches gave were telling:


“We’ll play anybody, anyplace, anytime.  It doesn’t matter, morning, noon or night, and it doesn’t matter who it is.”  - Tom Izzo


“It’s a great way to kind of get a barometer of where your team is at and where they need to be relative to the national caliber of play that you’re going to see over there (Maui).” – Mark Few


“I feel very strongly that every team is going to come out of that tournament with some positives to build on.  They’re going to know a lot more about their team….I’d rather lose by one or two than win by 40 because you don’t learn anything from the 40-point win.” – Lute Olson


“We’ll all come out of there (Maui) with a heck of a lot better feel about who we are and what we are.”  - Jim Calhoun


Most of the participating schools are very young, particularly Arizona and Kansas.  UConn will have two freshmen running the point.  It’s no wonder these coaches talk about finding their identity in Maui.  Considering these freshmen have never played at the college level before, how can coaches know what they’ve got until they play against the toughest competition?  Clearly, a program cannot learn the strengths and weaknesses of their young players by playing teams that allow them to score at will. 


But even more seasoned teams will benefit from the competition in Hawaii.  Strength of schedule is a major factor for the NCAA Selection Committee in determining who goes to the Dance.  Also, these great coaches all understand that they belong to elite conferences, and that if their team isn’t ready to play come January, their season is in big trouble.  Put simply, you don’t get ready to play Duke or Texas by playing East Delaware State. 


However, not all great coaches subscribe to this philosophy.  The most obvious, and frequently mentioned, is newly minted Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim of Syracuse, who rarely leaves the state of New York in November and December.  In fact, the only tough competition the Orange(men) usually face comes from the Coaches vs. Cancer tournaments Boeheim has been so influential in supporting.  Yet he has over 700 wins, and has been in the national championship game three times in the past 20 years, winning it all in 2003. 


Even last year’s North Carolina Tar Heels had their share of gimmees.  Outside of a game against Kentucky, the toughest early season match-up came against unranked Tennessee.  The pre-ACC schedule also included such luminaries as Cleveland State, William & Mary, Loyola-Chicago, UNC Wilmington, Santa Clara and BYU.   However, they more than made up for the cupcakes with their ACC schedule and a win against UConn. 


So a case could be made that a school does not necessarily need to play tough competition early to be ready to play come March, so long as they play quality teams after the New Year.  In fact, many coaches treat these easy games in the fall merely as practices - giving the reserves more minutes, experimenting with new defenses, etc – all while compiling a 15-0 record that helps them steadily move up in the polls. 


It is certainly far less risky than “playing anybody, anywhere” as Tom Izzo did in 2004, when he saw his team start the season 5-6, and lose five of seven before the start of Big Ten play.  Winning the first three games of the season by 45 points may also be preferable to the 1-2 record that will befall a very good team coming out of Maui.


But, overall, the important thing to remember is this: Coaches do not make college basketball what it is today, fans do.  And as far as I can tell, fans do not wait anxiously by their televisions for Duke to obliterate Seton Hall by 53, or to watch Texas hold Samford to 33 points for the entire game.    


Fans want to see great match-ups all year long, and that is why the EA Sports Maui Invitational is so refreshing.  Fans will be able to watch Final Four-caliber games before Thanksgiving.  It’s not only better for the schools involved, but for college basketball fans and the NCAA as a whole. 


So to the eight teams who will fight it out next week, and to the folks who put this tournament together, hats off from us fans on the mainland.  Here’s to many great tournaments to come.


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