Maryland Coach Gary Williams called this year's Maui Invitational the best regular season tournament he has ever seen. And Tom Izzo, Michigan State's coach, simply said the eight-team field was the "granddaddy of them all."
While the three-day event provides a daunting task for any school, it is in one sense custom-made for the Terrapins. Among the only traits Maryland would like to retain from the disappointment of last season is the uncanny tendency to raise its play to the caliber of its opponent.
This year's field includes four programs ranked in the preseason top 10 -- Connecticut (third), Michigan State (fourth), Gonzaga (ninth) and Arizona (10th) -- but none achieved what Maryland did last season. In the regular season, the Terrapins twice beat an eventual top seed in the NCAA tournament, Duke, and nearly beat another, North Carolina, losing by two at home against the eventual national champion.
"Maryland is always dangerous," said former North Carolina guard Raymond Felton, who last year was the MVP of the Maui Invitational when the Tar Heels won the event.
Last season, the Terrapins were particularly dangerous against the best teams on their schedule, but not so much against some middle-of-the pack ACC schools, namely Clemson, which beat Maryland three times. When a reporter joked that Maryland should do fine this week because Clemson wasn't in the field, Maryland guard Chris McCray laughed and said, "You've got that right."
Forward Nik Caner-Medley said the team's ability to play better against the best competition will benefit the Terps this week. And McCray acknowledged that against the best teams: "I can bring a little more emotion out there. I know that is bad, but I usually bring out a little more emotion, just to get the guys on my side all hyped up."
When the 24th-ranked Terrapins (1-0) face Gonzaga (1-0) today, they will try to contain Bulldogs forward Adam Morrison, one of eight preseason Wooden Award candidates competing in this year's tournament. If Maryland wins, it likely will play Michigan State tomorrow and conclude the tournament Wednesday against perhaps another of the six invited schools that have won national championships in the past 18 years.
"There are times you can go to a tournament, walk out with a winning record but maybe without playing as well as someone else," said Jay Bilas, an ESPN analyst. "Another team could have played a tougher slate. This year, there is not going to be an easy game."
Aside from Chaminade, the Division II school hosting the event, the quality of the seven other teams rivals the strength of recent region final rounds in the NCAA tournament. For instance, the top seven schools in the 2000 round of eight won 78 percent of their games that season. The seven Division I schools in this year's Maui Invitational won 74 percent of their games last season. While Kansas lost significant talent from last year's team and isn't expected to be as strong, most teams in this year's field -- particularly U-Conn., Gonzaga, Michigan State and Maryland -- are expected to be stronger.
"We're on the national stage," Caner-Medley said. "This team is flying under the radar a little bit right now. All we can do is handle who we are playing. If you win games, you get that recognition; you get that Maryland swagger back."
Fatigue, however, could be an issue given the anticipated competitiveness of each game. Felton, now a rookie with the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats, said he did not feel substantial fatigue in Maui because it felt like a typical week in the summer AAU circuit.
The three-day grind, however, could be a factor for a player such as Maryland point guard D.J. Strawberry, who likely will be given a key defensive assignment in addition to running the point, his new starting position. Strawberry, who made a complete recovery after tearing knee ligaments in January, said Friday that he was considering bringing his knee brace for precautionary reasons, even though he does not like wearing it.
"It would be a big step for us" to win the tournament, Strawberry said. "But if we win it, we can't come back and think that the season is over. It's just the start of the season. At the end of the year, it is just going to count as three victories."
Unlike some teams in the field, Maryland figures to leave the island with at least one victory because even if the Terps lose to Gonzaga, they likely will play Chaminade in Tuesday's consolation round. But Williams said he would like two or three victories.
In any event, Maryland plans to remain in Hawaii for Thanksgiving, at which time Williams will have a thorough early report card on his team.
"Whatever happens," Williams said, "we're not going to go away."
Note: Gonzaga starting shooting guard Erroll Knight, considered the team's best defensive player, did not play in the Bulldogs' 69-60 season-opening victory against Idaho on Friday because of a knee injury.