Oklahoma State coach Brad Underwood received an unusual wakeup call on Tuesday. Actually, it was a notification, not a call. And it was the just-released bracket for the 2016 Maui Jim Maui Invitational in November.
Underwood, heading into his first season at Oklahoma State, found his Cowboys in the same half of the bracket as North Carolina, Connecticut and the always-upset-minded Silverswords of Chaminade.
“It made things interesting at 7 a.m.,” Underwood said after a hearty laugh. “But there’s going to be no easy games in this. We know that.”
Underwood, starting over with the Cowboys after three successful seasons at Stephen F. Austin, will go against UConn in the opening round, matching two teams that have combined for six national titles and 11 Final Four appearances. The winner of that game will likely meet defending national runner-up North Carolina in the semifinals – unless the Tar Heels become the next upset victim of Division II Chaminade, the tournament host.
In the other half of the bracket, Tennessee drew Wisconsin and Georgetown will play Oregon. Wisconsin and Oregon are potential preseason Top 10 teams.
The strength of this Maui field has been praised since it was announced but now the coaches have an understanding of their survival rates. It seems a bit more real as the season approaches.
Tournament chairman Dave Odom said Maui officials are very proud of the field that begins play with four games on Nov. 21.
“My goal as tournament chairman and in charge of putting these fields together, is to look at last year’s field and see if we can better that in the coming year,” Odom said. “I don’t know if we’ve done that or not. We’ll have to play that out. Some people have looked at it and said it is one of the best fields they’ve ever seen. It could end up proving to be that with the number of former champions coming back.”
Roy Williams has been a regular visitor to the island, bringing his Kansas and North Carolina teams to Maui now for the sixth time, tying him for most all-time appearances by a coach. North Carolina will making its seventh trip and the Tar Heels have been champions three times.
“Needless to say, it’s my favorite way to open college basketball,” Williams said. “The first time I went I thought it was the greatest preseason tournament I’d ever been involved in. I almost didn’t leave the island until they promised me I could come back four years later.”
Most of the questions Williams answered on the teleconference call with all eight Maui coaches related to his right knee replacement surgery in late May. Williams was bothered by pain in both knees last season and it was extremely bothersome in the NCAA tournament as the Tar Heels advance to the national championship before losing to Villanova.
“It’s not perfect yet,” Williams said. “I’m walking almost without a limp. I don’t have the stamina to do my 3 ½ to 5 miles yet. There’s still a little discomfort but I’m seven weeks in and everybody tells me I’m doing great. I’d like for it to be a lot better, a lot quicker but that’s part of the rehab process.”
Williams said he has decided to delay surgery on the left knee until later.
Despite the loss of seniors Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, the Tar Heels figure to be strong again with guard Joel Berry, forward Justin Jackson and center Kennedy Meeks returning.
Oregon, the reigning Pac-12 champion, came close to the Final Four last season and could use Maui as a springboard this year. Forwards Dylan Brooks and Chris Boucher are back along with guard Tyler Dorsey.
“It’s a new experience for us,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “We’ve gone into each of the last six seasons not projected to do very well in our own conference. Now we’ve got predictions on a national scale. It is a new area for us and we’re going to try to help our players through it. Sometimes it’s much harder to maintain a level of success than it is to achieve it.”
It was 1982 that Ralph Sampson and No. 1 Virginia lost to NAIA Chaminade in Honolulu on the way back from a trip to Tokyo. Two years after that enormous upset, Chaminade hosted the first Maui Invitational.
Chaminade coach Eric Bovaird returns four of his top five scorers from last season. He was in Las Vegas Tuesday morning when the news arrived his team would face North Carolina in the first game.
“I got up early this morning and noticed that we play North Carolina in the opening game,” Bovaird said. “That’s very interesting, obviously a huge challenge for us. It will be a lot of fun, so we’re looking forward to it.
“You need to take a realistic approach. We had Kansas last year. We tell them each player is going to have to play their best game ever for us to have a chance. It’s an opportunity other Division II teams do not get. . . . Anything can happen. We have nothing to lose. I don’ think anybody would pick us to beat North Carolina. But this is what our guys have been looking forward to all their lives.”