Outside the Lahaina Civic Center on Sunday afternoon, they were putting the final touches on the building, making sure everything looked right for the start of the Maui Invitational on Monday. Inside, Oklahoma State was going through a practice.
It won’t be long now. North Carolina is one of eight teams that have converged here on the island of Maui for the 2016 Maui Invitational. The Tar Heels, who play against Chaminade on Monday night (11:30 eastern time), are the favorites to leave Hawaii with the championship.
And they’re without question the favorite to reach the championship game. To do so, UNC needs a victory against Chaminade on Monday and then a win on Tuesday against either Connecticut (which has lost to Wagner and Northeastern already) or Oklahoma State (which won 12 games last season).
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If UNC wins the tournament – it could face some significant competition in the championship round – it would be the Tar Heels’ fourth championship in Maui. The last two times the Tar Heels won here, in 2004 and 2008, they went on to win the national championship. So during the past decade or so, Maui Invitational championships have boded well for UNC.
Early on Sunday, before Team NandO (that’d be me) arrived on the premises, the eight head coaches whose teams are competing here earlier this week met with … Bill Walton to discuss what’s ahead. A transcript was provided later.
My favorite exchange might have been this one, between Walton and Chaminade coach Eric Bovaird:
WALTON: Are you ready to predict a victory against North Carolina?
WALTON: Next up, John Thompson III, Georgetown University.
There was probably more of a transition there in real life, maybe some laughter, but the black and white of print makes that sequence appear especially humorous for its short bluntness. Later, Walton asked Roy Williams what he liked about Maui. Williams said:
“The weather. The sunglasses. The food. The people. I mean, I’ve been to Maui three times with just my family and not even bringing teams over here. I love the place.”
Then Williams said that when he retires he wants to take over for Dave Odom, the former Wake Forest coach who is the Maui Invitational tournament director. It sounds like a pretty decent gig. In the meantime, Williams is hoping his team plays better than it did on Friday at Hawaii.
“We’re 4-0, and we haven’t played that well except in a couple of moments in certain games,” Williams said. “Against Hawaii Friday night, they dominated the game except in the score.”
And so Williams will be expecting a sharper performance on Monday. If it’s ugly, at least the scenery won’t be. There’s a reason why this is perhaps Williams’ favorite destination, why in some alternate reality he wouldn’t mind having Odom’s job: It’s simply difficult to beat Maui.
On my first day here, I watched the sun set from the cliffs overlooking Honolua Bay. Surfers were down below, specks in the vastness, bobbing. They waited to be taken away, but they looked exactly where they most wanted to be.