Is this year’s Maui Invitational the best field for a holiday tournament ever? The answer is complicated.
In terms of depth, the answer is probably yes. If you go by the coaches poll, five participating teams are in the top 10 (#1 Kansas, #2 Purdue, #4 Marquette, #8 Tennessee, and #10 Gonzaga). I won’t pretend to have done exhaustive research, but I’m 90% confident that no regular-season tournament has ever featured three of the top four teams before.
Then again, is judging the tournament by November rankings the best test of strength? Injuries happen. Teams disappoint. Ranked teams come out of nowhere. If you go by how well the teams actually perform in the season the tournament is held, then the answer is that we won’t know until March. [And the recent track records of Purdue, Marquette, and Tennessee give reason for some skepticism.] But there’s a pretty high bar to “best ever.”
I’m betting there are at least two previous events that this year’s Maui Invitational won’t be able to beat on the top end. What makes me so confident? Well, both of those events featured three teams that went on to the Final Four, including that year’s national champion. It’s been 30 years since that happened, and the only way to top it is to feature the entire Final Four. Could happen, but, again, you’re talking about Matt Painter and Rick Barnes.
Now, one of those events comes with a big asterisk as it involved 16 teams. But it’s also a really historically interesting event that merits some discussion. This will get detailed, so either strap in or jump to the comments. Your choice.
The 1985 Big Apple NIT
As you’re a knowledgeable sports fan and discriminating reader with an excellent memory, you already know that OTE is THE place to come for historical deep dives. Why, less than five years ago, the boss knocked it out of the park with a retrospective on the Kickoff Classic, which essentially set the stage for a number of imitators and the overall concept of Week 0 in college football.
The Big Apple NIT (essentially the forerunner to the NIT Season Tip-Off, which still exists) was essentially the same thing a couple of years later, but for hoops. Yes, holiday tournaments existed already. The Maui Invitational had started in 1984 (more on that tomorrow), the Great Alaska Shootout began in 1978, and the Rainbow Classic in 1964. However, these tournaments counted toward the NCAA’s allotment of games teams were allowed to play.
Worried the postseason NIT was dying a slow death, Peter Carlesimo (yes, P.J. Carlesimo’s dad) proposed a sixteen team tournament at the beginning of the college hoops season, and then-NCAA head Walter Byers allowed it to occur without the games counting toward teams’ allotment. It wasn’t officially sanctioned by the NCAA, but it wasn’t prohibited, either. It was, in a way, the first MTE. And it was awesome.
Technically, it wasn’t single-site tournament. There were four regionals of four teams each at various locations. Oddly, there were not at campus sites, though. Odd as it would clearly seem to be an abandonment of higher attendance numbers. Doubly odd, since it was Carlesimo who in the late 1970s proposed having the opening rounds of the postseason NIT be played at campus sites, a move that probably saved the event.
Still, just take a look:
The Summit (HOUSTON):
#6 Duke over Lamar, #16 UAB over Texas A&M; #6 Duke over #16 UAB
- UAB would make the tournament as a 6-seed and make the second round
- Texas A&M shared the regular season SWC title and made the NIT
- Lamar went 18-12 (and were only a few years removed from a Sweet 16 appearance)
Hartford Civic Center:
St. John’s over #19 Navy, West Virginia over #10 Auburn; St. John’s over West Virginia
- Navy was ranked because they were coming off of a 26-6 season in ‘84-’85...and because they had David Robinson. They would go 30-5 on the season and make the Elite Eight
- West Virginia would go 22-11 and make the tournament as a 9-seed, losing in the first round
- Auburn would finish second in the SEC and make the Elite Eight as an 8-seed
McNichols Sports Arena (DENVER):
#5 Kansas over Pepperdine, Washington over UTEP; #5 Kansas over Washington
- Pepperdine, Washington, and UTEP all made the tournament and all lost in the first round
- Three of the coaches in this regional (Larry Brown (1988), Jim Harrick (1985), and Don Haskins (1986)) won national titles
Riverfront Coliseum (CINCINNATI):
#9 Louisville over Miami (OH), Tulsa over Dayton; #9 Louisville over Tulsa
- Miami and Tulsa both made the tournament, each losing in the first round
- Dayton had made the Elite Eight in 1984 and featured legendary head coach Don Donoher, who had led them to the Final Four in 1967.
- Miami’s best player was Ron Harper, who would get drafted #8 in 1986, average 22 ppg as a rookie, and win five rings in a 15 year career.
FINAL FOUR: MADISON SQUARE GARDEN:
#6 Duke over #18 St. John’s, #5 Kansas over #9 Louisville; #6 Duke over #5 Kansas
- Duke and Kansas would both earn 1-seeds, and would meet again in the Final Four with Duke again winning
- St. John’s would earn a 1-seed behind NPOY Walter Berry and PG extraordinaire Mark Jackson, but get tripped up in the second round by Auburn (see above)
- Louisville would grab a 2-seed and win the national title
ADD IT ALL UP
- 16 teams, all went on to post winning records; 13 made the NCAA tournament
- 5 made the Elite Eight
- 3 earned 1-seeds
- 3 made the Final Four
- Louisville won the national title
- NPOYs Johnny Dawkins (Naismith ‘86), Walter Berry (everything else ‘86), David Robinson (consensus ‘87), Danny Manning (Naismith, Wooden ‘88), and Danny Ferry (Naismith ‘89) all participated
- Robinson (‘87), Manning (‘88) and Pervis Ellison (‘89) would all be drafted #1 overall (Ferry went #2 in ‘89)
I’m not sure there’s ever been anything quite on this level since. There might never be again.
But attendance was really bad at the non-campus sites. According to a contemporaneous Sports Illustrated article, there were fewer than 1,000 fans at the Duke/UAB game, for example. So, the 1986 event (won by UNLV, who made the Final Four) was help at campus sites for the opening rounds.
I realize comparing this year’s Maui Invitation to a 16-team non-single site event might not seem fair. So, tomorrow, we’ll look at some of the best Maui Invitationals from years past. We’ll also recall the greatest single-site, eight-team tournament ever, which was not a Maui Invitational.