KAANAPALI - The EA Sports Maui Invitational has been good to North Carolina.
The last two times the Tar Heels have won the event, in 2004 and 2008, they went on to the NCAA championship in the same season.
"It does give you a great deal of confidence," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said at a news conference Sunday morning at the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa, a day before play was to begin at the Lahaina Civic Center. "In a field like they normally have here and in a field like they have here again, it gives you some confidence straight out that you are going to be a very good basketball team."
Roy Williams, shown during a news conference Sunday, guided North Carolina to Maui Invitational and NCAA titles in the 2004-05 and 2008-09 seasons.
The Maui News/ ROBERT COLLIAS photo
The coaches in this year’s Maui Invitational (from left) — Butler’s Brad Stevens, Marquette’s Buzz Williams, Mississippi State’s Rick Ray, North Carolina’s Roy Williams, Texas’ Rick Barnes, Chaminade’s Eric Bovaird, Southern California’s Kevin O’Neill and Illinois’ John Groce — pose Sunday at the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa.
The Maui News / ROBERT COLLIAS photo
ESPN’s Jay Bilas has a laugh while moderating a news conference.
The Maui News / ROBERT COLLIAS photo
The Tar Heels won Maui titles on their last two trips with stars on the mend.
"In '04-'05, Raymond (Felton) went down and we thought he might have broken his wrist and, you know, he plays with a cast on most of the whole tournament," Williams said. "In (2008), we were concerned about Tyler Hansbrough, about how much he could play. We didn't play him in the first game.
"You have to handle some adversity and you are playing some really, really good teams. If you are successful in all of that, I do really believe that this tournament will give you a great deal of confidence."
North Carolina, ranked 11th in the nation by The Associated Press, opens with Mississippi State at 1 p.m., and Williams plans to use most of his roster.
"We will be playing 10, 11, 12 guys the first half of every game and we will continue to do that," he said. "I think each game your freshmen are going to take it right between the eyes, they have no idea what is going to happen,"
The Tar Heels arrived on Maui after two easy wins at home and a 78-63 victory at Long Beach State on Friday.
"When we went to Long Beach I told the team the level of competition is being raised and so now I told them again yesterday, 'Now, it is raised again,' " Williams said. "So we will know a lot more about our team because it is a lot better competition, doing it three days in a row without a lot of scouting time, a lot of preparation time, we will see how they make adjustments on the fly because that is what you have to do in this kind of thing."
Mississippi State is making its tournament debut, as is Butler. Both teams bring 1-1 records to Hawaii.
"We have a pretty good idea of what we are capable of in a good way and what we are capable of doing in a bad way already in a young season," said Butler coach Brad Stevens. "I want to see if (a loss to Xavier on) Tuesday was an aberration or if it was something that we have real valid concerns with."
Butler opens with Marquette today at 10:30 a.m.
"We have a really good opportunity in playing Marquette, they will test us and challenge us as much as anybody would," Stevens said.
Butler lost the 2011 NCAA final to Connecticut, which had also won the Maui title earlier that season. That was the second of back-to-back NCAA finals for the Bulldogs, success that Stevens feels has delivered appearances in events like this one.
"I think it happened because of it," he said. "I think that our scheduling in general has elevated itself every year because of the notoriety and I think that is a really good thing. When I first started, when I was a young assistant, I couldn't get games. I sure as heck couldn't get a sniff in Maui and so being able to be here is really a bucket list type thing for our program. We have experienced a couple of those in the last few years and this is as good as it gets in the preseason."
Texas, which like Butler and Marquette received votes in the AP poll without cracking the top 25, will meet host Chaminade today at 4:30 p.m.
"I really feel that this is the premier event, and along with about everybody who knows anything about college basketball, this is the start of the college basketball season," Longhorns coach Rick Barnes said. "You come with different teams every time, but this year being as young as we are, the competition is there for us to grow in a lot of different areas."
Today's final game is at 7 p.m., between Illinois and Southern California.
Barnes said the event can springboard a team to a successful season.
"When you get to that time of the year when you get to the NCAA tournament, you may think that this tournament was so far back in the season, but I do think that there are a lot of good things that can come out of this tournament at this time of year," he said. "You are going to see teams that leave here that are going to continue to get better."
* Robert Collias is at email@example.com