Kansas State basketball players were noticeably upset as they walked away from a disappointing 69-60 loss to Long Beach State on Friday night, but they perked up every time they talked about the next game on the schedule.
They were on their way back to their hotel and then to the airport, where they were scheduled to board a commercial flight to Hawaii. All of them were looking forward to a week in paradise filled with three anticipated games at the most prestigious early season tournament in college basketball — the Maui Invitational.
“When you talk about preseason tournaments, everyone wants to go to Maui,” senior forward Nino Williams said. “The best teams from the best conferences go and play there. If you do well in Maui, you can be a big-name team at the start of the season.”
It’s an event K-State players have been looking forward to since they received the invite, and a moment K-State fans have been hoping for since 1998, the Wildcats’ last trip to Maui.
Sixteen years is a long time between appearances, and it would have been even longer if not for the sway of K-State basketball coach Bruce Weber.
“Right when I got the job, the tournament’s director, Dave Odom, called me,” Weber said, “and he said, ‘Congratulations, I’m happy and excited for you. You’ll do a great job. By the way, we have an opening for Maui. Would you like the spot?’”
Just like that, K-State was on its way back to Maui.
That came as quite a surprise to the former K-State coaches and administrators that failed for years to even get on the tournament’s radar. Before Weber’s hiring in 2012, the Maui Invitational felt like forbidden ground to the Wildcats. No matter how often they expressed interest in playing in the Thanksgiving week tournament, they were rebuffed or ignored.
When asked if he considered inviting K-State to the Maui Invitational before Weber took over as coach, Odom was blunt.
“No,” he said. “I really had not.”
Odom didn’t think the Wildcats fit the Maui Invitational’s profile. Unlike most early season tournaments, which have popped up everywhere in the past decade, the level of competition and crowds at the Maui Invitational are strong each and every year.
The tournament has an exclusive feel, like a popular night club with Odom up front raising the velvet rope for eight chosen teams. Every year, he looks for seven teams with legitimate hopes of winning the tournament to join host Chaminade.
“If you look at the fields of some tournaments and compare them to Maui,” Odom said, “the difference is most of the fields will have four strong teams and four other teams that, from a marquee standpoint, probably don’t measure up. You know half the teams probably aren’t going to win it.
“There is nothing wrong with that, but we want the seven best teams we can get from the mainland every year. Our tournament is deeper than the others based on that philosophy.”
One team per conference is allowed to play in the Maui Invitational each year, and teams can only travel to Maui once every few years for the event. Teams like Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Arizona have open invitations and return whenever they are eligible to do so. Other programs, like Georgetown and Texas and Syracuse, are also regulars.
What frustrated K-State was being continually looked over while Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor and Colorado all represented the Big 12 in the tournament.
Even when the Wildcats were on the rise under former coaches Bob Huggins and Frank Martin, they couldn’t get a look from the Maui Invitational, instead traveling to Puerto Rico, Honolulu, Kansas City and Las Vegas for tournaments.
Weber, a respected man in the coaching profession with strong ties to Nike and USA basketball, changed the equation.
“I have a really longstanding relationship with Bruce Weber,” Odom said. “I had actually signed his Illinois team to come and he left for Kansas State the year they were supposed to come. He has done an outstanding job in a short amount of time. His program is one of the more solid programs in the Big 12.
“It’s a program we want at Maui, because they have a good team and a strong fan base.”
Weber had to change K-State’s future scheduling plans to make room for the Maui Invitational, but he did so happily.
“I didn’t feel like we could pass it up,” Weber said. “Then I heard the field and I thought, why did I do this? It’s great for recruiting, it’s great for our players and it’s also great for our fans. The Maui Invitational is one of those things everyone knows. It has been around for so long. Everyone watches the games.”
For the first time in 16 years, basketball fans will see K-State in the event Monday when it takes on Purdue.
With Weber in charge, it could be the first of many games in Maui.
“If Kansas State makes a good showing and Bruce feels like it is something he would want to do again,” Odom said, “It is certainly something I would entertain and help make happen.”