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Gonzaga is ready for the Maui gauntlet

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The Zags are primed for a special season, and their first test will be at the Maui Invitational.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-UNCG vs Gonzaga Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Maui could be a second home for Mark Few. His family probably wouldn’t mind, as Few quipped they visit with enough frequency that “I could probably vote here.” But Maui isn’t just a great vacation destination (though it is that), it is also home to the rare holiday tournament where regular participation yields a multitude of benefits.

“It’s the one tournament that really moves the needle with your own players, with our fans who are always asking me when we’re going back to Maui, and even in recruiting,” remarked Few on the eve of Gonzaga’s fifth go around at the Maui Invitational. “If you mention Maui, even in recruiting at the highest level, the kids are very excited about getting over here because they know the type of games they’re going to be in and the type of attention that comes with it.”

Gonzaga has been fortunate to receive an invitation every time it was eligible (every 4 years per NCAA rules, though there was a 5 year gap since the last appearance in Maui thanks to Gonzaga’s participation in the PK80 tournament) since Mark Few’s tenure as head coach began. Few has taken a lot from each appearance, and there have been memorable games at this event too, with the triple overtime thriller against Michigan State in the 2005 semifinals still holding its place as an all-timer. “I have great memories of that,” commented Few, “I think in all of college basketball it was one of those legendary games. There was big play after big play . . . it was crazy how high of a level everyone was playing at.”

The Zags will need to reach that level again this week if they hope to leave with a second Maui title. “They’re going to have to play different styles,” said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas when asked about the challenges Gonzaga will face this week in its quest to go 3-0. Bilas also noted that if the Zags get through their first two games, Duke could loom in a final of Top 3 teams. “Both those programs (Duke and Gonzaga) have played in the final of this tournament so the coaches are used to it, but playing against Duke you have sort of this hype machine,” alluding to the freshmen trio of Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, and Cam Reddish. Bilas adds, “It’s like playing against the Fab 5, but with social media and that will be a unique challenge.” There’s also, of course, the fact that Coach K is a perfect 15-0 at the Maui Invitational with 5 titles to his name.

While Duke may be the headliner, the Zags aren’t exactly barren. “We have a great blend of some guys that have been in some big moments and some big games dating all the way back to the national championship game . . . and hopefully we can put it all together,” notes Few. Bilas also sees a lot of strengths, “They have depth, they have versatility, and they can shoot it. And that’s with their best shooter being out. Killian Tillie is actually their best shooter. Having guys like Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke—guys who are really athletic and can play multiple positions and can guard multiple positions—that’s really helpful to them, and they’ve always had really good guards.”

Gonzaga certainly has the talent to win in Maui, but there’s talent on every team. “I don’t know that we’ve faced a field like this,” mused Few, “There’s potentially a team that will walk out of this thing 0-3 that’s an NCAA tournament team.” An 0-3 tournament won’t be in the cards for the Zags this week (knock on wood), but all his trips to Maui have taught Few to keep a proper perspective, “You just have to take the positives and the lessons out of this and not let it mentally beat you up too bad.”

That perspective enables Few to see the big picture with where his team is and what function the Maui Invitational will serve within the framework of the team’s goals. “I think this will give us a good barometer with where we’re at nationally,” says Few, “and also help some of our young guys who are being forced into some duty now—more duty than they had originally planned on—get valuable minutes and experiences so when Killian comes back we’ll be better off.”