LAHAINA - The big show that concluded with a championship victory by Syracuse over Baylor at the Maui Invitational Basketball Tournament last week won universal praise for the hosts and increased recognition of the importance of the event to college basketball.
Top national publications reviewed its 30-year history, noting that the tournament played a pivotal role in turning ESPN into a sports powerhouse.
With Maui in a different time zone, basketball games that could appear late at night on the Mainland helped ESPN on the road to "legitimizing 24/7 content," Executive Vice President Norby Williamson told Bloomberg News.
Part of the appeal is the small gym that puts boisterous boosters close to the action. The venue has been described as "a high school gym on steroids."
"Maui is the cream of the crop," Gonzaga Coach Mark Few was quoted as saying in Sports Illustrated. "It has great tradition, great television coverage, a great format, and you are not going to find a better place for your fans to travel to."
Now in its 26th year at Lahaina Civic Center, the invitational has benefited from a $1 million refurbishing by Maui County, including installation of air conditioning several years ago and the addition of a gleaming new basketball floor in 2013.
Mayor Alan Arakawa, on hand for the Syracuse-California semifinal game, said a vacation on Maui looks awfully attractive to Mainland TV fans watching when the temperature is 20 degrees outside.
EA Sports and the staff of Kemper Sports work hard to put on the tourney and try to improve it every year, officials said. Tournament Director Dave Odom, a former basketball coach, tries to recruit top teams each year, focusing on the six largest athletic conferences.
One of the keys to the tournament has also been the recruiting of top referees with experience officiating in big NCAA tournaments. The refs give teams assurance they will get the best officiating - even in far off Maui.
The community-minded sponsors also give back to Maui, sponsoring basketball clinics and awarding eight schools $250 checks for participating in an annual free throw contest with the top coaches.
The winning student this year with four straight free throws was Ashley Paleta, who brought home the $300 top prize for her school.