MAUI, Hawaii -- The distractions were behind him yesterday as Maryland men's basketball coach Gary Williams sat with his back to the Pacific Ocean, unable to see the towering palms, the tropical greenery or the wall of rocks that surrounded a small pond to his left.
Still, Williams was aware of his surroundings.
To his left sat coach Tom Izzo, whose Michigan State team he could face tomorrow in the second round of the 22nd annual EA Sports Maui Invitational at the Lahaina Civic Center if the Terps get past Gonzaga at 5 p.m. today. To his right was Kansas coach Bill Self, whose team won last year's Big 12 championship.
The coaches of the eight teams invited to the three-day tournament - six of whom have won national championships - sat side by side yesterday and answered questions about a field many have dubbed as second only to the NCAA tournament.
While each school was lured in part by the tournament's all-expenses-paid offer, each coach also made the decision to play some of the country's top teams early instead of padding his early season schedule with easy wins.
It was a decision Williams said was a "no-brainer," but conceded that, should the Terps go, say, 1-2 here, it could come back to haunt them come time for the NCAA selection committee to make its bids. Maryland is competing in its third Maui Invitational but has never won its title.
"You schedule the Maui Invitational, your second thoughts are, `We could be 3-0 if we wanted to be, for sure,'" Williams said. "I'll get three teams in here I guarantee we'll win by 30. The most important thing still is number of wins.
"I just hope when everybody votes in the polls after that first week after Thanksgiving, that those teams that have won three games by 30 points don't get more credit than the teams that are 1-2 coming out of Maui and having played three great games. But we all know how that goes - 3-0 looks a little better than 1-2."
With the exception of host Chaminade, which will face Michigan State at 2:30 p.m. today, all of the participating teams were ranked in the AP preseason poll, including No. 3 Connecticut, No. 4 Michigan State, No. 8 Gonzaga and No. 10 Arizona. Michigan State made it to the Final Four last year and Arizona to the Elite Eight.
The coaches recently gave themselves pats on the back for choosing to compete here.
"I think you kind of have to tip your hat to all the coaches that have brought their teams over to this," said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, whose team returns four starters, including 6-foot-8 junior forward Adam Morrison, who averaged 19 points and 5.5 rebounds last year.
"I mean, in this day and age, there's a lot of guys playing some relatively soft schedules and buying the games and staying at home. And yet you have all these nationally ranked teams that are showing up and ... maybe not winning 30 games every year, but playing a great schedule and finding out more about your teams."
Few, who owns a 159-37 record at Gonzaga, said his "heart sunk" when he found out Maryland was his first-round opponent. Williams said it was "nice to hear Mark Few crying about his team," which has averaged 27 wins a year in his six seasons. The Zags have been to seven straight NCAA tournaments and won six conference titles. They last played in Maui in 2002.
Maryland is looking to return to the NCAA tournament this year after a 19-win season that ended in the National Invitation Tournament.
The Terps made the 12-hour trek to Hawaii on Saturday after scoring 111 points in their season opener Friday night against Fairleigh Dickinson. Maryland has scored 90 or more points in four of its six games in the Maui Invitational.
Williams started junior D.J. Strawberry at point guard Friday, but also gave senior Chris McCray extended time at the position and experimented with senior Sterling Ledbetter and junior college transfer Parrish Brown.
Said Williams: "We'll know pretty well what direction to go when we leave here."
Note -- During the Maui tournament, some rules experiments will be in place, including the three-point line, which will be at 20 feet 9 inches, a foot farther than normal, and a 2-foot-wider lane.