Nine years have passed since the Notre Dame men's basketball team last took the short ride from its beach-front resort along Honoapaiilani Highway for a game at the Lahaina Civic Center.Not much about Maui has changed. It's still sun and sand and surf and a postcard view of the Pacific Ocean. Every. Single. Day. This week every year, it's also a lot of hoops. That's where No. 13 Notre Dame (3-0) opens the 2017 Maui Jim Maui Invitational on Monday (9 p.m. South Bend time, ESPNU) against Division II host Chaminade.
Everything about Notre Dame has changed since its last visit in 2008. Back then, skeptics weren't sure that Mike Brey was the right coach for the job. He often insisted that he was "Mr. Positive" during a seven-game midseason losing streak that sent a team many thought had a chance at the Final Four to the National Invitational Tournament.
Now he's the self-proclaimed "loosest coach in America" and nine wins away from becoming the winningest coach in program history. Back then, Ryan Ayers was the team's starting shooting guard. Now he's in his second season as an assistant coach.
Notre Dame had won exactly one NCAA tournament game the previous five seasons before heading west. The Irish have won seven NCAA tournament games the last three seasons. That includes a pair of trips to the Elite Eight, a place the program had not gone in consecutive seasons since 1978-79.
Nearly a decade ago, Notre Dame was a member of the Big East with zero trips to its conference tournament championship. It arrived in Maui with a veteran team led by an eventual league player of the year (power forward Luke Harangody) and veteran point guard from the Northeast (Kyle McAlarney). They just hoped to do enough to win a Maui Invitational championship. They fell short after running into the buzz saw that was eventual national champion North Carolina.
Now, Notre Dame is a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference. It has played for a conference tournament championship in two of the last three years. It arrived on the island Friday with a veteran team led by a player of the year candidate (power forward Bonzie Colson) and a veteran point guard from the Northeast (Matt Farrell).
They plan to bring home some hardware.
Basketball times sure have changed.
"We want to win a championship," Farrell said. "We've got to go down there and stay focused and stay together."
"We're going down there to take care of business," said fellow Northeast native and starting guard T.J. Gibbs. "We're really motivated going in."
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This program has established itself to the point where tournament success isn't hoped for. It's expected. Yet taking care of said business might be a challenge that these Irish -- at least in late November -- might not answer. And that's OK.
Should Notre Dame handle Chaminade in the opener, and it should, Brey's old Big East buddy, John Beilein, may await in the semifinals. Should Notre Dame beat Michigan for a second time in three years -- the teams met in the opening round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament -- and the rest of the bracket holds, No. 6 Wichita State would be next in Wednesday's championship.
That's when it gets interesting. Remember how much trouble Notre Dame had back in Buffalo with West Virginia in the second round of the 2017 NCAA tournament? The Irish couldn't get into any semblance of an offensive rhythm, couldn't get stops, couldn't get out of its own confused way. Tossed into a 10-0 hole in the opening 3:07, the Irish were dismissed with an 83-71 loss.
It wasn't really that close.
West Virginia was a headache.
Wichita State is a migraine.
The Shockers are talented and experienced. Focused. Driven. Good. The Irish also are talented and experienced. Focused. Driven. Good. But there's also so much more room for this group to grow as Brey moves the pieces of his rotation puzzle around the basketball board over the next few weeks and months.
Where does prized freshman D.J. Harvey fit? In need of a big game before the Irish left the mainland, Harvey delivered a career-best 16 points in 22 minutes Thursday against Chicago State. His continued development -- and he's getting really good really quickly -- allows Brey to play likely the way he really wants with four-around-one and the floor spread. That gives Colson more room to work around the bucket one-on-one and gives driving/probing lanes for the Irish perimeter.
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How much more can power forwards Elijah Burns and John Mooney consistently factor into the rotation? Their games give Brey the option of going with two bigs for stretches. Gibbs has been really good already three games in and will only get better. Same with fellow guard Rex Pflueger, who continues to find ways to stuff the stat sheet. Farrell has another gear or two to go. Colson's been Colson, but he usually gets better as the season stretches out.
Championship or bust? Not quite. A title this week doesn't guarantee a trip to the Final Four. A loss doesn't mean getting to San Antonio will remain just a dream.
That 2008 team was what it would be from the time it arrived in Maui. This one's nowhere near close.
"The biggest trap we can fall into is because this year's group has preseason recognition individually and team-wise and that we're old, we're all of a sudden a finished product," Brey said.
Brey mentioned as much to his team last week before the Irish left for Maui. He didn't diffuse any talk fueled by Colson and Farrell about winning three games in three days. He did hold up a few caution flags. Should Notre Dame head for home on Thanksgiving Day with a loss, that won't mean it was a wasted week. Winning it all remains the main goal, but a loss just might benefit this bunch down the line. In January. In February. Maybe most importantly, in March.
"We can get better," Brey said. "We're going to change. We're going to improve."
How much will Brey learn about his team this week? How much will the Irish learn about themselves?
"We'll learn a lot," Brey said. "We want to win a championship learning it."
This article is written by Tom Noie from South Bend Tribune, Ind. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.