LAHAINA, Hawaii – Except for a handful of marquee games, the first part of the college basketball season is typically a feeling-out period, even for programs expected to make a deep March run.
Once the teams in the Maui Invitational arrive in paradise, things get serious in a hurry.
It may be one of the most beautiful places in the world on the outside, but inside the confined spaces of Lahaina Civic Center, the basketball at the Maui Invitational is always intense. The flaws of those first few games are magnified and, in many cases, exploited. The ability to escape with a victory when not playing your best, all but gone.
This season is on.
"All of the eyeballs of America are on this tournament," San Diego State Steve Fisher said Sunday, just a few feet from the sands of Kaanapali Beach. "It is a great, great field that I think will produce multiple NCAA Tournament participants, not only to get in, but advance."
The Maui Invitational starts Monday with 12 teams hoping to set the tone for the rest of their seasons.
The marquee teams are No. 2 Arizona and Fisher's 16th-ranked Aztecs.
With a solid returning core and another strong recruiting class by coach Sean Miller, Arizona was predicted for greatness at the start of the season.
The Wildcats are still trying to sort things out, though. Arizona has opened with three straight wins, but struggled with slow starts before pulling away for victories against Mount St. Mary's and UC Irvine.
Arizona opens the Maui Invitational against Missouri in Monday's second game.
"We're at a point right now where we're trying to combine the guys who were here before with the new faces and come together as a team," Arizona coach Sean Miller said.
San Diego State is searching for some offense.
The Aztecs have been superb defensively, allowing 57 points per game, second-best nationally. It's a small sample size so far, but there's little doubt San Diego State can play defense, particularly after holding Cal State Bakersfield to 27 points, the lowest total in SDSU's 45-year history in Division I.
The offense is still a work in progress.
After scoring 79 points in an opening win over Cal State Northridge, Aztecs (3-0) have averaged 52 points, and they shot 25 percent in the win over CSU Bakersfield.
San Diego State opens the Maui Invitational against former Mountain West Conference foe BYU in Monday's nightcap.
"We can shoot the ball, we just need to have some of those shots fall," Fisher said.
A few more things to look for when the three-day Maui Invitational gets underway:
HOT HAWS: The Maui Invitational has had its share of star performances over the years, including Kemba Walker while leading UConn to the title in 2010, a feat he repeated in the NCAA Tournament. One player to keep an eye on in this year's field is BYU's Tyler Haws. The senior has shot his way through the Cougars' record book and is one of the nation's best pure shooters. Though the 3-point shots aren't falling just yet — he's 3 for 11 in three games — Haws has a career scoring average of 18.7 points and shoots 38 percent from the arc. Once he gets going, Haws is tough to stop and three games in three days could play to his advantage if he gets into a rhythm.
YOUNG TEAMS: This year's Maui Invitational is filled with young teams still trying to find their way. Missouri has seven new players, including five freshen in Kim Anderson's first year as coach. Purdue has six new players, five freshmen. Pittsburgh has young players in key positions with Cam Wright and Durand Johnson, the team's best perimeter scorers, out with injuries. Even Miller and Fisher have to implement new players after bringing in stellar recruiting classes.
FEAR THE SWORDS: Host team Chaminade is 7-81 in the Maui Invitational and has nearly as many losses as all the other teams in tournament history combined. They may be smaller and maybe a little less athletic, but the Division II Silverswords are scrappy, can shoot and have been known to pull off an upset or two. Their first, in 1982 over top-ranked Virginia, was the impetus for the Maui Invitational and they've followed with victories over bigger programs like Texas, Oklahoma, Villanova and Stanford. Take Chaminade lightly and another team could fall under the Swords.