No surprise as Maui Invitational moves to Las Vegas in November because of pandemic

Tom Noie
ND Insider

When the Notre Dame men's basketball team last ventured to Hawaii in 2017 to participate in one of the game's premier early-season tournaments, the college hoops world was introduced to "Maui Mike."

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey enjoyed his team's last trip to Maui in 2017, where it returned with a Maui Jim Maui Invitational championship. This year's Maui Invitational, which will include Notre Dame, will be played in Las Vegas.

Are we ready for "Vegas Brey?"

We'll find out.

Early Saturday morning – emails landed at 6:33 a.m. – official word about the 2021 Maui Jim Maui Invitational finally arrived. The news was expected. The tournament will not be held in the 2,400-seat Lahaina Civic Center because of coronavirus issues on the island for a second straight season. Instead, the tournament will shift 2,700 miles northeast to Las Vegas for three days of Thanksgiving week.

Tournament chairman Dave Odom notified the eight participating teams early Friday afternoon that it would be played in Las Vegas.

Mandalay Bay's Michelob ULTRA Arena, which seats 12,000 and is home to the WNBA's Las Vegas Aces, will host the three-day tournament.

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Notre Dame is scheduled to open play Nov. 22 against Saint Mary's. That game was scheduled to tip at 11:30 p.m. South Bend time (5:30 in Maui). It remains to be determined what time that game – and all of them – start in Vegas. The tournament will be broadcast on the ESPN family of networks.

Also in the 2021 field are Butler, Chaminade, Houston, Oregon, Texas A&M and Wisconsin. The Notre Dame-Saint Mary's winner faces the Chaminade-Oregon winner in Tuesday's second round.

The last time Notre Dame played in the Maui Invitational in 2017, it hauled home a tournament championship after wins over Chaminade, LSU and Wichita State. Irish coach Mike Brey worked the games in shorts and T-shirts.

It was his "Maui Mike" look. Following an improbable/unlikely championship victory, Brey celebrated in the locker room by removing his shirt and donning a traditional Hawaiian lei.

When Odom called Brey on Friday to relay the tournament plans, the Irish head coach had one comment for the former Wake Forest coach.

Notre Dame has played in the Maui Invitational championship game during each of its last two visits. The Irish won the tournament in 2017.

"I said, 'I'm still wearing shorts, even in Vegas,'" Brey said.

Brey was serious. The outfit is his island look.

Last year's Maui Jim Maui Invitational was played in Asheville, North Carolina. That site was considered again this year, as was Indianapolis.

"They had said, 'Hey, we want to go to a warm-weather spot,'" Brey said. "We'll make the best of it in Vegas."

Notre Dame also has participated in the tournament in 1993 and 2008, when it lost to eventual national champion North Carolina in the tournament championship. That was the game when former Irish guard Kyle McAlarney connected on a school record 10 3-pointers.

While playing in the Maui Invitational is a must-get to for fans (and media), Brey wasn't all that bummed about not having to make the long flight there and back, especially since a big game at Illinois awaits on the back end.

"I am not completely disappointed," Brey said. "It's better for us business-wise."

Had Notre Dame played in Maui, it would have spent all of Thanksgiving Day traveling back to Chicago on commercial flights before finally getting back to campus early Black Friday morning. The Irish would get two days of practice before again leaving, this time for Champaign, Ill. and the Monday, Nov. 29 game in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge against the Illini.

Playing in Las Vegas means the Irish can hop a charter flight directly back to Indiana after the final game Wednesday and have a relatively normal Thanksgiving meal at their traditional spot of Ruth's Chris in Mishawaka.

Notre Dame started official practice for the 2021-22 season Friday. It opens the regular season at home – where maximum capacity at Purcell Pavilion is expected – Nov. 13 against Cal State Northridge.

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI