Keith Waleskowski has fond memories of the Maui Invitational. He had the rare opportunity to play there twice in his Dayton Flyers career: as a redshirt freshman in 2000 and again as a senior in 2003 when he was named tournament MVP.
Of course, no trip to Hawaii is complete without some beach time, and Waleskowski made the most of his chance 16 years ago when he was a senior. Waleskowski said he, Sean Finn and Jon Kingston found time to not only visit the beach but to jump off volcanic rocks into the ocean.
"There were some things we should not have been doing as college athletes," Waleskowski said, "but we were kids. There's more trouble we could have gotten into."
Waleskowski is returning to Maui this week and next to call games on WHIO radio with the voice of the Flyers, Larry Hansgen. Dayton plays Georgia in the first round at 2:30 p.m. Monday at the Lahaina Civic Center, the same 2,400-seat complex Waleskowski played in so many years ago.
This will be Dayton's fourth appearance in the event, the first three were memorable experiences for the players and fans.
"It's a lot of fun because it's a neutral site," Waleskowski said. "You've kind of got the same number of fans from every team, and they're always loud and right on top of you. It's a small gym. It's like playing in a high-stakes, packed-house gym, a summer-league type of thing. It's a fun experience. It helps when you're winning. It's just a cool thing."
For Dayton players used to playing in front of 13,000-plus fans, the small arena can shock the senses.
"You hear Maui is such a tradition with the tournament and all the high-level teams that are there every year," said Brooks Hall, who played in the 2000 tournament as a sophomore. "It’s such a prestigious event, and you walk into the gym, and it would be one of the worst high-school gyms in the Dayton area. It's, 'Wait, this is it.' Once you get past the shock of the gym, then it's a NCAA tournament vibe. High energy. I used to remember sitting in the tunnel waiting for the game before yours to end. It could be intimidating. You’ve got the cameras and the media exposure."
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Dayton has fared well in the tournament. It's 7-2. It won the 2003 championship and finished third in 2000 and 2013.
"If you approach it like a tournament and not like a vacation," Waleskowski said, "I think you’ll fare a lot better."
As always, Dayton expects a large contingent of fans to travel to Maui. Trainer Mike Mulcahey, who was on the Dayton bench in 2013 when the Flyers beat Gonzaga and California, said it felt like a home game six years ago.
“We came out of the locker room, and it felt like a microcosm of UD Arena,” he said. “The guys really notice that stuff and pay attention to it, and it makes a big difference.”
The fans may have time to explore the island. The players won’t get to have too much fun until Thursday. The team has a late flight home on Thanksgiving and won’t get back to Dayton until Friday afternoon, so it will have time during the day to enjoy Maui. Until then, the games are the focus.
“We’re going out there for one reason and one reason only,” Mulcahey said, “and that’s basketball. It’s business.”
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