COLUMN:Maui Invitational is not about fun in the sun, but the first real test

Trips to Hawaii are supposed to be relaxing.

Yet the UK men’s basketball team’s participation in the EA Sports Maui Invitational, one of the upper echelon preseason tournaments during college basketball’s Feast Week, will most likely be anything but relaxing for this relatively youthful group of Cats.

The rigors of three games in three days against stiff competition for any team is difficult, and despite a convincing 29-point win over the Portland Pilots in Oregon on Friday, the quality of competition on the Valley Isle is about to reach a new level and should be a litmus test for how far these Cats have come since their preseason trip to Canada and how far they really have to go.

Maui’s Lahaina Civic Center ( 2,400 is the seating capacity) isn’t necessarily a hostile environment, but a list of participating teams that represents all six power conferences and includes No. 2 Michigan State, No. 17 Washington and usual top 25 mainstay Connecticut will leave little margin for error for UK.

Think back to last year when UK men’s basketball head coach John Calipari led a youthful team south of the border to Cancun and escaped with the Cancun Challenge crown following an overtime victory over Stanford.

Last year’s preseason tournament, hardly comparable to the Maui Invitational, proved that UK had chinks in its armor, and for the most part, when the team returned from Mexico, it played solid basketball for the remainder of the nonconference schedule (well, save for one half of basketball against North Carolina).

The trip to Cancun signaled a turnaround from the lackadaisical efforts that almost cost UK losses against the likes of Miami (Ohio) and Sam Houston State.

“When we were in Cancun, every night we went out to eat as a team. All of us, no coaches, just players,” said senior forward Josh Harrellson before he and his teammates embarked on their road trip last week. “We would go to the pool together and everything that we did we were always together.”

So, if the Cancun Challenge was so pivotal in building early season momentum and unity among teammates, logically this year’s Maui Invitational will have the same effect, right?

“It is a good experience and we definitely need it,” Harrellson added.

What the Cats also need is for Harrellson, who grabbed a career-high 12 rebounds versus Portland, to repeat his reliable post presence performance and for this freshmen-laden team to play beyond its years.

A potential final between UK and Michigan State looms as a possibility in Maui, but before reaching the end of the gauntlet, the Cats’ first challenge is undefeated Oklahoma (3-0) on Monday. If the Cats defeat the Sooners, then they will face the winner of Washington/Virginia on Tuesday. If the Cats win two games in a row, they will then most likely have a chance to test their mettle against Michigan State in a tantalizing final.

Unlike last year, these young Cats may also have oodles of talent, but they’ll have to display a higher degree of mental and physical fortitude if they want to capture another preseason tournament title. It’s what Maui is all about.

Cyanara learning curve. Aloha first real test of the season.