First Impressions

First Impressions

In his first game since redshirting the 2016-17 season, senior forward Mike Thomas (13) scored 17 points and grabbed 6 rebounds in Hawaii’s decisive 90-70 victory over HPU. Photo: UH Sports Media Relations.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

by Lance Tominaga, ESPN 1420 Web Editor

Can a college basketball team with no clear-cut “go-to” guy have sustained success and challenge for a conference crown?

We’re about to find out.

The University of Hawaii men’s basketball team handled Division II neighbor HPU last night at the Stan Sheriff Center, 90-70. The exhibition contest provided local hoops fans with an early look at both teams. UH officially opens their season on November 10 against Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

Here’s one observer’s initial thoughts on the 2017-18 Rainbow Warriors:

FRONTCOURT:

It’s clear that Mike Thomas and Gibson Johnson are the team’s best and most reliable performers. The two seniors combined for 35 points and 9 rebounds against the Sea Warriors, going 15-18 from the field.

Last season, Noah Allen developed into the team’s primary scoring threat. With Allen’s departure, the best bet to fill that scoring void may be Thomas, who returns to the active roster after sitting out last season with a wrist injury. The 6-7 forward showed flashes of potential last night, scoring on a variety of jump hooks, elbow jumpers and put-backs. Thomas even hit his lone three-point attempt.

Thomas looked good. Whether or not he has the mentality to be the team’s go-to scorer remains to be seen – Allen struggled with his role at times last year – but he’ll definitely have a more featured role this season after previously playing in the shadows of Stefan Jankovic, Roderick Bobbitt and Aaron Valdes.

Johnson, meanwhile, already looked in mid-season form. The 6-8 post player seems quicker and more agile than he did last year, when he had team-highs in field goal percentage (.514) and double-digit scoring games (21). He is also one of the team’s best passers.

The return of Mike Thomas means that, at least for now, Jack Purchase slides over to a sixth-man role. The 6-9 forward, who started every game last season, is the best three-point threat on the roster; he led the team last season with 72 treys. However, he’s ill-equipped for the small forward position. He simply doesn’t have the quickness to guard fleet-footed wing players. He’ll still get major minutes.

Backup center Ido Flaisher was solid last night, contributing 6 points and 4 boards in 10 minutes of playing time. He can always be counted on to give maximum effort, and his footwork and hands seem to be improved from last season. He still needs to get stronger and add some muscle to his 6-10 frame. If he can develop more confidence and assertiveness in time for Big West Conference play, Flaisher could be a key player in Eran Ganot’s rotation.

WINGS:

Sophomore guard Leland Green will be counted on the provide stability in the backcourt this year. Last season, as a freshman, Green showed flashes of brilliance (25 points against Long Beach State), and this year he simply has to build on that success and find ways to become a more all-around player.

Junior Sheriff Drammeh is one of Hawaii’s most versatile players. He can play point guard, shooting guard and small forward. If last night is any indication, Drammeh will continue to alternately delight and frustrate Rainbow Warrior fans. He’ll commit a silly turnover one moment, and then bury a key three-pointer the next. He reminds me a bit of former NFL receiver Cliff Branch, who had Olympics-level speed. It was only after Branch learned to slow down a bit and let the game come to him that he became a really effective receiver. Drammeh needs to let the game come to him and not force things.

Last night marked the Rainbow Warrior debuts of Samuta Avea and Brandon Thomas. Avea, a promising freshman out of Kahuku, was a victim first-game jitters; he committed three fouls in only six minutes of action. Similarly, sophomore Thomas – younger brother of Mike – couldn’t get his game going. Thomas was 0-5 from the field.

As the season goes on, however, look for Avea and Brandon Thomas to develop into solid contributors off the bench. This season’s recruiting class brings an infusion of young talent that will add much-needed depth to Eran Ganot’s roster – and both Avea and Thomas should figure prominently in that equation.

POINT GUARD:

Walk-on Brocke Stepteau deserves a lot of credit for basically salvaging the ’Bows season last year. No one thought he would wind up as the team’s starting point guard, but the 5-9 guard from Dallas, Texas took the reins from Drammeh and ran with it. Stepteau started last night’s game and contributed 6 points and a pair of assists.

Stepteau’s grasp on his starting position may soon slip away, however, and that would be a good thing. Stepteau would be a better fit as the back-up point guard.

Hawaii’s best point guard is redshirt freshman Drew Buggs. He proved it last night, when he recorded 13 points and 5 assists in 22 minutes of action. He showed lots of poise in his UH debut (Buggs sat out last season with a knee injury), and if he continues to develop as his coaches expect him to, the team will be set at the point for the foreseeable future. He possesses good size (6-2, 190), a smooth shooting touch and a knack for getting to the basket. He’ll be a player to watch throughout the season.

Forwards Zigmars Raimo and Justin Hemsley and guards Jaaron Stallworth and Zach Buscher only got spot minutes at the end of the game, so it’d be hard for me to evaluate them. Of this quartet, however, Raimo and Stallworth could find themselves in the rotation as the season progresses. Stallworth, in particular, is an intriguing prospect at the point position.

As a team, the Rainbow Warriors definitely showed some promise last night. Offensively, they look for each other and play unselfishly. On the other end of the court, they still struggle to defend the perimeter at times, and they’ll need to address that before conference play begins in January.

This is a Hawaii team that, at least for now, lacks a go-to, Alpha-type player, and I’m guessing Coach Ganot is fine with that. The whole is greater than the sum of this team’s individual parts.

As Gibson Johnson said after the game, “I think that’s what makes this team so special. It’s not going to be just a couple of guys stepping up. It’s going to be several guys. It’s not even going to be the starters [necessarily]. It’s going to be guys coming off the bench as well. We have a lot of options and a lot of unselfish players.”

As for HPU, this is not the same team that went 29-3 and captured the Pac West Conference title. The Sea Warriors lost all five starters from last year’s squad. Former Rainbow Warrior Larry Lewis should be a heavy contributor for head coach Darren Vorderbruegge. Last night, Lewis struggled from the field (3-12) but still managed to score 15 points.

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