It’s finally March and college basketball fans know what that means…Conference Tournaments and March Madness! For both the Rainbow Warriors and Rainbow Wahine, year 9 of playing in the Big West Conference is nearly complete. In this final edition of “Around the Arc,” we look at five of the biggest storylines around Hawai`i and the rest of the conference, either from the previous week or heading into the 11th and final week of the regular season for conference play. Gary Dickman looks at the men’s side, while Tiff Wells features the women’s side.
By Gary Dickman:
It’s hard to believe it’s March already. March is my favorite month for sports. There’s nothing like March Madness. The NCAA tournament is back and let’s hope our Rainbow Warriors are back as well.
- With it being March, things change. There’s no longer “it’s early, there’s plenty of games left.” And where Hawai`i is now, even the last two games of the regular season are so important. There’s a lot at stake with these games at UC Davis on Friday and Saturday. Hawaii could finish anywhere between third and ninth place. I’ve mentioned every week that the goal is to finish in the top six and by doing that, they would avoid the play-in round. UH did what they needed to do last week, in sweeping Long Beach State. As of now, they’re 8-8 in conference play and in sixth place in the Big West standings. If UH sweeps Davis this week, they could finish in a tie for third place. If they get swept, they could drop to a tie for eighth or ninth place. Losing both and dropping that far down in the standings is something I don’t even want to think about. If they split, which is what I think will happen, they’ll clinch the sixth seed. That wouldn’t be that bad as far as quarterfinal matchups go in the Big West tournament.
- I know some will say that you just want to be playing your best basketball at this time of the year, to have momentum, to be playing with confidence and so forth. Even Head Coach Eran Ganot said he doesn’t focus on where the team finishes in the standings or what seed his team will be. He’d rather focus on wanting his team to be playing well. I don’t believe him. That’s the right thing to say, but no coach is okay with having to play in a play-in round or needing to win four games instead of three to advance to the NCAA Tournament. To me, it’s most important to be a top six seed. One advantage of being in sixth place is your quarterfinal opponent. If UH is the sixth seed, they’ll get either UC Riverside or CSU Bakersfield. Those were the first two Big West teams UH played during the conference season. Hawaii split with UCR on the road and got swept by CSUB here at home the following week. I still like those matchups far better than having to play UC Irvine or UC Santa Barbara, which is what would happen if UH drops in the standings. At this point, it’s all about seeding and matchups.
- For Hawaii to do well at UC Davis and hopefully play three games in Las Vegas next week, they need to finally play a complete game. Actually, three complete games. What I mean by that is for every player to play their best game of the season and for everyone to be doing that at the same time. Over the course of this season, different players have stepped up to get the job done. It’s great to have that kind of depth and balance. But to win in March, everybody needs to step up. Imagine how good Hawai`i can be if Justin Webster puts up 20 points AND James Jean-Marie and Casdon Jardine each record a double-double. It’s not too much to ask for. Junior Madut has had a few monster games, Biwali Bayles has started to score in double figures. If Hawaii has every player or even has a majority of the team having those type of games, I think they could beat any team in the Big West tournament next week, I really do.
- I like that Coach Ganot has been able to make many adjustments this year and most seemed to have work. Last week against Long Beach State, Hawai`i went to a zone defense, which UH rarely uses. It really helped to turn the game around last Friday. A lot of coaches are set in their ways. They refuse to adapt or change during a game. I thought that the zone defense last week was a great example of how sometimes you need to mix things up, to go against your game plan and adjust on the fly. Numerous adjustments to the starting five have taken place as well. Hawaii has had three starting point guards this year. This normally doesn’t happen. But it was necessary this year and I think all three have each done well when they were the starter. I talk about players all the time here, but I think Coach Ganot deserves a lot of credit for what he’s accomplished this year. No team has had it easy this year, but I look at this UH team and how they might have overachieved this season. And this is in large part to Coach Ganot.
- As I just wrote about his good of a job Eran Ganot has done, I know what some of you are thinking . How can he be that good if this team is at .500 and is right around that mark each and every season? I’ve thought about that a lot. I have this conversation with fans all the time. Most fans think their team is always or should always be good just because that’s their team. It doesn’t work like that. I think most fans realize how UH, for the most part, is at a disadvantage in recruiting. I wish my teams won all the time too. In any sport, there are a lot of factors that come into play as far as having a winning program or a losing program. From day one, one thing I’ve said about Coach Ganot is that he’ll have good students, good people, in addition to being good basketball players. Unlike other schools, you won’t hear about his players getting into trouble. He recruits players who fit what he’s looking for. The goal is to get good players, good students, good citizens and win. But if you look at basketball in the Big West over the last five to six years, only a couple of schools have consistently been near the top. UC Irvine is the top school, and in recent years, UC Santa Barbara has been up there. But schools like CSUN, Long Beach State, UC Davis; they’ve all been up and down. I think four to five coaches have been fired over that stretch too. Either they’re not winning or other factors have cost them their jobs. So, even though UH is often around around .500, I think we should be appreciative of this program as a whole. We know that every March, this team usually has a chance to win three games in three days and get back to the NCAA tournament. Next week will be exciting. I can’t wait.
For any video/live stats/radio links for the men’s games, click here.
By Tiff Wells:
- The last time redshirt senior forward Amy Atwell was on the floor was game two at UC Santa Barbara on February 13th. She played just 15 minutes (all in the first half), going 0-of-3 from the field (all three-point attempts) and did not play in the second half after leaving the game late in the first half. Fast forward to February 26th at Long Beach State when she returned to basketball action…wow, what a performance by Atwell. In her previous three games combined, she had scored 21 points. In game one against The Beach, she put up a season-high 25 points on 50% shooting (8-of-16 from the field, 4-of-8 from 3-point range) and pulled down nine rebounds while playing 36 minutes. That 25-point performance…it tied her career high. The next afternoon, she played 40 of the 45 minutes (game went into overtime), shooting 56.3% from the field (9-of-16) and made 4-of-7 from three-point range. She led the Rainbow Wahine with 23 points, one of four players to score in double figures. The two-game series is arguably Atwell’s best of her career.
- It’s been quite some time since Hawai`i had a home game…January 23rd to be exact, against Cal State Fullerton. There was the road trip to UC Irvine, then the pivot on three-days notice to cancel the home series with UC San Diego and travel to Cal Poly, then stay on the road for the week leading up to face UC Santa Barbara, then come home to rest for the added bye week due to CSUN opting out of the season and then to Long Beach State for the final trip of the regular season. That’s seven straight road games with a 2-3 record heading into the Long Beach State series. One of those three losses was by four points, the other by eight in overtime. We could be looking at possibly a 4-1 road record in that stretch before Hawai`i played LBSU. UH sat in sixth place coming into the series with The Beach and with arguably the toughest remaining schedule, the Rainbow Wahine needed wins and some help to avoid that dreaded play-in game. UH hadn’t won in Long Beach since the 2016 season (January 7th, 67-55). Three 20-plus point scoring quarters, combined with the breakout performance by freshman forward Nnenna Orji (career high 11 points on 3-of-4 shooting, three rebounds and four assists over 23 minutes of play), UH outrebounded The Beach 41-31 en route to a gritty 77-75 win. Game two went to overtime. Four Rainbow Wahine players scored in double figures (Amy Atwell-23 points, Kasey Neubert-14 points, Jaydynn Alexander-10 points and Kelsie Imai-10 points). Imai’s tough shot with 26 seconds remaining proved to be the game-winner as UH held off The Beach for a thrilling 76-73 win in overtime. Two huge wins for the Bows as UH swept the season series from Long Beach for the first time since the 2015-16 season and finish with a 4-5 road record. What began as four-straight losses on the road ended with four wins in their remaining five road games. Not bad, not bad at all.
- Unbeaten UC Davis (9-1 overall, 8-0 conference) is the final conference opponent for the Rainbow Wahine. It’s been a roller coaster type ride the last year for everyone, sports or non-sports related. But for UC Davis, they’ve had a much, much different season than anyone in the Big West. They began the season on November 25th with an 82-75 home victory over San Francisco. Then came the Yolo County health orders to shutdown all activities. Two separate, two-week shutdowns for the Aggies. Then came the cancellations of conference series because of COVID-19 protocols from their opponents. All in all, it was a 59-day layoff until their next game, January 22nd. The Aggies have gone 8-1 since their resumption, with a 13.25 average margin of victory. The lone loss? A 6-point loss at then No. 12/11 ranked Oregon; a game that was scheduled on three-days notice and a game where UC Davis led for a majority of the first three quarters. UH has lost three straight in the series with UC Davis and haven’t beaten the Aggies since January 12th, 2019 (65-50). It’s senior weekend for UH, two chances to beat the top team in the league, perhaps get a higher seed than fourth for the conference tournament…there’s a lot for the Rainbow Wahine to play for.
- The Aggies have been the standard in the Big West Conference…for the regular season. 63-9 entering this week and have won the last four regular season conference titles. Up to number 11 in this week’s College Insider Mid Major Top 25 Poll, the Aggies lead the conference in nearly every team statistical category. With a Princeton-style offense, UH must be patient on defense, be aware of screens and also rely on their rebounding (UH leads the conference with 40.2 rebounds per game) if they are to be the first conference team to defeat the Aggies. In what is the most complete team in the conference, a well-balanced squad is led by perhaps the most well-rounded player in the conference and one of the favorites for Player of the Year honors, senior forward Cierra Hall. She ranks first in field goal percentage (.477), 3-point percentage (.548) and free throw percentage (.907); sixth in assist to turnover ratio (1.67); eighth in points per game (13.8); ninth in rebounds per game (7.1) and assists per game (3.7).
- A couple of interesting notes from the latest conference release: 1. seeding for the Air Force Reserve Big West Women’s Basketball Championship, presented by the Hawaii Tourism Authority will be based on Conference regular season win percentages and 2. road teams this year have a 35-30 record entering this final week of the regular season, but home teams have won 10 of the last 16.
Like UC Davis, UC Santa Barbara has won four straight games and trending in the right direction ahead of next week’s conference tournament. Once at 10-0 in conference play, Long Beach State has lost six straight and now must travel to Irvine to face their rival, the Anteaters. We pretty much know that Cal State Fullerton (9th seed) will be in the play-in game on Tuesday. We’ll know seeds one through eight and the entire bracket once the final game of the regular season is complete.
For any video/live stats/radio links for the women’s games, click here.