First step Thursday as UH eyes Big West run

  • David Simon

You don’t need to see the whole path in order to take the first step.

For the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors, step one will be Thursday when they take on UC Irvine in the opening round of the Big West Tournament (4 p.m. HT, Honda Center, Anaheim, Calif.).

Entering as the sixth seed in the bracket, Hawaii (17-12, 8-8 Big West) may be considered the biggest enigma in the tournament. There really hasn’t been one continuous thread to its season, other than unpredictability.

Every team has suffered a loss to Hawaii. Every team has enjoyed a win against Hawaii. The ‘Bows have been the most diplomatic Big West team, evenly distributing victories and defeats to their opponents like a parent making sure each child has the same number of french fries and broccoli spears.

So there really isn’t a preferable path for Hawaii. Any team the ‘Bows tip off with seems to be a matchup with positives, negatives and various possibilities.

That all begins with UC Irvine (16-16, 11-5). The Anteaters enter as the third seed and winners of eight of their last 10 games — including a 66-57 win over Hawaii on Feb. 25. That win put a damper on Hawaii’s senior night and home finale, so Irvine may have the mental edge going into Thursday.

Sophomore guard Leland Green is also considered questionable to play for UH after suffering an elbow injury in the finale against Cal State Fullerton.

But the ‘Bows have proven to be a resilient bunch. A five-game losing streak during the heart of conference play could have really fractured the team and the season. It was the longest skid under coach Eran Ganot and dropped Hawaii from a conference contender to a potential bottom feeder.

Falling from 4-1 to 4-6 can’t be considered a good thing, but it did allow us to witness the way in which Hawaii rebounded. It started with a hard-fought 62-61 road win at Irvine that propelled the ‘Bows to victories in four of their final six games and an even 8-8 conference mark.

Those hard times seem to be well in the rear view now and Hawaii, while certainly an underdog heading into Thursday, won’t be overlooked by any opponent. The balance this team has displayed all season long lends itself pretty well to a one-and-done format. One player’s off night won’t be its undoing, though Green’s status is important. Despite his numbers dipping slightly from a nice freshman campaign, he does provide 23 minutes of solid play each night.

Lately, it’s been the Evan Leonard show for the Anteaters. The diminutive guard is scoring more than 18 a game over Irvine’s last nine contests. He’s been a big spark during this hot streak to close out their season.

Hawaii did a good job containing Leonard (11 points, 3 for 9 shooting) when the ‘Bows won the initial contest. But he put up 19 points on 6 for 11 shooting in the Irvine win. If one player can swing the fortunes one way or the other, Leonard is probably that player.

Winning three games in three days is difficult for any team, but nobody can win three without winning the first one. That all begins Thursday when the Big West narrows from eight potential champions to four.

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David Simon can be reached at dsimon@thegardenisland.com.

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