They say you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone and I think the Hawaii men’s basketball team is realizing how important a pair of its rotation players have been to this season’s success. The Rainbow Warriors’ depth has been a major factor in accruing its 18 wins, but the bench has gotten much shorter with ankle injuries to forward Mike Thomas and guard Isaac Fleming. Thomas, in particular, is a player who doesn’t grab many headlines, but his presence provides a safety blanket the team is now clearly missing.
Though his minutes have been cut since the early part of the season, Thomas has allowed his teammates to freelance when he’s in the game. As an athletic big who likes to mix it up in the paint, the rest of the squad can patrol the perimeter and gamble for steals, as they are wont to do. Thomas has seen some of his court time go to Stefan Jankovic, as the sophomore scorer has been in double figures 10 of the past 12 games.
But with Thomas limited or out of the lineup, the ‘Bows dropped back-to-back games last week for the first time all season. Knowing a player like Thomas is going to come up with that loose ball or keep an offensive rebound alive eases a lot of pressure on the rest of the lineup. Everyone has to press just a bit more when he’s not around.
The loss of Fleming has been a little more obvious, given his much more flamboyant playing style and personality. He has drawn the ire of coach Benjy Taylor’s stare a few times this year, but Fleming was developing into a reliable scorer and creator from the outside before being sidelined.
Coach Taylor has basically gone with just a seven-man rotation in the past two losses, even giving rarely used guard Niko Filipovich 14 minutes of run in Saturday’s defeat. The bigger stars like Aaron Valdes, Garret Nevels and Negus Webster-Chan are all active after various injuries kept them out of action earlier in the year, but the role players have been sorely missed of late. Entering the home stretch of the regular season is a bad time to have a cold streak, so if they remain shorthanded, hopefully the ‘Bows can figure out how to replace those valuable minutes more efficiently.
w WAHINE’S PERSISTENT PERSONA: While the men have taken a small step back since those injuries hit, the Wahine are showing no signs of reversing course. Last week’s sweep puts their current win streak at 11 games.
With an 11-2 record in the Big West, Hawaii needs just one win in its final three contests to clinch at least a tie of the conference title.
That certainly seems like an inevitability with the way they’ve been playing. It’s not always the prettiest brand of basketball, but the Wahine are capitalizing on their strengths, which have been defense, rebounding and working their offensive possessions to make the opponent scramble defensively. Coach Laura Beeman clearly has them understanding offense because the team rarely takes a bad shot. They work the clock, get the ball to the high post, move off the ball and take advantage of mismatches down low.
I worked for the Penn State stat crew as a student and most of my sessions were for women’s basketball. The way Hawaii plays reminds me a lot of the brand of basketball seen in both men’s and women’s Big Ten action. Teams like Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin Badgers or Ohio State’s women for the past decade have been physical, mistake-free clubs that just relentlessly grind their opponents down. That’s been the Wahine style, no matter their opponent or score. They’ve had huge wins, huge comebacks and close victories, but they always maintain their own personality and never panic in tough spots.
Continuing down that road is going to earn the Wahine their first conference championship since 1997-98 and bodes well for some postseason success.
David Simon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.