The up and down nature of conference play continued Wednesday night for the Rainbow Warriors as they lost their final home game of the season, 98-90, to UC Santa Barbara. The club is still one win shy of reaching 20 victories for the second straight season and completes its regular season schedule Saturday at Cal State Fullerton.
The loss Wednesday was a disappointment on a few levels. First off, it was Senior Night. Hawaii has just one senior on the roster in guard Garret Nevels. As the only returning starter from last year’s resurgent squad, Nevels has been the linchpin connecting the previous successes to this year’s unexpected rebirth. He’s done a bit of everything to help the young team find its identity and been a steady force on both ends. But I’m sure Wednesday was not how he hoped his UH career would close on his home floor. Nevels had just seven points on 3 for 9 shooting in the loss, which now drops the ‘Bows to 7-8 in Big West play.
The other disappointment was losing despite having all capable hands on deck. Injuries have been an issue for the past six weeks, first with Nevels, himself, then with ankle injuries to Aaron Valdes, Mike Thomas and Isaac Fleming. But everyone was back in action Wednesday as Fleming made his return after a three-game absence. While it hasn’t been all sunshine and roses with a shorter bench, this could be a difficult time to reintegrate all these players back into the rotation.
The guy who has taken most advantage of his opportunity has been forward Stefan Jankovic, who had only played 23 minutes twice in his first 14 games of the year, but has eclipsed that number in the past six contests. He’s averaging just under 16 points and more than eight rebounds with that minutes increase, but the team is 3-3 and has lost three of four. Jankovic is an incredibly gifted offensive player and continues to get better and more confident with every game, but his improved productivity hasn’t necessarily led to better results for the team.
It’s an awkward time of year for Coach Benjy Taylor to have to re-acclimate his entire nine-man rotation. You hope your team is playing its best toward the end of the year, but having to mix players back in and out of the lineup may not be putting them in the best position entering the Big West Conference Tournament, which begins Thursday. Nobody in the conference has really separated themselves, so seeding won’t play a huge role, but it would certainly be nice to end up closer to that fourth seed than seventh, which is as low as the ‘Bows could still fall.
After almost all their recent wins, UH has remarked on how dangerous they feel they can be when they’re clicking. They’re right. There’s no team that matches up that well against their pressure style and they won’t be scared to face any opponent, even top seed UC Davis, who they already beat this season.
But “when they’re clicking” is the key phrase. Getting Fleming back into a key role will be vital. The freshman has scored double figures 12 times this year and Hawaii has won eight of those contests. He adds a huge spark as both a scorer and creator, and though his fiery personality has earned him some troubling looks from Coach Taylor along the way, the team responds to and feeds off his emotion.
When he, Nevels and Roderick Bobbit are all wreaking havoc, and Negus Webster-Chan is knocking down some shots from the perimeter, no team is able to withstand that pressure. But it’s not as easy as rolling the ball out and assuming it will happen. All nine players in the team’s ideal rotation have shown what they can do, but plugging all those pieces back in with just a few games remaining won’t be easy. Hopefully, they show their scary side Saturday and not the rust from Wednesday.
David Simon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.