Many years, Championship Week is even more exciting than the ensuing NCAA Tournament.
With all the major conference tournaments taking place this week, so many teams are still battling for both seeding and postseason inclusion. Every day sees bubble teams fighting for their lives and conference rivals jockeying for position. Sure, the NCAA Tournament is amazing, but this week’s in-conference one-and-done brackets mean so much to a lot more teams than just the ultimate 68 invitees.
Despite their second straight 20-win season, the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors won’t be an at-large selection, so if they hope to reach the Big Dance, they’ll need to run the table in the Big West conference tournament. The Big West won’t be getting two teams into the NCAA Tournament, so everyone is essentially in the same boat. Even first-place UC Davis (24-5, 14-2 Big West) doesn’t have the resume to expect an at-large bid.
Thanks to their 91-70 victory Saturday over Cal State Fullerton, Hawaii (20-12, 8-8) enters as the No. 5 seed and will take on No. 4 seed Long Beach State (16-16, 10-6) at 11:30 a.m. HT, Thursday at Anaheim’s Honda Center.
That win in the regular season finale was a big boost for the ‘Bows and not just because it got them back on a winning track. Facing Long Beach State is a better draw than UC Irvine, who was a potential opponent. Hawaii beat Long Beach State 78-59 just two weeks ago, but UC Irvine beat the ‘Bows both times the two teams matched up this season.
While Hawaii has been mostly a win one, lose one type of team throughout conference play, Long Beach State has been the very definition of streaky. The 49ers won six straight games from Jan. 15 to Feb. 5, then proceeded to lose their next five and are now back on a three-game winning streak. Hawaii is the last team to have beaten LBSU and did so in pretty dominant fashion. They’ll be hoping that they’re catching the 49ers at the start of a new streak and not the continuation of their current winning ways.
The road to the Big Dance will be three wins in three days for someone. Honestly, there’s no reason why it can’t be Hawaii. Last week I wrote about the trouble integrating players returning from injury back into the rotation. Well Coach Benjy Taylor seemed to have that figured out in Saturday’s win. Everyone got minutes and, thanks to the score late in the game, the starters got a chance to rest and let the bench players shake off some of the rust. Mike Thomas was back in productive form, scoring six points and pulling down five rebounds – four offensive – in 18 minutes. Freshman Isaac Fleming scored 11 points and had six assists in 21 minutes.
But anything Hawaii gets from Fleming will be a bonus. Conference tournaments are often a stage for upperclassmen because they have the experience the youngsters don’t. For better or worse, UH has just one senior on the squad. Guard Garrett Nevels will probably be the barometer of their success and luckily for the ‘Bows, he’s picked up his game recently. He’s averaging 14 points and shooting 45 percent (9 for 20) from three-point range over the past four games.
We don’t need to wait for Selection Sunday to become fully engulfed by March Madness. This week’s insanity isn’t just an appetizer, it’s the first hearty helping of Sunday dinner. It’s the spaghetti in the spaghetti and meatballs. It’s the waffles in the chicken and waffles.
Apparently, I’m hungry.
But Championship Week gives us plenty to salivate over. Three wins in three days is the mantra. We’ll see if the ‘Bows are the ones still chanting when it’s all said and done.
David Simon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.