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Wahine can shake off disappointment with NIT opener today

Both the University of Hawaii men’s and women’s basketball teams entered last Saturday with a chance to reach the ultimate postseason tournament. It turned into a disappointing day and neither was able to win their respective Big West Tournament titles. For the Wahine, they had already locked up a postseason bid by winning the regular-season championship, but they were a favorite to get to the Big Dance, having won 15 straight games. A 16th meant an NCAA Tournament berth, but it wasn’t to be.

So the Hawaii Rainbow Wahine now have an opportunity to still show their brand of basketball on a national stage against some really tough opponents. They have a chance to make a run in this NIT that would only further demonstrate the steps head coach Laura Beeman has taken to make Hawaii into an emerging program.

So what are reasonable expectations for their NIT? Well, looking at how Hawaii is viewed when compared to the rest of the NCAA, they won’t be expected to make many waves. Despite 23 wins and a 15-game winning streak, Hawaii’s final RPI ranking was 70th in the nation. Their first-round opponent today, Saint Mary’s (20-10), actually finished ranked 60th in the RPI. So right from the get-go, Hawaii can certainly be considered an underdog.

But as Thursday’s action showed us, favorites aren’t really favorites once the ball is tipped in March. And the upsets weren’t just prevalent on the men’s side. Even in this women’s NIT, Eastern Washington pulled off an impressive win over heavily favored Washington State on the Lady Cougars’ home floor.

There’s no team within the Rainbow Wahine’s quadrant of the bracket that would be all that scary to face, but at the same time, Hawaii isn’t going to run any teams off the floor. Their effective style is exactly why making some grand prediction is almost impossible. With some teams you can say that if they can manage to get hot, they can make an extended run.

But Hawaii’s not going to get hot. They don’t have shooters and they’re not going to make more than a few threes in a game. How they shoot isn’t going to determine their success. It’s going to be based purely on how they execute. If they execute well offensively, they’re going to create good looks and good scoring opportunities. If they don’t execute particularly well, they’re really going to struggle to score.

What gets Hawaii going is its defense and its rebounding prowess. They often hold opponents to only one shot and usually a tough shot, at that. When they’re in sync with their rotations, they’re really tough to score on, so no teams in this field should ever be able to run away from them on the scoreboard. But this style that has proven so effective all year is exactly why we can’t simply assume they’ll win today. They take the air out of the ball, they play close games and they rely on their physicality. That means that most games against good teams are going to reach that “anything can happen” zone in the final few minutes.

My gut feeling is that Hawaii will pull off a pair of mild upsets in this tournament, first topping Saint Mary’s today and then Fresno State in round two. Both of those opponents would have a higher RPI ranking, but I think Hawaii’s tenacity and fundamentals will be tough to play against for any team that isn’t fully prepared.

Shawna-Lei Kuehu is the Wahine’s leading scorer and rebounder, but she had one of her worst games of the season in the loss to Cal State Northridge. If she gets back to her usual play, the Wahine could provide the postseason success that would be so welcome and so deserved for any members of either basketball program.

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

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