Hawaii eyes spoiler role as Big West Tournament opens

With an opportunity to (rightfully) defend their title re-gifted to them, the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors can enter this week’s Big West championship as a spoiler after an exciting season that has been both trying and encouraging.

Last week, the NCAA graciously walked back their initial ruling that prohibited Hawaii from playing in the 2017 postseason. The ban had been due to violations under Gib Arnold that ultimately led to his removal just before the 2014-15 season. Hawaii has sustained itself very well since that whole fiasco, first under Benjy Taylor and since under Eran Ganot.

This year’s team didn’t know until just before its final game that it would officially be in the Big West Conference Tournament, which gets underway Thursday in Anaheim, Calif.

It’s not often that I utter a kind word about the NCAA. And I won’t be doing that now, either. The instinct is to be grateful for their benevolence, but that’s like thanking a pickpocket for just spending your cash and not using your credit cards. It was a punishment that wasn’t warranted in the first place, so having them finally understand and course correct isn’t something all that impressive.

But I digress.

Hawaii began the season as a completely unknown commodity. Unknown, unproven and uncertain of its future after last year’s record-breaking core had all vacated Oahu. The team that enters the Honda Center as defending champs bares virtually no resemblance to the one that exited with the title a year ago.

Though entering with an overall losing record (14-15), Ganot may have done a more impressive job with this team than last year’s 28-6 squad. He essentially built it from scratch and managed to finish 8-8 in conference play, good for fifth place. The ‘Bows seemed to have a good chance at finishing above .500 but lost their final two games on the road.

While Hawaii won’t be considered a contender to repeat, it’s difficult to peg anyone in the conference as a clear cut favorite to advance beyond Anaheim. The ‘Bows knocked off No. 3 seed Cal State Fullerton and No. 4 seed Long Beach State during the regular season. They weren’t able to beat either of the top two seeds, UC Irvine or UC Davis, but those teams still lost four and five conference games, respectively.

How far the ‘Bows can go will rely on the continued impressive play of Noah Allen. The senior guard has averaged just under 16 points and six rebounds per game for the season, including 21 points and 7.5 boards over his past four outings. He’s not a one-man show and his success alone hasn’t always been enough, but his confidence has the ability to permeate through the rest of the team, which is quite green when it comes to big stages.

Hawaii takes on Long Beach State in Thursday’s final contest (6:30 p.m. HT) to see who will be Friday’s fourth semifinal participant. Getting this opportunity to compete is a great sendoff for a team that has shown lots of heart all season long. It’s very unlikely to end as it did a year ago, but while this year’s team won’t exit with the same win total, it’s been a worthy second act for Ganot who continues to show that Hawaii hoops is on the right track.

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

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