Hawaii is off to its best start since 2002 and hopes to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since that season.
Everyone knows how good No. 2 Oklahoma has been this season. The Sooners are 13–1, their lone loss coming in triple overtime on the road at No. 1 Kansas, and they are looking like a true national title contender. What you may not realize is that one of the few teams that have managed to hang with Buddy Hield’s squad this season is Hawaii. The Rainbow Warriors are off to their best start since 2002, the last time they made the NCAA tournament.
And it’ll be important for Hawaii to make the Big Dance this year, as the team has received a postseason ban for 2017 after an NCAA investigation revealed violations by former coach Gib Arnold. So far, Hawaii has done everything it can. The team’s only losses losses on the year are the aforementioned three-point defeat to Oklahoma and an eight-point road loss to Texas Tech, which is no slouch.
“It was actually a really tough game,” Sooners forward Khadeem Lattin said after Oklahoma’s win over the Rainbow Warriors—high praise from someone on the No. 2 team in the country.
It was a difficult game for the Sooners because Hawaii is a tough, veteran team. It’s led by junior guard Aaron Valdes, who averages 14.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists and recorded a triple-double earlier this month against Howard. Junior forward Stefan Jankovic is a former Missouri transfer averaging 14.8 points and 6.9 rebounds, and the 6'11" big man can even step out and hit the three when needed (he’s made 10-of-25 this season).
Also key for Hawaii has been senior guard Roderick Bobbitt, whose recent emergence gives the Warriors another consistent scoring threat in the lineup. After scoring just 16 combined points in four straight games in late November and December, Bobbitt exploded for 32 in the loss to Oklahoma. He would follow that up with point totals of 30, 5, 31 and 21 in Hawaii’s next four games. Valdes injured his toe during Sunday’s win over UC Santa Barbara and his status for Hawaii’s next game is uncertain, making Bobbitt’s role even more important as the Rainbow Warriors look to continue their strong start in the Big West.
On the season, Hawaii has already beaten Auburn, Nevada and a Northern Iowa team that has taken down North Carolina and Iowa State. They’ve started Big West conference play 2–0 with wins over Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara, the latter of which is top 50 in RPI.
As a team, Hawaii boasts a top 25 defense on kenpom.com and is top 50 in multiple important defensive factors, such as effective field goal percentage, turnover percentage and rebounding percentage. On offense, the Warriors shoot the ball very well from inside the arc and limit opponents’ two-point shooting percentages. But their three-point shooting leaves something to be desired at a collective 31.9%, and their free-throw shooting (66.4%) could use a lot of work as well. That’s a lot of potential points being left on the court that could haunt the Rainbow Warriors in close conference games.
A concern for Hawaii going forward is the fact that it has amazingly only played one true road game so far this season (the loss to Texas Tech). Of its 14 remaining regular season games, eight will be on the road, starting with tilts at UC Riverside and Cal State Fullerton this week. How the Rainbow Warriors respond in opposing environments will be key to whether they can win the Big West and reach their first NCAA tournament in 14 years.
And by the way—Monmouth isn’t the only team with a bench worth watching. The boys in Honolulu have some moves as well:
Game of the Week: Monmouth at Iona, Friday, 9 p.m. ET on ESPNU
Speaking of Monmouth, you’ve heard a lot about the Hawks this year, but Iona actually currently sits atop the MAAC with a 6–0 conference record. The Gaels will be going for their sixth straight win on Friday after starting the year poorly (they went 4–6 in their first 10 games). As good as Monmouth has been this year, getting an at-large bid will be difficult and its surest ticket to the dance remains the MAAC tournament crown. Beating the conference leader on the road will be a step closer to that goal, but expect Iona to be a worthy challenge. Kenpom.com predicts a one-point Hawks win.
Player to Watch: BYU guard Kyle Collinsworth
Collinsworth already broke Shaquille O'Neal’s and Michael Anderson’s record for most career triple-doubles in college when he notched his seventh back in November, but the senior guard isn’t done. Collinsworth got his eighth in a December win over Central Michigan before racking up yet another triple-double last week, posting 21 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in a win over Santa Clara. He will need four more triple-doubles this year to break the single-season record ... which was set by Collinsworth himself just a season ago, when he notched a whopping six triple-doubles in 2014–15. His quest to beat his own record is one to keep an eye on.
Stat of the Week: 90.1
If you examine the NCAA’s team scoring leaders, you’d find a lot of usual suspects—Kansas, Oklahoma, Duke, North Carolina, West Virginia and Indiana are all among the top 7. But there’s one team above all of them: The Citadel, which is pouring in an average of 90.1 points per game despite its 7–9 record. It’s even more impressive considering the Bulldogs came in No. 264 in the country last year in the same stat, averaging 64.0 points per game a season ago.
Why the big change? After not retaining head coach Chuck Driesell over the off-season, The Citadel brought in longtime VMI coach Duggar Baucom, whose Keydet teams were known for high-scoring, fast-paced offenses. It looks like he has another one this year in Charleston, but it’s going to take more than a high-powered offense for the Bulldogs to get off the list of Division I teams that have never played in an NCAA tournament.