POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Dec 29, 2010
Zane Johnson and his Hawaii teammates couldn't believe it in October. Now neither can Utah State coach Stew Morrill.
Morrill scoffed at Hawaii's last-place prediction in the preseason Western Athletic Conference polls on the eve of both teams' WAC opener in Logan, Utah, today.
After watching recent game film, Morill is a believer of first-year UH coach Gib Arnold and the new-look Rainbow Warriors (9-3).
"I don't think Hawaii's ninth. I mean, there's no way," Morrill said on a media conference call yesterday. "We were just talking about that watching them. They're not finishing ninth. They definitely have shown that this preseason. They're very capable of being an upper-tier team and who knows beyond that."
Hawaii has surprised some with its resilience despite the ongoing injury of senior forward Bill Amis and its strong response to questions about depth after two reserves left the team. The Rainbows haven't missed a beat by winning four of their last five games, but this is where things really start to matter.
Morrill's confidence in UH notwithstanding, the Rainbow Warriors must avoid a last-place fate like last season (3-13 WAC, 10-20 overall), which caused them to miss the WAC tournament and resulted in the firing of third-year coach Bob Nash.
UH MEN'S BASKETBALL» Who: Hawaii (9-3) at Utah State (11-2)
» Where: Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, Logan, Utah
» When: Today, 4 p.m. Hawaii time
» TV: None
» Radio: KKEA, 1420-AM
Drawing a date at USU (11-2) right off the bat is a daunting first WAC test for Arnold. Last season, the Rainbows suffered their most lopsided WAC loss in school history there, a 44-point blowout.
"I don't think anybody is predicting us to win or even give them a game, but you know, our guys are going to go up there, play as hard as they can, and try to do something special," Arnold said.
USU, the three-time defending WAC regular-season champion and the pick to win the league again, is efficient and effective as always with an experienced batch of players. Senior forward Tai Wesley is USU's version of a star, but the Aggies are most dangerous as a unit, running their dozens of offensive sets—cued up by flash cards from assistant coaches—to near perfection.
"Whenever you're first place in anything, you got a bull's-eye on your back. We want to come after them, and with them winning all the championships they won in the past 10 years, that's a little more incentive for us," said Johnson, UH's leading active scorer at 14.4 points per game. "Definitely an exciting time. We want to prove people wrong, that's the biggest thing we want to do, is prove we're not going to be ninth place."
A combination of a 2-1 finish in a tough Diamond Head Classic last week, some outstanding defense of late, and the infusion of Arnold's fiery personality have the 'Bows feeling confident they can snap their 12-game road losing streak on this trip. UH concludes it at Nevada (3-10) on Friday.
UH's success with so many new players has been one of several WAC surprises of the nonconference slate, along with the struggles of usual powers New Mexico State (6-8) and Nevada.
Whether UH can march with that success through March is another question entirely; the Rainbows historically struggle mightily on the road (10 straight WAC road losses) and haven't had a winning record in WAC play since 2005-06, when they finished fourth.
Arnold has known Morrill going back to the UH coach's days leading Provo High in Utah about 15 years ago, and openly says USU is a program UH should emulate.
"Most definitely. And I'm not ashamed to say that," Arnold said. "Our goal is to build a program like they've built there."
USU's only losses were to ranked teams Georgetown and BYU, the latter of which UH met (and lost to) in Salt Lake City last month. The Aggies are unbeaten at home.
USU typically gets outstanding student support at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, but Morrill noted that the Aggies' usual fanatical base will be toned down because of the holiday break.
The WAC, rated the 15th-best conference in RPI, is likely back to one NCAA Tournament bid this season after getting USU in with an at-large selection last year.
» Coach: Leon Rice (first year)
» Top players: F Robert Arnold (16.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg), G La'Shard Anderson (13.5 ppg, 4.9 apg)
» Series: BSU leads 10-9
» Notes: Broncos final season in the WAC before leaving for the Mountain West. ... BSU was a pleasant surprise under former Gonzaga assistant Rice. Broncos won their first six games, but have dropped five of their last six. ... Behind Westly Perryman and Anderson, athletic Broncos lead WAC in steals at 9.7 per game.
» Coach: Steve Cleveland (sixth year)
» Top players: G Kevin Olekaibe (10.3 ppg), C Greg Smith (9.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg)
» Series: FSU leads 25-16
» Notes: Smith, last year's WAC freshman of the year, has failed to seize the spotlight with the departures of forwards Paul George and Sylvester Seay. ... Bulldogs do, however, lead the WAC in blocks at 5.2 per game. ... FSU offense has suffered without point guard Steven Shepp, who was academically ineligible in the fall semester.
» Coach: Gib Arnold (first year)
» Top players: G Zane Johnson (14.4 ppg, 36 3PTM), G Hiram Thompson (12.3 ppg, 81.1 FT%) F Joston Thomas (12.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg), F Bill Amis (injured)
» Notes: Behind the long-range bombing of Johnson and Bo Barnes (68 combined 3-pointers) the Rainbows make a WAC-best 7.5 3s per game at a 39.3 percent clip, also best in the league. ... Defensively, UH has clamped down to lead WAC in field-goal defense at 36.6 percent. ... Turnovers have been a problem, a WAC-worst 17.8 per game.
» Coach: Don Verlin (third year)
» Top players: G Deremy Geiger (10.7 ppg, 40.0 3PT%), F Luiz Toledo (9.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg)
» Series: UI leads 11-5
» Notes: New-look Vandals had to restock more than 75 percent of the team's offense from last year's 15-win squad. UI rebounded after a 1-4 start, including an embarrassing 33-point outing in a loss to Montana. ... Vandals won at Oregon on Dec. 21, the second WAC team to do so this season after San Jose State.
» Coach: Kerry Rupp (fifth year)
» Top players: G DeAndre Brown (16.1 ppg, 39.7 3PT%), F Olu Ashaolu (15.4 ppg, 9.1 rpg)
» Series: LT leads 12-7
» Notes: Bulldogs are coming off their first postseason appearance in four years, but lost volume scorer Kyle Gibson and inside presence Magnum Rolle from last year. ... NBA legend Karl Malone is back with his alma mater as director of basketball promotions. ... The physical Ashaolu has already fouled out in five games this season.
» Coach: David Carter (second year)
» Top players: G Malik Story (13.3 ppg, 45.7 3PT%), F Dario Hunt (13.1 ppg, 10.2 rpg), G Deonte Burton (11.4 ppg, 3.6 apg)
» Series: UNR leads 17-10
» Notes: UNR has struggled mightily since the departure of NBA draftees Luke Babbitt and Armon Johnson. ... The Wolf Pack have endured a seven-game losing streak, unheard of during Nevada's seven-year streak of 20-win seasons. ... Hunt is the only WAC player averaging double-figure rebounds.
» Coach: Marvin Menzies (fourth year)
» Top players: F Troy Gillenwater (18.4 ppg, 6.9 rpg), Hernst Laroche (11.2 ppg, 4.3 apg), F Wendell McKines (injured)
» Series: NMSU leads 11-2
» Notes: NMSU, a projected WAC contender, has been hit hard by injuries with four starters missing time already, most notably forward Wendell McKines, who missed the entire nonconference schedule with a broken foot. ... Last year's WAC tournament champs lost seven straight, then won four of their last five.
» Coach: George Nessman (sixth year)
» Top players: G Adrian Oliver (25.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg), G Justin Graham (16.1 ppg, 4.1 apg), G Keith Shamburger (10.6 ppg, 92.3 FT%)
» Series: UH leads 23-11
» Notes: WAC's highest-scoring team (75.9 ppg) does it behind the country's second-leading scorer. Oliver scores 9.6 ppg more than any other WAC player. ... Graham, a senior not previously known as an outside shooter, is shooting a WAC-best 57.6 percent on 3-pointers. ... SJSU is going for its first winning season since 1993-94.
» Coach: Stew Morrill (13th year)
» Top players: F Tai Wesley (13.8 ppg, 8.3 rpg), G Brian Green (11.6 ppg, 47.9 3PT%)
» Series: USU leads 10-4
» Notes: Consistent Aggies, with 11 straight postseason appearances, aren't flashy but remain remarkably efficient at 46.2 percent shooting as a team. ... Defensively, USU is as good as ever with 57.4 ppg allowed and plus-8.9 rebounding margin behind preseason WAC player of the year Wesley ... Point guard Tyler Newbold has 40 assists against just nine turnovers.