Little has gone right in Western Athletic Conference play so far this season for the Hawaii men’s basketball team. The same holds true of the Rainbow Warriors’ history of success – or lack thereof – in Las Cruces, N.M., and against the team that resides there, New Mexico State.
First-year UH coach Gib Arnold, who had never been to Las Cruces until the team arrived yesterday, is hoping his Rainbow Warriors break through on all fronts tonight at the Pan American Center.
UH (9-7) will try to end an 0-4 start to WAC play against the Aggies (8-9, 2-1 WAC), last year’s WAC tournament champions who’ve remained competitive despite the season-long absence of top forward Wendell McKines. Tipoff is at 4 p.m. Hawaii time.
RAINBOW WARRIORS BASKETBALL
Western Athletic Conference
» Who: Hawaii (9-7, 0-4) at New Mexico State (8-9, 2-1)
» When: 4 p.m. today
» Where: Las Cruces, N.M.
» Radio: KKEA, 1420-AM
The Rainbows arrived safely in Las Cruces yesterday after an exhausting journey by air from Honolulu to Dallas, then Dallas to El Paso, Texas. From there, the team bused an hour to their final destination.
"It’s definitely a little long," said Arnold, who thought the team’s energy in practice yesterday was good, considering the lengthy travel. "I think the guys and the staff as a whole are looking forward to the game. We really respect New Mexico State. They’re athletic, long and quick and can do a lot of different things … we know it’s going to be a major task for us and I think we’re really going to have to play together and play exceptionally hard."
NMSU has beaten UH in eight of the past nine meetings, and owns all five games played in Las Cruces. UH, meanwhile, has lost 12 straight WAC road games and looks to avoid its first 0-5 WAC start since 1986-87.
Hawaii’s futility there has always been the main story line, but an added wrinkle this season is the friendship between Arnold and fourth-year NMSU coach Marvin Menzies, which goes back to the 1990s in the greater Los Angeles area. Menzies was an assistant at Santa Monica College and Sacramento State, while Arnold was at Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine. They hit it off through osmosis.
"As assistants we agreed the first guy to get the head job, we’ll come work for the other person. He beat me to it, but I said, ‘I’m not going to Las Cruces,’ " Arnold said with a laugh. "I’ll probably want to beat him even more so because he’s a good friend."
They both were assistants at USC in the last decade, though Menzies left just before Arnold was hired there. Menzies is excited to match wits with him.
"It’ll be fun," Menzies said. "It’s always a pleasure to see my guy, so it’ll be a little weird going against each other just because one of us isn’t going to be happy at the end of the night. But I’m just happy that he got the (UH) job. I’m looking forward to seeing him."
It’s been less of a pleasure for Arnold to try to counteract UH’s recent struggles. After playing well throughout most of its nonconference schedule, the Rainbows have hit a brick wall in WAC play, struggling in nearly all facets of the game.
UH has shot 41.1 percent in its four league losses while getting outscored by an average of 16 points.
One of the main reasons is 3-point shooting. UH ranked best in the WAC at the start of league play at 40 percent, but has shot a WAC-worst 27.4 percent in the four games since. Junior guard Zane Johnson, who leads the team with 14.5 points per game, has continued to make shots, but no one else has with any consistency.
It took NMSU a little while to adjust to the loss of McKines, who suffered a broken foot in the preseason and elected to redshirt. The Aggies lost seven straight games in nonconference and were 2-7 at one point, but they’ve won six of eight games since.
NMSU has reconfigured its offense around 6-foot-8 junior forward Troy Gillenwater, a versatile threat averaging 19.3 points per game, second among WAC players. He also snags 7.2 rebounds per contest.
Defensively, NMSU presses fullcourt. UH is an ideal team to do it against, as the Rainbows average 16.9 turnovers per game, second-worst in the WAC.
To counter, Arnold indicated he may start two point guards, senior Hiram Thompson and freshman Bobby Miles. Small forward Joston Thomas, fourth on the team in scoring at 11.1 ppg, could come off the bench again for just the second time in 17 games.
UH completes the two-game road trip at Louisiana Tech on Saturday.