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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
COACH AND PROGRAM
The run had to end some time, most fans at the University of Hawaii knew that.
After four consecutive appearances in the postseason, head coach Riley Wallace's Rainbows failed to secure a fifth last spring.
There were a variety of reasons for Hawaii's first misstep of the 21st century; inconsistent guard play and inadequate rebounding come to mind. But Wallace thinks this is only a minor detour on the road to success.
After all, the Rainbows still managed 16 victories en route to a school-record sixth consecutive winning season. Granted, they lost two key components from last year's team, but they still return three starters and an interesting blend of letterman and recruits who should create spirited practices.
"We started well and had some good games in the WAC, but not enough of them," Wallace said. "We win three or four of those close ones and you're right there in the hunt. Some years you win all the close ones, some years you lose them all.
"It kind of goes in cycles. Buy you're that close to having a great season. They gave everything they had to try to win games, but we were just a little bit short all season."
Gone from last year's team are small forward Jeff Blackett (9.7 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and shooting guard Jake Sottos (10.7 ppg, 2.2 rpg). Neither will be on any NBA rosters, but they were good college players who helped in two important phases of the game.
Blackett was second on the team in rebounding, an area where Hawaii finished 197th in the country. Sottos had the best shooting touch, hitting 40 percent of his three-pointers. Still, Hawaii was No. 171 in scoring, averaging 68.6 points a game.
There's also the mystery of top returning player Julian Sensley (12.0 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 3.0 apg), who isn't comfortable in a leading role. The 6-9 senior needs a breakout performance if Hawaii wants to contend with the likes of Nevada and Utah State for the conference crown.
Wallace still believes in Sensley. There's no reason not to, at this point. Sensley originally considered turning pro out of high school, a move he's glad now he didn't make. But in order to receive any pro consideration next summer, he has to produce nightly this winter.
"Julian has the chance to be a big-time player, a guy who dominates on the floor," Wallace said. "We need him to step up and play hard. He lost his shooting touch a little bit in the WAC and that affects your confidence. He'll come back strong for us."
Sensley started 26 games last year. The power forward was hot in the early going, with five double-doubles, including a season-high 23 points in December wins over Saint Mary's and Fresno State. He hit a game-winning shot at Saint Louis and scored in double figures 19 times, but once the WAC campaign got into full swing, Sensley went missing. His league scoring average leveled off at 11.8 points per game. Sensley was no outside threat, hitting a sparse 29.3 percent of his three-pointers.
Sensley's overall shooting percentage of 44.6 didn't strike fear in the hearts' of his opponents, either. He did get to the free-throw line 92 times, but converted on only 60.9 percent. These numbers have to climb in order for Hawaii to escape the second tier of the WAC.
"I'm looking forward to my senior season," Sensley said. "We've got some talented players coming back and some good recruits who are going to help us right away. You always want to finish your career strong. All I'm thinking about is helping this team win."
Sensley will get a lot of help up front. Hawaii has one of the stronger frontcourts in a rather smallish WAC. Two starters return from the last line of defense, including 7-0 senior center Chris Botez (5.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg). The junior college transfer needed a year to adjust to the rigors of Division I. Considering Botez's size and athletic ability, the coaching staff figured he would be a prize recruit. That wasn't always the case last year.
He was among the WAC leaders in blocked shots with 41, but he wasn't strong enough on the boards to help Sensley consistently. Botez started all but two games. Much like Sensley, he got off to a fast start, scoring 15 points and grabbing 16 boards in a season-opening win over Mississippi Valley State.
But that small school is not Nevada. For Hawaii to challenge the Wolf Pack, newcomer Utah State and even Louisiana Tech, Botez has to come to the party. He showed signs of reviving late in the season with 11 rebounds and four blocked shots against Fresno State. Working with Sensley at power forward, the Oregon Junior College transfer has an opportunity to be a dominant player down low.
They will be joined by key reserve Matthew Gipson (4.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg). The 6-9 Oklahoma transfer is much like Botez—he needs to improve his numbers dramatically to help Hawaii rise above its seventh-place finish of a year ago.
Gipson started four games, averaging 18.5 minutes. As the season progressed, he took on the role of sixth man, trying to provide a spark off the bench and a solid post presence.
The problem is Gipson doesn't have a lot of range, hitting only 40.2 percent of his shots and 58.2 percent of his free throws. Like several other players, his best game occurred early in the season where he scored 19 and snagged 12 rebounds in a December win over Oral Roberts.
Gipson started 17 games for the Sooners, so he's faced quality competition. If he can produce double-doubles in the WAC, Wallace will be happy.
"We've got some very good basketball players coming back," Wallace said. "We have size and athleticism down low. You need to be big and strong to play in the WAC."
The other returning backup down low is senior Milos Zivanovic (0.5 ppg, 0.6 rpg). The littled-used 6-11 center appeared in 14 games last year, but never played more than six minutes in a game. He is the last of a European contingent Wallace brought in several years ago. He has yet to catch on to Wallace's offense.
The dean of WAC coaches hopes that's not the case for incoming recruit Ahmet Gueye, who is expected to see significant playing time. The 6-8 Gueye played his first two years of college ball at Salt Lake (Utah) Community College. He hails from Dakar, Senegal. Last year, Gueye averaged 10.6 points and 5.9 rebounds in Region XVIII play. He shot 61.9 percent from the floor and managed 33 blocks. His team finished 27-6.
The frontcourt doesn't have a lot of depth, but that won't be the case in the backcourt. Returning starter Matt Gibson (13.0 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 2.7 apg) is the headline act of eight guards who will be vying for playing time.
The 6-5 junior led the team in scoring last year by hitting 44.3 percent of his shots and 83.1 percent of his free throws. He single-handedly kept Hawaii in the game against talented Wisconsin-Milwaukee by scoring a career-high 26 points. He equaled that mark in a late-season win over Fresno State, including scoring 16 of UH's final 18 points. He was chosen to the All-WAC newcomer team as he finished the season at the point. But it seems unlikely that he will remain there.
Wallace may shift him back to shooting guard as he looks for a true point man.
Part-time starters Deonce Tatum (3.4 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 1.5 apg) and Bobby Nash (6.2 ppg, 2.0 apg) will also be in the guard mix.
The 6-6 Nash begins his junior season as a shooting guard and perhaps a small forward. The son of assistant coach Bob Nash, this local boy made good is another Rainbow who needs to shine a little brighter as he enters his third year in the program.
Nash, who started 14 games, hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to beat Oral Roberts, 55-54. He also hit a game-winning three-pointer against Rice and was fouled with 15.5 seconds left in overtime.
Unlike several of his teammates, Tatum finished strong. He started 13 games, scoring a season-high 22 points at Boise. Tatum also had a stellar-performance in the opening-round win over San Jose State at the WAC Tournament. But it's unlikely the 6-3 senior will hold on to his spot in the rotation.
Wallace was displeased with the overall point-guard play last year. He not only needs a better distributor of the basketball, but several other players who can shoot straighter than his team did last year.
"We weren't consistent enough on the perimeter," Wallace said. "A lot of our baskets came off of assists. But we also need to drive harder to the basket and draw the foul."
Hawaii finished first in the WAC and 12th nationally, averaging 17 assists per game. A turnover ratio of plus 1.90 a game was good enough for 36th in the country, giving Wallace a good starting point in the backcourt.
Wallace also has five guards coming into the program, including third-team JUCO All-American Matt Lojeski. The 6-5 junior from Eastern Wyoming College averaged nearly 17 points and six rebounds a game over two years. As a freshman, he led the Lancers to the Region IX title and an eighth-place finish in the NJCAA Tournament. He led all scorers in that tournament, averaging 21.5 points a game and could be another good swingman in Wallace's motion attack.
Look for 6-1 Weatherford College product John Wilder to compete for the starting job at the point. He was a two-time All-North Texas Junior College Athletic Conference pick. Wilder averaged 12.0 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game. How quickly the junior picks up the offense will have a direct correlation on his playing time. Wallace will give him ample opportunity in the upcoming fall camp.
"It's no secret we went looking for a point guard," Wallace said. "We have several candidates, including players from last year. We'll just have to see how it all shakes out.
Joining the fray is 6-1 Dominic Waters. The freshman from Portland, Ore., may need a year in the program to adjust to the college game. He finished third in the state in scoring and was selected first-team all-state. He averaged 23.4 points a game his senior season.
He's not the only incoming freshman on this junior- and senior-laden team. Hiram Thompson is a 6-4 point guard from El Dorado Hills, Calif. Like Waters, it may take a while to adjust to Division I ball. He led Oak Ridge High to a 31-4 mark and a CIF Division II state title.
Oak Ridge upset nationally ranked Mater Dei in the title game. Thompson averaged 15 points and five assists his senior prep season.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
You can never overstate what Wallace has accomplished at this small college in the middle of the big Pacific. With a tiny local recruiting base, Wallace and his staff have to scourer the mainland to find players willing to move half a world away.
His formula for success has been a good one. The Rainbow Warriors have been to the postseason four out of the last five years and have a good opportunity to return there next March if Wallace can blend the old with the new.
Hawaii opens the season at home against Final Four participant Michigan State. How well the Rainbows do in that game will be a good indicator of where Hawaii is and where it needs to go.
If the three returning starters live up to their potential and are able to get the newcomers up to speed, there's no reason Hawaii can't compete with the big boys of the WAC. Right now, Nevada, Utah State and Louisiana Tech are those teams, but don't be surprised if Hawaii is among them by season's end.
For the most comprehensive previews on all 326 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 25th anniversary edition of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).