Warriors, Hurricane to play for WAC lead
By Dayton Morinaga
Advertiser Staff Writer
TULSA, Okla. Around these parts, bad guys wear green.
In what is being hyped here as the "game of the year," the University of Hawai'i men's basketball team will play Tulsa today in a showdown for first place in the Western Athletic Conference. Tip-off is scheduled for 3:07 p.m. (Hawai'i time) in the sold-out Donald W. Reynolds Center.
The Rainbow Warriors are having their best season since the "Fabulous Five" era with records of 16-3 overall and 7-1 in the WAC. They hold a half-game lead over the Golden Hurricane, which is 15-3 overall and 6-1 in the conference.
Regardless of what happens in the other four WAC games scheduled for today, the winner of the UH-Tulsa game will emerge with sole possession of first place.
"If you can't get up for this game, you don't deserve to be in college basketball," UH head coach Riley Wallace told his team after yesterday's practice at the Reynolds Center. "This is why you play the game. Be excited about it. Enjoy it."
The city of Tulsa is certainly excited about it. Local sports radio talk shows were dominated yesterday by callers commenting about today's game. Upon arrival at the Tulsa airport, a member of UH's traveling party was told by a rental car employee: "We've been waiting one year for you guys."
"No, it's not normal," said first-year Tulsa head coach John Phillips. "People here really are treating this like a special game. I suppose they have every reason to, because it is a big game."
As if having first place on the line was not enough, there are also the lingering memories of last season's WAC Tournament at Tulsa. The 'Bows defeated the Golden Hurricane in the championship game to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Tulsa had to settle for the NIT, which it went on to win.
"Hawai'i beat us fair and square," said Phillips, who was an assistant coach for the Golden Hurricane last season. "But it's natural for our fans to look forward to this game after what happened last year."
The Tulsa players have been trying to downplay the revenge factor, but as forward Kevin Johnson said: "I'm sure it will be in the back of our minds."
Adding more drama, many of the main characters return.
The central hero or villain, from the Tulsa perspective was UH forward Carl English, who transformed from seldom-used reserve to WAC Tournament Most Valuable Player.
"I think we feel more comfortable here than we do anywhere else on the road," English said after yesterday's practice. "We had such a good run here last year. The thing we have to remember is that this is a new year."
This season's 'Bows might be better than last season's, but the same can be said for the Golden Hurricane.
Tulsa is currently the WAC's hottest and highest-scoring team. The Golden Hurricane has won five consecutive games, including a 78-54 home rout of San Jose State on Thursday, and is among the national leaders with 83.2 points per game.
They are led by a trio of cat-quick guards (Greg Harrington, Antonio Reed and Dante Swanson) and a pair of bruising forwards (Charlie Davis and Johnson).
"The speed and quickness of those three guards is what really concerns me," Wallace said. "And then the two guys down low make it very difficult inside. It's like if you worry about one, the other will kill you."
Indeed, the Golden Hurricane shares the load as the five starters average between 9.7 and 13.8 points per game each. As a team, Tulsa is shooting an impressive 42 percent from 3-point range, and is averaging 7.8 3-pointers per game.
By comparison, the 'Bows are averaging 6.1 3-pointers per game while making 36 percent from long range.
"Their perimeter shooting has been unbelievable," Wallace said. "We have to come out ready to contest every shot, no matter where it is because they got some guys who can hit from way out."
Hawai'i is coming off an 88-79 victory at Rice on Thursday for its third WAC road victory in four games this season. The 'Bows shot 10-of-18 from 3-point range against the Owls.
"I think Riley Wallace is the best offensive coach as far as execution in the WAC," Phillips said. "I'm concerned about how they're going to exploit us. They seem to find a way to exploit a defense in just about every game, and they can do it in so many ways."