Reserves Lutu, Ji getting chance to step up
By Dayton Morinaga
Advertiser Staff Writer
One player's garbage time is another player's treasure.
The ever-diminishing roster situation of the University of Hawai'i men's basketball team has created headaches for the coaches and heartaches for the fans.
But it has also created unexpected opportunities for several Rainbow Warriors who were previously reserved for the closing minutes of blowout games.
Most notable, sophomores Ji Xiang and Leroy Lutu Jr. have received extended minutes recently.
"When something happens to one guy, you make adjustments and ask other guys to step up," Hawai'i head coach Bob Nash said. "That's what we're asking all our guys to do right now."
The 'Bows are down to 11 active players, including three walk-ons.
Lutu said: "I've been wanting to get more playing time and now I'm getting it, so I have to make the most of it. You never want to see your teammates go down ... but the opportunity is there for me now, and I'm trying to do the best I can to help the team."
Lutu, a 6-3 guard, has recently been put into the mix as a key backup to starting point guard Hiram Thompson.
The recent subtractions of junior guards Jeremy Lay (out for the season due to hernia surgery) and Dwain Williams (on indefinite suspension) created the opening for Lutu.
In the first 12 games of this season, Lutu averaged less than three minutes per game. In the last five games, he averaged more than 13 minutes per game, including a career-high 19 minutes in the last game at New Mexico State.
"It's a learning experience for me," Lutu said. "I haven't played point guard since high school. Even this year, when Jeremy and Dwain were here, I was practicing at (shooting guard)."
His statistical contributions have been minimal — seven points, eight rebounds and four assists in his last five games. Nash pointed out that Lutu's importance is as a defender and reliever for Thompson, who has been battling a shoulder injury in recent weeks.
"I'm talking to Hiram all the time about the dos and don'ts of a point guard," Lutu said. "Trying to learn from him as much as I can."
Lutu also happens to be a walk-on player, so he is treating this late-season run as an audition for a possible scholarship for next season.
"I'm going to keep working hard no matter what, showing the coaches I can be a scholarship player," he said.
Ji has also been a surprising development of late. He had his career-best game at New Mexico State on Monday with nine points and seven rebounds.
"Any time I can get on the court is a great opportunity to use some of the things I learn in practice," he said. "The more (game) time you get, the more comfortable, so I hope I can get more time."
Nash said Ji and Lutu will again play key reserve roles when the 'Bows host Cal Poly in a non-conference game tomorrow at the Stan Sheriff Center.
"With the situation we're in now, it's a chance for some of the young guys to step up and show what they can do," Nash said. "The better they play now, the more it speaks for them in the future."
A scholarship foundation has been established in the name of former UH head coach Red Rocha, who passed away last week. His funeral is scheduled for tomorrow in Corvallis, Ore.
Donations can be mailed to the Rocha Family, c/o Cheryl Narver, 815 No. 9th Street, Philomath, OR, 97370. Checks can be made out to Red Rocha Memorial Scholarship Fund.