Healthy 'Bows open WAC play
By Dayton Morinaga
Advertiser Staff Writer
If the University of Hawai'i men's basketball team wants to be the surprise team of the Western Athletic Conference this season, it will have to start by proving it against the surprise team of last season.
The Rainbow Warriors will host Idaho in the WAC opener for both teams today at 7:05 p.m.
"I think everybody knows the importance of conference," Hawai'i point guard and team captain Hiram Thompson said. "This is a tough game to open with, but we're at home. If we can get off to a good start in conference, we can take that confidence through the whole season."
The rest of the WAC doesn't appear to have much confidence in the 'Bows.
Hawai'i was picked to finish last in the nine-team WAC in the preseason polls for both coaches and media.
Idaho was in the same situation last season, and wound up proving the polls wrong. The Vandals were picked to finish last prior to the 2008-09 season, and finished tied for third place.
"We have to play well at home, no matter who the opponent is," Hawai'i head coach Bob Nash said. "Opening against a formidable opponent makes it tough. We know Idaho is a good team and they're well-coached, so we have to be ready."
The 'Bows are 7-6. Idaho is 7-4.
The Vandals return four starters from last season's surprise team, including first-team All-WAC guard Mac Hopson.
"He's a really good point guard," Thompson said. "We have to contain him, try and take away his penetration."
Hopson did a lot of everything for the Vandals last season, but he is getting more help this season.
In particular, Steffan Johnson has emerged as a backcourt complement. Johnson, a 6-foot-1 senior, is in his first season with Idaho after transferring from Pacific.
Hopson is averaging 13.2 points and 4.5 assists per game; Johnson is averaging 11.6 points per game and ranks second among all WAC players with 2.7 3-pointers per game.
Kashif Watson, a 6-4 wing player, is contributing 10.9 points per game, giving the Vandals a variety of perimeter options.
Hawai'i assistant coach Larry Farmer, who scouted the Vandals, said: "Just in those three guards, you're facing everything. Hopson can shoot, he can penetrate and finish, and he finds people. Johnson is a great catch-and-shoot guy, so he fits perfect with Hopson. And then Watson is real athletic on the other side. They make it really hard to guard."
It should help the 'Bows to be relatively healthy.
Injuries have plagued Hawai'i all season, and no player has been able to start all 13 games as a result. However, all 13 active players on the roster are expected to be available tonight.
Most significant, senior forward Roderick Flemings is expected to return after sitting out the last two games with a bruised knee.
"I'm probably like 75 to 80 percent," Flemings said. "But I really want to play. "This is conference. Every game in WAC counts and I want to be out there to help this team win the WAC."
Thompson also missed the last game with a concussion, but he has been cleared to play.
The 'Bows and Vandals played an odd home-and-home series last season. Idaho beat Hawai'i by 20 in Moscow, Idaho. A month later, the 'Bows beat the Vandals by 22 in the Sheriff Center.
"We're pretty sure they'll want to come in here looking for revenge," Thompson said. "We just have to focus on our game and run our offense. In the game here last year, when we ran our offense, they had a hard time guarding us."
Flemings scored 16 in each game against Idaho last season.
"WAC teams know each other a lot better, so it's tougher," he said. "But that's what I like about conference play. That's why I want to come back."
Farmer said it could come down to execution. Idaho averages 15.2 turnovers per game to Hawai'i's 14.8.
"Both teams have struggled at times to take care of the ball," Farmer said. "We definitely need to do a better job."