College basketball has baggage — recent reports of FBI raids, prominent players receiving benefits, and coaches in hot water.
But baggage was pretty straightforward for the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors on Tuesday, in stark contrast to not only the national scene, but this time last year, when UH left for its final road trip of the season not knowing if it could participate in the Big West tournament because of NCAA sanctions. The ‘Bows were cleared to play by the NCAA at the 11th hour during the trip.
“It’s definitely nice knowing what you need to pack. That’s definitely a relief, knowing we’ll be there for two weeks and that we’re playing,” senior forward Gibson Johnson said. “But last year, I mean, we had the mentality that we were going to go, and if they didn’t let us go, that was that. So, not all that different, but it’s nice.”
Fifth-place UH (16-11, 7-7 Big West) plays at contending teams UC Davis (19-9, 10-4) on Thursday and Cal State Fullerton (16-10, 9-5) on Saturday, then remains in Orange County for the Big West tournament March 8-10 at Anaheim’s Honda Center.
The Rainbows are coming off a senior night disappointment, a 66-57 loss to first-place UC Irvine in which UH defended well, but not well enough against a foe that kept the ‘Bows near season lows in several offensive categories.
Consistency remains elusive for this team as the calendar flips to March. UH went 4-4 at home and is 3-3 on the Big West road.
“It’s the end of the season, do-or-die time,” freshman point guard Drew Buggs said. “We really want to focus on playing the right way and giving us a shot each and every game coming down this last stretch.”
UH can finish no higher than a tie for fourth and no lower than sixth, meaning it will play in either the 3-6 or 4-5 pairing in the Big West tournament first round. Possible opponents include both of this week’s foes.
The Rainbows likely need a split this week to remain in fifth; Long Beach State, the team tied with UH, has UC Santa Barbara (10-4) and UC Riverside (3-11) at home.
UH hasn’t finished with a Big West losing record in five previous seasons in the league.
Last year UH went into its final trip with an 8-6 conference mark. Despite being buoyed by postseason eligibility midway through the trip, the team closed out the season with a thud — three straight losses, including a quarterfinal exit in the tourney.
It was difficult to muster conviction heading into that trip, but Eran Ganot’s group tried.
“I remember vividly,” the UH coach said Tuesday. “We had done a great job with the unknown. (We) went to Davis, and then on the flight the next day Friday, to Long Beach for our final game, is when we heard the news in the airport. So you’re not going to forget. How often do you gather a team on a Friday before the last game of the regular season and let them know we are now eligible for postseason? You don’t forget those kind of moments. So it’s nice to not have to do that again.”
Ganot’s attention returned to the present, as players with baggage in tow prepared to board the team bus outside the Stan Sheriff Center.
“I think the guys are fired up and ready to go,” he said. “The guys have these three guaranteed games and we want to play as long as we can.”