Seeing At Least 20 Wins For UH

Early season optimism is perhaps sports’ greatest gift to our everyday lives.

I admit that’s heavy to the point of being ridiculous. But stuck as we are in an era of modern pessimism, where all hope and blame belong with the same group of people, outlandish preseason predictions and the overvaluation of early success are just the sort of mindless optimism that is always in need.

Such is the case with the 2012 UH men’s basketball team.

Granted, the team hasn’t played anyone of note beyond a middling Big Ten Illinois team, to which UH lost by one point in OT after squandering a double-digit first-half lead. But even with their inability to close out games and the difficulties they have with quick guards, there is something about this year’s Rainbow Warriors that cannot be ignored: They have skill and it is clearly the most exciting team to watch at the Stan Sheriff Center since Carl English made UH basketball cool again.

Clearly, much of the optimism for Gib Arnold’s third season comes from the move to a mediocre basketball conference. A year ago, Big West teams went a combined 133-148, and this year UH is picked to finish fourth in the conference, even though they entered the season with the only two returning players who made any meaningful contribution the year before, center Vander Joaquim and guard Hauns Brereton.

Let’s put it on record: UH will win 20-23 games. I admit the prediction is a bit wishy-washy without a definite number above .500, but UH hasn’t posted a 20-win season since 2003-2004, when they won 21 and played three games in the post-season NIT. All they need to do is fix some major on-court issues and they’ll have good shot at going dancing, somewhere.

UH will only go as far as Vander Joaquim takes them. That’s not a criticism. His experience with the Angola National Team has paid off, and the 6-10 center has nearly a complete game, though his passing from the post still needs work. The Big West is a guard/forward-dominated league, so teams will be challenged to match Hawaii’s interior size and versatility.

The addition of forwards Christian Standhardinger and freshman Isaac Fotu, who is already one of the team’s best passers and rebounders, adds to the matchup problems for the rest of the league.

Against Illinois and North Dakota, UH showed its weakness against quick guards with shooting range. This could be quite problematic for UH going forward. It is mostly a teaching problem, one that was exacerbated by the influx of so many new players. Brereton is steady but unspectacular, is best coming off screens.

Brandon Spearman is not a worry, though like all UH ball-handlers he needs to cut down on his turnovers. He is the second leading scorer on the team with 15.2 per, and is the team’s best at creating his own shots and getting to the rim against man coverage.

Of the projected starting five, point guard Jace Tavita has the biggest challenge. After five games he has 40 assists – impressive – and 22 turnovers – which is not. Most critical is Tavita’s miserable free-throw shooting (.143), which, even with a lot of work, is not likely to top 40 percent. Expect a lot of pressure on Tavita by conference opponents and for the Utah transfer to see a lot of bench time in the closing minutes of tight ball games. This could speed the development of freshman guard Manroop Clair and more playing time for Garrett Jefferson, as Arnold looks to identify the eight guys he needs to take advantage of his hurry-up offense.

With Hawaii’s travel requirements and its near dearth of local talent, 20-win seasons will always be a challenge in Manoa. But I like this team.

Maybe it is the early season optimism or the tryptophan-dipped turkey and the overindulgence of cream cheese-andjalapeno cranberry dip that has me hopeful.

Or maybe it’s a team in need of polish but with a lot of upside.

Either way, it should be entertaining.