Illinois Coach Bruce Weber reminds that the Rainbow Warriors almost upset his team last year in Hawai'i.
"Last year, it came down to the wire, and we had to gut it out. Thank goodness for the Hawai'i football game last year. If you remember, they put it on the board during the basketball game. We went on a 10-0 run to get back and win it."
Hawai'i returns only one starter from that unit, but he is a good one. Bill Amis is the second leading scorer with a 12.4 average. The 6'-9" Oklahoman also averages 9.0 rebounds a game and is second in assists with 11.
"They lost a lot of people including the coach's son," Weber stated. "He was the toughest for us to guard last year. They have a mixture of kids, foreign kids and juco kids. They beat Iowa State the other night."
Coach Bob Nash brought in four junior college athletes to bolster his squad this year. The best one is Roderick Flemings, a 6'-7", 210 pound Texan guard. In a 3-2 start for Hawai'i, Flemings is averaging 17.0 points and 7.2 rebounds per game.
Two of the other JC transfers started the last game against Prairieview A & M. Petras Balocka is a 6'-8", 250 pound Lithuanian who is shooting .548% on field goals and is averaging 11.8 points per game. And 6'-3", 195 pound Lasha Parghalava is averaging 8.0 from his guard spot.
JC transfer Brandon Adams (6'-7", 220) has also started at least one game. He is averaging 6.6 points per outing. Other key players include Adhar Mayen (6'-8", 195), who puts up 4.8 points a game, and Kareem Nitoto, a 6'-2", 180 pound sophomore guard who is averaging 2.6 assists and 7.3 points a game.
Hawai'i lost its first two games, to San francisco by 5 and Cal State Fullerton by 14. But as the junior college players began to adjust, Rainbow Warrior fortunes changed for the better. Their three straight come-from-behind wins were over Idaho State in overtime, a one point nail-biter over Iowa State, and Prairie View A & M, 78-70.
This team may be a year away from fielding a potent attack as there are no seniors on the squad. It's strength is free throw shooting. It leads the WAC with a .741 success rate on charity opportunities. But its overall shooting could stand improvement as it averages .431 from the field including only .250 on threes. And it has almost twice as many turnovers as assists, suggesting is is vulnerable to tight defensive pressure.
Illinois is the clear favorite. But if it relaxes after its big win in United Center, or if it tires from its rigorous schedule and upcoming final exams, Hawai'i could surprise.