Gameday: Illinois State

Hawaii opens up the 2016 edition of the Diamond Head Classic with Illinois State today.
Hawaii opens up the 2016 edition of the Diamond Head Classic with Illinois State today.

Time to find out if that two-week break served the Hawaii basketball team well.

To be clear, it was a break from games, not from practice intensity. UH tried to ramp up its tenacity going into its biggest concentration of nationally televised games this season, the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic starting today.

UH (4-5) seeks to avoid its first three-game losing streak since the 2012-13 team dropped its last four to end that season. The 14-day span from the Pearl Harbor Invitational represents UH’s longest gap between games since an 18-day break during the 2003-04 season.

The Redbirds (6-3) of the Missouri Valley Conference are the top-RPI team in the field (61) and are five-point favorites. Tipoff from the Stan Sheriff Center is at 8:30 p.m. on ESPNU.

Illinois State has started games extremely fast this year. Their first-half scoring margin is plus-8.3, compared to minus-1.3 in second halves. For UH, a team that’s fallen behind by margins large and small early in games, that’s potentially troubling.

A refresher on next year's DHC field.
A refresher on next year’s DHC field.

In the last four games, the Rainbow Warriors have fallen behind 16-0 to Troy, 12-6 to Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 7-0 to Seton Hall and 15-5 to Princeton.

On the other hand, the Redbirds have struggled mightily to close on the road. They are 0-3 in those games this season, but held a lead of seven points or more in the second half of each.

“Not only that, we had the lead in every one of those games in under two minutes,” lamented ISU coach Dan Muller. “We just haven’t finished.”

Point guard Paris Lee paces the Birds and has converted an absurd 56 percent of his 3-point attempts this season. UH’s guards, led by Brocke Stepteau, will have their hands full trying to contain him.

Forward Gibson Johnson tweaked an ankle recently but should be a full go today. Guard Drew Buggs could suit up for the first time this season, though the team is trying to be careful about throwing him into games too early with his repaired right ACL.

This is the third straight year UH has faced a MVC team in the DHC. The Rainbows lost to Wichita State in the 2014 semifinals and beat Northern Iowa in last year’s opening round. The Valley has typically represented pretty well here, and ISU’s veteran group was picked to finish near the top of the league.

In the day’s first two quarterfinals, Tulsa defeated Stephen F. Austin 74-51 and San Diego State held off scrappy Southern Miss 66-51. Tulsa and SDSU, two former WAC teams, meet in the semifinals tomorrow.