Our little experiment is drawing to a close.
The results of the Final Four semifinals went final on Sunday morning. Top-seeded 2015-16 held serve, ousting No. 4 1997-98, but on the other side of the bracket, No. 2 1971-72 could not do the same — becoming the tournament’s first upset victim, and falling to No. 3 2001-02.
Bragging rights will be up for grabs on Monday and finalized on Tuesday. Voting will commence via Twitter at 9 a.m. (HST), the same day of the would-be NCAA Tournament championship.
Dave Reardon and Brian McInnis took sides and laid out their logic as to why 2001-02 and 2015-16 are worthy of the mantle of best UH basketball team ever. But which side will the voters take?
Dave Reardon: Why 2001-02 will win.
First things first. I must apologize for the error of my ways and disloyalty in picking the 2001-02 team to lose in the semifinals of our virtual basketball tournament, featuring the 16 best teams in the 100-year history of University of Hawaii basketball.
Three of the five starters and five of the seven heaviest rotation players had formed the core of the 2000-01 team; the squad that got themselves and me to the NCAA Tournament in my first and only year as the Rainbow basketball beat writer.
So, I should’ve known better.
But in our Final Four predictions the other day, I cast them away for the shiny, flashy “Fabulous Five” team of 1971-72. All I can say to defend myself is that my fellow forecasters, Justin Hemsley and Zoar Nedd, made the same mistake.
Unlike them, though, I was 0-for-2 as I also dissed tomorrow’s other finalist, the 2015-16 team, the one that broke ’02’s record for wins, and got Hawaii’s only victory ever in an NCAA Tournament. I incorrectly surmised that the Twitter voters could envision the 1996-97 Dynamic Duo team upsetting our No. 1 seed, the same way the real-life Anthony Carter–Alika Smith squad coached by Riley Wallace knocked off No. 2-ranked Kansas that season (and EXACTLY the same way, as sharp readers who found the Easter eggs noticed).
Dear Predrag Savovic, Carl English, Mindaugas Burneika, Phil Martin, Haim Shimonovich, Mike McIntyre (RIP), Tony Akpan, Mark Campbell and of course Wallace, Jackson Wheeler, and the rest. I humbly apologize. I will not stray again.
Now, Dear Readers, I’m sure you are saying to yourself, “What is this garbage? Stick to your guns!” And, yes, you are owed a logical, real reason, not guilt-ridden emotional crapola, for me jumping back onto the ’02 bandwagon and why I’m picking them to knock off top-seeded ’16 tomorrow.
So here it is: Coaching, and over-coaching.
Wily Riley always had tricks up the sleeves of his jacket, that is if he hadn’t heaved it into the stands, dismayed over a call he didn’t like. These teams are hard to separate in terms of talent and depth, but the 2015-16 season was Eran Ganot’s rookie year as a head coach. He has grown into the position, but he might even admit he did not always get 100 percent buy-in of his system that first season, as he led a team most of whom were on their third head coach at UH.
In 2002, Wallace was at his prime as a leader of men. In practice, especially on defense, his way was the only way: Even savvy, been-around-the-world guys like Savo learned that lesson, sometimes the hard way, ordered to flip their jersey to the scout team color for the rest of the day, if not week.
It’s not that Wallace was inflexible, especially once the game started; he once told me how every play he designed was not etched in stone like a choreographed dance routine, and how you need to give talent room to operate. That’s why he often eschewed last-possession timeouts. He was the ultimate taskmaster in Klum and Gym 2, but with a game on the line he let the players play.
And that’s why ’02 beats ’16. With the score 72-71, IncrediBows ahead, Internationals have the ball with 11 seconds left; Wallace has a timeout left, but doesn’t use it. Why let the defense set up? Plus, he trusts Campbell to find English, who is on fire with 29 points, 19 in the second half. Indeed, the ball ends up in English’s hands with 3 seconds left. His feet leave the floor as he prepares to launch a game-winning jumper from 17, and guards Roderick Bobbitt and Quincy Smith and even forward Aaron Valdes all close on him. But English breaks the old-school fundamental that says don’t throw passes while airborne. He finds Martin open, streaking to the basket, for an emphatic and decisive dunk. Final: Internationals 73, IncrediBows 72.
Brian McInnis: Why 2015-16 will win.
I was a freshman at Manoa when Savo, English, Campbell, Martin, McIntyre, Burneika and the rest went on their magical run to become the only back-to-back NCAA Tournament team in program history. Seeing those guys around the Gateway House dorm made you feel like you were living next to rock stars. It was no exaggeration to say that that team helped spark my interest in writing about sports for a living.
So, the respect for that group is obviously there, and I’m not surprised they were voted past the “Fabulous Five” in a mild upset to reach the finals.
Some seven years after watching that 2001-02 team from the stands of the Stan Sheriff Center, I received the honor of writing about UH hoops on a consistent basis. It was an up-and-down first several years on the beat, replete with some bad (and not-quite-good-enough) teams, coaching changes and a near-constant shuffling of players. That was all capped with intervention from the NCAA itself.
Out of that chaos was born the improbable alignment of stars and capable role players in 2015-16, a group that would make history on multiple fronts. First-year coach Eran Ganot’s “ImprobaBows”, as they were later dubbed, lived and even thrived in the eye of the storm. When the NCAA came down on the program in December of that season, it only served to sharpen resolve for what was to come.
They had talent and they had depth after nearly making it to the Big Dance the year before. With the “Big Three” of Stefan Jankovic, Roderick Bobbitt and Aaron Valdes, they had a scoring nucleus around which other players could have big nights as needed. Mike Thomas, Quincy Smith, Sai Tummala, Isaac Fleming and Stefan Jovanovic could all score it in their own style. Sheriff Drammeh probably would’ve gotten someone frustrated with his charges taken and antics and maybe gotten someone thrown out. On other teams, guard Niko Filipovich would’ve been a regular contributor instead of the ringleader of the “Hawaii 5-0” bench mob. And he had his moments, too.
That depth is comparable to the 2001-02 squad, and a big reason why the team could survive Fleming leaving the program just before its postseason run through the Big West tournament and past Cal, into a competitive game with Maryland in the round of 32.
The two-headed ball-handling backcourt of Bobbitt and Smith is also one of the best defensive guard duos the program has seen, on the ball or off it. They would’ve posed problems for anyone — Savovic, English, Campbell and McIntyre included.
Jankovic, the Big West Player of the Year, would’ve been able to use his deft offensive touch outside the paint against Haim Shimonovich or inside against Martin. Valdes had the explosiveness to stick with English and would supply a couple dunks on inbounds plays to help offset the scoring punch of English and Savovic.
There is still talk of what that team could’ve been had Isaac Fotu not left the program amid the NCAA turmoil in 2014, and if Negus Webster-Chan had stuck around after the 2014-15 season. But on its own merits, and by its deeds — winning the program’s first NCAA Tournament game and registering a program-high 28 victories — 2015-16 still stands as the best.
My pick is the “ImprobaBows,” 77-72, with the implacable floor general Bobbitt supplying a key steal in the final minute and free throws to ice it.