Each basketball season I make a point of watching at least one University of Hawaii game from the stands instead of courtside at the Stan Sheriff Center.
It’s not just a ploy to try to get a free trim via the who-needs-a-haircut promotion, or, when the blimp makes its bombing run, coupons for those mystery meat fast-food tacos I really like.
No, I like to remind myself what it was like watching these games before it became a job.
Usually it’s by myself — buy a ticket, try to hide under a cap and observe not only the game, but the fans around me, too. When I pay for the ticket it puts me in a better frame of mind for evaluating if the team is worth the price of admission.
This time, however, I didn’t pay, because an old friend and former sports department co-worker, Richard Couch, had an extra ticket. But I was at least somewhat financially invested since I paid for most of our liquid refreshments.
Richard is a fun guy to watch a game with. He gets excited, and he sees a lot of the little things. I remember enjoying a ‘Bows game with him back in 2000 when we both worked for the old Star-Bulletin. We even came up with a nickname for Mindaugas Burneika. I think it was Richard who dubbed him “Lunch Pail Man” because we appreciated his blue-collar, dirty-work style (the fact that the power forward was deadly from 3-point range was a nice bonus).
That team was kind of like this year’s, in that the ‘Bows had a lot of good long-range shooters. The difference was they had a true star in Predrag Savovic. He was an exciting frontman with charisma and flair to match his skill, like Anthony Carter was, too.
Drew Buggs showed signs of possibly becoming that guy the way the sophomore point guard took over in UH’s 80-60 win over UC Davis on Saturday. He controlled the tempo beautifully down the stretch as Hawaii closed out the Aggies instead of frittering away a double-digit lead in their previous game, an overtime loss to UC Irvine.
But I don’t see this becoming Buggs’ team the way it was with Savo or AC. Maybe that happens next year, when fellow point guard Brocke Stepteau will be gone.
A few weeks ago, after the Rainbows lost their first game in the Diamond Head Classic, I felt like every player in the UH rotation could be a rotation player on most college teams, even very good ones. But I didn’t think any of them would be a starter on a decent team — what I saw then was a squad full of 10-15 minute-per-game players. Role players.
But now, on most nights, they all play like legit starters. That’s because they’re unselfish and they make each other better. There’s synergy, all the way around, and that breeds confidence — in themselves and each other.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more balanced offensive team. They’ve got six guys averaging between 8.5 and 12.6 points per game.
In its 19 games, UH has had seven different leading scorers. And don’t be too surprised if by season’s end that number is nine. Samuta Avea has hit double-figure scoring three times in limited playing time, and freshman 7-footer Dawson Carper (who facially looks like he could be another son of Bill Walton) broke out Saturday with a career-high 13 points in 19 minutes.
You might be tempted to say they need sharpshooter Eddie Stansberry to be hot to win, since he’s been the top point-getter in six of the team’s 12 victories. But Zigmars Raimo, Sheriff Drammeh, Stepteau and Buggs have all also led in scoring in wins.
On Saturday, it was Drammeh, with 18.
Drammeh — the senior who played some key minutes as a freshman three years ago on the team that won an NCAA Tournament game — is this squad’s most dramatic and expressive member, by far. He’s a fan favorite, and he brings back good memories.
As a player, he’s what he was in 2015-16 — one cog in a machine. He’s important, but not necessarily irreplaceable.
Does this team have enough talent to even approach what was accomplished three years ago? Hard to say, because it’s difficult to gauge how much they will continue to improve. And they don’t have that one guy, that alpha, who can put the team on his back at any time, seemingly at will, and regardless of the level of competition. What they do have is a lot of solid players who make each other better.
But they certainly looked good in improving to 3-2 in the Big West on Saturday. My friend was entertained as well as impressed.
“Enjoyable game and fan experience,” Couch said. “An appreciative crowd saw a balanced team effort, notably Buggs, Stansberry and Stepteau jointly keeping (Aggies guard TJ) Shorts in check and contributing offensively; Carper with Walton-like moments (give it up for this young man who bounds up and down the court with a purpose — but don’t force it to him in traffic); solid play by (Jack) Purchase and Raimo; Avea’s energy; and Drammeh’s theatrics.
“Got to make the lefties go right and some of the double teams could’ve been disastrous,” he added.
Richard wonders the same thing I do, if the casual fans will fill the house for a good home team, but lacking a true headliner.
“Can Hawaii fans gravitate toward a Hawaii team without a Savo or an AC? ‘Bows will reach conference final anyway.”