By Brian McInnis
For the first time, the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic field equals, if not surpasses, what the EA Sports Maui Invitational fielded in the same season.
In the fourth HADHC, No. 4 Arizona and No. 18 San Diego State headline a very strong field. Hawaii will probably have to get past Miami (receiving votes) in the first round on Saturday to have a shot at one or both of the ranked teams, but you never know for sure. Ole Miss, San Francisco and Indiana State have proven frisky at times this season and could pose problems if the big names are lax. East Tennessee State is the only pushover on paper.
Hawaii has seen ranked teams this season in both Illinois (unranked at the time, but now No. 10 after winning Maui and other games) and No. 21 UNLV. The Rainbow Warriors will potentially be exposed to more of the top 25.
Some have said this field is the strongest since the event's inception. I'm one of them. While Shelvin Mack, Matt Howard and Butler won it two years ago and made it to the national title game that year (for the second straight season under coach Brad Stevens), they weren't an overwhelming team on paper, and runner-up Klay Thompson and Washington State cooled off considerably in Pac-10 play.
UH coach Gib Arnold is among the believers. He's seen all three DHCs this point, including the first as an assistant with USC, the inaugural champion in 2009.
"I think so. I think it's a great field," Arnold said before rattling off some of the top competitors this weekend. "Top to bottom. They've done a good job. I think the Diamond Head Classic, I said last year, when it's all said and done is going to be the premier preseason tournament in the country. That's because the facilities are great here and the hospitality's great. (Tournament director) Dave Matlin and the rest of the guys from the Diamond Head do a great job of hosting it. I know that for a fact, I played here in the first one. I left here thinking' What a great tournament. It's well run.' You can see, it's just getting better and better. I have no doubt, it's going to be the premier one in the country."
Arizona, certainly, is the highest-ranked team the DHC has seen at the time of its execution. And SDSU could be right up there too, if not for a loss on an aircraft carrier to Syracuse. Miami has beaten a ranked team in Michigan State and its only loss, to Florida Gulf Coast, came with some key players out.
If you're looking for some high quality hoops, come out to the Stan Sheriff Center on Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday. UH's game vs. Miami is listed at 7:30 on Saturday, but that ESPNU game might start closer to 8 with the previous game, Arizona and East Tennessee State, slated to start at 5:30.
Meanwhile, UH is coming off a game in which it got a season-high 40 bench points in the 104-93 win over Chaminade. Junior guard Brandon Spearman, moved to the bench, scored 18 a game after going scoreless. Freshman Brandon Jawato took advantage of the 10 minutes he was given, scoring 10 for a breakout game. And Garrett Jefferson was solid in the backup point guard role, scoring six with three assists. Of the three, Jefferson in particular could be key this weekend with Jace Tavita expected to have a reduction in minutes due to his now-hashed and rehashed ejection against the Silverswords.
"It was a good game against Chaminade. Happy we came out with the W. Can't wait for the Diamond Head Classic," Spearman said. "I never seen that (27 combined 3s) but we contested shots. Somehow they was going in. I believe we played good D. They were just making good shots.
"I don't think (my shot) went away. It just went away for two games. ... I just want to go out there and play hard for the team."
Jawato, too, is looking to build off last weekend.
"I would sum up the Molokai trip as a great weekend," said Jawato, who went 4-for-6 from the field, including 2-for-4 on 3-pointers. "When Coach called on me to go in the game, I was just really pumped up and energized. I wanted to bring energy on both sides of the floor, and just help my team win. That's basically it."
He may have earned himself an earlier look in games that aren't decided yet. That honor for wing players off the bench went almost exclusively to Ozren Pavlovic to this point.
"It was a major confidence booster for me," Jawato said. "I'm just going to keep going out there playing my game."
Freshman forward Isaac Fotu appeared on PBS' Leahey & Leahey Show on Wednesday night, coming off his 18-point, 8-for-9 shooting game against Chaminade. Fotu did well for himself in the studio, too. You can watch it here.