When Madness Is A Good Thing

Shaquille Stokes

It’s no secret that I’m a basketball junkie. So while some people use March Madness as a convenient excuse to slack off a bit at work or invoke their alma mater pride, my March is usually spent toeing that fine line of exuberance and overdose. I remember pacing late one night in my college bedroom, unable to sleep because of nerves and excitement after the first day of the NCAA Tournament. I’m not being metaphorical – it was literal pacing.

Unfortunately, the University of Hawaii was unable to partake in this year’s festivities after struggling down the stretch and falling in the WAC semifinals, finishing the season 16-16. It wasn’t for lack of effort, as the ‘Bows trailed 22-2 before storming back to get within one point in the second half, eventually losing to New Mexico State, 92-81.

It was a statement of pride and determination that they were able to come back from such a deficit, especially without second-leading scorer Zane Johnson – the school’s single-season three-point record holder – who didn’t travel with the team while suffering from mononucleosis.

I mentioned in a column earlier this year that even after a slow start, UH had the pieces to be playing in March. While it didn’t end up working out that way, the pieces are still in place for a better result next season.

“Obviously it hurts – it should hurt,” says head coach Gib Arnold after the semifinal loss. “But the future’s bright at the University of Hawaii. Really bright.”

Coach Arnold went on to praise his players who will be returning next season, calling center Vander Joaquim “one of the best big men on the West Coast, if not the best,” as well as current freshman Shaquille Stokes “one of the best young point guards on the West Coast.”

Vander Joaquim. Bruce Asato / Honolulu Star-Advertiser photos

He’s right on both accounts, especially in Joaquim’s case. Next year the big man returns as a senior and if his continued improvement remains constant, he’ll be placing himself on a number of NBA teams’ radars.

“Five of our top six scorers (are coming back), our five best rebounders, three guys sitting out redshirting right now, some good recruits coming in – I think the future’s very bright for the University of Hawaii and we’re going in the right direction. These guys have helped us continue to build this program, and that I’m grateful for,” Arnold says.

Moving into the Big West Conference next year won’t be an easy task, but the talent level Arnold has been putting together should make them an instant contender with the likes of Long Beach State and Cal State-Fullerton.

Replacing sharpshooting Johnson and senior point guard Jeremiah Ostrowski, a Punahou graduate, are the main tasks at hand. Joaquim, Joston Thomas and Stokes – a former New York City Player of the Year out of famed Lincoln High School – will be the triumvirate hoping to make this team a formidable foe.

The ‘Bows stumbled to the finish line, losing six of their final seven games of the year. But they beat a pair of tournament teams (Xavier, New Mexico State) earlier this season and battled tightly with another (UNLV). They aren’t far from returning to the Big Dance, and that bright future Arnold refers to may be approaching sooner rather than later.

On to a few quick NCAA Tournament predictions: By the time you read this, the first two rounds will have been completed, so you can check if any of my pearls of wisdom were correct this past weekend and then decide accordingly if you should heed any of the rest. The best chances for major upsets in the first two rounds are Belmont (14) over Georgetown (3), North Carolina State (11) over San Diego State (6), Cal (12) over Temple (5), and Harvard (12) over suddenly overhyped Vanderbilt (5).

I think all the 1 and 2 seeds survive the first weekend, but the best chance for one of them to be dismissed will be the winner of Memphis (8) vs. St. Louis (9) taking down Michigan State (1). Missouri (2) also could face a tough test from Florida (7).

Don’t be shocked to see Belmont still around in the second week, although this isn’t likely to be like last year with a few real Cinderellas (Butler, VCU) going all the way to the Final Four. It should be lots of chalk once we get to the Elite Eight, but I expect Syracuse (1) to be the first top seed out, losing to Wisconsin (4) in the Sweet 16.

I only have one No. 1 seed reaching the Final Four, that being top-ranked Kentucky. I like Ohio State (2), Missouri (2) and Kansas (2) to also reach New Orleans, with Kentucky topping Ohio State for the title.

Hopefully my brackets are still somewhat intact. Enjoy the madness.