HONOLULU — When the University of Hawaii athletic program announced in December 2010 that it would be leaving the Western Athletic Conference after 33 years to join the Big West Conference, it was with great optimism.
Yes, it came at a steep price, as UH would be responsible to subsidize other conference members’ road trips to Honolulu, while getting nothing in return when the Rainbow Warriors/Wahine traveled to the continent.
With UH’s athletic department now swimming in red ink three years later, it was regrettably beginning to look like a raw deal — which it was from the start.
But perhaps not until now, with the Hawaii men’s basketball team returning from its school-record fourth straight conference road victory, that the benefits of Big West membership are finally showing their value.
The Rainbow Warriors’ four straight road wins — at UC Davis and UC Irvine on Jan. 23 and Jan. 25, respectively, and at UC Riverside and Cal State Fullerton last Thursday and Saturday, respectively — were made possible by several factors:
- Quality of opponents, seeing as Cal State Fullerton, UC Davis and UC Riverside are the bottom three teams in the conference standings;
- Forwards Isaac Fotu, who averaged 20 points per game in the four victories, and Christain Standhardinger, who was named Big West Player of the Week on Monday;
- A little bit of luck, as point guard Keith Shamburger drained an improbable line-drive 3-pointer at the buzzer to force the UC Irvine game into overtime.
But Hawaii’s road success was also made possible by two of the main reasons it joined the Big West in the first place: proximity and convenience.
In the Western Athletic Conference, more often than not, travel included multiple plane rides and very long bus trips just to get to one destination. The Rainbow Warriors could maybe get a direct flight to play at San Jose State, but the other road trips to Fresno State, Nevada, Utah State, Boise State, Idaho, New Mexico State and especially Louisiana Tech were much longer and more cumbersome.
Compare those to Hawaiian Airlines’ five-hour direct flight to Sacramento, then a short ride to Davis. And then a short flight to Los Angeles and one-hour bus ride to Irvine. Last week, it was a direct flight to LAX, and bearable bus rides to Riverside and Fullerton (similar to going from Hilo or Kailua-Kona to Waimea).
And for several Rainbow Warriors, it is almost like going home. Two starters — Shamburger and Nevels — are from Los Angeles, and reserve guard Brandon Jawato and freshman forwards Aaron Valdes and Michael Thomas also are from the area. Backup point guard Quincy Smith is from Antioch, Calif., which is maybe 90 minutes from Davis. That means lots of family and friends in the stands.
Also, the venues themselves are not as intimidating as in the WAC. Hawaii’s 10,225-seat Stan Sheriff Center is by far the largest arena in the conference, and has more than twice the capacity of most Big West gyms.
Even the most packed and raucous road crowds UH faces now are rather mild compared to the ones the Rainbow Warriors faced at Utah State or New Mexico State, or Fresno State, Nevada, Brigham Young or Utah in their heydays.
Hawaii has always had much better records at home than on the road, where hopes for conference titles often faded and disappeared. But this year is different, as UH is 3-2 at home in Big West play and a surprising 4-2 on the road.
The Rainbow Warriors (18-7, 7-4 Big West) are now tied for third place with a showdown against UC Irvine (8-2) Thursday at the SSC, a chance to get within a half game of first place heading into the final two weeks of league play.
Hawaii is in this position only because of its four-game road win streak, which it totally earned. But the Rainbow Warriors also have the 2010 decision to join the Big West to thank for making the feat much more achievable than in the past.