HONOLULU — Throughout his 20 years as University of Hawaii men’s basketball coach, Riley Wallace would say that he breaks up each season into four “mini-seasons”: the preseason, the Rainbow Classic, the Western Athletic Conference season and the WAC Tournament.
Wallace retired after the 2007 season, but his model can still be applied to the current Rainbow Warriors program, if you just swap out the Rainbow Classic for the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic, and the WAC for the Big West Conference.
Wallace’s approach was justified several times during his tenure, especially during his early years. The Rainbows went 4-25 his first season, but nearly upset No. 1 seed Brigham Young in the 1988 WAC Tournament, falling 76-74 in overtime. That set up the memorable Year 2 turnaround, the best in the nation in 1988-89.
A key victory in that season — and for the program overall — was a 72-69 upset of Purdue in the Rainbow Classic semifinals. The lasting images of Chris Gaines making a steal and breakaway dunk, Purdue coach Gene Keady angrily red-faced and stomping his feet, blaming officials for poor calls, and Wallace clinching his fist after the milestone victory over a perennial Big Ten basketball powerhouse were signature moments in the revival of UH basketball. It helped fill Blaisdell Arena to near capacity the following night, when the Rainbows hung tough with and nearly knocked off 1989 Final Four qualifier Illinois.
The Rainbows went on to finish 17-13, and the 13-win swing from 1987-88 was the best in the country.
A year later, a sold-out crowd of 7,575 at Blaisdell Arena watched Hawaii play eventual national runner-up Duke almost even for most of the game before falling, 87-75, as Gaines was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. That led to a 25-10 finish, the most single-season victories in school history and a quarterfinal appearance in the National Invitation Tournament.
UH won the 1990 Rainbow Classic by upsetting No. 11-ranked Pittsburgh, and took third in 1991 by defeating Villanova. But perhaps the best example of the Rainbow Classic being the spark to a successful season was 1993, when Hawaii entered the tournament 2-6, including three blowout losses at the Great Alaska Shootout.
People were writing off the season, but solid Rainbow Classic victories over Army and Evansville and a thrilling 85-79 loss to Louisville in the title game rocked the arena and led to an in-season turn which ended with a WAC Tournament championship and first NCAA Tournament berth since 1972.
Fast-forward to 2013, and the Warriors again are in a position to make the Diamond Head Classic a springboard into the Big West season.
UH entered the tournament at 7-2, but two of those victories were against Division II opponents, UH-Hilo and Chaminade, and wins over New Orleans, Tennessee State and Northern Arizona did not impress a lot of people.
This team looks like it has postseason potential, with an entertaining uptempo style and multiple weapons on offense — both in the post and from the perimeter. It has shown flashes of lockdown half-court defense.
Sunday night’s Classic opener against Boise State was a good start, against a team that returned five starters from an NCAA Tournament qualifier.
“This is an NCAA Tournament team,” Hawaii coach Gib Arnold said of Boise State on Sunday. “You’re gonna see them in the tournament again this year.”
The Warriors battled and fought with the Broncos basket-for-basket until the very end, when Garrett Nevels’ potential game-winning 3-point attempt glanced off the rim and Boise State survived, 62-61.
UH faced another tough test Monday night against Saint Mary’s and will have yet another stiff challenge Christmas Day against either Oregon State or George Mason.
If history has taught us anything, how the Warriors respond to these challenges will tell us a lot about how the next two “mini-seasons” will turn out.