Wes Nakama: Bar set high for UH hoops


The silence on “Selection Sunday” was deafening for the University of Hawaii men’s basketball team.

Of course, it was a no-brainer that the Rainbow Warriors (20-11) would not receive an NCAA Tournament at-large berth, and were a long shot to land a spot in the National Invitation Tournament.

But there was still slim hope for an invitation to the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament, otherwise known as the CIT. Hawaii hosted CIT games in 2011 and 2013, and former longtime UH coach Riley Wallace has served as chairman of the CIT selection committee.

The CIT, however, also comes with a hefty price tag: reportedly $30,000 or more to host a game, an amount Hawaii has failed to cover in the past because of mediocre attendance.

For that reason, and given the school’s dire financial straits, UH athletic director Ben Jay expressed caution in pursuing a CIT bid this season. A year ago, Jay was more willing to accept the risk, saying the most important consideration was “doing what is best for our student-athletes.”

But this year, obviously the price tag — and the fear of UH not being able to afford it — was a determining factor.

Another factor, suggested by Jay and others, is that the Rainbow Warrior program “should strive for higher goals” than annually playing in the CIT. A valid point, since the CIT did not even exist before 2009 and is far removed from the glory and prestige that comes with the NCAA Tournament or even the NIT.

But at the same time, it is ironic, and a strong indication of changing times in college basketball, that UH won 20 games for the first time since the 2003-04 season and yet will have no postseason appearance to show for it.

That 2004 team finished 21-12 after advancing to the NIT quarterfinals and losing to Michigan in front of a packed house in Ann Arbor.

In those days, Hawaii played in the tougher Western Athletic Conference and a 19-11 record was enough to earn a bid into the 32-team NIT. This year, not just UH, but also Big West Conference regular season runner-up UC Santa Barbara (21-9) failed to receive an NIT or CIT invite.

The message here for the 2014-15 Rainbow Warriors and head coach Gib Arnold is that 20 victories is not enough anymore. Neither is having a winning (9-7) conference record. In setting goals for next season, 21 overall wins and going 10-6 in the Big West regular season will now be the bare minimum.

Winning at least one game in the conference tournament — after going one-and-done two straight years and three of the past four — also seems to be a reasonable expectation.

Either way, the bar definitely has been raised.

But with the upcoming season being Arnold’s fifth, maybe that is only fair. It is probably where he had hoped the program would be anyway — winning 20 games back-to-back and finishing at least in the top three of the conference standings.

With three starters (All-Big West forward Isaac Fotu, point guard Keith Shamburger and shooting guard Garrett Nevels) returning, plus two highly regarded transfers from Missouri (guard Negus Webster-Chan and center Stefan Jankovic) and key reserves with big potential (swingman Aaron Valdes and forward Michael Thomas), the pieces are there for a 21-win season.

Along with victory goals, however, are also attendance goals. Usually those go hand-in-hand, but covering the cost of a CIT host bid is a major factor in winning Jay’s support for such an invitation, more so than the team’s record.

The Rainbow Warriors issued 8,688 tickets for its “Senior Night” home finale vs. Cal State Fullerton, 7,297 for the previous home game vs. UC Davis and 6,493 at the one before that, a Thursday matchup with first-place UC Irvine. The three previous home attendance figures: 7,308 vs. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo on Feb. 8 (a Saturday), 5,773 vs. UCSB on Feb. 6 (Thursday) and 6,896 vs. Cal State Northridge on Feb. 1 (Saturday). A Thursday game vs. Long Beach State on Jan. 30 had 6,201 tickets issued.

Strong numbers, for sure, but apparently still not enough to earn Jay’s confidence that they can draw enough to cover a CIT weekday home game.

There were days not so long ago when UH would be elated with a 20-11 season and regular home crowds of 5,700-plus.

But today, that is not quite enough. Times have changed.

The bar has been raised.