Wes Nakama: Depth could take UH men’s basketball far


HONOLULU — In a 40-minute game decided by just four points last Friday, four rare early minutes by freshman center Stefan Jovanovic proved crucial for the University of Hawaii men’s basketball team.

Jovanovic, a 6-foot-10 reserve who had not entered a game since Nov. 27 vs. New Orleans, was called to action after Isaac Fotu had two fouls and Davis Rozitis was whistled for his third with 10:11 remaining in the first half vs. Omaha.

“He (Jovanovic) had been playing well in practice, so when we got into some foul trouble in the first half, we said let’s go with him,” Rainbow Warriors coach Gib Arnold said.

On UH’s next possession, Christian Standhardinger missed a jumper but Jovanovic was right there for the rebound, and promptly swished a jumper from the right baseline. He was fouled, but failed to convert the three-point play.

No matter. Just 45 seconds later, Quincy Smith fed Jovanovic in the high post and Jovanovic let fly a 14-foot jumper from inside the free-throw line — all net.

Later, Jovanovic blocked a shot by Devin Patterson and soon was fouled going after a loose-ball rebound. Jovanovic then knocked down both ends of the 1-and-1 to cut Omaha’s lead to 26-24. It had been 19-15 when he checked in for Rozitis.

Jovanovic’s line: four minutes, six points, one rebound, one blocked shot.

“That was big,” Arnold said. “He came in and got the offensive rebound, then knocked down the jumper … good for him. That’s what we need from him, to be ready when called on. I’ll feel much more confident putting him in the next time we need him.”

The Rainbow Warriors ended up with the victory, 77-73.

Jovanovic’s emergence as a contributor off the bench — following similar displays by Rozitis, Smith, Dyrbe Enos, Aaron Valdes, Mike Thomas and Brandon Jawato — comes at a perfect time, just as Hawaii begins a grueling 16-game Big West Conference season with a trip to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo on Thursday and Cal State Northridge on Saturday.

UH’s starting five — point guard Keith Shamburger, shooting guard Garrett Nevels, swingman Brandon Spearman, small forward Standhardinger and power forward Fotu — is solid, with four of them averaging double-figures in scoring, led by Standhardinger at 17.8 points per game. Shamburger is right there at 9.9 ppg, and adds 4.9 assists per game.

Those five are so complementary, each of them has led the team in scoring for at least one game so far.

The value of the reserves cannot be quantified so clearly, as Smith leads the bunch at 6.3 ppg, but each has clearly had his moments:

  • Rozitis opened the season by notching nine points and nine rebounds in 17 minutes against Tennessee State.
  • Smith scored 15 points in 20 minutes vs. New Mexico State.
  • Valdes scored 16 points and grabbed seven rebounds in 15 minutes against UH-Hilo.
  • Thomas had four points, four rebounds, two assists and a steal in 13 minutes vs. UH-Hilo and four points and three rebounds against Tennessee State (18 minutes) and Western Michigan (14 minutes).
  • Enos scored nine points (all on 3-pointers) in 15 minutes each against UH-Hilo and New Orleans.
  • Jawato has been slowed by a tender ankle this season, but showed his scoring potential last year with a 21-point, seven 3-pointer outburst against UC Irvine.

And now with Jovanovic proving his worth as a contributor, that gives the Rainbow Warriors seven solid players off the bench who each can come in and give between two and 20 minutes of relief if needed. Or, in the cases of Smith, Rozitis and Valdes, even start if one of the starters should go down with injury.

Hopefully it will never come down to that, but as last season showed when Spearman’s absence (ankle sprain) led to a five-game slide in February, a key injury can potentially derail a title-chasing run.

Either way, whether by replacing injured starters or contributing valuable minutes during starters’ rest time or foul trouble, this team’s depth gives Arnold comfort heading into a Big West schedule that may call for different matchups from night to night. And it could even take them to the Promised Land of a Big West title.

Reach Wes Nakama at wesnakama@gmail.com