HONOLULU — Coming into this University of Hawaii men’s basketball season, it was obvious much of the Rainbow Warriors’ success would ride on the shoulders of forwards Christian Standhardinger and Isaac Fotu.
Especially with center Vander Joaquim’s (13.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game) eligibility expired, the health and steady production of Standhardinger (All-Big West Conference first team) and Fotu (Big West Co-Freshman of the Year) would be even more critical.
And that has proved true, as Standhardinger (18.2 ppg, 7.6 rpg) and Fotu (13.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg) have indeed been the anchors of a 12-5 start.
Another critical element is the health of senior swingman Brandon Spearman, whose absence due to an ankle sprain largely contributed to a late five-game losing streak last season.
Spearman started this season with another ankle sprain, but fortunately he only missed the first three games and has averaged 11.4 points and 4.6 rebounds in starting all 14 games since.
But as we saw during UH’s opening Big West road trip, especially at Cal State Northridge on Jan. 11, the performance of junior point guard Keith Shamburger is also a crucial factor that could make or break the Rainbow Warriors’ future.
This is Shamburger’s first season suiting up for Hawaii, but having started 63 games in two years at San Jose State and practiced with the Rainbow Warriors last season as a redshirt, he brings valuable experience to the equation – not to mention reliable ball-handling and court awareness.
What was a pleasant surprise, and maybe something everyone took for granted until a week ago, is Shamburger’s role as a shooter and scorer (8.8 ppg).
UH already has four potential big-time scorers in Standhardinger, Fotu, Spearman and junior college transfer Garrett Nevels — each of whom is capable of a 20-point outing — but the scoring contributions of Shamburger had been a nice bonus: 17 points in a victory over Western Michigan, 15 points in another win at Northern Arizona, 10 points in the non-conference finale victory over Omaha.
Unfortunately, as is often the case, Shamburger’s true scoring value may not have been appreciated until his production slipped on the road. In the Big West opener at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo on Jan. 9, Shamburger had a goose egg in the points column (0 for 3 field goals, missed his only free-throw attempt) with four rebounds, three assists, two steals and two turnovers in 29 minutes as the Rainbow Warriors fell, 77-65.
Two nights later, he finished with just three points on 1-for-9 shooting (1 for 8 on 3-pointers) with four assists, two rebounds, two steals and three turnovers in 26 minutes as Hawaii came up short, 79-78.
Shamburger’s aggregate line for the two losses: 1 for 12 field goals (1 for 11 on 3-pointers), one free-throw attempt (missed), three points, seven assists, five turnovers.
Surely there were other reasons the Rainbow Warriors lost — Spearman scored only five points at Cal Poly, and Cal State Northridge converted 28 of 31 free throws — but the lack of production from Shamburger was noticeable since Standhardinger, Fotu and Nevels had decent games and Spearman scored 15 at Northridge.
Shamburger was understandably shaken up that week after being informed of the sudden death of a close aunt, but his shooting struggles actually began before that (2 for 10 vs. Omaha, 1 for 3 against Oregon State). He also has been fighting through a hip flexor injury.
Last Saturday night, Shamburger appeared to rediscover his stroke: 3 for 6 from the field (including 2 for 4 from beyond the arc) eight points, six assists, three rebounds, one steal and no turnovers in 27 minutes as UH won going away, 100-69.
“Keith was calm and in tune with the game,” Arnold said. “It was good to see him back. We are so much more dangerous when they gotta guard him out there.”
Backup point guard Quincy Smith (6.1 ppg, 3 assists per game) actually has good overall numbers and had seven points, seven assists and three steals at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, but he is a scorer more than a shooter and is still in his first NCAA Division I season, thus lacking Shamburger’s experience.
Smith, along with backup center Davis Rozitis and reserve swingman Aaron Valdes, will no doubt play key roles as the season progresses.
But as we saw during the Rainbow Warriors’ first road trip, Shamburger’s production as the starting point guard and team’s fifth-leading scorer could ultimately mean the difference between winning and losing.