Rainbow Warriors wait for Spartans
After watching the Hawaii basketball team torch the nets in an exhibition rout of UH-Hilo on Friday, it didn't take long for head coach Riley Wallace's focus to shift to the Rainbow Warriors' next opponent.
"I think we learned a lot tonight of what our guys are like," Wallace said following UH's 110-55 win over the Vulcans. "It's still not Michigan State, though."
The Spartans begin their quest to return to the Final Four by facing UH at the Stan Sheriff Center on Saturday.
MSU returns four starters from last year's squad and is ranked fourth in the Associated Press preseason poll and fifth in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll.
The Spartans, who have reached the Final Four in four of the last seven seasons, were picked to win the Big Ten title this season and top The Sporting News' preseason rankings.
"They're not talking about going to the Final Four this year, they're talking about winning it," Wallace said. "It'll be a lot different than exhibition games against Division II teams."
The opener against the Spartans highlights a nonconference schedule that includes a home-and-home series with UNLV and a road trip to Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a Sweet 16 team last March.
"I keep telling everybody we were 8-0 last year, and we could be 4-4 after eight this year and still be a better basketball team and have a better chance of winning the WAC than we did a year ago," Wallace said. "That's why we wanted to schedule tougher competition and see where we were early."
The Rainbows took a day off yesterday and return to the practice gym today to begin preparing for Michigan State.
They'll try to maintain their shooting touch after hitting 57.5 percent of their shots from the field and draining 14 3-pointers on Friday.
Wallace started guards Deonte Tatum and Matt Lojeski and forwards Julian Sensley, Matthew Gipson and Ahmet Gueye against UH-Hilo. But with tight competition at several positions, Saturday's starting combination could depend on who has the best week in practice.
"Every day in practice is a different day," Wallace said.
"When everybody's shooting the ball like we're doing you have to look at other things. You have to look at who's the best defender, you have to look at who's the best rebounder."
Gipson hit eight of 10 shots and had six rebounds and three assists against UH-Hilo. The senior struggled in his first year in the UH system last year and played limited minutes as a junior. He returned with greater confidence and more comfortable with the plays.
"Last year, I got in a hole, had some personal problems," Gipson said. "This year is a new year, it's a new day every day. ... You can't be satisfied with what you did. You can't get too high with the highs or too low with the lows."
Tatum has taken over at point guard and was one of two Rainbows who didn't score in the exhibition game. But his performance still drew praise from his coach as he dished out five assists while committing just one turnover in 18 minutes of action.
"Tatum didn't score, but he orchestrated, he pushed, he played good defense," Wallace said. "He doesn't have to score. I thought Deonte played very well."
Bobby Nash (nine points, three assists) and Matt Gibson (14 points, four 3-pointers) provided a spark off the bench.
The UH newcomers also contributed to the win, as Lojeski had 12 points and four assists and Gueye provided a defensive presence in the post with five blocked shots.
"Ahmet could be one of the best shot blockers in the country," said Sensley, who finished with 14 points, seven rebounds, five assists and five steals.
Though encouraged by their opening performance of the season, the Rainbows won't have to be reminded of the challenge that awaits them.
"They know who it is. These guys follow basketball," Wallace said. "It's a whole different level, trust me."