UH gets early WAC start
Hawaii and Utah State open conference play today with an afternoon game in Manoa
It's still mid-December, but Hawaii basketball coach Riley Wallace has March on his mind.
The Rainbow Warriors (3-2) open their Western Athletic Conference schedule today by hosting Utah State (4-2) at the Stan Sheriff Center, and the outcome could impact the league race down the road.
Hawaii vs. Utah St.
When: Today, 1:05 p.m.
Where: Stan Sheriff Center
TV: Pay-per-view, Dig. 255.
Radio: Live, KKEA 1420-AM
Promotions: Free admission to the UH women's game against Campbell at 4:30 p.m.
Tip-off for the first WAC game of the season is set for 1:05 p.m.
Today's contest opens a seven-game homestand for UH that starts today against the Aggies -- who are making their WAC debut -- and ends in early January against conference favorite Nevada, with the Rainbow Classic and two more nonconference games in between.
"Every WAC game is going to be big," Wallace said. "We've always let two or three get away at home. This is an important stretch here, we can't let any of them get away.
"You've got to protect the home court, especially for us, because the road is so tough."
UH and Utah State requested the early-season meeting to make room for Bracket Busters Saturday in February. The rest of the league won't start conference play until Jan. 5.
Utah State joined the WAC this year along with Idaho and New Mexico State and is expected to contend for the conference title right away. The WAC coaches had UH and Utah State tied for second behind Nevada in their preseason poll.
Although the Rainbows and Aggies are meeting for the first time as conference rivals, there won't be many secrets between the coaching staffs.
Wallace and Utah State's Stew Morrill have been close friends since Morrill coached at former WAC member Colorado State in the 1990s and have kept in touch over the years.
"He's a good friend; we've always had a lot of fun together, mostly away from playing each other," Morrill said.
Wallace owns a 10-5 mark against Morrill, with UH winning at Utah State in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament in 2004.
Although he's friends with Morrill, Wallace said he doesn't look forward to seeing him on the opposite sideline.
"It's a challenge because you have to prepare for everything," Wallace said. "He does a lot of things, he mixes things up. He'll zone you, man you, press you. So you have to be ready for everything.
"You can't rest on them. ... You really have to D them up, because if you take a break they score."
On the other side, Morrill is well aware of the pitfalls in taking a team to Hawaii from his tenure at Colorado State.
The Aggies won't have much time to acclimate in Honolulu. They weren't scheduled to arrive until last night due to final exams, then have a short turnaround with an early afternoon tip-off.
"I've been over there enough times to understand what you're getting into when you play Hawaii over there," Morrill said.
"You'd better be ready, because they're always extremely well-coached on both ends of the court, they play very physical, very tough."
On the court, Morrill is concerned about countering UH's size, particularly at small forward, where 6-foot-9 Julian Sensley may be matched up with Utah State's 6-3 Durrall Peterson.
Since going scoreless against UNLV on Nov. 22, Sensley is averaging 21.7 points on 58 percent shooting from the field over the last three games. He leads the team in scoring at 17 ppg.
The Utah State coaches are also familiar with forward Ahmet Gueye (14.8 points, seven rebounds per game) and guard Matt Lojeski (13.6 ppg, 13-for-21 on 3 pointers). Both signed with UH after also being recruited by the Aggies.
The Rainbows have been preparing to defend a Utah State system designed to create open shots by running defenders through a maze of screens.
Guard Jaycee Carroll has benefited from the scheme to score 20 points per game for the nation's top shooting team (54.8 percent). Forward Nate Harris (14.3 ppg) is second in scoring and is shooting 60 percent from the field.
"They run a lot of similar offense that we do," said UH associate coach Bob Nash, who prepares the opponent scouting reports. "They do a lot of screening to get their shooters open and Carroll's just a great player and moves well without the ball.
"You have to work every second you're on the floor because they've got players who can hurt you at virtually every spot."
Guarded condition: Lojeski's sprained left shoulder has improved, evidenced by a smoother shooting stroke in practice the last two days, and is expected to start. Freshman guard Hiram Thompson has also returned from a foot injury.
Matt Gibson was reinstated from a suspension on Tuesday, but hasn't practiced since having a staph infection removed from his chest on Wednesday. Bobby Nash is nursing a shoulder injury and is doubtful for the game.