Warrior Insider

The Inside Source for Hawaii Men's Basketball

Warriors open Big West Tourney vs. UC Riverside

Coming full circle, the University of Hawai’i men’s basketball team will open play in the Air Force Reserve Big West Conference Championship Tournament, presented by the Hawaiian Islands, against the team it started Division I action against two months ago and hasn’t seen since.

Photo courtesy Julie Kim

The Warriors, 11-9 overall and seeded No. 6, will face No. 3 seed UC Riverside (13-7) at 6 p.m. Hawai’i time Thursday at the Michelob ULTRA Arena at Mandalay Bay resort in Las Vegas. The game will be broadcast via live stream by ESPN3 and via radio on ESPN Honolulu (1420 AM/92.7 FM). 

Way back on Jan. 8 and 9, UH split a road series at Riverside in its first two Division I games of the season, winning the opener, 88-83, but losing the next day, 70-68.

“It’s interesting, because the way the year has gone, you’re playing teams back-to-back games (every week), but now we’re playing a team we haven’t seen in two months in the conference tournament,” Warriors coach Eran Ganot said. “We expect it to be another battle, we had two great battles with them (at Riverside), and they present a challenge because they’ve been elite defensively, they’ve been really good on the glass, they take care of the ball, and on the offensive end they have size and are surrounded by exceptional shooters.

“There’s a reason they had a successful year, it’s going to be a heckuva challenge and we’re excited about it.”

Since that opening series, the Highlanders have gone 7-3, including three straight victories to finish the regular season. UC Riverside upset regular season champion UC Santa Barbara, 68-52, on Feb. 27, followed by a sweep at CSUN, 72-68 and 66-65, last Friday and Saturday.

The Highlanders are led by Arinze Chidom, a 6-foot-9 forward who was named to the All-Big West First Team on Monday. Center Jock Perry and point guard Zyon Pullin received Honorable Mention, and shooting guard Dominick Pickett won the league’s “Best Hustle Player” award.

“Right now Riverside had a really experienced group coming back, which is an advantage any year but especially this year,” Ganot said. “They have great size inside, Jock Perry is 7-1, had a great year, and they have a returning backcourt, who has (also) great size. Dominick Pickett, who was the (Big West) Hustle (Player) Award winner, you’re talking about Pullin at the point guard position who is averaging 12 points and five (rebounds), which is incredible at his position and takes care of the ball, runs his team.

“They have Flynn Cameron, from DePaul, a transfer. So they have size.”

Photo courtesy Julie Kim

Hawaii forward Casdon Jardine, who scored a season-high 26 points in the loss at Riverside on Jan. 9, said he expects another close game like the first two were.

“That’s exactly what we want, we want to play every team at their best,” Jardine said. “That’s just the competitor in me, the competitors that I know we have on this team. Riverside plays their best when they are physical and get after it, and we are at our best when we’re physical and get after it. So I hope it’s a fight, I hope it’s a battle, because we want to play everyone at their best. Those were our first Division I games of the season, and we won the first one, and the second one ended up being my career-best game. So for me, I feel confident going into this matchup. I know I’m going to be guarded heavily, I’m going to be guarded differently than I was in those first games, now that I’ve been scouted and all those things. 

“We’re expecting a physical game, they’re a big team, they’ve got some scrappy guards, some good guards. So I feel like I know the team we’re about to play, that’s the beauty of the conference tournament, and now it’s just who can prepare the best and execute the best and play the most together. So I can say we’re doing what we can and taking the steps to make sure that team is us.”

Jardine said while the Warriors have done a good job overall improving week to week from since that opening series, they still haven’t maintained consistency in keeping all of the pieces together.

“One thing that I think we’ve struggled with over the season is stringing along the film sessions and the things we need to do better,” Jardine said. “We struggle with one thing in one series, and we focus on that for the next one, and then we do better on that thing, but then the next series kind of forgot about that because we gotta focus on something from the other series. So I feel like we’ve had a lot of those moments of getting better at certain things, but kind of forgetting the (other) things that we need to improve. 

“So really this week needs to be extreme focus and extreme buy-in so that we can string it all together so we can get the best 40 minutes that we’ve had all season Thursday night. That’s our plan going into it.”

Jardine, a graduate transfer from Utah Valley who expects to earn his Master’s in Business Administration this spring, is eligible for another season — like all other seniors. But he recently announced he will not return to UH next fall.

“When it comes to the conference tournament, I feel there’s only one way to approach it, because it’s win or go home,” Jardine said. “With this being my last games in college, there’s a little bit more urgency for me, but to be honest, I’m just more excited than I’ve probably ever been for these games. Nothing to lose, I don’t feel like there’s any pressure on us, other than to go out and play. We’ve had good film sessions that have helped us to see what we need to fix and things we need to do better, and I really do feel like if we go out there as a team on both sides of the ball, we’ll have the outcome that we want.”

Ganot said he believes the Warriors have gained enough experience throughout this season to be prepared for Thursday’s high-stakes game.

“It’s unique for this team that did not have a (full) non-conference schedule, but has played the most conference games,” Ganot said. “We played a nine-week gauntlet, with travel, and I don’t think anyone else in our league has played all 18 games to count on the standings. And 18 (mostly) close games. It’s been an evolving group, we said we wanted to be the most improved group from start to finish, and I certainly think we’ve made jumps. I think our guys are more comfortable than they were, and we continue to show flashes here and there.

Photo courtesy Julie Kim

“I think, if anything, we’re a battle-tested group. As young and inexperienced as we are, we might have the most experience in terms of conference play because of the amount of games, and close games. Where our mind is to be ready for this final push. Six weeks ago, we were 1-4 to start league, and then we went on an 8-4 stretch and then we lost this close one to Davis (last Saturday). After that 1-4 start, we had (only) 11 guys, and what I’m really appreciative of this group is we’ve been able to make strides, and keep that 11 at 11, which was a challenge in itself.

“We’re hoping we’ve got this final push in us, and so we’re excited. The conference tournament is a different animal.”

Jardine said the Warriors are excited, but also generally loose going into this biggest game of the year to date.

“I really don’t feel like there’s a lot of guys who are feeling pressure,” Jardine said. “We understand the magnitude of the conference tournament, we know this is what we’ve been working for the entire season, and the Big West is a conference that gets only one (NCAA Tournament) bid. It’s what we’ve had our eyes on, what we’ve been working for, is this tournament. But I feel like we’re coming in relaxed, with the clarity of what we need to do in regards to offense — really sharing the ball. We know we’re not going to win on Thursday if we don’t share the ball, and defensively, we know that if we don’t play for each other and play team defense, we’re not going to win.

“So I feel like it’s more clarity, than anything.”

Jardine said despite the confines of a strictly enforced “bubble” at the Mandalay, in which all teams have been mostly staying in their rooms all week except for practices, film sessions and study hall, he is appreciative of the opportunity that was denied almost all players last March.

“I’m in the same boat as everyone else, my postseason got canceled the day of, last season as well,” Jardine said. “So for me, this is a big opportunity just to enjoy it, to play stress-free, to go in there with a competitive edge and to just fight and leave it all out there. The reason we are doing all this bubble (format) is to play. Of course I would have much rather had it a different way, with our fans and my family and full crowds and all that stuff. But at the end of the day, we get an opportunity to compete, and it’s an opportunity that not many people get, so regardless of it being how I planned or not, I feel blessed to have had the opportunities that I’ve had and for this opportunity to go out and compete at a high level.

“And I know the rest of our team is going to do the best that they can, and we’re going to fight for everything that we get.” 

After four days in the Mandalay bubble, Jardine said the Warriors are eager to burst on the court.

“It (was) an opportunity for us to get our bodies right, to totally reset and focus on the task at hand and to prepare for it,” Jardine said. “I think we’re looking forward to this Thursday more than ever, especially the chance to get out of these hotel rooms and compete. So we’re excited about it.”

No. 3 UC RIVERSIDE (13-7 overall, 8-4 Big West) vs. No. 6 HAWAI’I (11-9 overall, 9-9 Big West)
What: Air Force Reserve Big West Conference Championship Tournament quarterfinals
Where: Michelob ULTRA Arena, Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas
When: Thursday, March 11, 8:00 p.m. PT / 6:00 p.m. HT
Video streaming: ESPN3.com
Radio: ESPN Honolulu (1420 AM / 92.7 FM)
Audio streaming: ESPNHonolulu.com / Sideline Hawai’i App
Live stats: StatBroadcast.com

Big West Conference Championship Tournament
Mandalay Bay Resort, Las Vegas
Tuesday, March 9

No. 9 Long Beach State 85, No. 8 CSUN 63
No. 10 Cal Poly 87, No. 7 Cal State Fullerton 82

Thursday, March 11
No. 1 UC Santa Barbara vs. No. 9 Long Beach State, 11:00 a.m. PT
No. 4 UC Davis vs. No. 5 CSU Bakersfield, 2:00 p.m. PT
No. 2 UC Irvine vs. No. 10 Cal Poly, 5:00 p.m. PT
No. 3 UC Riverside vs. No. 6 Hawai’i, 8:00 p.m. PT

Friday, March 12
First Semifinal, 6:00 p.m. PT
Second Semifinal, 9:00 p.m. PT

Saturday, March 13
Championship, 8:30 p.m. PT

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