Warriors host Fullerton in Big West opener

UH wing Matt Cotton, shown here against Georgia Tech last Friday, hopes to play a big role in the Warriors’ Big West Conference season opener against Cal State Fullerton at 7 p.m. Saturday in SimpliFi Arena at the Stan Sheriff Center. (Matt Osumi photo)

There was no need for the University of Hawai’i men’s basketball team to search through its Big West Conference schedule looking for which game to circle.

At the top of the list is Cal State Fullerton, which visits SimpliFi Arena at the Stan Sheriff Center at 7 p.m. Saturday for the Warriors’ league opener. The game will be televised live statewide on Spectrum Hawai’i Channel 12, and broadcast live statewide on radio via ESPN Honolulu 1420AM.

The Titans are 7-6 overall after beginning Big West play with an 81-71 home loss to Long Beach State on Thursday. UH is 8-4 after back-to-back losses to Georgia Tech and Texas Christian in last week’s Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic.

Jamie Smith, a former UH Director of Basketball Operations, will be presented with a 2016 Big West Conference championship ring at halftime, and the game is being promoted as a “New Year’s Eve Party” with fans encouraged to bring ti leaves for waving, in honor of Smith and his creative “theme nights” during his time at UH (2012-16).

Cal State Fullerton knocked out the Warriors, 62-60 in overtime, in the first round of last March’s conference tournament in Henderson, Nev.

So Hawai’i coach Eran Ganot won’t deny that his nine returnees regard the Titans as a team they especially want to defeat.

“I think your natural motivation is your inner desire to be great, individually and collectively,” Ganot said. “There’s a difference between using (Fullerton) as your sole motivation, and using it as an added bonus. We should have, individually and collectively, a natural desire, a genuine desire, to be the best we can be every day and every game. And then we’ll use any extra fuel we can to add to that, not to be the sole purpose of it. That’s the balance that you have to find.”

The Warriors will also need to find a way to score against Fullerton’s suffocating pressure defense, which likes to play tight against UH’s perimeter shooters and push them back toward the sidelines and halfcourt line. In the past, it was very effective especially since the Warriors struggled to counter with quick first steps shaking the defenders and driving or cutting to the hoop.

One new player who hopes to provide that threat is Yale graduate transfer Matt Cotton, a 6-foot-5 wing has shown the ability to both shoot and drive.

“It’s important to get to the rim and put pressure on the basket,” said Cotton, who scored 15 points, grabbed six rebounds and made two steals in Hawai’i’s victory over Portland in the Diamond Head Classic opener on Dec. 21. “I feel like I can definitely help in that way. Whenever we step on the floor, we definitely want to beat our opponent … but especially to open the (league) season, on Hawai’i’s floor, in front of our fans and against that opponent.”

Some familiar faces led the Titans in their loss on Thursday: Guard Max Jones scored a team-high 19 points — including four 3-pointers — and DJ Brewton added 18 points and six rebounds. Vincent Lee contributed nine points and four boards. Jones and Lee are returnees who played against Hawai’i last season. Brewton, a 6-3 guard, is a transfer from Alcorn State who was named to the All-Southwest Athletic Conference first team last year.

Defensively, Cal State Fullerton forced 17 turnovers and scored 23 points off of them. Ganot said the Warriors’ nonconference schedule prepared them for aggressive defenses like the one the Titans’ employ.

“It’s good to play the teams we’ve played recently: we’ve seen man (schemes), zone, press, small, big, pressure, half pressure, soft pressure,” Ganot said. “All those things will prepare us for conference, we’ll see a little bit of everything. Last year we played Fullerton, (in) three one-possession games. Basically all games were defensive battles, and you’ll see it again on Saturday.

“They do a good job switching defensively to make it tough for you to get into the cracks, they do a good job getting to the line, forcing pressure on the rim. And they play really hard, they’re getting better and better. So we’re looking forward to the challenge on Saturday.”

Ganot said Warriors starting point guard JoVon MClanahan, who sat out most of the second half with an undisclosed injury against TCU last Sunday, is healthy and expected to be back in the lineup.

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