Warriors look to rebound at home vs. UCSB

Hawai’i point guard Juan Munoz scored a season-high 21 points in his first start last Saturday at UC San Diego. (Brandon Flores Photography file photo)

It’s still January, really still too early to officially declare a game as “must-win.”

But for the Hawai’i men’s basketball team, Thursday’s home showdown against UC Santa Barbara is as big as it gets this time of year.

Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. in SimpliFi Arena at the Stan Sheriff Center, and the game will be televised live statewide via Spectrum Hawai’i Channel 12 and broadcast live via radio at ESPN Honolulu 1420 AM.

The Warriors started the season at 7-1 but are now 10-9 overall and 2-5 in the Big West Conference — the program’s worst seven-game start since joining the league in 2013. They are coming off road losses at Long Beach State and UC San Diego, and now sit in ninth place out of 11 teams.

UC Santa Barbara (11-7, 4-4) is coming off a 73-69 home loss to Cal State Fullerton. The Gauchos are the defending Big West champions and were the preseason pick to repeat. They feature the reigning conference Player of the Year, junior guard Ajay Mitchell.

At 6 feet 5, Mitchell is a dynamic scorer and playmaker who made an athletic buzzer-beating shot in UCSB’s 65-64 victory at UH a year ago. He is averaging 19.4 points and 3.9 assists per game this season.

“A lot of those kind of guys, you can’t always limit them completely, but maybe you can work for it on both ends, maybe you can make him shoot a tough-percentage (shot),” Warriors coach Eran Ganot said. “Where he is good, and hard to guard, is he can see and make all the reads. If he needs to score, he’ll score, (or) if he needs to get others involved, he’ll get others involved. And he makes all the big plays late. (It’s) easier said than done for everybody who has tried to throw things at him, you can’t give him a steady dose of the same diet.

“His experience every year has added to his game … a lot of respect for him.”

The Gauchos have three other players averaging double-figures in scoring: Yohan Traore (14.8 ppg), Cole Anderson (11.8 ppg) and Josh Pierre-Louis (11.2 ppg).

Besides the challenge of guarding them, Hawai’i also will need to try and limit the amount of extra possessions it gives away. The Warriors committed a season-high 20 turnovers in last Saturday’s 67-61 loss at UC San Diego.

“Three shot-clock violations, so our ability to understand (sense of time), that’s gonna creep its head,” Ganot said. “In combination with that, the driving into traffic, guys being on top of each other, not being strong with the ball. Twenty turnovers in a one-or-two possession game … it’s significant.”

Senior point guard Juan Munoz, who scored a season-high 21 points in his first start last Saturday, said solving the turnover bug is a top priority.

“Taking care of the ball has been our main emphasis,” Munoz said. “I just think that we’re over-thinking things, kind of over-dribbling, trying to do too much … when things should be simplified a little more. We definitely watch a lot of film, trying to see where we can correct those mistakes and cut back on that, because it’s rare that you’re gonna win a game with 20 turnovers. So it’s definitely something that’s been talked about and studied the past couple days.”

Munoz said the players are persevering through the tough times and maintain belief in themselves.

“It’s a process, and I think we’re getting there,” Munoz said. “I think once we put it all together, it’s gonna be really good for us moving forward. We still have 13 more (conference) games to go, so I know we can definitely get this ship turned around. Especially the way we have come together as a team, it’s definitely going to help us.”

Big West Standings

  1. UC Davis 7-1
  2. UC Irvine 6-1
  3. UC San Diego 6-1
  4. Cal State Northridge 4-3
  5. Long Beach State 4-3
  6. UC Santa Barbara 4-4
  7. UC Riverside 3-5
  8. Cal State Fullerton 2-5
  9. HAWAI’I 2-5
  10. Cal State Bakersfield 2-5
  11. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo 0-7

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