By WES NAKAMA
Stephens Media Hawaii
HONOLULU — Until ESPN turned the Maui Invitational into a star-studded college basketball tournament regarded as the nation’s best since the late 1990s, the University of Hawaii’s Rainbow Classic often vied for that title.
Every late December, between Christmas and New Year’s, A-list programs such Indiana, Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Louisville would make their way to Blaisdell Arena and create lifelong memories for die-hard hoops fans.
The 1992 Rainbow Classic featured three teams — North Carolina, Michigan and Kansas — that advanced to the NCAA Final Four just three months later.
They were all able to come to Hawaii often because of an NCAA rule that allowed mainland teams to play three games outside of the continental United States without counting against its schedule limit. Then in the mid-1990s, the NCAA restricted use of that exemption to once every four years, and suddenly the elite programs had to choose between the Maui Invitational — and its prime-time coverage on ESPN — or the Rainbow Classic, which had no such national TV deal.
So as the Maui Invitational got stronger and more prominent, by the mid-2000s the Rainbow Classic fields got weaker and weaker, until it was transformed into an early November tournament with just four teams.
Ironically, in 2009 it was ESPN that helped UH revive the post-Christmas heavyweight tournament lineup, in the form of the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic. In the past four years, national powers such as UNLV, Butler, Xavier and Arizona have made appearances at the Stan Sheriff Center.
This year’s Classic, which starts Sunday, boasts one of the strongest fields yet — top-to-bottom, at least in terms of Ratings Percentage Index.
Iowa State (8-0) is ranked No. 13 in the USA Today Coaches poll (No. 17 in the AP Top 25) and as of Wednesday had an ESPN.com RPI of No. 11, which is actually one spot below Saint Mary’s (8-0, No. 10). Boise State, which opens against Hawaii at 8 p.m. Sunday, has an RPI of 35. Akron is at No. 89, South Carolina is tied at No. 101, UH is at 134, George Mason is No. 136 and Oregon State, surprisingly, is at No. 197.
But considering there are 351 NCAA Division I schools, that means seven of the eight Classic teams are ranked in the top 38.7 percent.
And although Oregon State’s RPI may be nothing to brag about, the Beavers are expecting their most recognizable fan to make an appearance at the Stan Sheriff Center. That would be head coach Craig Robinson’s brother-in-law, President Barack Obama. The president, a former reserve guard for Punahou in 1978-79, has spent Christmas vacation in Kailua with the First Family in each of the past six years and is expecting to return again this weekend.
Whenever Oregon State has played in the Washington, D.C., area, Obama has attended the game, so with the Beavers scheduled to play three times here, it is likely Obama — a basketball fanatic — would come to watch at least once.
HARTONG NAMED FIRST-TEAM ALL-AMERICAN: For the second straight season, UH senior outside hitter Emily Hartong has been named to the American Volleyball Coaches Association All-America first team.
Hartong was a second-team All-American as a sophomore middle hitter in 2011. She was named to the AVCA All-Region Team the past three seasons and was named Big West Conference Player of the Year in 2012 and 2013.
This season, Hartong led the Big West and was seventh in the nation in kills per set with an average of 4.69, and she ranks No. 8 all-time in Rainbow Wahine history with 1,494 kills despite spending her first two seasons as a middle hitter.
WAHINE HOOPSTERS HIT ROAD, AGAIN: After a brief stop home for final exams, the UH women’s basketball team will return to the Mainland this weekend for games at Southern California and Grand Canyon (Ariz.).
The Rainbow Wahine (6-4) will face USC (5-4) at noon (HST) Saturday at the Trojans’ Galen Center. Hawaii head coach Laura Beeman and assistant coach Mary Wooley are both former assistants from USC.
UH will then play Grand Canyon (9-2) at 4 p.m. (HST) Monday in Phoenix.
The Rainbow Wahine split on its road trip last weekend, losing at Oregon State, 76-64, last Friday and defeating Pacific, 81-70, on Sunday.