Tyler Rawson and Gibson Johnson have gone on a winding path from acquaintances to friends, teammates and roommates, and now they’ll battle as opponents.
When Utah and Hawaii tangle at 5 p.m. Saturday in the Huntsman Center, the game will have extra juice for the starting forwards on both sides. Rawson, the Utes senior, and Johnson, a senior for the Rainbow Warriors, were key figures in Salt Lake Community College’s junior college national championship run during the 2015-16 season.
“That whole team at SLCC, when you win a national championship it’s a bonding experience,” Johnson said. “We’re all pretty close and we have a group chat that we all [use to] keep in touch and keep each other up to date with how it’s going. Now, everybody is playing in all different parts of the world actually. We’ve got people playing in Canada, Hawaii, all over the place.”
Rawson, a 6-foot-10, 225-pound forward who stretches the floor with his perimeter shooting, will enter this weekend as the Utes’ second-leading scorer (10.8 ppg.) and rebounder (6.5 per game) as well as the team leader in blocked shots. Johnson, a 6-foot-8, 220-pound post player, ranks second on the Rainbow Warriors in scoring (10.6 ppg.) and third in rebounding (5.8 per game).
While Rawson and Johnson can’t agree on which was the messier roommate — they both point the finger at the other — they agree that neither wants to lose this game. The outcome of the game will almost assuredly be the topic of discussion afterward.
With members of their championship team now playing at Utah, Utah Valley and Southern Utah, there have been bragging-rights games between former teammates. Johnson will carry an extra chip on his shoulder because last season the Utes defeated the Rainbow Warriors in Honolulu as part of the Diamond Head Classic.
“He’s a hard worker, and he has really improved his game since the SLCC days,” Rawson said of Johnson. “He’s really trimmed down his body, and he’s really been using that to his advantage from what I’ve been seeing so far. He’s going to come in here and hustle and do everything he can to play well in front of his family.”
Johnson, who graduated from Viewmont High School in 2010, went on an LDS Church mission in Brazil after high school. He took classes at Utah upon returning from his mission, and played pickup games with former Utah undergraduate assistant coach Chris Burgess.
Burgess served as an assistant at Utah while he finished his degree requirements. Johnson considered walking on to the team at Utah, but then Burgess joined the staff at SLCC and Johnson followed.
“I’m forever grateful to Todd Phillips and all the coaching staff because they really gave me my opportunity,” Johnson said. “Playing with Tyler at SLCC was a lot of fun too. He was my roommate there. We got really close. Tyler is like a brother. It’s going to be a lot of fun playing against him.”
Rawson, who played at American Fork High School, spent his first season of college basketball at Southern Utah, where he played in every game before he transferred to SLCC and had a breakout season. Rawson earned third-team NJCAA All-American honors as a sophomore, earned Region 18 Tournament MVP and led SLCC in scoring (15.9 ppg.), rebounding (8.3 per game) and blocks (62).
“We had that relationship before, we knew each other and knew each other’s games,” Rawson said of playing together at SLCC. “I actually think it helped us. We were able to play off each other’s tendencies. Just to be able to have that friendship before really helped.”
Hawaii planned to have its team meal Friday night at Johnson’s home in Centerville. While his brother will have a game Saturday for Utah Valley, the Huntsman Center will likely get to be the center of attention for the family because the Rainbow Warriors won’t play another game in Utah this season.
“I grew up going to Rick Majerus camps ever since I was like 6 years old,” Gibson said. “Playing on that floor is something I always dreamed about. Now, I get to go out and do it so I’m really excited.”
HAWAII at UTAH
Tipoff • 5 p.m.
TV • Pac-12 Network
Radio • 700 AM
Records • Hawaii 4-1, Utah 5-1
Series history • Utes lead 48-10.
Last meeting • Utes won 66-52 on Dec. 23, 2016.
About the Rainbow Warriors • Senior forward Gibson Johnson and freshman Samuta Avea both played high school basketball in Utah. Gibson, a Viewmont High graduate who played at Salt Lake Community College, is a Centerville resident. Avea played his junior year of high school at Bingham High and helped the basketball team win the 5A state title. … Mike Thomas, a 6-foot-7 forward, leads the team in scoring (13.2 ppg) and enters the weekend shooting 51.2 percent from the field. … Jack Purchase ranks 20th in Division I with a 3.8/1 assist/turnover ratio. A 6-foot-9 junior forward, Purchase began his collegiate career at Auburn. Purchase is the team’s leading rebounder (6.8 per game).
About the Utes •The Utes are coming off of an 85-69 win over Eastern Washington in the Huntsman Center on Friday, Nov. 24. Senior forward David Collette scored a career-high 24 points on 11-of-12 shooting in 18 minutes. Collette leads the team in scoring (14.7 ppg) and has shot 59.6 percent from the field through six games. … Utes redshirt freshman forward Chris Seeley was scheduled to undergo gallbladder surgery on Friday afternoon. Seeley hadn’t played in the team’s past three games. Seeley has averaged 4.7 points and 5.7 rebounds off the bench in three games this season.