When Devin Johnson was last seen in a UH-Hilo men’s basketball uniform, the 6-foot-7 center was easy to distinguish. Johnson was practically the last man standing on a team that had lost the war of attrition.
Heading into Monday’s season-opener against Alaska-Fairbanks at Hilo Civic, coach GE Coleman is banking on the fact that the cavalry has arrived, and in one case a reinforcement has returned.
At a recent practice, Johnson was able to remain just a little more anonymous. Denhym Brooke, 6-8, walked over to greet Johnson, and the two see eye to eye.
“I’m really looking forward to playing with Denhym,” said Johnson, the Vulcans leading returning scorer and rebounder.
Coleman, in turn, looks forward to monitoring the improvement of Johnson. The senior, his coach said, has upped his conditioning and is better equipped to handle his second year of Division II college ball after playing at the juco level.
“Because of injuries and some other things, the second half of the year he was our go-to-guy, and that will help him in experience heading into this year,” Coleman said. “You can tell vocally, just being more comfortable in Year 2 of the program.”
While Johnson should be better, Brooke is definitely back and brings the potential of being one of the Pacific West Conference’s best rebounders and shot blockers.
The senior forward showed as much before transferring from BYU-Hawaii, but he played in only 12 games last season, his first as a Vul, before becoming academically ineligible.
Like Johnson, his experience of a year ago could pay dividends.
“He stayed here this summer and was in the weight room or the gym everyday this summer in Hilo,” Coleman said. “I think that carried over to practice.”
Simply put, Brooke has something to prove.
“Absolutely,” Coleman said, “we talk about it all the time. I think he got a chip on his shoulder. A lot of people had a lot of things to say about him.
“He heard it and took it heart. He did well academically and he’s still doing well academically.”
In looking to replace four contributors who started at least 14 games, Coleman sought players from winning programs. James Griffin only lost a total of eight games the past two seasons at West Liberty, a D-II power in West Virginia. Griffin averaged 12 points and five rebounds a game last season after starting his career at Division I Marist.
Coleman said the 6-5 graduate transfer can play any of the five positions – he can back up Brooke – though he’ll likely see most of his time on the wing.
“James is one of the best players I’ve seen in my entire life,” Johnson said. “Immense knowledge of the game. He can do just about anything.”
Johnson had similarly nice things to say about shooting guard Larry Bush, who like Griffin is a former Division I players on his third college team. Two seasons ago, the 6-2 Bush played in 10 games for UNLV and he carries a scorer’s pedigree from his days at Moorpark College.
“Larry sees things that I’ve never seen,” Johnson said. “I consider myself to have a pretty high basketball IQ, but Larry sees stuff that would have gotten past me.”
One of the most interesting battles in preseason camp was at point guard, where freshman Damani Whitlock has been pushing junior transfer Jordan Graves. Also returning is sophomore guard Cleo Clain, who started 13 games last season, while 6-5 forward Kupaa Harrison, an Oahu native and junior transfer, has shown enough in his first season as a Vul to earn a co-captain status.
Ultimately, Coleman said, eight players have shown adept enough to start and “10 guys have proven they can play when the lights are turned on.”
The switch will be hit against an Alaska-Fairbanks team that opened with losses to Chaminade (69-67) and Hawaii Pacific (92-77) over the weekend. Coming off an 11-15 season, the Nanooks were picked to finish ninth in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference poll. Simpson University of the NAIA comes in for games Thursday and Saturday at Hilo Civic.
“The game (7:30 p.m. Monday) isn’t who we’ll be in the end result, but we need to play somebody,” Coleman.
UHH was picked to finish ninth in the PacWest, though Griffin pointed out, “No one knows who we are.”
“One year, we have nothing to lose,” he said. “Either leave a legacy behind if we win a bunch of games, and if not try and start a culture and someone else can leave the legacy.”